Disease of the active mind (on meditation)

A man sitting by the water.
Source: Unsplash

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

Blaise Pascal

There was a time when I couldn’t fall asleep without reading, watching, or listening to something.

My current flatmate plays a TV show every time she cooks or showers. And another friend told me once that he had to listen to music when he walked.

The common cause of these behaviors is the feeling of discomfort when left alone with our thoughts. While not everybody may have this problem, based on my observations, I believe it’s a rather widespread phenomenon.

When you stop distracting yourself with music, movies, alcohol, or any of the thousands of ways to escape your mind, you build inner peace and become vastly more effective in life.

Here’s how the ancient practice of meditation can help.

The problems

If you get too attached to your thoughts, you can enter a spiral, where you get caught up in a self-perpetuating cycle. Have you ever started thinking about something, that thought led to another and another, this ends up filling up your awareness, you lose track of your surroundings, until at some point you wonder where the past 5 minutes have gone? I’m not talking about being in the “flow” while working on something you care about, but about those times when you waste time thinking about bullshit.

Often these thoughts have great emotional weight. For example,

  • “I have to do this now” will lead to stress,
  • “He’s such an asshole” will make you angry,
  • “I’m such a failure” will make you depressed.

When you take these too seriously, they end up leading to more and more thoughts that reinforce those strong emotions, and in a hellish feedback loop, they make you feel worse and worse.

This comes from perceiving these thoughts as true, as undeniable facts, rather than random things that our monkey mind produces.

Sometimes your thoughts are just too painful to bear. They bring images to your awareness that you don’t want to be there. You prefer to avoid them rather than deal with them. So you seek distractions. In music, movies, fun, work, alcohol… But it’s not a solution. You’re ignoring the problem instead of solving it. And the things you do to distract yourself can end up causing even more problems.

This can lead to a lot of suffering, which is entirely self-inflicted. It’s not anybody’s fault, it’s just a natural tendency of the human mind that we are born with. The good news is, you can learn to manage your mind to have more control over your life and be more effective.

The benefits

You do that with meditation. What exactly can you gain with it?

In general you become more aware of how your mind works. You notice the patterns of how thoughts, emotions and behaviors influence each other. This allows you to change the automatic reactions and have more intentional behavior. You can create more space between the trigger and the reaction, which lets you be more thoughtful in behavior. In addition, you may notice certain needs and desires that were previously hidden from you, and that will allow you to take better care of yourself.

You will become more effective in controlling your attention. Instead of wasting time ruminating about vacation plans, you can be more present in the moment. Whatever you’re doing — eating dinner, walking in the forest, having sex — you’re guaranteed to enjoy it more if you are fully aware of the experience.

You can develop distance to your thoughts. Thoughts are like bubbles that rise from the depths of the subconscious into the awareness. They are neither true or false, good or bad, right or wrong. They are fleeting mental phenomena. Some are useful, some are harmful, some are just random noise. You can learn to amplify and focus on the useful ones and ignore the rest.

You can also learn to let thoughts flow freely. Being with them in the shower or while trying to fall asleep is much easier if you’re not perceiving them as absolute truths and are able to let go of them, and to focus attention on something external.

You may become more empathetic. By understanding your own mental patterns, you can gain insight in the the behavior of others. This will lead to stronger connections and less conflict.

I’ve always been a fan of the old adage, “The unexamined life is not worth living”. If you don’t understand how your mind works and how to use it to your advantage, on your deathbed how can you say that you’ve lived a good life?

The process

I’ve been meditating on and off for 9 years. These days, I don’t do it on a daily basis, but only when I’m feeling particularly overwhelmed. I’m no enlightened guru, but regular practice in the past helped me control my attention better and have much more peace of mind. Still, I’m planning to go on a multiday vipassana retreat when social activities can be resumed, out of curiosity how much more I can improve.

I’m not qualified to teach meditation, but I can point to some resources and give some tips.

An easy way to start is with an app. Headspace is a popular choice. My personal favorite is Insight Timer, which has a huge marketplace of guided recordings.

Even though I haven’t read it, I hear this book is a good introduction. It contains the rationale and explanations for different types of meditation that clear up beginner’s confusion.

I learned to meditate in group sessions. This is the best way to start, in my opinion. The teacher or guide will explain how to do it properly and clear up any misconceptions you might have. It’s also a great way to have social accountability to make it more likely you’ll stick with it. But you need to find a group that you resonate with, that’s convenient to go to, and where the teacher is competent.

Whichever path you choose, it’s crucial to make meditating a habit, because you won’t see benefits immediately. Check out this book for great advice.

Some common misconceptions

There’s nothing religious about meditating. While many religious traditions do have similar practices, just treat is as training your attention.

Another one is that if during meditation your mind is not blank, you’ve failed. That’s the wrong way to think. The mind will produce thoughts, that’s what it does. Your job is, whenever you get caught up in them, bring your attention back to the object of the practice. This could be your breath, a sound, a mantra, or something entirely different, depending on the specific practice.

Sitting down every day for a specific time is called formal meditation and is not the ultimate goal. The point is to become more mindful and aware in your daily life. In fact, you don’t even need to sit down and do a specific practice. You can bring more awareness to your life by counting your breaths at a red light, noticing how your body feels while walking, or just by paying attention to objects around you. My girlfriend says that cooking is a meditation for her because she concentrates on it completely and doesn’t think about anything else.

Paying attention to your mind and understanding how it works, with proper guidance, will help you become more effective and at peace.

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