Why I meditate

I don't meditate for any spiritual reason, and I don't meditate to reach enlightenment, nor do I meditate for any of the multitude of other stereotypical reasons you've likely heard.

So why do you do it then?

I practice mindful meditation because it has been scientifically shown to be beneficial to the human mind. It's not about religion or zen or awakening; it's exercise for the brain. I run and ride my bike and do body weight exercises so that I have a healthy body, and I meditate every day so that I can work towards having a healthy mind, one that is less often plagued with anxiety and self-doubt.

Science schmience, I still think it's hokey and dumb

That's fine. I'm not here to convince you, just tell you what I've been doing, and why. It's up to you to make it valuable, or not.

Okay fine, I'll bite - what exactly do you do?

I'm honestly still figuring this out, mostly through reading the aforementioned 10% Happier, as well as using a couple of iOS apps, one by Dan Harris and his own teachers, and another called Headspace (also on Android). I will talk more about them in another post, but they're both pretty great introductions to the world of mindful meditation. The most basic description is: I sit for ten minutes or so and try to be actively aware of the normally-overlooked act of breathing.

That sounds boring.

Sorry. It's really not, though.

So what do you expect to get out of it?

The hope is that as I train my brain to be aware of my breathing, and to bring the focus of my mind back to that breath whenever it wanders, I can also train it to be non-judgmentally aware of the other thoughts and feelings that pop into my head throughout the day. The long-term goal is to separate my inner monologue from myself, so that the constant stream of thoughts and emotions don't dictate my life.

For me, the key revelation was that I am not the voice in my head - that I am more than that stream of thoughts and feelings, even if it often doesn't feel that way. As far as we know, humans are the only animals (or one of the only animals) that are conscious of the fact we are conscious, and meditation just trains us to leverage that existing ability.

Apparently the original title of Dan Harris' book was "the voice in my head is an asshole", and I empathize with that. You can't control the thoughts and feelings that enter your brain, but you can at least try and train yourself to non-judgmentally observe those thoughts and feelings as they appear and consciously respond to them, rather than unconsciously reacting to them. The point isn't to prevent negative thoughts, because that's impossible, but what you can do is recognize you're feeling a certain way and decide if that thought or feeling is justified and/or valuable. 

The goal is also not to disarm yourself of emotion. Emotions are obviously valuable, and have their place. Sometimes you're angry and should be angry, but other times you're likely angry for trivial reasons, and acting on that anger provides no long-term benefit. Idle thoughts are the same way - just because the thought "I should check my phone" or "I should have a snack" enters my head, doesn't mean I need to act on those thoughts. You don't want to dull your edge, you just want the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, so that you can focus on the thoughts and feelings that deserve to be addressed. To quote Joseph Goldstein:

With awareness, we have the space of choice.

How long have you been doing it?

I dunno, 3 or 4 weeks, maybe?

How often do you do it?

Right now, once a day, generally in the mornings at the end of my morning routine. However, I'm considering doing it twice a day, as, right now at least, the benefits seem to lessen as the day goes on. 

Are you any good at it?

Oh god no. No, no, no - I am still terrible at it. It turns out, as with any other exercise, meditation is hard. But I still try, every day, because I've already noticed some benefits, real or imagined.

What kind of benefits?

Most noticeable is that I seem better capable of focusing on what I'm doing at any given time - I don't try to multitask as much, especially when engaging in conversation with people. I feel like my ability to focus on other people and actually absorb what they're saying is getting better, as I less often spend that time trying to figure out what I'm going to say next. I also find myself checking my phone less, though as I mentioned before, this sort of behavior tends to fade as it gets later in the day.

Also, as I mentioned in my uplifting post on depression, I feel like I'm better able to figure out when I'm about to become depressed, as I have just enough separation between myself and the thoughts and feelings in my head to identify what's happening, even if I can't actually do anything about it.

That's it?

So far.

Well that's boring.

Well, sorry. It's a work in progress, you know? If I'd already figured all this shit out, this blog would be about two posts long.

What else do you hope to get out of it?

As I've said, I hope to train my brain to better deal with the never-ending train of thoughts and feelings that can often lead to Anxiety Station or Depressionville. It's not going to be a magical panacea, but hopefully it is, if nothing else, another useful tool in the toolbox.

If you're not sure it'll work, why even do it?

Why not? It's only ten or twenty minutes out of my day, and I already feel it's improved my life for the better. Whether the benefits are legitimate or just some sort of mental placebo, I do feel better, so why wouldn't I do it?

Should I do it?

Dude, I dunno, it's your life, you be you. If you're curious about it at all, read 10% Happier, or start by checking out those apps I mentioned. I think if you look into it, you probably won't regret the time spent doing so, even if you decide not to stick with it.

I'll close with a quote from Dan Harris:

What mindfulness does is create some space in your head so you can, as the Buddhists say, “respond” rather than simply “react.” In the Buddhist view, you can’t control what comes up in your head; it all arises out of a mysterious void. We spend a lot of time judging ourselves harshly for feelings that we had no role in summoning. The only thing you can control is how you handle it.