Updated: Jul 31, 2019
One of the things my 30s have officially broken me of is the idea that I know everything -- that I know what I like, what will work or won't work, and that I know it all within mere seconds of even hearing or reading about it. Pretty much everything that has radically changed my life in the last two years are things I heard about in my mid-20s that I wrote off as being not worth my time. One of those big game changers was meditation.
I was having a conversation with someone earlier today about meditation where it struck me that very few people understand why it's beneficial or worth their time, my past-self included. While there's no lack of people who rave about meditation, I don't feel like most of them are explaining the benefits in a way that makes sense to results-driven people. I mean, you hear all these esoteric concepts about it, but how is any of that supposed to make it worth your time?
My first issue is I don't think people understand what meditation is. The idea that you should be able to sit down and clear your mind for half an hour or more and emerge totally at peace is so far from reality, and essentially unattainable. In reality, the process of meditation is more like a game of ping pong. Here's a transcript of my thoughts during an average meditation:
I focus on breathing in.... filling my lungs with air to a comfortable degree, holding, then exhaling, letting every last bit of air leave my lungs, hold, now I inhale again... and oh yeah, I've gotta remember to email Dave, oh shit... back to my breath. I exhale fully and take another deep breath in... I should make tacos for dinner, whoops... back to my breath. I exhale... I inhale, hold, I exhale... oh look at me, look how good I was at getting back on track, fuck... back to breath.
I've been meditating regularly for years, and that's still what it's like for me, and it DOESN'T mean I'm bad at it. Meditation is not about getting to some perfect place where you stop having intrusive thoughts, it's about the practice of not letting those thoughts derail you or run the show.
In fact, the greater sign of being good at meditation is that you're able to cut those intrusive thoughts off at the pass without getting discouraged. The overall practice can have nothing to do with clearing your mind completely, and everything to do with having the patience to redirect yourself back to the initial goal of focusing on your breath, no matter how many times it takes. The fact that the thoughts come up is not a failure, it's an opportunity to flex your self-discipline in a controlled environment.
My second issue is with the way the benefits of meditation are explained. Words like "inner peace" and "self love" are often thrown around when people are talking about how meditation practice has helped them, but those are such abstract concepts that I don't think the average person cares about. Like yeah, inner peace and self love sound nice, but how are they supposed to help me with all of the other much more pressing problems in my life?
The better way to explain it is that meditation forces you to build up your self-discipline muscle. The process of focusing your mind on one thing and not letting random thoughts carry you away builds up a part of your mind that will carry over into every area of life. Most of us have such a problem staying focused on just one thing at a time and even pride ourselves in our ability to multi-task, but there's a difference between legitimately needing to juggle multiple things and doing it because you don't have the self-discipline to give each thing the attention it deserves.
Sure, having the self-control to direct your mind away from negative thoughts is valuable on its own, but it also helps you focus on the things that matter. Having the mental strength to direct your mind away from things you can't do anything about and focus more on the things you can creates a ripple that is felt in every area of life. I don't know why. It just does.
And yeah, once you feel more in control of your thoughts, that does lead to some inner peace and self love, but it also leads to getting more done in less time, connecting deeper with the people in your life, and taking better care of yourself without feeling stretched to your absolute limit... which is pretty life-changing on its own.