The Cure for What Ails Ya
I have to tell you about this new drug. It’s got no side effects, there’s an asston of studies showing its benefits on both mental and physical health, hell, it’s even been shown to be AS beneficial in treating symptoms of mild depression and anxiety as antidepressants. The only downside is that while you’re taking it you gotta sit still with your eyes closed for 5 minutes a day. Sounds amazing right?
But there’s a problem. Whenever I tell people about this wonder drug (and I tell everyone who will listen) for some reason, the response is always the same: “Eli…you don’t understand…my brain…is magic. It’s the only brain like it in the world. And even though this drug has worked for thousands of years for millions of people (have I mentioned it’s work for thousands of years for millions of people?) — even though it’s free (have I mentioned it’s free), and yes, even EASY — I just KNOW it won’t work for me so…I’m not going to try.” And if that response sounds absurd to you, you haven’t tried to convince someone to meditate.
That’s right. I admit it: I’m a cushion-sitting, eyes-closed, thought-clearing, one-with-the-universe meditator and it is the single best method for controlling my depression and anxiety I have. It’s also — and I don’t say this lightly — one of the best method for controlling depression and anxiety YOU have. In fact, scientifically speaking, it will make you kinder, better, happier, and healthier, so I’m dedicating an entire blog to convincing you — yes YOU…to try it.
First off, let’s talk about what meditation ISN’T. Meditation is NOT Buddhism. The meditation that I and 99% of other Western practitioners do is about as divorced from the religion of Buddhism as chocolate bunnies are from ancient Christianity. There’s no doubt one…somehow…inspired the other. But if you’re worried that down the road of meditation lie the 10,000 hells, I promise you, they don’t.
Meditation is ALSO not clearing your mind. As a practiced meditation I can understand where that mistake comes from, but describing traditional meditation as “clearing your mind” is about as useful as describing it as “waiting till your foot starts to itch.”
And finally, meditation is NOT a goal. It’s a method. Now, it’s a method for realizing some pretty kickass things. It’s a method for controlling emotions, minimizing depression, dealing with addiction, and even diminishing chronic pain, but meditation is not being able to PLAY the violin that is your mind perfectly…meditation is practicing the violin of your mind…and hopefully getting better at all the things that minds do as a result.
Ok, so what IS meditation? Now, I wanna take a moment to say that if you’re looking for instruction on meditation you will find no better guide than “Meditation for Fidgedy Skeptics” by Dan Harris. It’s clear, concise, secular, and deals with EVERYTHING that I will in this blog but with chapters of expert advice, not paragraphs of me, so grab it on Audible, download the app (yeah there’s an app), and tell ‘em Eli sent ya.
But since you’re here with me, I’m gonna take a crack at explaining what meditation is for ME, tell you how to do it, and give you a start to being happier.
As I understand it, meditation is about starting over. And, in realizing you’ve started over, gaining better control over the habits in your brain or, more specifically, noticing those habits and in noticing them removing their power and hold over you.
So how does it work? Easy. Sit in a chair, on a couch, or on a cushion on the floor. All you need is a place where you will be comfortable, where you can be still, and where your back will be straight. Lying down is a possibility (thought that tends to make you fall asleep; that said, if you find yourself falling asleep, maybe you needed a nap). Personally, I sit in a kitchen chair. You can sit with your eyes closed or open. Heath meditates with his eyes open, fixed on a spot that is about a foot in front of him on the floor. I meditate with my eyes closed. All these choices are about what makes it easiest for you to focus.
Focus on what? I’m glad you asked. The traditional (and my personal) object of focus is the breath. You pick a spot where it’s easy to feel your breath, without controlling or forcing yourself to breathe in any way that’s special, and you bring your attention to that point. It could be the movement of air in the nostrils, the rising and falling of the chest or belly, or maybe not even your breath at all. Many people use outside sounds, like traffic or nature. Others use feelings in the body. The feeling of your ass on the chair or cushion. The feeling of air over your hands. The feeling of your hands on your thighs. Pick something unchanging and easy to focus on.
For a lot of people, including myself, a “note” helps here. When you breath in, note, in your head, “in,” and when you breath out, note “out.” This prevents the moments a lot of new meditators have when confronted with the silence in their own head and the panicked inner monologue that comes with thoughtless silence. “Is this it? Am I meditating? Oh Jesus. Fuck fuck fuck. I’m bored. Other words that start with b. Bored. Boring. Boron. Borimir. Jesus, those movies were great. I gotta rewatch those…” ad infinitum.
So you’re sitting there focusing on your breath or whatever. Breathing in “in” and breathing out “out” and at some point you’ll notice you’ll drift off into thoughts. They could be fantasies, boredom, or if you’re me the ceaseless planning of workouts. And when that moment happens, as one of my favorite speakers on the subject, Jeff Warren, likes to say, do a cartoon double take and return to your object of focus. That’s it. That’s meditation. But in that moment of waking up from thoughts you are doing something monumental.
As Dan Harris, author of 10% Happier puts it, being inside a mind is a bit like sitting under a waterfall. Thoughts rush over you with abandon, pelting you, driving you under their weight and influence. Meditation is like stepping behind the waterfall. The thoughts are still there. You aren’t stopping them. But they, however momentarily, do not have quite as much control over you. Another example I like is that the normal mind, or “monkey mind,” as it’s often called, is like actors on the stage saying lines, singing, dancing, and planning workouts. Meditation is the split-second feeling of being the stage itself.
But here’s the tricky part: it is almost IMPOSSIBLE for me to convey how monumental this experience is to someone who hasn’t had it. Much like being told an orgasm is like a “happy sneeze” in health class. Descriptions of being behind the waterfall, or being the stage, etc. just aren’t going to cut it. It’s something you have to experience for yourself.
So that’s it. Get started. Go forth and sit still and breath. But before you go…some tips.
Go all the way. Actually sit and close your eyes and breath and full on MEDITATE before you modify with things like yoga, taking a walk, listening to music, etc. My wife practices violin a LOT. I mean a LOT. And as a result she has tendonitis. Sometimes when it’s bad enough she does “thought practice” where she imagines herself playing instead. There’s no question that thought practice helps. It’s good for when she can’t pull out her violin and her arms are tired, but it is not the same as her scales, tunes, etc. Meditation is the same way. Yoga, petting a puppy, and chilling out are AWESOME and you should take time for them but make time for your practice as well.
Give yourself a break. If you’re like me you’ll find your meditation can take on a stern TRYHARD flavor that can make meditation more an exercise of self-flagellation than anything else. Bring some friendly goodhumoredness to it. When you notice yourself lost in thought remember that’s the POINT of what you’re doing. Reward yourself. Be joyful. Or, as I did early on in my practice, keep score. In zero. Out zero. In zero. Out zero. I wonder what Kanye West does when his stomach hurts? Does he have like…a doctor in his house? Is there a celebrity doctor? Oops, thinking! Good job Eli. In…one….out…one…in…one…out…one. Etc. etc.
And finally, “note” your distractions. Try not to analyze or think about them, but name them. Anger. Return to the breath. Planning. Return to the breath. Boredom, fantasy. In my case, I give them little names. My anger is my temperous grandfather Ross Rosenberg. My planning is Schemer from Shiningtime Station. When these things arise, try to greet them with some friendliness and humor: “Hey Schemer. Thanks for stopping by, dude. Oh, hey Ross, I hear you but let’s go back to the breath.” Bringing this lightness to your “waking up” can be incredibly useful in making your practice better.
And the result? Well, there’s no better way to put this, but get ready for some woo: the result is that you train your conscious experience of the world. As you notice thoughts and habits, they have less power over you. As your thoughts have less power of you, your experience of the world changes and since THIS experience of the world is all you get, for all intents and purposes you are changing the universe. The ability to catch anger in the act makes the world attack you less and the ability to not spiral down a slide of depressive thoughts when something bad happens makes the world you experience a happier place. Add to that the incredibly radical act of thinking about thinking, of noticing the noticer, and the experience of a pure mind, and you have an excellent use of 15 minutes a day.
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