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The Purpose of Meditation and Why You Should Practice it
It’s to prepare you for the rest of your life.
Let’s first determine what meditation isn’t - misconceptions can be off putting. When I first started, along with many others, I believed that the goal of a meditation session was to stop thinking.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. That’s a ridiculous task due to the inherent nature of thought itself. More on thoughts later.
Meditation isn’t something that you do for 10 minutes and you’re done. What you practice in meditation permeates throughout the rest of your day - throughout the rest of your life. Mindfulness is what you get from practising meditation. When you apply the power of mindfulness to your daily life it becomes superpower unknown to much of the population.
Meditation isn’t something that you either can or can’t do. It is something that you practice. Which means when you begin, you’ll probably feel that you aren’t doing it right or you can’t do it at all. I view people who believe they can’t meditate the same way if they said they can’t run “Yeah I tried to go for a run the other day, but I just couldn’t” - what they mean by this is they ran a short distance, got tired and stopped. It’s not that they can’t run, it’s that they find it difficult. Everyone knows that with enough practice, bar some physical injury, they’ll be able to run for much longer than when they initially started.
Meditation is like this: everyone starts off by focusing their attention on the breath (running), then the mind wanders, as minds tend to do. They become caught up in thoughts instead of the breath (they stop running and start walking). They conclude that because they got distracted within a few seconds, they can’t meditate. Just like how they can’t run for 2 kilometres, they also can’t keep focus for an entire 10 minutes. But you’re not expected to.
Meditation is the practice of getting better at noticing thoughts when they arise. Note that this is different to ‘not thinking’. What you shortly come to realise, is how much you think, and it’s a lot. It’s mostly thinking without realising that you’re thinking. Meditation helps you realise that this is the standard mode your mind operates in, then by practising meditation you slowly attain the tools to break the chain of unwanted thoughts.
I do not experience road rage. Ever. If someone cuts me off, drives 40 when they could be going 60 or fails to indicate, I’ll shrug it off. It’s not that I don’t experience the negative emotions that arise, it’s that I choose to not engage with them when they do. I see no point in my day being ruined because somebody else made a mistake. This is mindfulness in practice. I never want the connection between my conscious mind and my actions to be severed which is what happens when you lose control, letting your thoughts and emotions run wild.
Whereas I know others who do the opposite. They let their negative emotions take over and as a result start driving more aggressively, putting themselves and others in danger all because someone pulled out in front of them when they shouldn’t have. I was with someone when this happened. Instead of slowing down like a normal person, they sped into the driver who pulled out, and then slammed on their brakes. It was terrifying. I’m still to this day unsure what the purpose of that was, but I knew that this was someone who was unable to regulate their thoughts, which in turn regulates their emotions (and vice versa). This person needs mindfulness in their life, desperately.
How to meditate:
If you don’t know what you’re doing when you attempt to meditate you’ll end up sitting for 10 minutes thinking the entire time.
If you’re new to meditation, the breath is the easiest thing to anchor your attention to. Feel your breath wherever it’s most prominent. This might be in the rising and the falling of the chest, the air going in and out of your nose or the movement of your shoulders or stomach. Feel these sensations as they arise and give them your full attention.
Within a few breaths your mind will be pulled away and your attention captured by thought. You might not even notice this has happened. You could be thinking for a few minutes before you realise that you’re meant to be meditating. This is where a guided meditation comes in handy - to gently bring you back when you’ve accidentally become lost in thought (there are plenty of these on YouTube). When you realise you’ve become distracted, bring your mind back to the breath. In and out. You’ll get distracted again shortly after, and that’s okay. It’s all part of the practice. There’s no need to judge yourself, if you have feelings of frustration or annoyance, just recognise those feelings as thoughts, and return to the breath.
You can have your mind open and meditate on anything that appears in consciousness, not just your breath. Take any physical sensations in the body - heat, pressure, discomfort - all of these can become objects of meditation. Different feelings will come and go, and your job is just to receive them with as much attention as you can. If you find yourself thinking about the sensations rather than just feeling them - start again. Let go of the thoughts and return your mind to your body.
That’s basically it. It’s a constant practice of bringing your mind back from being lost in thought and into the present moment.
You end up learning that you can meditate on anything. I enjoy meditating in busy cities. Hearing the flow and bustling activities of the cars and people around me. I’m not focusing my attention on any one sound, I’m just receiving everything as it comes. I’m being mindful of the sounds that appear in consciousness. Just like thoughts, they impinge on my conscious experience, then dissipate just as easily as they appeared.
Thoughts are conceptually complex, but practically simple. The first thing you should know about thoughts is that you have no control over them. This is actually the basis of my disbelief in free will, but that aside, have you ever had one of those nights where you simply can’t sleep? When your thoughts are keep you up and you’re unable to shut them off? Well, if you control your thoughts, why don’t you stop thinking them? You cannot help but incessantly talk to yourself in your head.
It’s almost easier to view the mind as an outside entity placing words, pictures, songs and memories into our heads and we are just forced to experience them. We don’t consciously create them as such, we are only there to witness them.
Meditation gives us the ability of mindfulness, which in turn let’s us regulate our thoughts to a far more serious degree. We can witness thoughts as they arise, watch them disappear and have peace of mind until the next one appears. Which will come soon enough.
In short, the skill that is gained from meditation is the ability to recognise when we are thinking, as most of the day we are thinking without realising that we thinking. This is an immensely important ability considering most of our waking selves are lost in a sea of thought, getting thrown around by anxieties about the future or past embarrassments. If we could simply calm the waters, which is what meditation teaches us how to do, then we can be happy and content in this moment.
And this moment.
And this moment.
And every moment that we find ourselves in.