Meditation, like Fight Club, is one of those things you’re not supposed to talk about. If you’re doing it to bolster your ego - Look at me! I’m enlightened! - it goes against the entire process. Still, when I noticed on my “Insight Timer” that I had sat down and meditated 400 times, it surprised me. What started as a challenge has become one of my most valuable habits.
I’m not enlightened by any means, but several things have changed for me. I hope that by sharing it, some of you may consider making meditation a habit too, or may be more confident in developing other habits you care about.
It began with a challenge
A few years ago, I had begun doing small experiments on my own habits and happiness. After one post about “30 days without alcohol” that included a reference to Stoic philosophy, a reader made an interesting comment:
“There is too much “learning through punishment” with the Stoics – which is why I hold my reservations about their philosophy.
But I am full of admiration for what you are trying to achieve here. I would challenge you to do/add something every day for 31 days that you find challenging.”
Instead of abstaining or subtracting from my life, what could I do or add that would make life better? I instantly thought of meditation, as references to its benefits kept appearing throughout my reading and research. So I started by trying to do it for ten minutes a day for thirty days. That was almost two years ago.
Meditation is at the same time ridiculously easy and ridiculously difficult. There are many variations. The kind I practice, based on How to Meditate by Pema Chödrön, is especially simple.
- Sit down with your back straight, legs crossed on a cushion or sitting on a chair.
- Keep your eyes open, focused on a spot on the floor about 4 to 6 feet in front of you.
- Focus on your breath.
- When your mind wanders from your breath (it will), simply let the thoughts pass, or label them “thinking,” and focus again on your breath.
That’s it. I do this for 15 minutes each day, usually first thing in the morning, before the kids wake up and after I’ve turned the coffeemaker on.
“You’re not as angry.”
The first thing I noticed, and what seems to be a universal experience, is that it’s impossible to stay focused for more than a few seconds. You think about that thing you need to do later. You shift your position. You become irritated that you’re such a bad meditator. The phrase commonly used to describe this is“monkey mind” and your inability to control it is frustrating.
It’s why Pema Chödrön says, “Our mental habits are ancient and take a while to unwind. So we need to practice with patience, intelligence, and gentleness.” She teaches you to think of your thoughts as clouds passing by. Instead of clinging to them, notice them as a detached observer, without judgment, without berating yourself. It can help to simply label thoughts as “thinking,” a gentle trigger to focus on your breath again.
Over the following months, I never experienced a major insight or epiphany. One day though, over dinner, my 9-year-old daughter said to me, “You’re not as angry.” I was a bit stunned. I looked across the table at my wife who said, “It’s true.” I reflected on it later, and felt that I had indeed become calmer and happier.
Calm, Compassion, Clarity, Confidence
With more research, particularly reading the work of Dr. Dan Siegel, I’ve come to think of meditation as a simple process for training your mind, for learning how to make the most of it. What makes a difference for me isn't the idea of a serene experience each morning. It’s the tens of thousands of times I've practiced calmly focusing my attention on the present moment.
The more you do it, the more you develop a kind of “meta-awareness” - an awareness of what you’re thinking as you’re thinking it. I don’t claim to have perfected such an ability, but I’ve experienced glimpses of how powerful it can be. The benefits include what I think of as “the 4 Cs.”
Calm - I’m more aware of the triggers that cause me to react as they happen, and that awareness allows me to pause and proceed more mindfully.
Compassion - I’m more aware of my judgments about others, including my own inner critic’s voice. Being aware makes me more thoughtful - Is that really true? - and softens my attitude towards myself and others.
Clarity - The less reactive and judgmental I am, the more purposeful and open I become. It’s like putting on glasses that let me see through the noise and drama.
Confidence - This isn’t about ego or arrogance, but more like walking on solid ground. Instead of doing something unthinkingly, I’m more mindful of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.
Meditation and getting a glimpse of the four Cs is like learning to ride a bike with training wheels. Sometimes you lean heavily left or right, or teeter side to side. But there are those moments when you get it. I’m riding on two wheels! In that moment, you’re fully alive, and you can feel the sun and the wind and the joy. The next thing you know you’re relying on training wheels again, and you’re eager to keep practicing.
I may never be like Pema Chödrön, but I can be a better me. The more I get a glimpse of calm, compassion, clarity, and confidence, the more motivated I am to practice.
“The mind is very wild. The human experience is full of unpredictability and paradox, joys and sorrows, successes and failures. We can’t escape and of these experiences in the vast terrain of our existence. It it part of what makes life grand - and it is also why our minds take us on such a crazy ride. If we can train ourselves through meditation to be more open and more accepting onward the wild of our experience, if we can lean into the difficulties of life and the ride of our minds, we can become more settled and relaxed amid whatever life brings us.”
- Pema Chödrön, How to Meditate