I used to meditate a lot, like a lot. Like 1-2 hours a day, at the least, essentially every day. I maintained this for probably two years, and then, like so many other things, the practice kind of petered off. On occasions since, I've dabbled back into the practice, of particular note last summer when I flew a bit too close to the sun, as it were, by being to rigid in my practice--which actually resulted in an injury! I've started up again over the last month or so, and so I feel it's a good time to talk a bit about it.
Meditation is of profound use, I feel, based upon my experiences with it, and research backs this claim up. Indeed, outside of that lovely Forbes piece by Alice Walton (which links to a few research studies on meditation), it is discussed in rather glowing terms by psychologist Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis, where he compares the practice to a panacea that is available nearly for free--it requires literally only a small amount of your time, ten minutes a day having been demonstrated to be sufficient for significant benefits.
My personal experiences with thinking meditation would be good for people do not end at my own experiences with the practice. Literally daily I speak with people who almost certainly could benefit from taking up the practice (a free and easy claim to make since the research suggests it benefits everyone). I hear specific symptoms that are common and that the regular practice of meditation has had dramatic effects upon in my life, not limited to insomnia, being stressed out, difficulty concentrating, obsessive worry, and, surprisingly since it takes up some time to do it, feeling like there isn't enough time to do the things that "need" to be done. There's actually another, worse indication for the need to meditate, but I will reserve it for a moment.
First, after mentioning that meditation has helped with every one of those symptoms for me, sometimes with amazing efficacy, I want to qualify why I've put the word "need" in quotations there, indicating that I don't think it's really need to do most of what we perceive needs to be done. Why do I think that way? Meditation. Meditation, practiced well and regularly, has perhaps no greater power than to shift perspective on what is and isn't urgent, on what is truly important and thus on what can simply be let go of. Here, then, lies its seemingly magical power of taking up some of our time in exchange for feeling like we have far more of it. When we are able to achieve the benefit of meditation practice where we are able to let go of our preoccupation with that which "needs" to be done, suddenly it is as if there is simply more time in which to do things.
This benefit, for what it's worth, cannot be achieved by forcing it--which is true generally of meditation (a topic for a future essay, I think). While a decent meditation practice can be scheduled and even pressed into a box of time in a schedule, one simply cannot force the process of mental release required to achieve this particular benefit (which may be at the root of much of the benefit of meditation generally). To attempt to force it is to put it on the list of things to achieve which is to miss it entirely. Indeed, this is to fail at succeeding to meditate at all, although there are still benefits to quiet sitting and the simple reality that this difficulty will present itself at the start of essentially every meditation practice session except, perhaps, in cases of extreme development in the art. The challenge of meditation is in learning to let, not striving to do, but not-doing is harder than doing.
All of the last two paragraphs, just above, could be blossomed out into full-length treatments of their own (perhaps chapter-length, actually), and I will leave that for the present. It doesn't need to be done now, after all.
To return to the most pressing indication for the need to introduce meditation that I think I run into--and I run into it frequently--I'd like to mention when people tell me that they cannot meditate because they simply feel like they cannot be quiet with themselves for that long, that it will drive them crazy or that it gives them a sense of impending doom. This sounds like hyperbole on my part to say that it's common, but I probably talk to a different person at least once every two weeks who expresses this difficulty. Additionally, it is vastly more frequent for me to run into people (not just teenagers) who feel that they cannot live (or sleep, sometimes) without some kind of background noises from television, radio, or music going on.
For these people, the thought of sitting alone and in silence, even for a span as short as five minutes in some cases, is simply overwhelming. This is a profound sickness.
My usual advice is to start small and stretch, sitting quietly for maybe only a minute at a time, then later for two, then three, then five, and it seems to be successful in the relatively rare instances when it is tried. It suggests to me that we might also need to quiet some of the incessant barrage of noise that we feed into our lives, turning off televisions, radios, and even music (as glorious as it is) until we find some comfort in silence and lose trepidation about being along with ourselves.
If you meditate and want to share your thoughts about it, I'd love to hear them.
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