“Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”
— Joe Louis
In Part II of this article series, when we visited the village of your brain, we explored a few of the interesting (and annoying) functions of our brains, and we saw how the prefrontal cortex is a double-edged sword. It gives us the ability of complex reasoning, while simultaneously being responsible for our blundering fears and worries.
We also touched upon how meditation can change those brain functions and how it’s important in decreasing rumination and negative thought. And now it’s time to dig deeper…
The Secret to Peaceful Living? Die Before You Die!
Wait, wait, it’s just a metaphor! (Please untie that noose and come sit with us.)
“Die before you die” is an old Zen saying, and it’s not as pessimistic or gloomy as it sounds. Let me explain…
Dying here means transformation—the metaphorical killing of the old, negative patterns, to come face-to-face with our own suffering and difficult emotions, and to drop our obsessions.
As it turns out, meditation is one of the ways you can bury your old self and create a new one. Buddhist monks and Zen masters have known for years that meditation can reduce anxiety and depression; they just didn’t know how it works. Fortunately for us, scientists now can explain the positive effects of meditation (some of which we mentioned in our previous article).
But despite all the benefits, we rarely commit to regular practice. Daily meditation is really simple and takes only a few minutes, so why don’t we all do it more often?
Roadblocks to Regular Meditation
Many people have the idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing (boring!).
They assume it means being completely unaware of the noise coming from the inside of their heads. And when they can’t shut the thoughts off, they assume they’re doing something wrong and give it up altogether.
But that’s not what this is about. Meditation involves active training of the mind to get to a state of relaxed contemplation. The very word contemplation means “to gaze.” Its goal is to peer into one’s self, and into the world as a whole, by means of awareness that transcends our intellectual capabilities.
Meditation can be challenging and difficult for many reasons:
- First, because we begin to realize that we cannot fully control our minds. Mental chatter is a valid aspect of everyday thinking, as the mind jumps form one subject to another. It’s wrong to think that it will ever stop completely.
- Second, because we are compelled to face ourselves without any filters. One common challenge that we all face in meditation (new and old meditators alike) is that we all seek peace of mind, but we don’t want the rough part, to go through all the restlessness and worrisome thoughts. That is very aspiring, but the only way to peace is to sit through the chaos.
Meditation is sitting through whatever is going on in your life and inside your head. It’s true that “whatever is going on” doesn’t always feel so great, and those difficult emotions alone could send us running away from the meditation cushion. But what adds insult to injury is when we develop some kind of logic to our resistance to meditate, like…
“It’s not going to work.”
“I’m a wreck and beyond fixing.”
“I’m not the kind of person who can sit still.”
Again, meditation is a process. It’s not something tangible that we can grasp. The core of the meditation practice is to accept and let go, over and over again—to make contact with whatever comes to the surface (the unhealthy habits, our attachments to certain outcomes, and the hold they have over us).
The aim is to realize that we are not our thoughts. And the goal is to detach ourselves from our false beliefs. Acceptance and letting go don’t come overnight—they come with regular practice. In other words…
Practice Makes Perfect
To gain an understanding of our expectations and goals, even if they’re not all achievable, is the first step in meditation. Setting goals to reconnect to yourself, to become aware of certain thinking patterns and physical responses to certain people and situations, and to accept people’s different ways of being and behaving are great ones to start with.
Most importantly, set a goal to keep coming back to that cushion every day, whether you like it or not. Eventually you will become more flexible and tolerant of life’s challenges.
Think of it like a medicine. You may not always like the taste, and your body may take time to get used to it, but nonetheless it’s essential to your well-being.
But what kind of medication (or meditation) should you take? Well, you probably can’t go wrong with…
There are many types of meditation techniques out there, but mindfulness is one that’s consistently showing really big upside. According to psychologists, it doesn’t involve only one single skill, but rather it’s a multi-faceted mental practice that encompasses several mechanisms. So let’s break it down real quick…
There are four components to mindfulness that account for its effects: regulating attention, emotions, body awareness and sense of self.
What happens in mindfulness is that, when we direct our attention to our bodies, it helps in turn to recognize the emotions we’re experiencing. In short, these components help us attend to and deal with our mental and physical stresses in a relaxed, non-judgmental way.
How to Start
Here are simple steps you can take right now to practice mindful meditation:
- Assume a comfortable position on a flat surface or on a chair with your back straight.
- Ask yourself: “What am I experiencing right now?”
- Pay attention to any anxious thoughts or emotions, try to pinpoint where you feel them in your body, and label the emotions (anger, frustration, impatience, boredom, etc.).
- Allow yourself to acknowledge whatever you’re experiencing without judgment or trying to change it.
- As you continue, pay attention to your breathing and the sensations of each breath as it goes in and out. If thoughts interfere, simply take a mental note of them and shift your awareness back to your breathing and the gentle movements of the belly. Just let your thoughts pass by, as if you’re observing leaves fall from a tree one by one, or witnessing the waves of the ocean.
- Then, expand your awareness to your whole body. If you feel fear or worry, say to yourself, “This is alright, it’s just an anxious thought,” or “I am not my thoughts.” Just allow yourself to let it be, accept it, then let it go. You can even say, “let go” with every exhalation.
- Continue to do so for 10-15 minutes, then try to extend the time by 5 more minutes every week. You will discover that, as one day builds on another, you’re able to detach yourself from these automatic responses and easily master calmness in each moment.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Travis May