I hadn’t known much about Buddhism and meditation, not more than people usually in the Western world: it is some strange, distant, abstract religious kind of thing, that is very different from mainstream western religions. Oh yes, and when someone meditates, he is sitting still for a longer time, and becomes very calm, and won’t be worried and bothered and interested in anything. And that it is not that much about some kind of God, but it is about something else, whatever it is. Oh, and there is reincarnation as well, which I think is complete nonsense. I think this was all I knew about it.
Still, somehow, for some misterious reason, I’ve always felt that meditation and Buddhism is not something stupid. It always made some sense to me, although I had barely known anything about it, and although there are lots of other misterious things, like astrology or esoteria, that doesn’t make any sense to me at all. Buddhism has always been attractive to me, I had this secret voice in my head that told me I should get to know more about it, because it holds precious jewels for me.
Every few years I took the effort to dig a little deeper into it, but it always turned out to be a dead end. I started reading about Buddhism on wikipedia, but I didn’t seem to get anything important and interesting, only some vague principles, and of course the history of it, about which I care very little. Then I bought a few books some other time, but I threw them away after the first chapter, because I found some annoying nonsense and arguments with logical tumbles, that I simply couldn’t accept with my mathematics and since-trained brain. So I’ve always given it up after a while, but the voice in my head seemed to be steady, and didn’t want to quiet. So I told myself (and to the voice), that time will come, but it has surely not come yet.
And then, finally, about a year ago, something happened, without me really looking for it. I started therapy with a psychologist, because I had some minor issues in my relationship (this was before the diagnosis of my father). It was only a couple of sessions, not much and nothing deep really. He recommended me to read a few books of Jon Kabat-Zinn, because it might help me to learn to relate to the world in a different way, and be a little more relaxed. First I started with two of his books: Wherever You Go, There You Are and Full Catastrophe Living.
A completely new and unknown world opened up it front of me, just as I always felt it will happen. I knew it, like the voice promised me. A world that changes everything I knew before. And now it all made perfect sense, it is all perfectly logical and coherent for me, without any bullshit, without unproven religious beliefs, without reincarnation, without telepathy, esotery, higher powers, without any magic, and yet all wonderfully magical. Unlike the books I had read before (maybe I had just read the wrong books), Jon Kabat-Zinn explains it with perfect clarity, deliberately for western people to understand, written by a western scientist. His goal was exactly to introduce this unknown and unfamiliar world to the Western world. It is pure science, pure psychology, built with scientific thoroughness, and everything in it is observable, measurable, and comprehensible.
What is meditation to me
But what is this all about? A great many people have already defined and described before me what meditation is. Nevertheless I make an attempt to describe, what it means to me now. (I find it very likely that this meaning will change with time.)
Meditation is the same to my brain, what sport is to my body. Meditation is a practice, a tool, that helps me know better about what is going on in my mind, and in my body as well: my thoughts, my feelings and my bodily sensations. With that I not only understand better what is going on inside me or why I do what I do, but also have the chance to step away from my thoughts and feelings, and act more consciously, not on auto-pilot, according to my deep (and usually unknown) thoughts and feelings.
This sounds simple and pretty cool. The concept itself is indeed very simple, but at the same time it is very difficult. And what I find inside… Oh boy, that is very very complicated.
So how does it look in practice? Actually, it is all about practice, and the practices are fairly simple. You sit on a chair or on the floor, or just lie down somewhere and don’t do anything else, but concentrate on one thing, for example on your breathing. Then you keep doing this for some time, say for 10 minutes. This excercise sounds very simple, and it indeed is. There is no secret, no trick, no magic.
However actually doing it, actually sitting still for 10 minutes, keeping the focus on my breathing, it can be extremely challenging for me. I start paying attention to my breathing, and in the next moment I realize that 5 minutes passed, of which the last 4 and a half minutes was spent thinking about my work, and I had completely forgotten that I was meditating at all. Other times I am flooded by feelings or memories. It also happened that I had strong nausea, and I had no clue at all where it had come from. I frequently got the feeling that I am unable to stay still, because my body goes crazy about it and tenses. Sometimes I just can’t take it anymore and have to stop. Another time after 30 minutes of meditation I had to acknowledge that I had barely spent a few minutes actually focusing on my breathing.
All this was so difficult for me, that very soon I started neglecting it, and kept on reading books about it instead, because I wanted to know more and more about this new world. But actually doing it, well, I just didn’t feel like. No matter how many times have I read that without practice it is completely useless, I am this kind of “theoretical” guy. After a while I tried a few other types of meditation, like walking meditation and yoga. Simply at home, with audio guidance that I downloaded. In walking meditation for example, the excercise is just to walk as slow as possible, one foot after the other, and try to pay attention to every little detail of every single move, watching every muscle contraction and release. Yoga is something similar, where you do simple body movements while paying attention to your breathing and all the various sensations in your body. These excercises suited me better, I found them quite enjoyable sometimes, and I felt myself less restless, maybe because my body was in motion continuously.
Even if the practice is quite difficult and very boring sometimes, the effects I experience are quite convincing. Especially because I have so much difficulties, and I imagine how much more benefits I’ll experience once I will be “better” in my practice. How different will I be when I will be able to sit still for an hour? I’ll see the world pretty differently for sure.
Let’s see now what (measurable) benefits does meditation have, based on Kabat-Zinn’s books:
- Reduces stress: I can certainly confirm that
- Slows down aging: well, I don’t know about it first-hand, but maybe
- Teaches you to value and enjoy life better
- Makes you feel more connected to others: I definetely feel this
- Expands your attention: it surely does expand mine
- Strengthens your immune system, makes you healthier: well, maybe
- Improves sleeping: I had trouble sleeping recently, and meditation certainly helped me
- Stimulates brain functioning: I have no measure for that
- Makes you happier: a little bit, yes
The opening of this world in front of me makes me feel much better, it gives me a tool and a hope, that with this tool I might be able to change my life profoundly, I might be able to discharge my feelings and frustrations, and it might be that I won’t be the toy of my feelings any more.
When you meditate – based on the instructions – you should try attain these attitudes, what influences other parts of your life as well:
- Non-judgement: in my experience my mind does nothing but judging all the time. It assigns labels to everything, classifies things as “good” or “bad” without any intermediate category. This is a very important and useful feature of my brain, but sometimes it might be beneficial to turn itt off, but I am not really able to do that
- Patience: I think this is the one thing in which I have improved a lot already, thanks to my practice
- Beginner’s mind: oh, this one is also very difficult for me, there is a lot to do about this
- Trust (in yourself and in your feelings): well, I definetely have trust issues, especially about my feelings
- Non-striving: I spent my life performing all the time, performance was my religion, I was always good, and tried to be even better. I always set up goals, and then measure my performance towards them. Meditation is so different, with no goals… I think it can teach me a lot about this…
- Acceptance: I think this is my single most difficult obstacle, that I am really unable to accept things I am unable to change. I want to change everything, then I go crazy, if things turn out to be unchangeable
- Letting go: letting go of things, instead of holding on to them, letting thoughts and feelings come and go by themselves. This is so strange and unfamiliar for me, just like acceptance
What I can’t understand (yet)
This new world holds a lot of questions for me of course. There are things I can’t really understand or find contradictory. Like I can’t really accept that meditation has no goals. Then why am I doing it? There are better and more pleasurable ways to spend my time. Why should I torture myself with it? And what is wrong with goals? Acceptance means to me that I won’t have wishes and desires anymore. I don’t want to get rid of my desires! What is the difference between acceptance and letting go? And many more questions…
I hope I’ll find my answers along the way…