Long before these anxiety-provoking times, my interest in meditation was sparked. For a long time that interest was a small ember glowing inside—I didn't really know how to proceed and I was put off a bit by the religious undertones often associated with some forms of meditation. After reading Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by neuroscientist, Sam Harris, whose practical descriptions demystified meditation for me—it seemed like something I could do.
After a few fits and starts, I began practicing meditation in earnest midway through 2019. Most of my experience with meditation is in the practice called mindfulness which is what Harris mostly speaks about and teaches. And although, like yoga, this is something you can do without a guide, I've found it helpful to have one—I've tried out a half dozen or so mobile apps. My favorite is Sam Harris' Waking Up app, as it has a very nice collection of 50 ten-minute sessions that serve as an introduction and build on each other. I've also tried several other good apps including: Ten Percent Happier (based on the book of the same name by Dan Harris—no relation to Sam!), Calm, Oak, Headspace, and even a headband that measures brain activity while you meditate, called Muse.
While my life has not transformed due of meditation, my perception of things has. I'd like to use this post as a reflection of these things and a marker along my path. I'll discuss the general benefits of meditation and the benefits that I have reaped. In addition I'll break down meditation into some basic parts and define a few terms.
The scientific benefits of meditation
Meditative practice promises all sorts of benefits. The following are a few of those, all with the scientific -backing of thousands of studies.
- Stress relief and reduced anxiety
- Improved emotional health and outlook
- Enhanced self-awareness
- Increased attention span and focus
- Reduced age-related memory loss
- Greater understanding, capacity for kindness, and connection with others
- Controlled addictions
- Improved sleep
- Pain relief
- Decreased blood pressure
These two articles (1)(2) provide a good overview, as well as links to additional readings and the study findings themselves. A scientific approach and the research that went in to the books and apps recommended above were a necessary component for me to take meditation seriously. Believing that meditation was shrouded in mysticism, made it a non-starter for me. While I have not realized all of the benefits listed (yet), I have witnessed some and see how the door is opened to others. Below I'll lay out what I've learned and how that knowledge has improved my life. Some of these concepts might be a little strange sounding and possibly not accessible without some meditation or contemplation efforts of your own.
(That sounds like some of the stuff that turned me off of meditation for so long and for that I apologize. But some things cannot be told but must rather be understood from experience.)
These are some of the ends to meditative practice, but it is really the means by which these benefits come that is at the core of meditation.
The goal of mindfulness meditation is to simply be aware of how things already are
That is, the goal is not to change anything about yourself, but to recognize how your mind already is and experience the freedom that is inherent to the nature of consciousness. This can bring about freedom from anger, fear, shame, envy, craving, etc and ultimately (and most inscrutably) a freedom from self. We can cover that last one—self as an illusion—at another time, both for when I am more comfortable with the concept and when I can articulate it better1.
Things I've learned through practicing meditation
- There is nothing that needs to happen or occur when practicing mindfulness meditation. The goal is to simply observe what is already occurring.
- Our bodies are merely sensory input devices to our consciousness.
- There is nothing hidden from us or beyond our reach - it is all there in consciousness to be observed.
- Sounds, smells, sights, sensations all appear in consciousness—the "place" where we experience these things is all the same.
- Thoughts and feelings appear in this same place, too,
- We are not our thoughts. We don't think them, they occur to us—they appear in consciousness.
How these learnings have changed how I am
- Phrases like "a thought occurred to me" or "an idea came to me" really resonate now as how this process actually takes place. I have started replacing phrases like "I thought" and "let me think" to remove the concept of thought authorship.
- Since thoughts are things that just occur, I don't judge myself for them—I simply observe them.
- Likewise, I am not hard on myself for forgetting something—these things are fleeting after all.
- While I cannot always stop an emotion from taking control and affecting how I react in a situation, I can now often recognize what has triggered an emotional response and (since that response is not me, nor did I make it happen) I can move past it much more quickly than I have in the past.
- It is hard to overstate the impact the last point can make. By detaching from the emotion and impulse that can come over us and not identifying with these emotions and impulses, we are free to not allow them to have power over us.
How to get started
Maybe you've been interested in trying meditation, maybe what you've read here has you motivated to try. It shouldn't be daunting, and you don't need to know anything to get started.
In fact, my advice is to focus on mindfulness and to just download one of the apps listed in the intro and get started with some guided lessons. My favorite app, Waking Up, is not free, but does include a guarantee of a full refund should you not find it valuable. And as Harris often points out on his podcast, he doesn't want financial wherewithal to stand between someone and this content he finds so important, so you can even email him and ask for a free account.
But if you'd like more background on the practice of meditation itself (including why people who meditate—maybe annoyingly—call it practicing) read on.
While there are MANY2 variations of meditation that have been developed over the thousands of years people have been doing it, there are really two major categories into which we can group meditation styles:
Focused-attention meditation: Concentrating attention on a single object, thought, sound, or visualization. It emphasizes ridding your mind of attention and distraction often focusing on breathing, a mantra, or calming sounds.
Open-monitoring meditation: Focusing on broadened awareness of all aspects of your environment, the nature of thought, and the sense of self. Becoming aware of thoughts, feelings, and impulses that might normally be suppressed or occluded.
Both of these styles are incorporated into Mindfulness—"the psychological process of purposely bringing one's attention to experiences occurring in the present moment without judgment."
- If you want to jump ahead, Sam Harris also wrote a book about this concept called, Free Will.
- There are many types of meditation and many names for similar styles. This makes it confusing. Here's an abridged list without regard for duplicative or overlapping styles: mindfulness meditation, spiritual meditation, focused (or focused attention) meditation, movement meditation, mantra meditation, transcendental meditation, loving-kindness or metta meditation, body scan or progressive relaxation, breath awareness meditation, zen meditation, vedic or yogic meditation, noting meditation, skillful compassion meditation, resting awareness meditation, reflective meditation, visualization meditation, chakra meditation, Vipassana meditation, Qigong meditation, Taoist meditation, sound bath meditation, self-enquiry meditation, Christian contemplative meditation, Sufi meditation