Meditating on Meditation: Reflections on Enhanced Life Experiences
2020 has challenged everyone on earth in new and unexpected ways. In the midst of these challenging times, I’d like to provide a brief written snapshot of something that has unequivocally improved my quality of life in wide-reaching and unexpected ways.
TL;DR: Two years ago I took up a daily meditation practice, and it has been one of the most valuable habits I’ve ever developed.
Meditation has been mis-hyped and mis-represented, made into a caricature by popular media, embraced by both corporate wellness groups and new age peddlers. After two years of practice, I can say that some of these characterizations are true, some are wildly off-base. Perhaps in part because of these caricatures, I am still amazed at the degree to which my quality of life has been improved: I’ve had a near-daily practice since late 2018, and in that time I have developed an astounding anxiety reduction of about 50%. What I mean by this, is that about 50% of the time where I would be lost in unproductive, anxiety-inducing thoughts, I can now devote that headspace and energy to more productive things. I am more in control of the degree to which I wish to feel down or elated, and I am able to meet every day with a mental resiliency that I still find surprising.
I have not lived in any other head than my own, but from what I can gather in contrast from my peers and others, my mental circuitry lends itself very prone to spending lots of time ruminating about the future, over-analyzing things to a degree of being arresting. As I have come to see and experience, this being “lost in thought” is far more pernicious than most people give credence. The goal of Vipassana meditation is not to feel blissful or calm one down if in an acute state of distress, but rather to recognize the far-reaching ways in which we are not in control of our minds, and to recognize the moments that this occurs, which increases the distress tolerance for most stresses in life. The goal of Vipassana meditation, if there is any, is mental fortitude. I am still astounded at the degree to which this dimension of mental ability is trainable.
My journey to meditation really started back in April 2017, when I started listening to the Waking Up podcast (now called Making Sense) by Sam Harris. The podcast remains my favorite; thorny issues surrounding a myriad of topics are detangled through some of the most refreshingly honest and reflective conversations anywhere on the interwebs. One such recurring topic surrounded another of Sam Harris’s interests: meditation. I was the beneficiary of many priming discussions about the nature of meditation and consciousness prior to the eventual release of Harris’s meditation app. In terms of style, Harris is very straight to the point and clinical; he is also well known for his ardent atheism, and he presents a conduit to eastern spiritual practice that is very secular; belief in supernatural energies or powers are not required for practice.
My typical meditation practice is about 10 minutes per day, 6-7 days per week. This was sufficient to start to see noticeable improvements in my day to day within a couple weeks. Most people chose a time of day; most choose mornings after waking up, I typically find right before bed to be easier to work into my day. More important than the time of day is the consistency; times where I have strayed and done about 2-3 times per week or less are instances where I have started to notice more anxiety creep its way back in to my waking consciousness. Beyond anxiety reduction, other sensory inputs like colors, textures, and otherwise mundane things in my life are more vibrant and interesting. It almost reminds me of the mindset one is thrust into when traveling to a new place or culture for the first time; an underlying sense of curiosity and freshness to experience, but I am experiencing these things even with scenes and places that were otherwise very familiar to me, sometimes discovering details of life that were hidden in plain sight.
In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, internationally-renowned historian Noah Yuval Harari provides an arrestingly economical list of 21 practical pieces of advice for maintaining one’s sanity in the 21st century. The final chapter was devoted to meditation, mirroring themes I’ve already described above, but placing it further within what he sees as one of the greatest challenges of our time: the maintenance of agency of our own minds and attention in resistance to technological, political, and idealogical onslaughts brought upon by our increasingly hyper e-connected lives.
So with that, I’ll conclude my ramble, and if you have read this far, dear reader, I thank you. I feel that almost everyone could benefit from the increased mental freedom that vipassana meditation has afforded me, and continues to give. If you do not have a meditation practice, it is a gift that I would love to give to you. There are many forms of meditation, and many apps or resources out there, but if you feel so inclined, please check out the app that literally changed my life: https://wakingup.com/
Be well, stay safe, and stay sane!