My journey with meditation starts with my year abroad in the US. Living in a dorm thousands of kilometers away from family and friends, just about to turn sixteen in a completely different culture and environment, had its say on my stress levels. As I wrote in my thoughts on anxiety, I used to wake up every morning with my heart pounding, tied up stomach, and an underlying fear. Up until then, thankfully, I’ve never had such problems. My only point of reference was nervousness form before all the hockey games I had or from going home after I got a bad grade.
So I googled the symptoms and found out that I might be struggling with a panic disorder and should get medicated. As it often goes with these google searches if the Reaper is not already breathing on your neck, you are probably not doing well nonetheless. I thought a milder diagnosis fitted better, so I concluded morning anxiety is the name. That was the first time I encountered the English word anxiety.
While doing further google search for ways to tackle anxiety I found a very simple breathing practice recommended as a helpful relief. Closed eyes, deep breaths, focus on the process of breathing, became a part of my morning routine. The practice helped a lot. Only years later I discovered that I was meditating.
Little anecdote, when skyping with my family I shared my daily morning experience. With a smile on his face and an imagined paternal pat on the back, my father replied: “Welcome to life.” Although we both laugh it off his words turned out to be true. Anxiety has never left me since, but I have learned a thing or two about its nature and management. You can read about it here.
Now let’s clear up a possible confusion. There are many types of meditation. If you haven’t dived much into mediation as such and your impressions are based on movie scenes, then when I speak of meditation you are probably thinking of mantra meditation. That’s the scene when someone sits on a pillow with their legs crossed and keeps repeating a mantra (a word or sound) for a seemingly never-ending time.
That’s not the type of meditation I practice.
Since I am no expert on the various kinds of meditation out there, I don’t feel knowledgeable enough to outline the differences between the various meditation practices, but the meditation I practice is called mindfulness meditation. Very simply put, mindfulness meditation is the process of paying attention to the present moment as thoughts, sounds, feelings, images arise in one’s mind and as they pass away.
It has its origins in Buddhism, but as it often goes with the West, most of the modern teachers of mindfulness meditation have stripped the practice to its bare form and made it a stress reduction exercise. However, meditation in the Buddhist tradition serves more as a means to receive insights into the nature of mind or consciousness and the world. So, to a large extent, the practice is secular.
Speaking of secular, the platform I have used for the practice during most of the months is an app called Waking Up (more about it at the end) of the great infidel Sam Harris. So, if you are worried about getting yourself involved with Eastern religiosity and its spookiness it is good to have one of the most famous atheists on the planet guide you through the meditation practices. Trust me, the worry falls away very quickly when you realize there is absolutely nothing religious about the practice.
With this bit of a background, we can dive into what I’ve learned.
Alarm ringing, another day, rubbing your eyes you roll out of bed, and dragging your feet you get into the shower, brush your teeth, dry yourself, put on moisturizer with at least SP 20 (as you should), walk to the wardrobe, put something on, and then you go about your day.
Maybe your morning routine looks different, mine does, but think here with me. How much in the morning do you pay attention to what’s going on? How much of what you think about and notice is completely in automatic mode?
I speak of the morning because these are truly habitual, however, think of your entire day, how much of your day is spent thinking about whatever your mind chooses to throw at you? In contrast to that, how many moments of complete attention to the present moment do you have in a day?
As I am writing this I realize for someone who doesn’t have an experience with meditation the difference between thinking you are paying attention and truly paying attention might be unrecognizable. However, we all know what is it like to be distracted by thought, so what if I told you that almost all of our time awake is spent in a distracted state?
That’s the most important thing I learned from meditating, being able to recognize how distracted I am in every moment and learning to pay more precise attention to the present moment.
Since the whole practice of mindfulness is about paying attention one would expect some improvements in that area, however, when I began my journey I had no idea being able to pay attention would be the most profound result I would get out of the practice.
Why do I find it so profound?
The profundity of the present moment
Our minds are an open space where thoughts arise out of nowhere and most of our days are spent swimming through the random sea of consciousness while the daily reality is slipping through our fingers. We live in our heads, in the landfill of consciousness, in negative thoughts, worries, regrets, pains, disappointments, or in excessive self-indulgent daydreaming, that keeps us content instead of propelling us to action.
But life is happening all around us, accessible at an instance when we are able to pay attention.
Thanks to meditation I finally understood why so much has been spoken about the present moment. When one learns to pay attention suddenly a swamp of beauty and meaning becomes accessible at the command of the undistracted mind. There is incredible beauty and significance even in the most ordinary moments. Through attention, you can access these deeper levels of experience which will leave an imprint of profundity and peacefulness in your memory.
The longer I meditate the more the klischee phrase, live in the present moment, makes sense.
Learning to pay attention allowed me to for the first time truly hear, feel, see and cherish the significance of the reality around me. When I pay attention to the present moment, as all the sensations arise in my mind and form a cloud of sensation, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for and closeness to the world as it is, in that instance.
It is difficult to put the experience into words. The physical and mental experience of fundamental truth is my best attempt to capture it in a phrase.
I realize my life is comfortable enough that I am not plagued by well-being impairing thoughts, however, even in moments of distress, in moments of strong anxiety or pain, paying attention to the present moment allowed me to find relief in seeing reality as it is.
Thanks to meditation I was able to capture at least some of the beauty and profundity that is available in every moment. I am especially thankful for all the undistracted moments with my family and friends, and for undistracted moments in solitude of nature overwhelmed in emotion by its magnificence, moments forever captured in my memory.
The coming and going of emotion
As you progress through your meditation practice you begin to notice how random emotional states are. Rush of anxiety or fear, feeling of disgust or anger, suddenly appears and then swiftly goes away. Likewise, the feeling of motivation, significance, meaning, all fleeting as the cloud of sensation changes.
When you begin to see this fleeting nature of thought and emotion you stop to identify with them. An intrusive thought of punching someone in the face as they walk by you is no longer disturbing. You had no control over it, it is not you that is creating these thoughts, they just appear. Why should something that appears in an instance and is gone in another define you?
Likewise, when you get angry at someone for what they have said, or fearful of the task at hand, or anxious about the future, you are able to distance yourself from the experience. You cease to be consumed by the emotion and instead, you can choose to study it, look at it from above and ask yourself, is there a reason why I should be angry, fearful or anxious, in this moment?
We don’t control what arises in our minds, we don’t have to identify with it, and much less blame ourselves for it. Of course, what we choose to consume affects what is our mind saturated with, however, even if we soak our mind with good things, negative thoughts and emotions, in and out of our character, will arise. But the act of identifying with them and being disturbed by them is our choice to make when we are able to simply notice as they appear.
Depth of emotion
If you know me you know I am a very rational person, however, if you know me even better you would also know that I have an emotional side. That doesn’t mean I cry at night, however, I am not afraid of expressing and fully experiencing my emotions. So, you might have seen me smiling like a fool just from seeing something that might be quite ordinary or resting my head back in ecstasy from a song that is playing, however, the practice of meditation took my ability to experience the world through my emotions to a depth yet unknown to me. I came to realize and to experience that my ability to experience joy, contentment, beauty, peace, even shivers down my spine, is tied to my ability to pay attention to the present moment.
When you open your mind to let all the sensations flow in and mingle in the cloud of sensation, it creates a spectacle that is otherwise inaccessible. When we see a beautiful mountain we are in awe of what we see, we focus on what is in front of us. However, when we allow the smell of the trees, the breeze caressing our faces, the pressure of our feet on the ground, the warmth of the sun rays on our skin, the sound of wind brushing against the trees, and all the other underlying emotions in that instance all to mingle together, we feel much more. Much more.
That is the imprint of profundity on our minds I spoke of before.
Sitting and talking with a person you dearly love, running down the slopes of hills, watching a movie in the cinema, eating the best parmesan in Italian countryside, seeing a beautiful person clothed in elegance and joy, can be experienced even more deeply as you pay attention to all that arises in your mind at that moment.
This ability to tie all that arises together is like seeing and feeling for the first time.
Thanks to learning to pay attention, I learned to feel.
As you can see all that I mentioned ties back to being able to pay attention. Thus I take that to be the take away from me. Other meditators often speak of improved ability to focus, in the sense of being undistracted. Well, I am not sure whether I am now able to pay attention to a single task for a longer period of time. Honestly, I get distracted by various things very easily, but I can agree that meditating helped to be able to recognize when I got carried away in thought from my original activity.
Nevertheless, my key takeaway up to this point from my meditation journey is the ability to pay attention with all the beauty, wonder, meaning, significance, peace, freedom, and joy that results from it.
Now you might be telling yourself, this is all good but how do you actually know that this is a result of meditation? Isn’t it just a bunch of make belief?
Well, I started meditating because I wanted to lower my stress and anxiety levels, my goal was never to access some deeper level of experience of the present moment as I painstakingly try to put into words here. I never intended to learn to pay attention or to feel at a deeper level, in fact as I began I had no idea that this is what mindfulness is about. Yet these are the results I got. I don’t think this is a confusion between correlation and causation since as you could see, all my discoveries are tied to paying attention, an ability that I gained by the practice of meditation. Thus, I will happily keep on thanking the meditation practice. Does this mean everyone will have the same results? I don’t know, my experiments haven’t been run for long enough, but it seems to be a recurring pattern. I hope everyone will.
For the rest of you in whom I sparked a little bit of curiosity, I have a great option. I have already mentioned the app I am using for meditating called Waking Up. As a member, I have the option to gift a free thirty-day membership to as many people as I want, so if you are looking for a platform where to begin your meditation journey I wholeheartedly recommend Waking Up. You can follow this link and access your free membership.
Waking Up has a 50-day introductory course that in progressive steps takes you through the practice of mindfulness meditation and afterward there are guided meditations for every day. Apart from the guided meditations, Waking Up has a section with lessons on various topics, podcasts with other meditation teachers, special guided meditations, and much more.
Another good news for all the poor students out there, after the thirty days, if you are unable to afford the subscription you can ask for a free account at the support and you will be given a free membership for a year and you can do this as many times as you want. Sam has this wonderful policy that he doesn’t want money to be the barrier to access his content. (Btw: I am not paid for this endorsement, just a big fan.)
So, I hope this sparked some interest. I hope you will also discover your ability to pay attention and through that to see the profundity of the present moment, the coming and going of thoughts and emotions, and that this will enable you to feel more, much more.
And as I often like to use Matthew McConaughey’s words from his acceptance speech at 2014 Oscars to end my essays, ….. to meditation I say amen, to meditation I say alright, alright, alright.
Until next time.