Despite being a tech person (who writes on a tech blog), I have a guilty pleasure I’d like to profess: I never let slip an opportunity to shill about the wonders of meditation, should the opportunity arise. Adopting the practice has changed my own life tremendously — it fixed my mild case of alcoholism, made me intellectually sharper and more emotionally sensitive, and took away the crushing depressiveness of wondering what this is all about. In short, it made the quality of my life, both within and without, much much better.
My glowing testimony has gotten a few people around me to try out what I’m doing, and after a few weeks, almost everyone inadvertantly comes back with the same question:
I don’t think I’m doing meditation right. I can’t get my mind to stop thinking about _________!
A little context
A little context for those unfamiliar with this domain: In the past 3 decades or so, many books have propounded the concept of being present as being the crux of Eastern philosophy, zen and meditation. The idea is a simple one, and it is that:
- Suffering comes from being unable to let go of the past, or from projecting (and dreading) what is going to happen to us in the future.
- Neither the past, nor the future, is real. One is memory, and the other is imagination.
- Only the present is real, so if we were to keep our attention focused on the present, then we cannot suffer.
There’s a lot more that can be said about this ideology than the 3 bullets above, of course. If you’re interested in reading more about it, Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now is the best book among them all.
You can’t stop your mind
Due to the way this ideology is often presented, people tend to mistake being present as emptying or stopping your mind. After all, most of the content in our mind has to do with either the past or the future! Meditation, being (in many people’s minds) the ultimate act of presence, then means that you have to stop your thoughts.
Unfortunately, our mind is simply incapable of stopping itself, because it is like a car with all of its pedals set to accelerate. With a car like that, stepping on the brakes will cause it to speed up, so the only way for it to come to a stop is to let it expend its momentum naturally. Similarly, to move our minds towards stillness, we’re going to have to let our thoughts run their course without trying to resist (i.e. brake pedal) or indulge (i.e. accelerate pedal) in them.
Don’t believe me? Then try this: If I told you not to think of a monkey right now, would you be able to do so? In the process of trying to not think of a monkey, did you have to think of a monkey?
What do we do in meditation?
If we are not to stop our thoughts during meditation, then what should we do? The simple answer is nothing, but doing nothing is not as simple of a thing as it seems. For starters, most people will find it extremely difficult to sit with their eyes closed for 5 minutes — their bodies would itch, their limbs would ache, and they will experience an overwhelming amount of mental noise. In such a state, it will be extremely difficult to stepping on any of the pedals of the car that is your mind. Hence, a lot of people sit, but don’t exactly manage to cause further agitation to their mind.
In Indian culture, where the state of meditativeness has been explored more thoroughly, there are many words that can be roughly-translated to mean meditation, such as japa, tapa, dharana, dhyana, samadhi and shoonya. Some of these words represent states that you can fall into, while others represent acts that you do to stop yourself from introducing further agitation to your mind.
For beginners, just plainly forcing yourself to sit for meditation is likely not going to work, because most people simply aren’t built that way temperamentally, and because modern society engages our mind way too much. That is why following a meditative routine (preferrably daily) works best. Personally, I find routines that incorporate japa and dharana to work best (mouse over the terms to see their meanings).
What’s in it for me?
Personally, adopting a meditation routine has worked wonders to the quality of my life. If I had to quantify it, I’d say that it has vastly improved the way that I function. For me, it has had the effect of alcohol, adderol and caffeine all rolled into one, all without the side effects — it has pretty much eliminated all my anxiety, made me much sharper intellectually, and reduced the number of hours of sleep I needed.
It sounds like a wonder drug, but essentially, what an effective meditative routine does is not complex — it simply creates a space for your mind (i.e. thought and emotion) to unwind. In today’s world of endless distractions and intellectual stimulation, we can rarely afford (and, frankly, don’t know how to) give our bodies the time to process all the information we receive and emotions that we feel. This becomes a weight on our shoulders over time, and creates a lot of friction in our day-to-day living that hampers our ability to act and perceive; and because everyone is carrying this enormous weight, a person who figures out how to put down even a part of this weight may seem superhuman to most people.
If all this sounds too good to be true for you, I’ve been doing the same hour-long meditation routine daily for close to 6 years now. I began seeing benefits a few months into it, but it wasn’t until a few years in that it really began to supercharge my life — so all of this didn’t come for free.
Where do I start?
I started off my daily meditation practice with this routine:
It is a 12-minute guided meditation practice that incorporates both japa and dharana, the aforementioned hallmarks of what I think makes a good meditation routine. If you would like to read more about the practice, you can also check out this page.
This is not a sponsored plug. Just want to make that clear. I’m sharing this practice because it has worked for me.