The Most Important Change in My Life

Why everyone should meditate
OCT 2019
Stephen
F.
Materials Science and Engineering

I was an anxious child, an anxious teenager and an anxious young adult. So much so that the concept of anxiety didn’t make much sense. “You’re telling me it’s possible to not constantly think and worry about everything that has happened to me and that could possibly happen to me? Don’t bullshit me.” I would never have guessed that the answer to the incessant voice in my head was staring me in the face. That the key to breaking free from chronic anxiety was simple yet counterintuitive. Just pay closer attention to your anxiety?

How I started and quit meditation

Everywhere in the world of self-care, mental health and yoga, which I was practicing consistently, meditation was being mentioned. I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. Was this worthwhile or was it a fad? I tried different apps, watched videos and read articles. Everything I saw was usually framed as ‘Meditation for X’ or ‘How to get over Y with meditation.’ I never got any fundamental conceptual grounding in what meditation is. Meditation was widely marketed as a problem solving tool.

Even though for the most part meditation is just about sitting down and concentrating, I didn’t feel confident in what I was doing. After a few months of sporadic practicing, I was sure of two things: 1) I couldn’t meditate, 2) meditation apps help me fall asleep at night. Meditation wasn’t teaching me anything about myself. Even worse, sitting down and focusing on my breathing was full of frustrating failure. I would often find that I was carried away from my thoughts for tens of minutes before remembering that I was attempting to meditate on my breathing. Meditation is probably good, but it was just not for me.

Meditation take 2

When I heard that one of my favorite thinkers and very experienced meditator, Sam Harris, was making his own meditation app, I got excited. If someone was going to make sense of meditation for me, it was him. I was so excited about this app that I even bought a used Galaxy G5 when I found out that the app wouldn’t be supported on my old iPhone. This app was everything I wanted and more...

A core feature of the app is a 50-day meditation introductory course in which you are slowly introduced to many techniques of meditation as well as eventually confronted with the most interesting paradoxes of meditation. For example, I initially thought that meditation was all about focusing on the breathing. But what I learned from that course is that anything can be an object of meditation. You can even use your thoughts, often seen as the enemy of meditation, as objects of meditation. I also believed that meditation would take years to master and only then could I experience some sort of enlightenment, whatever that was. To my surprise, however, although years of practice are certainly desirable, the truths of meditation are available to everyone in each moment. No special rank is required. Lastly, I thought meditation was supposed to be a relaxing and peaceful experience. I learned that it is often not the case. The times of greatest pain are opportunities to meditate on the experience and not to hide or distract from it as I had done most of my life.

What meditation is

The goal of meditation is to notice what your state of being is, not to achieve or desire another state of being. It is about answering the question, “Is this moment good enough?” It is about experiencing life clearly and fully without grasping at what is pleasant or pulling away from what is unpleasant.

Ultimately, meditation is not something you only do sitting cross-legged while listening to the Interstellar soundtrack. Meditation is something you do in all moments, a practice sometimes called mindfulness or living an examined life.

What people I know think about meditation

Graduate school is an incubator for chronically stressed people like myself. After learning this meditation practice last year, it feels like a weight has been lifted off of my chest. Not because I never feel stress or anxiety but because they no longer have a hold on me. I’m not swept up by those emotions. I feel them. Then they pass, like every other experience. For that reason, I’m immensely grateful that I was able to learn meditation. Naturally, I wanted to share that with everyone I loved. Even though I received a free version of this app, I gifted subscriptions to most of my friends and family. Of all the people, only my mother and brother have completed the 50-day meditation course and only my mother continues meditating daily.

I have found my fellow graduate student friends particularly hard to convince. Perhaps what stops many people is the idea that meditation is replaceable by other stress-relieving activities, like gym, music, or hanging out with friends. But stress relief isn’t the goal of meditation. It is training the mind to connect with experience. Nothing else does that.

People say time is more valuable than money because you can’t get time back. Meditation has taught me that time isn’t intrinsically valuable. What matters is the quality of time. Are you present in the moment or are you somewhere else? You could be visiting the holiest temple, but if you’re imagining the big pile of work on your desk, then you are no longer in that temple. But you don’t have to be in a holy temple to miss out on life. Even in the most ordinary moment, if you don’t pay attention, then you’re missing it. You can have all the time in the world and waste it, not by doing nothing, but by not paying attention to experience itself.

I could talk about meditation all day. Stop and chat if you ever see me on campus with my big meditation sign.

May you be happy.