Misunderstood Meditation

By | January 3, 2015

Generally speaking, we have avoided meditation, and it is all a great misunderstanding. The images of meditation pervasive throughout most of American culture are usually those of bald heads, robes, Buddha, and droning noises or strange music with bowls, bells, and chimes. It is seen as something complex, hard to understand, and requiring too much focus or discipline. All of these ideas have a bit of truth and can be part of a meditation experience for anyone if they so choose, but they, themselves, are not meditation. Meditation is simple and within us all, readily accessible at any time.

Trying to complicate or exaggerate meditation with too many ideas, props, and methods is anti-meditation, unnecessary distraction that prevents us from truly experiencing or fully accessing our core meditative state. There is nothing required for meditation besides your own consciousness. Meditation is the release of distractions, observing them as external entities without attaching meaning or controlling them. Meditation is being aware of feelings – whether physical, mental, or emotional if such descriptions help you identify them – but not owning them or trying to change them. Meditation is letting go and seeking ultimate vulnerability to the present moment, simply letting it all unfold as you passively and consciously observe.

Meditation is simple, but it is not easy, and that is a key distinction, one worth rereading and fully comprehending. Some things are complex. Engineering a modern jet airplane is a rather complex task. Holding your breath for five minutes, on the other hand, is a simple task. Yet just because the goal of holding your breath for five minutes is simple and easy to comprehend does not mean that it is easy to accomplish; it would take lots of repetitive practice to become physically able and mentally prepared to accomplish.

So why would we bother to meditate? If you have read much on self-help, health, wellness, etc., and looked into advice from “experts” on what to do, many of their lists of recommendations include meditation. This was my experience as well, and I am guessing that meditation was usually one of the items that you either ignored altogether, thought about as an interesting idea but never tried, understood the logic but didn’t want to go through the “trouble,” tried a few times and didn’t know what you were doing or didn’t receive any benefits and quit, or have done successfully for a long time and enjoyed the benefits but didn’t really feeling like talking about it out loud much. Any of those answers – or any other answers, for that matter – are, of course, completely okay, but perhaps this post will help you become more comfortable with meditation and learn to use it for your own wellbeing.

I am going to assume that if you are reading this and interested at all in meditation, I don’t need to convince you of the “benefits” from a health perspective. More than likely the barrier to entry has been in the aforementioned misunderstandings. That said, if you do need convincing or just a refresher, the benefits essentially boil down to the stress response. All the other things you do right, diet, exercise, clean air, fresh water, cold showers, and expensive supplements can’t do a whole lot of good for you if you never get your nervous system out of sympathetic mode (stress response) and into parasympathetic mode (relaxation response). And we are talking about more than just feeling frazzled and having high blood pressure.

Your body only does repair and maintenance work when it is in the relaxation response. And sometimes, I know from my own experience, even when you’re not actively stressed by exercising, taking a test, managing a busy list of errands, or holding yourself back from smacking a guy snoring on the airplane, your nervous system can still be chronically lit up with stress response hangovers and forget how to shift gears back into the relaxation response. So even though you were on vacation, sitting on the beach breathing beautifully clean air with your feet earthing in salt water and sand, your nervous system might still have been stuck in circling thoughts of guys snoring on planes and a million other things. The oysters and grass-fed steak from dinner sit there in your belly on top of buttered broccoli, but the enzymes and stomach acid are never given the “all clear” as your resources are still being held to prepare you to fight or flee from the perceived stressors your nervous system is locked in on like a fighter-jet missile launcher in Top Gun. Next thing you know, despite having done everything right that day, you get upset stomach, indigestion, some heartburn, and eventually you pass those wonderful nutrients without having absorbed much of the benefit. Not that it matters anyway, because your body hasn’t paid attention to using much of those things to heal you in a while because it has snoring idiots to think about and can’t be bothered by silly maintenance things. You’ve felt a mild yet nagging sore throat for two weeks that hasn’t gone away, and then you are reminded that despite your love for running, every time you think that ankle is better it just winds up aching again five minutes into your next run, and for crying out loud is someone in my paper-thin-walled hotel now snoring next door because I can’t even hear myself think for one freaking second during the day, and I’m trying to remember all the work I have to get done when this vacation is over, and I think I might have left the garage door open when I drove to the airport, AND WILL SOMEONE STICK A SOCK IN THAT GUY’S MOUTH…whoa!

Well that was quite the negative thought spiral. I believe this is where meditation comes into play. And while many people think that it would be something to use in the moment of that thought spiral to calm down and resolve that acute bout of stress, it’s actually much more beneficial as a daily life practice, something that builds your resilience to a high level to be able to better manage those moments when they come and/or prevent the thought spirals from building up in your mind to such an extent. It’s more about making you better at stress than relieving stress at any given moment (that hyperlink is a highly recommended video to watch). Because in reality, even though we know all of our minds have run out of control in similar circumstances before, none of those things are truly worth getting worked up about as they happen to us. In other words, they literally aren’t life or death, yet our sympathetic nervous system, our stress response, is working up our ability to deal with them as if they are life or death. Ironically, having our nervous systems running at this rate so frequently REALLY IS a life or death issue when we get stuck there.

So just calm down, right? Just let it go. Just relax. It’s so simple…but it’s not easy. It takes practice. It takes meditation practice. It takes a consistent, daily practice of training your mind to be consciously present, observing thoughts and emotions without judging or controlling them, letting go and being vulnerable to allow your nervous system to acknowledge that there is no threat to our life, we can relax, lower our blood pressure and stress hormones, and go back to digesting our food and healing our bodies.

So let’s make this simple. Let’s set a goal and get some help. Because for me, and I suspect others, it didn’t become obvious what I was trying to do until I did it for a while and got help from others both on their views of meditation and from actual guided meditation videos/audios that help you get started. The guided meditations are extremely useful because you can just sit or lie down and turn them on, and they’ll walk your mind through it. As I said, meditation is simple yet not easy, and these guides can make it easier. I used the Headspace app on my mobile phone for a while but have also found plenty of good ones by just searching for “guided meditation” on YouTube. Headspace is nice in that you get sort of a ten-day warmup that works you into it slowly and has a voice with a cool English accent that I always find reassuring. On the other hand, if you want to keep using it beyond ten days, it does have a fee, but it may be worth it.

Again, keep it simple. You don’t have to sit like full lotus like a monk or make noises if you don’t want. You can sit in a chair or even lie down (though lying may get you more sleepy and break your focus and awareness). Typically you pick one thing to focus on like your breath or a mantra or a sound or the flame in a fire or the waves in an ocean…then let go of everything else. Your mind is full of thoughts, always coming and going, creating new ones and recycling old ones. The goal isn’t to stop the thoughts or actively hold them down, the goal is to let them come up without getting attached. Watch the thought and then let it drift away without judging, and go back to the breath or whatever your focus point is. There is no failure or success; the process itself is what strengthens your mind. You’re not trying to make anything happen, and don’t expect anything amazing like seeing visions of Elvis from beyond the grave as he speaks to you about the true meaning of life, love, and rock ‘n roll.

It may seem hard or boring at first, but when you keep doing it daily, you get better at it through practice, and it becomes more and more clear what you’re doing with time. Meditation is a very subtle thing and starts slowly but becomes cumulative as you practice. You are strengthening your mind. You are becoming in tune with your nervous system. You are learning to relax and allow your body to heal itself. You are learning to be resilient to life’s stressors. You will start to notice subtle changes throughout your daily life, little sparks of personal growth that remind you it is working and keep you motivated.

So are you willing to commit to a challenge? How about you commit to meditation ten minutes a day for thirty days in a row and see how you feel? I know so many people are asking you to commit to “just ten minutes a day,” and time is an ever precious commodity, but what convinced me to make time for it was a comment I heard that originated from Tim Ferris and went something like

“The less time you think you have in your schedule for meditation, the more time you need to meditate.”

In other words maybe you feel like you’re scrambling because your mind is more cluttered and inefficient than you would like it to be. Committing time to a daily meditative practice can actually create time for you by making your mind more efficient, productive, and resilient, and that seems like the holy grail of any investment.

Good luck, and thanks for reading!

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