Sit still and try not to think. Doesn’t sound thrilling, I know. But it happens to be a gateway to peace and a sustained kind of happiness; one that doesn’t come from fleeting pleasures but from deep within. Besides, a little added brain-muscle never hurt anybody.
We constantly have thoughts in our head, even if we don’t want to. We can’t stop thinking or choose what to think. Sometimes, we don’t even pay attention to what we’re thinking, and before we know it, we’re wondering if all cats meow in the same language or if they have regional dialects. Miyavlamak! (That’s how cats meow in Azerbaijani, in case you didn’t know.)
In other words, we suck at paying attention to and managing what the hell is going on inside ourselves. The mind is just rambling on, unchecked and unsupervised. We may also have subtle feelings or tensions in our body for so long that we forget them.
Eventually, we come to accept these compulsive thoughts, feelings and tensions as normal, and slowly lose awareness of their existence and their influence on us. Unnoticed but unrelenting, they’re always running in the background, bitching, complaining, distracting, demanding.
Whether it’s losing concentration and watching prank videos on Youtube instead of working, talking negatively to yourself, reaching for a smoke or a snack when you’re trying to stop, or simply getting moody for no apparent reason, your mind sometimes acts like an unruly and stubborn idiot, a total moron that doesn’t care what you want it to do. It’s uncoordinated and self-sabotaging. Your brain is actually quite similar to Eric Cartman from South Park.
That’s bad enough as it is. But the real tragedy is this: The identity we have built for ourselves to feel safe is obscuring our true nature. Reality is veiled by the judgements we pass on everything and everyone. We mentally reduce things to make them fit into the tiny boxes we’ve made for them. What we get is a diminished, limited and simplified view of the world. We are living half-lives, never fully awake, never quite aware of how awesome things really are. If we knew, we’d marvel.
Your Thoughts Aren’t Yours
Let’s begin with a fun little test. Close your eyes and try not to think at all for just 60 seconds. Try it now. Make an honest effort.
I know you couldn’t do it. A thought appeared quite fast, that’s alright. But I wonder: Did you choose to have that thought?
No, you were trying not to think. So if you didn’t choose to think, where did the thought come from? Would it be correct to say the thought was yours, or would it be more accurate to say that the thought was actually automatic, compulsive?
This is how I came to see that my thoughts weren’t necessarily mine. Just because they happen to appear in my head doesn’t mean that I authored them or that I should believe in them. Some of the thoughts are true, constructive, useful, or at least benign. Other are false, silly, destructive or just annoying, useless chatter – not worth listening to.
By meditating consistently, over the years it will become easier and easier for you to 1) notice when your mind is blabbering nonsense, 2) recognize that what goes on in your mind isn’t always “you”, and thereby 3) disassociate from the mind’s voice, either by replacing it with a better thought or simply ignoring it. And that skill is fucking liberating. I’ll teach you how o do it below.
First, I’d like to clear out some misconceptions about meditation.
Some people have told me they “don’t believe in it”, that it’s just a mind trick that won’t make any difference. I’m assuming you’re reading this because you’re already interested in getting started with it, but I just want to make sure it’s been said: Meditation is encouraged by overwhelming amounts of research. Its benefits are numerous and well documented. They range from mental benefits such as more focus, less depression and anxiety, more joy, self-esteem, improved memory, cognitive skills, creative thinking, decision-making and problem solving skills, to physical benefits like a vastly improved immune system, increased energy levels, reduced blood pressure and improved heart rate. It even fucking slows your aging and improves your skin1. How awesome is that? Fuck Botox.
Simply listing benefits this way may not be very compelling, though, so I want to emphasize that making meditation a regular practice is probably the best thing I have done in a long time. It freed me from myself, from my tendency to focus on the negative, and it keeps me kinda sane in an insane world.
The Gateway To Here
You see, I’ve also met people who think meditation makes me space out, or that it distances me from reality and everyday life. That my trick to coping with reality is to occasionally fly away to some dream world with fairies and unicorns in all the colors of the rainbow. That’s exactly the opposite of what meditation does. Thich Nhat Hanh said it well: “Meditation is not evasion. It is a serene encounter with reality.”
If you don’t do any type of activity similar to meditation, let me tell you about your relationship with reality: You habitually live in the past or the future. You regret or ruminate on something that happened. You longingly wish to go back in time, to a moment in your life when things were better. You worry how things will work out in the future, or you eagerly wish for this moment to be over so you can get to the next one. You’re never here, never present, and never satisfied for long. You’re always somewhere else.
Living like that makes no sense. You’re overlooking something very simple. So simple, in fact, that you may think I’m trying to mock you by spelling it out:
The only moment that exists is NOW. THIS one. You can feel this moment down to your very bones. You are breathing. You are blinking. Your heart is beating. You can feel your arms, your legs, your face. You are here. It won’t be long before you drift off into thinking again, but right now you know, deeply and unmistakably, that this moment exists and you are alive.
You can’t go back in time to change the past that you regret or resent, but you can start fixing it NOW. You can’t travel to the future to deal with that thing you’re worried about, but you can start preparing for it NOW. You can’t be happy in the past or the future. But you can appreciate life NOW.
Life isn’t made up of the past and the future. They only exist in your memory and imagination, respectively. No, life is made up of an never-ending sequence of now’s. I’m not talking about metaphysics or the essence of time. I’m saying that if you don’t learn to be happy here and now, in this moment that you may think is so mundane or trivial, you will never be happy. Because even if you work hard and reach all your goals and dreams, even if you find the love of your life, as long as your mind is elsewhere, caught up in thinking, regretting, anticipating, dreading or judging, you still won’t be grateful. The only moment that exists is this one, and it presents the only opportunity you have to appreciate anything.
For several years now, Matt Killingsworth, a Ph.D psychologist from Harvard, has been studying the cause and nature of human happiness. He and his team have developed a phone app that sends notifications to the users at random times during the day. It asks what they’re doing, whether they were thinking about something else than what they’re doing, and how happy they feel at that moment.
Slowly, a pattern has emerged. They’ve found that people’s minds wander a lot of the time, and regardless of the activity, people are happier when they are focused on what they are doing — even if what they’re doing isn’t very pleasant2.
In other words, someone who’s cleaning his toilet but wishing himself back to his last vacation is less content than someone who’s just focused on cleaning the toilet. To repeat, this held true for every activity people entered in the app. Sex too. See Matt’s presentation of the experiment and the results here: TED Talk: Matt Killingsworth.
If you’re just a little bit like me, your mind is sometimes your own worst enemy. Whether it’s pessimism, self-criticism, fear, dissatisfaction or despair, the mind is almost eager to provide it. As if it was designed to make us miserable.
Presence is probably more valuable than anything else. It’s what enables you to see that there is nothing wrong with you. When thoughts go away, life is no longer a problem to be solved, but a gift to be savoured, or at the very least a challenge to be enjoyed. Mental stillness makes it easier for you to be grateful for all the “little” things which are not at all little — being alive, having a roof over your head, having friends that care about you.
Occasionally, during or after meditating, I have cried out of joy. I have laughed for no reason other than that it feels amazing to be alive. Meditation makes it easier to love yourself, to become your own best friend. It allows you to recognize and disregard your stream of useless, unproductive, false or self-denigrating thoughts.
It cuts through the bullshit. You can see what’s important and what isn’t. You focus on what you can do right here, right now. Your mental space is cleared so reality can finally come in. It’s as if the world is vibrating with energy, colours are more saturated, and everything is somehow simple, orderly or beautiful. To me, these moments are more real than the rest of my life.
“Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual. Yet there is a depth in those brief moments which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Enough promotion. Let’s get started.
Blue Skies And Belly Breathing
There are very many different conceptions and methods of meditation. The best books I’ve read about living in the present moment are The Power of Now (I’ve written an article about how important this book was for me) and The Law Of Attention. It’s up to you to experiment with meditation until you make progress with it. Here’s what works for me.
Step 1: Sit comfortably, preferably in a quiet and undisturbed area. I prefer to cross my legs while sitting on a pillow or couch. I prefer to keep my back straight, but some days I lean my back against a wall. You can have your eyes open or closed. I usually to set a timer — say, 10 minutes — so I don’t begin to wonder how long I’ve been sitting there.
Step 2: Take a while to check how you are feeling. Think of it as an internal scan of your thoughts and feelings. What’s your mood? Are you concerned about something? Are you stressed, upset about an argument, or feeling lazy? Are you tense in your stomach or shoulders?
Step 3: Accept all of that. Acknowledge that it’s there and surrender to it. Surrender in this context has nothing to do with giving up or expecting your current situation to last forever. It means that you just allow things to be this way, accepting that that’s how you feel at the moment. Doing this is very important. It’s like saying “Yes” to your current situation and to life as it is.
Step 4: Observe it and mentally distance yourself from it a little. You do that by changing your thinking from, say, “I’m nervous” to “I notice a feeling of nervousness”, or from “She makes me me angry” to “I reacted with anger to what she did.” There is no need to police your feelings by thinking, “I shouldn’t be angry, I’m supposed to be in control of my emotions”. Rather tell yourself, “I won’t feel like this forever, but it’s how I feel right now, and that’s ok.” Be more like a dispassionate onlooker who’s just casually noticing what’s going on.
Step 5: This is the final and trickiest part. Your goal is to remain a neutral observer of your thoughts, or even better, to not have any thoughts for a few seconds.
There are several ways to go about this. One way is to imagine that your mind is like a clear, blue sky. Every now and then, a cloud drifts across the sky. That cloud is a thought. What we usually do is follow the cloud, which then changes into a different cloud, then we follow that for a while, and we never see the blue sky.
Instead, practice letting that cloud continue to drift – don’t stare at it, don’t follow it, don’t believe it’s true just because it appeared in your head. Simply look at it for a moment and let it pass. You can smile at the thought without believing it. Try asking yourself: “What is my next thought going to be?” This primes your mind to be very observant of itself. When a thought arrives, let it go, look at the sky again and wait for the next cloud to come.
The time that passes while there are no thoughts is what people call zen, stillness, mindfulness, enlightenment, or something else. It’s when you are perfectly alive, aware and alert, when your mind isn’t clouded by anything. You are clear, still and relaxed. These are moments when you are free of all the things that usually take up your mental space – your worries, your failures, your self-criticism. Sometimes, these moments won’t seem very significant, but still be relaxing. Other times, they’ll be extraordinarily relieving and feel like a blessing.
Another way to do this is to turn your attention to something without thinking about it. Most people think those two things are basically the same, but they aren’t. You can be aware of and pay attention to something without conceptually thinking about it or putting labels on it.
For instance, you could focus on your breath. Breathe slowly and deep into your belly (because it makes your heart beat slower than shallow breathing in your chest). You can focus on the air coming in your nose, the feeling of your belly expanding and contracting, or the overall sensation of inhaling and exhaling. If you breathe in a regular pattern, your heart will slow down more. Don’t think about breathing, just feel it.
Yet another thing you can focus on is the feeling of being alive. Put all your attention (not your thoughts) to your feet. Can you feel that there is life in them? You definitely feel there’s something there. Then try your hands or your lips. Gradually, you can expand this feeling, eventually sensing the aliveness of your entire body.
I find that regardless if I’m sweating, freezing, happy, afraid, in pain or anything else, this is always a relieving thing to do, and it anchors me in the here and now.
If you can’t concentrate very well, either on the blue sky or noticing that you are alive, don’t worry. You suck at it because you’re a beginner and that’s normal. Don’t let it discourage you. Over time, it’ll become easier for you and it’ll feel increasingly effective and pleasant. Whenever you notice that you’ve drifted away into thinking, gently realign your focus and bring it back to the thoughtless thing you were doing before.
This in itself is a great exercise. It teaches you that not all things are equally worthy of your attention. Every time you lose focus and bring it back, you are practicing your mental discipline and willpower. This is extremely handy, both for practical everyday purposes, such as ignoring your phone while writing an assignment, and for your greater goal, which is to eventually stabilize your mood and thoughts.
How You Meditate Is How You Live
Meditation, or becoming present to the moment, is not confined to the moments when you are sitting still with your eyes closed. You should try to do it as often as you can — when you’re listening to someone, when you’re trying to fall asleep, when you’re eating, and definitely when you’re having sex. It really makes all the difference and typically feels more fun.
Nor is it confined to sensations inside of yourself. I proposed earlier that you pay attention to the aliveness in your body. With time, you begin to feel it in other people, animals, things, and the empty space around you.
Pay attention to the wind in your face when you’re biking. Feel the water and smell the soap when you’re doing the dishes. When you’re walking, imagine that you’re kissing the earth with your foot every time it touches the ground. Slowly you will see that you are in everything and everything is in you.
The challenge of describing the “state” you can attain with meditation is that words seem to lose their meaning. Everything flows together and appears as a whole. You no longer categorize the world into separate objects, you don’t judge it as beautiful or ugly, good or bad. It simply “is”. You may still want to act upon the world or make changes in your life, but it will no longer be out of desperation, need or fear. It’ll be out of inspiration, love or uncomplicated enjoyment.
The wonder, awe and peace you feel is so grand and profound it seems folly to try to explain it with words. And the feeling is apparently so uncommon that the nouns we commonly use to describe it — salvation, bliss, enlightenment, freedom — all sound pretentious or cheesy.
But do not dismiss it as nonsense just because our language cannot properly convey it. Your inner flame has always been there, and always will be. It’s waiting for you come home. And when you finally do, you will never want to leave.
(All images by: Berli Mike)