Photo by Iva Rajović on Unsplash

The popularity of meditation is on the rise in our culture, and with it the benefits of a meditation practice have accumulated more and more evidence. There are plenty of personal anecdotes that attest to these benefits, but—especially for personality types that are overly skeptical like myself— scientific studies are much more convincing. Some studies, especially older ones, have been fairly criticized as having poor methodology. But there is also plenty of good research in fields such as psychology and neuroscience—often supported by instruments such as fMRI or EEG—that use randomized control trials to show that mindfulness treatment can reduce anxiety and depression, reduce pain, and improve cognitive function.

Besides these benefits being good in and of themselves, they can also act as a motivating force for people who are curious about meditation. This was certainly the case for me as my meditation practice began around the same time that I was ending a long-term relationship. I thought some meditation could help me weather that storm, and at the same time I was also intrigued by the possibility that mindfulness meditation could help my life as a classical musician. Performing is one thing, but my research told me that meditating was especially helpful for auditions. Staying in the present moment with sharp focus is crucial for winning auditions under pressure—something that I’m sure is similarly helpful in other career paths as well. These all sound like great reasons for meditating, but are they the deepest reasons?

I don’t want to be too critical of benefits like these since, as I said, they did motivate me to start a meditation practice. And they are indeed benefits. In the beginning of my practice, I was doing mindfulness meditation and mostly viewed it as a means to an end. I needed help with stress reduction and I also needed to improve my concentration under pressure. At that time in my life, I also felt like I was allergic to anything with a spiritual label. The science got me in the door, and meditating regularly was definitely making me feel better. But as I got deeper into the world of meditation, I discovered something more fundamental about my mind; it made these benefits—those that not only motivated me but also served as my goals— seem shallow and insignificant, and they quickly fell into the background of my meditation practice.

The discovery I made was what many in the world of meditation call waking up. The realization felt sudden, but my understanding of it was much more gradual, and it changed my perspective on meditation. The potential benefits of meditation can motivate you and will almost definitely have a positive influence on your life, but I now believe that they can also become a distraction. Even if the science turned out to be wrong and there weren’t any concrete benefits, the ability to wake up and discover a more truthful view of the mind would still be available. Our minds are all we have, and I believe that the prospect of understanding our minds in this way provides us with the deepest reason for pursuing meditation.

Waking Up

The phrase “waking up” fits so perfectly because it truly feels like you are waking up from a dream. It is a light bulb moment in which you see your mind with incredible clarity. Although the clarity does not last, the knowledge of its existence does. It is akin to realizing that you are in the Truman Show; once you find out about it, returning to a state of ignorance is no longer an option. After the first few times of seeing my mind in this way, I remembered an extremely truthful feeling arising that went something like “Oh crap, I guess I have to continue down this path”. And I do think, even though realizations can happen in a sudden way, that waking up is a gradual process. It is a pathway of peeling away layers of the mind that some would say eventually ends at enlightenment. I am not claiming to be anywhere close to enlightenment, and I would suggest skepticism towards anybody that is claiming this. But for me, the initial moment of waking up meant that I could objectively observe, in a distant and detached way, just how insanely busy my mind was. This meta-cognition, or mindfulness, is what I experienced as the first layer of waking up.

I woke up to a completely different way of paying attention. It made the distinction between being lost in thought and having present moment awareness become blatantly obvious. It also became slightly terrifying to look back on my life and wonder just how much of it I had spent in a zombie like dream state of barely paying attention to what was around me. But regret is just another thought arising in the mind, and I learned to objectively observe that as well. As I continued practicing and researching meditation, the experiences became deeper and I was able to frame them with more concepts. Experiences in meditation can be elusive, but I gradually arrived at a deeper kind of realization about the mind.

The Realization

If the initial layer of waking up is meta-cognition, then the deeper layers involve using this new perspective to observe and arrive at further realizations about the mind. As one of my favorite teachers Joseph Goldstein has said, “If you want to understand the mind, simply sit down and observe it”. I highly recommend finding a teacher because these realizations are easier with the concepts and framing that an experienced meditator can provide. Sam Harris, in his book as well as his app (I wrote a review of it here), was crucial in providing me with a framework within which I could place my meditation experiences. My realization felt like finding a different place to live in the mind. This place is stable, and it’s detached from the constant ebb and flow of thoughts and feelings. Some teachers refer to this as stepping behind the waterfall of the mind. You won’t always be in this place, but once you discover it part of you will always know that it exists.

When we rest in this place of the mind, there is more stillness and clarity. From this place, suffering does not have the usual attachment and drama. Sadness, maybe even tears, can flow from this place, but there is a warmth to it, a truth. There is a wisdom and acceptance in this place of what life is. Gratitude becomes such an obvious emotion in this place. From this perspective, we are not as scared to consider the suffering of the world. We feel less reactionary emotions like hate or anger and tend to understand that things are the way that they are. In this place, we allow ourselves to temporarily drop all of our problems and just breath freely. As one of my favorite teachers Jack Kornfield likes to say, life is filled with ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows. In this expansive place, there is enough room to hold it all with a loving awareness. When we are settled into this realization, the impermanence of everything is also both obvious and acceptable. How else could it be?

Of course this place is not really a place, but rather it is a different way of paying attention. And perhaps the most zoomed out realization from meditation is that our life is essentially the sum total of all of our moments of paying attention. I think that when people reflect on their lives, they tend to regret the kinds of things that they cared about, the kinds of things that their attention was captured by. The past and our memories of it are just more thoughts arising in the present. The quality of those thoughts will largely depend on the quality of your attention when you formed those memories. You can’t change the past, but you can change how you use your attention in the present. And that will provide you with the kinds of detailed and fulfilling memories that you can enjoy looking back on in the future. The external world exists and influences us, but in the end our minds are all we really have.

Stop Chasing

“Truly learning to meditate is not like going to the gym and putting on some muscle because it’s good for you and makes you feel better. There’s more to it than that. Meditation—again, done correctly—puts into question more or less everything you tend to do in your search for happiness. But if you lose sight of this, it can become just another strategy for seeking happiness—a more refined version of the problem you already have.”

Sam Harris from “Taming the Mind”

After I became more and more familiar with this realization—as the waking up process revealed more and more truths about my mind—my primary motivation for meditation was no longer the benefits. I realized that I should not chase benefits or even set goals for my meditation practice. I even made the mistake of trying to chase after this realization itself. I knew it existed intellectually, but I was not (and still am not) able to find it in an emotional way all of the time. This is okay though. When we set waking up, enlightenment, or anything else as a goal, the paradox is that by doing so we remain stuck in the fundamental unsatisfactoriness of human life (Dukkha in Buddhist terms). As Sam’s quote above says, it will cause you to remain stuck in “a more refined version of the problem you already have”.

The answer is to stop chasing. Just breath and notice whatever is true of your experience in the present. It is about doing less, not about doing more or achieving something. Happiness is temporary. So is waking up and having realizations. So is everything. We do need goals to orient ourselves in life and to move in a positive direction, but we must also realize that achieving these goals will only bring temporary satisfaction. If everything changes, how can we hold onto anything permanently? We all have plenty of personal goals in life—from the small to-do list items to the big life and career goals—so we don’t need to also cloud our meditation practice with such things. Instead of chasing after goals or benefits or even enlightening experiences, the insight is in letting go of all of it. Get underneath those layers of the mind that want to chase, and just view a more naked version of your experience in the present moment. When you can find this, the resulting feeling is such a relief. Even though we are not be able to hold onto this realization—to emotionally stay in this place of the mind—we are able to remember that it exists. Then our meditation practice becomes a training ground for remembering this place and visiting it whenever we can.

The Pali word for mindfulness, sati, is often translated as “remembering”, so it makes sense that we will find ourselves in a cycle of forgetting and then remembering this view of the world. This cycling of the mind seems to oscillate between a confusion mode and a clarity mode, and the externals of the world can add its own difficulty into this equation. But mindfulness meditation taught me to not take these ups and downs all that seriously. There was now a detached and peaceful place in the mind where all of this could be viewed from a distance. I guess this is itself a benefit of meditation, just not one of the more tangible ones that I was initially striving for.

So although a meditation practice will almost definitely come with a lot of benefits, don’t let them distract you too much. Don’t meditate because it’s good for you. Meditate because there is something much deeper to be discovered about the mind. And the quality of your mind is the quality of your life.

Thanks for reading!    -Luke from Thunk Tank Podcast

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