Saint Teresa of Ávila once wrote about the most difficult challenge during meditation. It wasn’t sitting still, or avoiding distractions, or any of the other numerous things that make meditation hard. Instead, she posited, the hard part was to not stir up the intellect.
“Once the mind begins to compose speeches and dream up arguments,” she cautioned, “especially if those arguments are clever, it will soon imagine it is doing important work.”
I have to admit, during meditation today my mind very much believed it was doing important work. As I sat in half lotus on my cushion this morning, it was practically cartwheeling with possibilities — thumbing through my mental thesaurus, recalling specific anecdotes (in other words, precisely what Saint Teresa would call “composing speeches” and “dreaming up arguments”).
It was very busy, you see, writing this blog post.
As a matter of fact, I’ve wanted to write a blog post about meditation for… ohhhh, give or take… seven years.
Something always stopped me, though. Sometimes it was Catholic guilt. (While my practice has been largely secular, Eastern spiritual rituals carry a certain taboo in Christian circles. What if my family calls me a heathen?) Other times I became wary of my own soapbox. (If people want to meditate, they’ll meditate! I don’t have to jam it down their throats.) Lots of times it was my lifelong companion, imposter syndrome. (Who am I to write about meditation? I’ve been practicing for a couple years, I’ve read a couple books. So has half of America, Sooz, take a seat.)
And yet, here I am. Because it turns out we meditators often can’t help but be evangelists.
Case in point: I was introduced to meditation years ago by the CEO of a company that had seen astronomical overnight success. At a panel event in Portland, he was asked what advice he would give to budding young business leaders. “I don’t know about business leaders,” he said, “but the best advice I can give to any human being is to meditate. Nothing else has made a more meaningful difference in my happiness, my relationships, and my mental health.” Seeing the audience tilt their heads at this revelation, he continued, “I know. Believe me, I’m the last person I would ever expect to say that. But if you’re even a tiny bit curious, PLEASE, please, try it. I’m begging you. It’ll change your life.”
Several years later, I took a class on intercultural communication — and the professor made a meditation book required reading. He seemed joyfully unconcerned that it had almost nothing to do with the subject matter, even admitting in the syllabus, “This book may not seem immediately relevant to your assignments, but it is the single most impactful thing I can give you in this course. Give it a chance and it will change your life.” He even went so far as to add a footnote at the bottom of the page: “(No joke.)”
Neither of these people were experts on meditation. Neither were asked their opinion about mindfulness or Eastern tradition or even their morning routine. They both had limited airtime (on a panel stage and in a course curriculum) with very non-meditation-related intent. And still, both saw their platform as an opportunity and took it, to impart the most important piece of wisdom they’d learned… the most surefire way to change people’s lives.
And now, I suppose, it’s my turn. I’m finally sitting down to write a blog post about how meditation will change your life.
I’ll start by saying that I know this isn’t exactly a revelatory suggestion. This isn’t the 70s anymore. I’m not ~rocking anyone’s world~ talking about the benefits of sitting quietly every day. Most people have at least a passing acquaintance with meditation; maybe they’ve even done some ohming themselves. But usually, when I talk to people about it, they say, “Yeah, I tried that once. It didn’t really do anything for me.”
And this is where I start to sound like a friend recommending a TV show: “No way, man, you gotta give it another shot. It takes a few episodes to get into it, but I promise after Season 1 it gets soooOOOoooo good!”
So, I’m sorry to be that friend… But you really should give it another shot. Because it really does get soooOOOoooo good.
Before that, though… it sucks. A lot.
Here’s an example of what I mean: The first and only time I’ve ever lived with a boy, he was a big sports fan… which meant that for several years, the soundtrack to my breakfast every morning was SportsCenter.
If you’re unfamiliar with the ESPN show, they’ve mastered the art of capturing their audience’s attention: the main attraction is usually two pundits sitting behind a desk, talking about the sports-related news of the day. But that’s not all: On the bottom of the screen is a rolling ticker of scores and headlines. And on the left-hand side of the screen, they have a list of upcoming topics — so that if a topic that interests you is upcoming, you’ll stick around… even if they’re currently talking about, I don’t know, Bulgarian ice hockey.
All of the text is constantly in motion. You get seasick trying to stay on top of it all, while also listening to the actual show. The first time I ever watched it was complete sensory overload.
“Where do you look?!” I demanded of my boyfriend. “How do you focus?!”
…This is exactly what it was like in my brain when I first tried to meditate.
Phase one of meditation traditionally starts with “directed awareness.” Our monkey brains want desperately to swing from limb to limb, throw feces, and howl, so we have to tame it with focus. The easiest way to do this is to focus on the breath — on the way the air feels flowing through our nostrils, or the rise and fall of our chest. It’s the cognitive equivalent of giving the monkey a mountain of pebbles and saying, “Here. Move these, one at a time, into a new pile.”
That sounded easy enough. I’m an asthmatic, after all. Focusing on my breath is about the only skill I can claim in this life. So, I focused on my breath. In, out. In, out. In, out.
But quickly, I became impressed with my own ability to focus on the breath while also swinging from limb to limb. It was like my breath was the ticker at the bottom of the SportsCenter screen: it’s happening, see? In, out. I’m naming it, see? In, out. I’m focused on it, see? In, out. But ALSO, those Bulgarian figure skaters…
My brain had so much going on. There was the constant repetition of “in, out” in the background of all my thoughts… but also somehow a primary narrative of thoughts and maybe two or three other secondary narratives. And memories. And anxieties. And fantasies. Also, somehow, music was playing. My monkey brain would swing through these like it was an Olympic sport, and it would be 20 branches ahead of me before I remembered that I was supposed to be meditating.
Oh, right. In, out. In, out.
Meditating is hard, man. I wonder if it’s harder for me than it is for other people. Does that mean I have less self-control? Less discipline? Am I less enlightened than people who can meditate easily? Or is it maybe a good thing? Like I’m more… cerebral or something? Maybe I won’t achieve enlightenment, but I can still build a mean Excel spreadsheet.
Oops — in, out. Iiinnn, ooouuuttt.
And so on.
That “oops” moment, by the way, is what journalist and meditation enthusiast Dan Harris calls the “bicep curl” of meditation: realizing the mind has wandered and returning to the breath. It happens to everyone, he assures us, even seasoned Tibetan monks… but becomes less frequent with practice. That’s the first goal of meditation: to close the gap between the wandering and the returning.
That first phase looks different for every meditator. Those with a naturally tranquil mind may skip right past it; others find it to be the most challenging obstacle.
…Take a wild guess where I fall on that spectrum.
But I did move past it. The most helpful metaphor I’ve found here comes from world-famous meditation teacher Pema Chödrön — who likens meditation to training a dog to “stay.” (This is hardly a metaphor, since you’re quite literally asking your mind to sit quietly amidst distractions.) You can train the dog by beating it and yelling at it, she explains, and perhaps it will learn the command… but it will also be neurotic and scared. Or, you can be kind to the dog — gently steering it back when it forgets.
Similarly, you can be gentle with your mind — even when it constantly wants to revert to Bulgarian winter sports. It isn’t failing, it doesn’t deserve to be reprimanded. It just hasn’t learned how to focus yet. In, out. In, out. This approach, this compassionate motivation to yourself, has a word in Sanskrit: it’s called maitri, or “loving kindness.”
This is how my meditation practice progressed. I learned how to think of my brain as a goofy, frolicking puppy with its tongue lolling out of its mouth. Sure, it’s constantly pulling on the leash and bounding into the woods… but it’s my friend. It means well. I just need to train it.
Come here, Brain. Sit. Stay.
Then, once your mind can stay, you can move from “directed awareness” (focusing on the breath) to “open awareness” (or, focusing on…. everything. Or to be slightly more specific, mindful presence of everything). This is the second goal of meditation: to stabilize the mind enough to be present in the here and now. The Sanskrit term for this is shamatha, or “calm abiding.” In other words, settling into the present moment regardless of what’s happening. Sometimes that means you’re anxious, or bored, or there’s construction noise outside, or your stomach is growling. For me, it often means puppies (literal puppies, that is — not the metaphorical puppy living in my head) prancing and pawing at my knees.
But you abide all of it, calmly, because it’s part of the present experience. And, in fact, the point of the experience: to watch the ever-changing nature of your mind and what catches its attention.
Watching your mind may be a foreign idea to some, but I’m reminded of something my therapist said to me once, when I told her (choking between sobs, naturally) that I was afraid.
“No, you’re not.”
The shock of that simple response yanked me out of my emotions for a moment. A tear might well have skidded to a halt on my cheek. “Uhh… I promise you, I am.”
“You feel afraid. You are experiencing fear. But you are not your thoughts and feelings, and they are not you.”
My therapist didn’t make this up. To quote spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle: “You are not your mind.”
This bothered me at first. My thoughts, my beliefs, my memories, my emotions, my values are exactly who I am… aren’t they? But that’s just your ego talking. Former Google engineer and mindfulness author Chade-Meng Tan put it well when he said, “If my emotions are who I am, then there is very little I can do about it. However, if emotions are simply what I experience in my body, then feeling angry becomes like feeling pain in my shoulders after an extreme workout; both are just physiological experiences over which I have influence.”
In this way, I’ve been able to remove myself somewhat from the things that happen in my brain. Thoughts and emotions still arise, but I can observe them from a distance. “How interesting,” I can say, like a wilderness explorer viewing a wild animal through her binoculars. “Watch how she swings from limb to limb. Watch how she rearranges those pebbles.”
Because that’s the next phase, by the way: Once you’ve mastered focus, and can observe the mind without being swept up along with it, you begin to notice patterns. You’ll find that the monkey isn’t quite as chaotic as you once thought. In fact, it swings predictably through all the same routes… over and over and over. The branches are almost completely bare, worn down from overuse.
This, say the meditation teachers, is the next generous gift of practice: Vipassanā, or put simply, “seeing things as they really are.” It’s a comfort to see your mind exactly as it is, rather than getting swept up in the stories it tells. That way, if you can’t overcome your unproductive patterns, you can at least become better acquainted with them.
Canadian author and meditation teacher Jeff Warren has a useful phrase for identifying those patterns: “This is the part when.”
Now, when my monkey mind starts reaching for a well-worn branch, I know what to expect. “Ahh,” I say. “This is the part where I brood over that mistake I made. This is the part where I magnify that mistake into a judgement about my character. This is the part where I try to convince myself I don’t deserve happiness.” It’s like re-watching the same movie over and over. The stressful scenes may still be difficult, but at least you have a general sense of where it’s headed. It doesn’t sweep you away like it used to.
Or, as Chade-Meng Tan puts it in engineering terms: “If I can understand a system so thoroughly that I know exactly how it fails, I will also know when it will not fail. I can then have strong confidence in the system, despite knowing it’s not perfect.”
If you can train your mind to focus, then you can learn to be present in the moment. If you can be present in the moment, then you can start to observe your thoughts and emotions without being absorbed by them. If you aren’t absorbed by them, you can start to notice patterns. Once you understand your patterns, they can no longer command your life.
We spend so much of our life flailing between desire and aversion, either squirming away from some uncomfortable distress or flopping hungrily toward ever more pleasure. (Humans are hardly unique here, by the way: if you pass your hand over a petri dish containing a tadpole, the tadpole will cower and hide from your shadow.)
But as humans, we have the unique ability to overcome this evolutionary design flaw. We have the ability to sit still (literally and metaphorically), even in the shadow. To overcome our squirming and flopping and flailing in favor of a more lasting and meaningful experience. The Buddhists call this upekṣā, or “equanimity,” complete balance of mind.
To return to Saint Teresa of Ávila and her caution against clever-seeming thoughts: On the other hand, she said, if a prudent meditator can successfully suppress those thoughts, “it is a glorious bewilderment, a heavenly madness, in which true wisdom is acquired.” (And if it is madness, she says, “I beseech you, Father, let us all be mad!”)
For the first time in seven years, I’m imploring anyone reading this to give meditation a try (or another try), because it’s the best possible advice I can impart on the world. Maybe you’ll tame your monkey mind — or at least make friends with it like a goofy dog. Maybe you’ll find tranquility. Maybe you’ll notice patterns. Maybe you’ll make peace with the light and the shadow enough to remain still and present for both. Maybe you’ll reach a glorious bewilderment, a heavenly madness, and true wisdom.
…Or if nothing else, maybe sitting quietly for a few minutes every day will just feel kinda nice.