I started meditating when I was 21. When I was in Kathmandu, Nepal, I bought a copy of Kathleen McDonald’s How To Meditate at a bookstore in Thamel and read it. I had visited Boudha, a stunning Buddhist stupa in Kathmandu, earlier on my trip and felt a strong connection to the chanting monks and the spherical, skyward wonderment of the Buddha eyes and tower.
I read through the book, finishing it upon my return to America where I began to meditate on some folded pillows, beginning a long journey into the present day. It’s taken time but now I’m a daily meditator–somewhere between 30 minutes to an hour a day– and I have also attended several mediation retreats in my life. This morning I was thinking about how meditation has helped me and thought it would be worthwhile to share it will you all. So without further ado…
- I am Not My Thoughts
All of us identify with our thoughts. How can we not? Our internal voice has been with us for as long as we can remember. Our thoughts help us think through problems and give voice to the narratives of our life. But meditation has given me some distance from thinking. I am better able to see the running stream of thinking that injects itself into every moment. And because I am better to see my thinking, I am better able to let go of thinking, especially when it is not serving me.
As a result, my mental health has improved significantly. I am prone to a lot of anxiety. But letting go has distanced a lot of anxious thinking and feeling. The anxious voices are still there. Our demons never fully go away. But because of meditation, I’m better able to manage them.
- Life is Lived In the Present
I’ve lived my life mindlessly for long stretches of time. But so do all human beings. Our Default Mode Networks lets our lives go into auto-drive where we can mindlessly go about our daily lives without being present. The classic example is driving a car. All of us have experienced driving to work and not remembering the drive because we were in our heads the whole time.
But meditation changes that. With enough practice, I feel less lost in my narrative, more present to the moment. Even now, I am acutely aware of the movement of my hands on the keyboard as I type. I can hear the patter of raindrops outside. Tchaikovsky plays in the background. Meditation improves our self-awareness from moment to moment. This process is called interoception:
Interoception is a sense that provides information about the internal condition of our body—how our body is feeling on the inside. Interoception allows us to experience many body sensations such as a growling stomach, dry mouth, tense muscles, or racing heart. Awareness of these body sensations enables us to experience essential emotions such as hunger, fullness, thirst, pain, body temperature, need for the bathroom, sexual arousal, relaxation, anxiety, sadness, frustration, and safety.
At the most basic level, interoception allows us to answer the question, “how do I feel?” in any given moment.
Meditation changes our relationships with our feelings and our bodies. It strengthens our mindfulness so we are better able to care for our needs.
- Self-Compassion is Essential
Compassion for those we love comes easy. Whether it’s your friend or your child, if someone you love is hurting, you will probably go out of your way to be kind to them and take care of their pain. So why is it so hard for us to do that for ourselves?
I find a lot of us believe that we don’t deserve that kind of compassion. When we “mess up” it is an opportunity to get angry at ourselves and shame our experience because that is what we have internalized from our childhoods. This is where self-compassion can come in. It’s a practice of learning to work with our pain and offer it real kindness. It is the practice of accepting ourselves non-judgmentally. If you can learn to have some self-compassion for yourself, life is less fraught. You can allow yourself to be imperfect and not lose any sleep over it.
- Loving Kindness will make you whole if you let it
Loving Kindness is the other side of the coin to self-compassion. It is the sincere wish for happiness for ourselves and others. Sounds cheesy, right? It’s not, I assure you. Loving Kindness meditations work. With some practice, you find yourself the jealousy and pettiness that can way us down are gone. Suddenly you want the best for people, even people you dislike. And with a little practice, your ego starts to dissipate.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously
Once loving wisdom and compassion start to take hold, oftentimes we start to take ourselves less seriously. We are less attached to “success” and “desires.” We live moment to moment without as many judgments of self and others. The “I” we’ve held onto for most of our lives starts to feel sillier. Once our egos lessen their hold, we start to wonder “why did I care so much before?”
In the world of Instagram and Facebook, the self is held supreme. Everything is viewed from the perspective of “I.” Look at where I went! Isn’t my life fantastic? Look at how much yoga and meditation I practice! I’ve gotten so good at spirituality.
As you might guess this is missing the point and feeds into spiritual narcissism. IN my experience, a person who gets it spiritual does not have to advertise it too loudly. They are not practicing a spiritual life for their own egos, but for the benefit of others. It’s a radical shift in a culture that focuses so intently on the self. By letting go of the self and not taking ourselves too seriously perhaps we can find the contentment that is so lacking in the modern world of image, materialism, and narcissism.