How it all started
I was introduced to the concept of meditation from a good friend of mine, during a trip in Milan almost 3 years ago. We were discussing about his meditation practice, and how important it was for him, while trying to lead a more present and worry-less lifestyle. Positioning it in the context of self-improvement or kaizen drew my attention, and since then I have become more and more curious about this Eastern practice, meditating on and off for the past years.
My initial doubts were quickly reassured by the findings of several neuroscientists, more and more of whom become proponents of meditation and confirm its potential to reshape human brain, thereby positively influencing the way one thinks and acts. Although I am far from labelling myself as a daily practitioner or even close to logging 10,000 hours of practice, I definitely see benefits when I keep meditating often.
“A man is what he things, his character being by the complete sum of all his thoughts”
Learning to meditate
During these 3 years, in order to improve the way I meditate, I have read relevant books such as:
- Waking Up, Searching for Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris, a non-fiction writer, philosopher and neuroscientist.
- Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill by Matthieu Ricard, a molecular biologist turned Buddhist monk.
- Thoughts Without A Thinker by Mark Epstein, an author and psychotherapist, who integrates approaches from Buddhism and Freudian philosophies.
and have also followed bloggers and used meditation apps, even though I usually ended up listening to guided meditations from Jon Kabat-Zinn, Joseph Goldstein, Satya Narayan Goenka, Sam Harris, etc.
My schedule & practice
In my practice, the threshold that seems to make my thoughts become clearer and less noisy is around 3–4 times per week for about 10′-20′ per session. As with every habit, you won’t see any major changes unless you keep a steady pace and for me the transformative point was when I first started using a bullet journal, through which I began logging my sessions.
After trying different meditation styles, the ones that seem more applicable to me are practices of open monitoring meditation, such as Mindfulness and Vipassana. Instead of focusing the attention on one object for the whole session, the goal of these techniques is to monitor all experience aspects, without judgment or attachment. All perceptions, be them internal (thoughts, feelings, memory, etc) or external (sound, smell, etc) are recognised and seen for what they are. Hence, it is a process of non-reactive monitoring of the content of experience from moment to moment, without going into them. Furthermore, every now and then, I also introduce a Metta Meditation in my schedule, which is mostly oriented around feelings of gratitude and compassion.
Getting a grip on meditation
The attachment to internal thoughts and emotions was probably something extremely common during my first hours of meditation, along with the much more frequent wondering. Even though the mind inevitably wonders multiple times throughout the session and you get lost in thoughts, being able to immediately recognise this and return back to the present moment was probably the first “aha” moment in my practice; the moment when things started to make sense.
“In meditations thoughts come and go, but we do not serve them tea”
Every meditation session is unique in its own way, with different sensations, emotions, and thoughts passing through my awareness, some of which seem to be retrieved based on the duration of the session, mood, time of the day, the hours I have logged meditating overall. For instance, I have noticed there is a tipping point after spending 10’–15′ meditating, when my focus is tremendously increased.
In addition, through meditation, I better understood how my own monkey mind works and the different paths that it ploughs into, jumping from thought to thought. The types of thoughts that arise in my awareness throughout the sessions could be separated in the following categories:
- Worries about the future regarding upcoming moments that incur stress or anxiety.
- Thoughts, emotions, feelings about things I did today, yesterday, or even a few days ago. This certainly seems to be the majority of distractions during my sessions.
- Memories from the past, places I have been, things I have done, for which there is not always a clear reason why they have been retrieved.
- Creations of my unconsciousness, things that do not make much sense in reality.
Undoubtedly, the result of my meditation sessions is that usually, right after the Vipassana or Mindfulness practice, I feel more relax, present and experience moments of clarity. This state lasts for a few minutes and although it is certainly valuable, the gist of meditation lies deeper, as it is a gate to understanding how your own monkey mind works or how it is to ride on the back on the elephant.
“Like a rider on the back of an elephant, the conscious reasoning part of the mind has only limited control of what the elephant does. The rider can direct things, but only when the elephant does not have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, the rider is no match for him. Human rationality depends critically on sophisticated emotionality”
The main goal, which might seem very strange to those unfamiliar with meditation, is the idea of becoming the observer of your thoughts, your awareness, instead of the actual thinker. Understanding that the default mode of the mind is looking for what is wrong and that due to evolution our brain is hardwired for negativity, are the first steps towards realising the importance of being able to observe your thoughts and emotions, staying with whatever arises, understanding their impermanence and being able to intentionally shift your attention, focus and mood. Ultimately, there is a power to “switch off” any disturbing thought or emotion that might arise.
Therefore, meditation is not only a way to reduce the tempo of everyday life and getting off the train for a few minutes, but it is also one of the very few ways to understand and then, to a certain degree, achieve control over your internal world.
Originally published at medium.com