It’s been a year since I wrote the article How I FINALLY learnt to meditate – and how you can too, and about 2 years since I started a meditation practice in earnest.
Two years of fairly constant practice is enough time on the cushion to really see some of the accumulative gains from starting such a practice. So I thought I’d share my experiences about the effects of meditation and mindfulness on my life.
My interest in meditation started very young. I grew up in the Kung Fu era of the 70s and 80s. Ancient, badly dubbed kung fu movies from the Hong Kong greats, the likes of the Shaw Brothers and Raymond Chow, were on perpetual loops.
The explosive and gravity defying fight scenes were an obvious draw, but it was the juxtaposed nature of the meditation scenes that really fascinated me. These men of action were also men of stillness.
And meditation was not exclusive to Asian cinema.
I’d watch in wonder as Doc Savage, Man of Bronze, would sit cross legged in naught but a loin-cloth, surrounded by the ice of his arctic Fortress of Solitude.
Or Luke Skywalker, balancing on one hand, lifting rocks with his mind.
I desperately wanted a piece of this action. I wanted the speed and agility of Shaolin, the undistractibility and imperviousness of Doc Savage, and the total control of the Force like a Jedi.
And so I set of a vast array of attempts to achieve these states. Sitting with a large encyclopaedia balanced on my head; standing in a decidedly uncomfortable horse-stance for what seemed like an eternity but was actually mere minutes; emanating a deep and throaty chant from my pre-pubescent vocal chords until I was croaking like a toad.
None of stuck.
The only time I reach any kind of tranquil state was in the throes of vomit inducing migraines, where my only way out was through a calm state achieved through breathing with eyes closed, with such focus on not being sick, whilst sitting on the floor of my toilet.
And this pattern continued periodically through out my teens and into adulthood, until I discovered both Vedic meditation and Zazen meditation.
Now, two years into a regular practice, I feel in a space to truly appreciate the benefits I have gained from it.
My first real realisation came regarding meditation’s role for myself. As cool as Force mind control is, or astral projections, or bobbing about of some transcendental bliss field, the true power of meditation for me was much simpler.
It was about awareness.
With a simple daily sitting practice as outlined by my other posts, the detritus of my mind, the incessant thoughts, fears, scenario play-outs and distractions are given the opportunity to settle.
Our minds are like a jar filled with muddy water. All we can see is the mud. But when we stop shaking the damn thing (through still meditation) we allow everything to settle. The mud slowly falls to the bottom and the water clarifies and we are able to look through the water.
The water is our consciousness, not the mud. The mud is the flitting thoughts.
As the sediment settles we are able to see more clearly, we are able to observe the thoughts and emotions floating by. We become aware of them.
This awareness allows us to observe these states with a calm, curiosity which in turn fosters the ability respond to them rather than react. It creates a wedge which open the up the gap between stimulus and response. As Viktor Fankl puts it:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”Viktor E. Frankl
Having this extra clarity of awareness has allowed me to spot triggers before they have fully taken hold of me; to see the thoughts and emotions emerging in me and name them (if you can name them, you can tame them); to see them for what they really are.
One habit I have always suffered from is ‘future-tripping’, playing out future scenarios that have and may never happen. My mind lives through the scenario with such detail that it would elicit all the emotions as if it had actually happened. So much turmoil and discomfort, such bad feeling and anger, was felt from an event that didn’t actually exist.
Two years into my practice and I am now able to spot this process at the beginning. A simple mental statement of “This is not real!” puts an instant stop to it.
Meditation has given me a calm, curious state with which to observe situations arise. What were once considered ‘problems’ are now more often thought of as just another situation, one to be dealt with if that is an option, or simply accepted if not.
I spend less time in the past, fretting over what happened, and less time in the future fearing uncertainty. I have more of a sense that the past has gone by already and that it’s sole purpose was to bring me to NOW, and that the future is entirely dictated by things either out of my control, or by the decisions I make right now, in the present. So in a sense I am spending far more time in the present, in the now.
Meditation is not all cupcakes and rainbows. It will often bring up many issues from your past and your psyche. This is one aspect of meditation and mindfulness that is rarely spoken about.
It can be painful and scary. And while this is not to turn people away from a meditation practice, it is worth considering. This is where working with a therapist or a councillor in conjunction with a meditation practice may be appropriate for some.
This aspect of a meditation practice has given me greater insight into why I behave in the ways I do, without passing judgement on those behaviours.
When I understand that who I am is a result of all I have been through, I understand that I am not to blame, I am merely a composition of every event up to now. But in realising this I also understand that this is just a story and one that I have the power to rewrite and direct.
This has given me more compassion for others. If I am a product of all that has befallen me, then so is everyone else.
I understand that if I had the exact same genetics, the same upbringing, the same life chances, I would be exactly the same.
I have got to know and understand my own traumas better and to recognise that this trauma is a major architect to my psyche.
And again I see this in others. I see that much of the negative behaviours we exhibit ultimately derive from pain and trauma. This helps me to a little more patient with others that I’d like to punch in the face. Myself in particular.
Realising that my ‘faults’ are not my fault is powerful. But realising that they are still my responsibility is even more so.
How my story goes is ultimately up to me. How I interpret my past and plan my future is up to me. Whether I am in a state of peace and acquiescence or strife and turmoil is up to me.
No one else can control this. This is not a lonely state, this is the ultimate place of power.
Meditation for me acts like a springboard to every other aspect of my day. It’s the first thing I do in the morning and it sends a message to my brain that I am starting my day with self care. This enables me to be more productive with every other aspect of self care: movement, nutrition, focus, rest and recovery, work-life balance, etc.
And starting the day on a positive act is always a win, and as they say ‘Win the morning, win the day.
If this sounds as if I am suggestion that I have attained some sage-like level of self awareness, then this couldn’t be further from the truth. I still lose my shit. I will still end up as a hot mess on the floor. I am still known to create a veritable fluster-cuck all around me. I still get totally wound up by others.
The biggest difference is my awareness of these times. I see it happening and I am able to pull out of it quicker. Simply bearing witness to what is occurring inside my mind is a major step up from the automatic reactivity of my past.
I am less anxious. Anxiety has been one of my biggest struggles. I get triggered far less. And I accept that which cannot be change far more easily.
I am finally beginning to understand what the Stoics refer to as the ‘art of acquiescence’.
The stillness that I enter in my meditations, however fleeting and momentary, echoes throughout my day. The stillness, the settling of the mud of my mind, brings me greater vision.
And by contemplating these insights through journaling, my next greatest new practice, I am slowly able to slot the pieces together, to gradually begin to form a roadmap for myself, to see where I have come from, where I am right now, and where I would like to go.
We don’t meditate to get good at meditation, we do it to get better at life.
Just like a professional musician will still practice her scales, the seasoned meditator will return to the cushion each day. That’s why it’s called a meditation practice. When we practice regularly we suddenly look up one day and see how far we have progressed.
The changes in me have been so profound that I know I will never cease the practice.
When you have felt whole mountains shift inside your mind, moving small rocks with your mind seems a little irrelevant.