Some thoughts on meditation

As a reminder, the newsletter is an outlet for my thoughts as well as community stuff. If one in particular doesn’t resonate, feel free to read only the ones that interest you. Keep in mind, however, that the titling isn’t maintaining a journalistic standard and it doesn’t seek at all to give the full picture of what’s in the piece. Each letter can be entirely freeform and despite the title or main topic, may contain things relevant to your interests within it. This newsletter isn’t one of those, however. Also, this particular one cuts deeper into a perspective I’m still honing and trying to understand more through writing publicly and opening the avenue for feedback. It’s a perspective that’s subject to change and definitely may.

// disclaimer

Meditation is something I’d been introduced to as a kid. My dad had books lying around the house that made mention of it and as a result, the idea of it had always been with me.

But meditation practices come from all over the world and best practices are challenging for newcomers to cipher through. I’ve heard a stat that only ~8% of Americans have tried it. Compared to the ~52% of Americans that have smoked weed.

In general, I suspect for most people that there’s too much “ommmmm”, gongs, and mystical sounding BS to sort through. One person will say they practice meditation and it can be a completely different thing from another person you meet and additionally, the lessons derived from it can also be different. Although, I suspect that all these practices all share some similarities.

I don’t know all the styles and I haven’t taken the time to try all of them out.

But I do know some damn effective methods that if practiced consistently, will flip anyone’s life around and blow their mind at how profound of a practice watching the breathe is.

And that’s it, by the way. Watching the breathe. You can do it now without instruction. The only caveat is, it’s like trying to learn to box without an instructor. Your form will probably suck, you’ll constantly question if you’re doing it right, and progress can definitely be made in the wrong direction to where bad habits have to be unlearned.

Now, probably 5-6 years ago I started using Headspace and my understanding was that this practice promotes calmness, allows for more focus, grows compassion, etc. And it does. But this is a very layman understanding of what’s actually going on.

For instance, I struggled with the idea on how someone can meditate and still be rude afterwards. Though highly infrequent, I’d done it a small number of times: I wonder- how could this be, I’m meditating but still I can be inunderstanding?

Looking back on it, I began to see another element of what was actually taking place.

Because when I did operate out of inunderstanding after having practiced a bit of meditation, there was a small voice in the back of my head that grew louder and louder. Screaming at me, saying “DO BETTER, THERE’S ANOTHER WAY”.

Keep in mind, I’d been practicing using the Headspace app, and I highly recommend newcomers use the intuitive, secular, and well designed guided courses they offer.

But what Headspace doesn’t do is provide upfront information about the style of meditation they teach. You just happen upon insight as you practice daily.

Their whole coursework, mostly designed and structured by their founder and voice of the app Andy Puddicombe, is primarily based off of a style of meditation called Vipassana meditation. Also known as insight meditation. Anytime you hear the term “mindfulness meditation”, this is also what people generally refer to.

And now I realize that what I was actually growing unintentionally was awareness.

I’m someone who is hardcore “I need to see evidence of this working and I want to understand it inside and out” - I try my best to separate fact from fiction. There’s a hell of a lot of claims made by practictioners and I want to see it for myself. I want to see what the hype is about.

What has blown me away is that, meditation is a science if I ever saw one. It’s trial and error. No one says “just believe these words I say,” as they do in religious practices. Experienced meditators invite you to see it for yourself. Run the experiment, see if you get the results, see if it checks out. With meditation, you’re the scientist.

Depression tends to deal with the brain fixated on past events (which can’t be changed), anxiety tends to deal with the brain fixated on future events (which can’t be reliably predicted). The only answer lies in training the mind to be in the present even when we’re not meditating, which if the more skillful proponents of this are of any merit, are clear examples that this can and does happen often for those who seek to practice it.

A quick google search will bring up countless studies from around the world on the changes we’re beginning to see from looking at the brain, it’s a growing interest for the scientific community.

Neat sidenote, this guest article on Scientific American makes light mention of these changes and happens to quote a researcher studying mindfulness at Pitt.

When the brain continuously gets brought into the present, a lot of things happen that are almost entirely unexpected by the practitioner. This practice unhooks nearly every unhelpful thought pattern, given the time and intention. Emotions get regulated better. The brain is freed up more and more after having been binded to any passing thought that happened to hijack your mind for the hour/day/month/many years.

So all this ends up radically shifting the view of the practictioner in ways that are unrelatable to most people, it’s a profound understanding that gradually seems to build.

I’m still at the stage where I feel a petty frustration at the fact that most people compare meditation to other activities, like sports or making art or whatever. There are meditative-like states that these things can induce in short, fleeting moments. But I’d like to make it abundantly clear: mindfulness meditation in it’s awareness, growth, personal achievement, rest, happiness, purpose, etc. is in a league of it’s own. There is no comparison, this is the one practice that I and I’m sure plenty of more experienced meditators will readily tout every single time over any other self development activity - generally. And I say that because if you have a sore back, yoga might be the answer before meditation would be.

A word of caution: meditation is not to be used as a substitute for therapy/psychiatry/important medical things that requires professional attention.

If I were to describe what it’s done for me so far, it would probably be some of these things:

  • The majority of the time I’m pretty happy. Anxiety/sadness/etc is highly infrequent, and usually when they do pop up I know exactly the train of thought that got me there and I’ve got the confidence to bring myself out of it relatively quickly and in a healthy way that keeps the challenges in proportion. Which brings me to the next perk.

  • I bounce back from problems extremely quickly now, and process things very well.

  • I’m becoming increasingly proficient at bringing myself to the present moment even while I’m not meditating. Which means, I’m spotting when my brain gets away and what’s more, I’m learning that this rewards me with quite a lot of happiness and peace. A very beautiful place compared to the hell that can be thoughts that are extraneous and getting carried away. That’s many times how disorders like depression and anxiety develop, by the way.

  • My philosophic understanding of the world is changing, I look at the harm others do and see it as just more of the same pattern that our world is based off of. A large amount of suffering that largely isn’t the fault of “bad” individuals- both their environment and their biology brought them to take these actions. There is no bad. There also isn’t good. It just is, and it’s the result of our brains storytelling capability that often brings us to label things in such an inaccurate way. Also, to throw it out there casually; we have little reason to believe everything isn’t predetermined. Paradoxically, it would appear that we choose our actions and that they can change the future. We don’t need to dwell on this: the present moment is all we actually have, and it’s more than enough to bring us a peaceful and happy life.

  • My relationship to pain is slowly changing. Physical pain doesn’t affect me the same. I’m beginning to see pain as a teacher that I can look nonjudgingly at and learn powerful lessons that would ordinarily be ignored in favor of trying to distract from the pain.

  • Objective reality is more apparent. I recognize and accept suffering exists. Yet, I still feel joy. Both can coexist. Denial doesn’t change suffering’s existence, it just distracts the mind.

  • My understanding of the psychology of myself and others has skyrocketed. One conversation and if I do happen to manage to swing it into the right topics, I usually gain a pretty good understanding of where that person is in their understanding from the lessons they draw from their own experiences and how much awareness they may have of it. This is superficial as only so much can be communicated in a given moment and many things - from cultural norms, family values, and even just plain awkwardness or being preoccupied in the moment can bring people to say less than they’re thinking. Although you won’t often hear someone who works on cars say “that engine thingy” or use inaccurate language of the territory they work with and see everyday. But when we foster awareness, we’re aware of even this possibility in that moment as we’re socializing. And that is an added layer of complexity.

  • Things that I thought were problems, aren’t. One highly accurate comment I read in the comments section of a YouTube video of all places said, “meditation doesn’t give answers, it eradicates the question” - trust me, you have to see it for yourself to believe it, it’s common.

  • Pain is still mandatory. Suffering is definitely optional.

  • Varying degrees of uncertainty is also mandatory. And we can still be happy in the present moment.

  • Our attachments come attached with suffering: attach to anything or anyone and inevitably suffer. But there’s another option, we can still love without attachment. It’s a choice. Through practice and understanding we achieve this. (More on this in The Way to Love by Anthony de Mello)

  • Yes, the majority of people are rarely in the present moment. When they are, it’s usually during some sport or something that encompasses their whole focus. They call it “the flow” or “being in the zone”. It’s there for one moment, and then it’s gone. And they gain little insight from it, only temporary relief from their regular flurry of thoughts as which come right back right after their done with that activity.

These are just some of the realizations, it would take a library for me to speak on just how profound this seemingly subtle shift is. But I save the biggest for last.

The biggest thing is that my understanding has completed shifted because of the concept of metacognition. You have it, and you’re familiar with it. Although we can often get lost and forget we are bigger than just a series of reactions our bodies generate. Let me give you a fictional example to illustrate this.

I go to the store and someone cuts me in line. “How dare they cut me in line!” I start to feel anger and decide to start an altercation. We exchange harsh words before the line cutter storms out of the store. “Serves him right, what a moron. The nerve of some people.”

That person 1) may not have been aware of their actions 2) even if they were aware of their actions, there are only a few main possibilities:

Either they do this out of convenience, which is a lack of consideration for others, and they are perhaps mindlessly unaware of the impact this particular action has on others. Which will likely lead to them suffering.

Or, they are hurt because of something that’s not quite right with their own life. Which means, they are already suffering.

Or, pathologically their brain is wired for unsocial behaviors. Which, is no fault of their own.

Or, it was entirely an accident and they didn’t notice.

Ultimately, there is nothing compelling to get angry at in this scenario. The argument for asserting respect (which deals with societal status) has a little bit of merit given the right circumstances if the affected individual values their position and sees the infraction against them as potentially damaging, but in the majority of cases this isn’t necessary and even that doesn’t require anger to address.

Now let’s bring in metacognition.

I go to the store and someone cuts me in line. “Oh, someone cut me in line. I’m feeling a little bit of anger bubbling. This person might not have been aware that I was in line, it does look like I’m a little further back. Is it necessary to feel anger? Probably not, we’re talking a difference between a minute or two and I don’t have the full picture and it’s probably not worth making a scene over.”

Do I need to explain the vast difference between these two understandings?

One is overly identifying with their thoughts, thinking people are doing something to hurt them. It’s all about them: it’s ego at play. The other appropriately identifies the encounter and responds accordingly.

This is the difference between reaction and response. I once heard Zig Ziglar give this example: when a doctor says, “Your body is reacting to the medication” - that’s almost always bad, isn’t it? But when a doctor says “Your body is responding to the medication”, that’s usually very good.

Which reminds me, stoicism is a popular school of thought filled with suffering people. I couldn’t put my finger on it before, but I’m realizing that the majority of stoic philosophy is incomplete because there is no emphasis on meditation, only an emphasis on thought. Which, it may sound unintuitive, but the majority of thought leads to more suffering. So even through their acute observations, they lack true understanding. Except perhaps Marcus Aurelius.

It’s a philosophy of contrast: subject yourself to these really suckish circumstances and don’t allow yourself to enjoy the fruits of the world - and do this regularly - so that way nothing can be taken from you because your mind will be tempered and you don’t overly value the positive things.

Which is only half the story. Just like hedonism.

Now, I’ll say a bunch of stuff that may seem negative but are essential truths that I suspect have to be accepted in order to actually feel peace. Because most of us spend our entire time denying these- subtly or blatantly. These are only my observations and the things I’ve learned from a hodgepodge of teachers and writings.

  • The world is impermanence.

  • Our universe appears to unbiased in hosting what seems to be eternal suffering - not only is it bad, it’s likely of far far greater magnitude than we imagine and it’s entirely out of our control. Again, this has to be accepted otherwise we’ll just continuously be surprised when we inevitably see suffering again. Once this is understood on an unconscious level (like how when we practice sports, we gain unconscious understandings of it) it no longer will make us suffer just knowing it.

  • The reason we have money, government, religion, and society are because of an extra layer of brain we have as humans which is capable of creating a fictional reality. Animals live in objective reality: if you give a dog a $20 bill, it will appropriately catalogue it as paper with no value and/or chew it up. More on this can be learned about from the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, I recently watched a lecture he gave and it was very intriguing.

That same fictional reality capability creates real suffering for us because it lets us buy into stories and concepts that aren’t real. For instance, “my house, my car, my friend” - all entirely illusions of possession. You’re experiencing these things, yes. You don’t own them.

Now, these words I write may promote negative feelings to those reading them because these attachments make up most of what all of us know and we are quick to defend them. We buy into these realities and believe in them strongly because it’s all we know, and the unknown can often generate anxiety within us. Anything that threatens the objects of our attachments causes the brain to generate negative feelings, causing us to suffer especially when we seek to break previously established patterns.

But if these outer things were actually ours, they couldn’t be taken. One of the stoic philosophers - Epictetus, a former slave of 2,000 years ago who wrote the “Enchiridion” - made special note to mention this as well, in the following line:

Never say of anything, "I have lost it"; but, "I have returned it." Is your child dead? It is returned. Is your wife dead? She is returned. Is your estate taken away? Well, and is not that likewise returned? "But he who took it away is a bad man." What difference is it to you who the giver assigns to take it back? While he gives it to you to possess, take care of it; but don't view it as your own, just as travelers view a hotel.

I’ve always seen wisdom in these writings that were clearly ahead of their time in the way they interpreted reality. Yet, the pessimistic barebones nature of it all made me feel no better. In fact, I’d feel much worse having read their writing. Not just short term worse, long term worse.

I need to emphasize, these are incomplete explanations that don’t factor in the nonsuffering that can be found in the present moment. Yet, this is the philosophy that gets upheld and praised by respected young writers like Ryan Holiday, although plenty of his works I do appreciate.

I’m not a fan of pessimism as a guiding life philosophy, it’s a bunch of BS and a form of “logical suffering”. All that said, I understand part of the context that birthed it. And I still think it’s understandable and valuable. A large part of it’s pop-like relevance in internet culture, I think, is driven by capitalism and a growing fraction of young men who lack guidance in the turbulent times of the (mis?)information age.

All in all, I recommend everyone establish a regular mindfulness meditation practice. It’s a gift that keeps giving.

These are some of the thoughts I felt like sharing this particular moment. Good morning!