My Thoughts On Meditation

Why I Tried Meditation:

I first tried meditating during my second year in college. I read the book Wherever You Go, There You Are and went through the exercises it outlined. I pretended I was a mountain, I pretended I was the ocean, smooth and without disrupting waves. Long story short, it did not work. Now, six or so years later, I am an avid meditator with an idea on what works for me. Throughout the rest of this essay, I will share what I have learned, with the hope that someone else can capture something for their own practice.

To start things off, I will explore why I tried meditating the first time and what helped me stick with it. I wanted to have better control over my mind. I admired the people who were able to wake up at 5 AM, exercise, work a challenging job, and then manage to put time into creative activities before falling into restful sleep. I was busier in college than I was in high school and time came at a premium. I thought that meditation was a path to squeezing more productivity out of my time.

The other reason I tried meditation was I wanted better control over my emotions. I had a short temper (not to say that meditation has cured me of that, but it has improved). I was and am still like any other young adult, struggling with unbalanced feelings of inadequacy, pride, anxiety, and shame. For these feelings is where I looked not to the famously productive, but to the famously calm like the Dalai Lama and Jon Kabat-Zinn.

What I Found:

As I mentioned, my first attempts at meditation were guided meditations where I seemed to have to pretend that I was something I was not. From what I remember of my early practice, focusing on the breath was not a major theme. The intent of the exercises I found was to find admirable qualities in picturesque scenes and imagine myself with those qualities. I am not saying that as I have matured in my practice, I have not done an exercise like this on occasion, but it is not what has clicked for me. After that first summer (2014), I did not pick up meditation in any meaningful way until after college.

After graduating and starting my first job in 2016, I had a renewed interest in meditation. The same reasons from when I was interested during college applied, I had even less free time and was more frustrated by my work. This time around, I was more fortunate in finding meditation guidance that was proper for my skill level. The first tools I tried were the smartphone apps Headspace and Calm. However, I never paid for the subscriptions to either apps. Instead, I went through the five- or ten-day introductions on both applications. They helped me understand the importance of starting meditation with a focus on the breath. More importantly, I learned that meditation is not about controlling the breath but observing it (all other experiences) passively. It seems simple now, but it was a mental barrier to overcome.

How I Meditate When Meditating, Part I:

After I got my use out of the Calm and Headspace free trials, I knew enough to do my own timed meditation sessions without the use of a guided conversation. On weekends, with no risk of missing some scheduled event, I would try to meditate without the use of a timer. Even without a timer, I have rarely lasted more than twenty minutes before becoming restless1.

My non-guided meditation practice starts with trying to sit with a straight, correct posture. This is partially for comfort and partially to prevent falling asleep. I take a few deep breaths just to relax, then I try to settle in to focusing on my breath and physical sensation. I try to feel my breath coming in and out of my nose or feel my body resting on itself, like the sensation of my hands sitting on my knees.

The difficult part in this not becoming distracted by the thoughts that flow through our "monkey mind". I do not think it takes lengthy meditation practice (or even any at all) to picture that one does not “think” a thought before it appears. Thoughts are more of an endless stream from nowhere that we must endure. The point of meditation is that we can take a step back from those thoughts, see that they are just thoughts appearing, and shift to accepting certain thoughts over others as part of a conscious effort.

I find it easier to avoid becoming distracted when doing my own meditations than when following guided meditations, but the free meditation timer that I was using for a long time, Insight Timer, also featured guided meditations. I found the shorter meditations to be helpful warm-up sessions before going into my own meditation practice. For close to two years, a combination of my own meditation with the occasional guided meditation from the Insight Timer app was enough for me to feel like I was progressing.

How I Meditate When Meditating, Part II:

I was introduced to Calm and Headspace by listening to podcasts like Tim Ferriss (his podcast is enjoyable but can be overwhelming) and Sam Harris (I do not agree with all his opinions, especially those on religion). Early in 2019, Sam Harris released his own meditation app called Waking Up. Since its release, I have been using it as my guided meditation, replacing the Insight Timer. The app features sequential guided meditations that are scientific in nature. Rather than solely focusing on traditional vipassana breathing exercises, it focuses on initiating the dissolution of ego through Dzogchen practices. For example, in some of the guided meditations, one is meant to keep their eyes open and focus their visual field and quickly turn the focus around to find the center of consciousness. The aim is to look for the meditator and realize that one is not actually there. Everything we sense happens within our consciousness and realizing that dissolves the feeling of self.

There are fifty sessions in the course that grow in complexity, before the app puts one into a less structured daily meditation pattern. Additionally, the app has several “lessons”, which are not guided meditations but talks on meditation practices and how we interpret the world.

I am really interested in achieving dissolution of ego (aka Ego Death). Ego Death in modern meditation has origins in the Tibetan Book of The Dead, which is meant to make people comfortable with their own eventual death, so that they can truly experience the world in a mindful way. (From what I understand, the easiest way to achieve ego death is to eat an appropriate number of psilocybin mushrooms, but I am a little uncomfortable with brain altering substances) Ego death supposedly eliminates the barrier between one’s feeling of self as separate from the rest of the world. Instead of focusing on your own moods, happiness, and suffering, you instead recognize that there just are moods, happiness suffering, regardless of your centrality to that experience.

How I Meditate When Not Meditating:

When I first started meditating, I was rigid in what counted at a true meditation session. Now, I am less strict and allow a few passing moments of concentrated breath to count as a meditation session for the day. I think that the effects of meditation last longer when exercised in smaller bursts, so this is more helpful for me than a single long session.

I also count listening to Buddhist meditations as worthwhile steps on my path to greater concentration and control over my emotions. As such, I started listening to different Dharma talk podcasts, by Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Sharon Salzberg. These are the Buddhist equivalent of homilies in the Catholic faith. Kornfield’s are easily accessible and take the forms of little parables that come to some point about how we should think or act.

Sharon Salzberg's lessons have introduced me to a new method of meditation. In addition to my usual focus or insight meditation, I occasionally take part in Metta Meditation, also known as loving-kindness. The basic principle of this type of meditation is that we just wish love and happiness unto others, and ourselves. The practice focuses on self-love first, then to focus that same loving-kindness on others. Salzberg says that as she walks through the streets of NYC, she wishes that the people she passes are happy and sends them “positive energy.”
Practices like this make me feel better, and I think this has many parallels to those who pray. This is like actively praying for someone's well-being, has advantages in that it is less personal and for more than those we are close with. Additionally, it is open to those that are atheist or agnostic in that is not necessarily prayer, just positive thinking.

Why Does It Matter:

I've discussed what has allowed meditation to "click" with some friends, and I have found an usual but common thread: David Foster Wallace’s speech This Is Water. I often listen to the twenty-two-minute recording every few months as an effort to re-center myself. One of the things that DFW points out is that we can make attempts to control our inner monologues and reduce the self-centered feeling that leads to frustration with the outside world. He says a few times throughout the speech that we can direct “what to think about,” and I think that meditation can help us build the strength to do that. What we focus on is still up to us, but meditation can help allow the gap between receiving some sensory input and reacting. With practice, we can direct our thoughts in positive and constructive ways.

In This Is Water, DFW discusses how we can accept faulty shopping carts and how every driver on the road is in your way and consider the world at large and our humble place within it. I am not sure if DFW was familiar with Metta Meditation before his death, but I think he would have endorsed it.

To some, meditation might seem like a waste of time and a misguided attempt at spirituality, but for me, at least, it has been a way to quiet the conversations in my head, increase my focus, and reduce my frustrations with the things over which I have no control. I think that most people would benefit from being open to the practice and giving it a fair chance, because there is only something to gain from the attempt.

1 As an aside, I have never minded becoming restless after I feel that I manage to spend at least a few moments in genuine concentration. If I have been able to focus on my breath and not succumb to thoughts enough that I feel my ability to concentrate is even minutely stronger, I am happy to let myself go do something more engaging. Improving focus and understanding one's emotions is a marathon, not a sprint.