OK FINE, HERE’S A BLOG ABOUT MEDITATION!
So, the last blog I wrote was about yoga. Before trying it for a month, I’d never done it before and knew effectively less than nothing, because what I thought I did know was wrong.
Which is why seeing people like Agnieszka do yoga is akin to watching a Rolls Royce designer paint a watercolour of the model they’ve always dreamed of creating. While watching me do yoga is like being forced to observe a monkey repeatedly smashing itself in the face with a clock.
However — I’ve consistently done WAY MORE THINKING than I should have over the years, and as a result turned to meditation probably a decade or more ago, just to try to find some goddamn internal peace and quiet. In fact, overthinking shit is probably the only thing I’ve managed to do throughout my whole life with absolute machine-like consistency. Like a Terminator that stays in bed for entire weekends just to concentrate on sharpening it’s self-loathing sub-routines.
Anyway, what I’m REALLY trying to say here is, with this particular blog — I’m coming from a place of at least some experience. Like a monkey that’s realised the thing’s movement’s have something to do with dark and bright happening.
In other words, strap yourself in because I’m about to bang on about this for fucking ages.
Always kick things off with something someone super smart said
Allow me to begin by quoting Sam Harris from his excellent book on ‘spirituality without religion’, Waking Up:
“Most of us could easily compile a list of goals we want to achieve or personal problems that need to be solved. But what is the real significance of every item on such a list? … most of us spend our time seeking happiness and security without acknowledging the underlying purpose of our search. Each of us is looking for a path back to the present: We are trying to find good enough reasons to be satisfied now.”
That line really stuck with me — each of us is looking for a path back to the present…
It made me think of the final line in The Great Gatsby, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
So, if I were to tell you the one reason above all else it’s worth even trying to meditate, it’s this: It gives you respite from that current. You are borne neither back nor forwards. If even for just a few moments. It gives you a path to the present.
Where, as it turns out — as long as you’re healthy, warm enough, and recently fed enough — there’s a great deal of life waiting for you wake up, and experience it.
Neo: “What are you trying to tell me? That I can dodge bullets?” Morpheus: “No, Neo. I’m trying to tell you that when you’re ready, you won’t have to.”
One of the best metaphors I can think of for how mindfulness works, is that scene in The Matrix where Neo, starting to realise the full extent of his power, gets up, and just says “No”, before holding his hand out in front of him, palm upwards. The bullets slow and then stop in mid-air. He then picks one out between forefinger and thumb and examines it, just for a second, before dropping it to the floor.
The bullets represent our thoughts and feelings — coming at us 24/7. What mindfulness allows you to do is to more objectively observe them. By calming and slowing the mind, you can get to the point where you genuinely notice individual thoughts and feelings (Sam Harris calls them ‘objects of consciousness’) as they arise.
Personally speaking, I can kinda visualise my thoughts and feelings as different colours of shards of glass, with bright red glowing ones being ‘hot’ and powerfully emotional (perhaps angry). Or cold black shards — representing cyclical depressive negative thoughts. A warm, golden coloured shard might be the conscious visualisation of a positive goal, & what it will feel if / when you achieve it. Either that or I’m thinking about dogs.
However this experience and process manifests in your mind — it will be unique to you. The essential value is that it makes you an observer of your own thoughts and feelings. As opposed to an automated-meatbag perpetually trapped inside a prison you don’t even realise exists. Your spirit slowly wearing down as the gears of your own mental and emotional clockwork grind and creak in the background.
Yet when you can observe your thoughts and feelings, you can examine them, just as Neo does the bullet. This creates an objective space, an opportunity to reflect, in that increased gap between stimulus and response.
Which in turn, gives you more control, over how you choose to respond to your own thoughts, which themselves are a more-or-less-automatic response to whatever is happening to you in your life. We might not be able to choose which thoughts arise, but we can choose which ones to focus and hold on to. Which is pretty much the extent of our so called “free-will” — but that’s a whole other topic for a whole other blog.
If you can start to do this — to observe, examine, reflect, and decide whether to hold on tight or simply allow the thought or feeling to pass, and slip away, as all things do… Congrats, you’re now putting the philosophy and value of stoicism to work in your life. More on this shortly.
But it’s like really really hard though
CLEARLY I’m no brain expert but I’m reasonably confident you could accurately describe “the human mind” as an amorphous cloud of non-stop auto-biographical narrative bullshit. Usually replaying a memory of a memory that’s already been inaccurately edited from an remarkably insecure and self-centred POV. Most likely followed by a subconsciously visualised catastrophe that could theoretically happen but in all probability won’t, or practically couldn’t.
Or rather, as Mark Twain said, better: “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”
Which is why — if you’ve tried mindfulness meditation with an app like Buddhify or Headspace before (which are both great btw) — you’ll have no doubt discovered you can’t even count four belly breaths before your mind wanders off somewhere, into the past or the future. But that’s ok — that’s just what the mind does.
What I’ve learned is that it’s the very act of will, where you realise your mind has wandered and consciously bring the focus back to e.g. your breath — this is the moment you’re actually practicing mindfulness.
If meditation was something you did with a barbell — when you catch yourself thinking about a joke you told at a party 17 years ago which generated zero laughs but + 1 of the most intensely uncomfortable silences in recorded history — and you deliberately go back to counting four breaths in and four breaths out” — that would count as a rep.
Point being — it’s ok if mindfulness meditation feels difficult — it doesn’t mean you’re failing at it — quite the opposite. It means you’re starting to do it. And like almost everything in life, what you practice, you get better at. So keep going.
“What stands in the way becomes the way”
Abraham Lincoln suffered from depression. Like, big time. And this was back when “stress” wasn’t even recognised as a thing. But he found a way to give his “melancholy” meaning — he chose to perceive those darkest days as a something to be overcome. A temporary pain which would make him permanently stronger. And he did so without covering it up with a pretense of satisfaction or joy. When he had to feel it, he felt it.
Admitting, facing and processing your emotional pain takes a certain kind of courage — letting it run through you, and being willing to articulate it honestly, without exaggeration, blame or complaint. With the understanding that “this too shall pass”, as Lincoln used to say, correctly, about pretty much everything.
As Roman Emperor, and former-most-powerful-man-in-the world Marcus Aurelius said (privately) in his collected essays — ‘Meditations’, which Ryan Holiday so expertly sums up for a modern audience in his book on practical stoicism, “The Obstacle is The Way”:
“The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition”
Ok, but what does that mean in the real world?
Well, to quote my good friend Alexis on like, the one smart thing he’s ever said to me ;) “You never regret doing the right thing” — and that’s precisely what mindfulness meditation makes you more capable of doing — the right thing.
As you get older, assuming you’re not a complete bastard, you naturally form a clearer idea of what your values are: What’s most important to you, in your own character and others’.
This natural process can be accelerated by regular meditation because it helps provide the time and calm needed to reflect more deeply on both what your values are — and what you would like them to be.
(Top tip: try noting down all the stuff over a couple of weeks that elicits an unusually strong emotional reaction, and look for trends. It’s a great way to discover what issues chime with your values, and therefore, what those values are. Yes, I‘m being serious. Try it.).
For example, stories of people that have overcome great adversity through a determination and willingness to change and learn, people that didn’t quit in the face of their own mistakes, setbacks or bad luck, people that handle failure or rejection with great dignity and decency… That’s the kind of shit that, on occasion, makes me tear up (just a little bit, ok). Which has helped me realise these are the kind of qualities I want to try and live by, too.
It’s one of the reasons I like going to the gym. Because regardless of what shape you or other peeps might be (or not be) in… You’re all still at the gym. And nobody who goes to the gym has totally given up on themselves.
Now, this process might also make you realise the values you’ve actually been living by, are some distance away from the values you aspire to. Which can be a pretty painful wake up call. Yet without acknowledging where we’ve gone wrong in the past — without the honesty and courage to admit we’ve been selfish, or greedy, inconsiderate or lazy… we cannot hope to change ourselves for the better.
“To progress again, man must remake himself. And he cannot remake himself without suffering. For he is both the marble and the sculptor” — Alexis Carrel
The good news though, is that as well as helping you identify your values, meditation helps you live by them, because it gives you that more regular, consistent distance between stimulus and emotional response. This helps you train yourself to see “bad” or difficult things in life, as a genuine opportunity for learning and growth. Or, at the very least, an opportunity to salvage a degree of pride in the way you conducted yourself, and treated others with the respect they deserve, even if it was a painful situation for you personally.
As the saying goes, “Be kind, everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Life is hard, and experience might have taught you to be pessimistic. But your values can give you the courage to try. I can tell you from experience that failure is a lot easier to handle than not having the guts to pursue a dream, or to have spoken the truth, in the first place.
“Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” — Kurt Vonnegut
It’s taken my dumb ass a full 37 years to realise that unless the level of how hard you’re working is matched by a corresponding level of self-care, you’re not doing anything to be proud of. You’re just burning yourself out in pursuit of a goal none of the people who really love you would care about, more than they care about you.
Plus, it’s not just stupid, it’s selfish. If you fuck yourself up, you can’t help anyone else can you? It’s why they tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first, should the shit hit the fan on an airplane. One cannot pour from an empty cup.
Real self-care means taking a holistic approach to maintenance. If you do weights, do yoga. If you worked late most days this week, turn off your damn work laptop and phone between Friday night and Monday morning. If you feel exhausted, take a sick day to eat fruit, nuts and vegetables and sleep. Book all your annual holiday allowance off work, ASAP. Call your mum. Stay away from the fake life-comparison-Instagram-bullshit for a weekend. Listen to uplifting music and TED talks on a daily basis, perhaps while going for a jog so you get that 2-for-1 boost for the human spirit.
People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing — that’s why we recommend it daily — Zig Ziglar
Wellbeing is a table requiring the support of many legs — of which meditation is but one. It’s just one of the really important ones.
Always finish on an uplifting high note
And this is genuinely important stuff. Because the only way out is nearly always through. Too narrow a focus on any single area of progress in your life means you’re ultimately unlikely to have the endurance or resilience needed to achieve your goals. Which is super mega hyper depressing.
You’ll find yourself back in that boat, beating against the remorseless current of time. Borne back ceaselessly into a reality you despise, without realising how or why you seem to have chosen it.
Perhaps you think this too dramatic a turn of phrase?
If so, imagine a new bird flu hit the UK, and was killing 16 people a day. Every day. Think of the media hysteria and mass panic we’d be subjected to. Yet this is how many people kill themselves daily, in the UK alone. 75 percent of whom are men, should you consider that a fact worth further reflection.
The definition of an epidemic is “a sudden, widespread occurrence of an undesirable phenomenon”. So yeah, I think there’s an epidemic happening that we, as a society, are not doing enough to confront and address.
(FYI, The Samaritans operate a 24-hour service available every day of the year on 116 123. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, you can also email: email@example.com)
So, all jokes aside, I’m starting to think of Agnieszka’s little 2018 side project as something more important than a just fun exercise experiment and a few blogs. Who knows, it might just offer someone a blueprint for personal growth that will help them to keep on living.
I’ll close this out by referencing one of the greatest shows on TV right now — and the particular episode where Rick & Morty are taking part in family therapy. And the therapist puts Rick — allegedly the smartest person in the entire Universe — quite spectacularly in his place.
“I have no doubt you would be bored senseless by therapy. The same way I’m bored when I brush my teeth and wipe my ass. Because the thing about repairing, maintaining, and cleaning is: it’s not an adventure. There’s no way to do it so wrong you might die. It’s just work. And the bottom line is: some people are okay going to work and some people… well, some people would rather die. Each of us gets to choose.”
I SAID ALWAYS FINISH ON AN UPLIFTING HIGH NOTE
Fine, here’s a classic 80’s power ballad that simultaneously sums up that life is tough, while also inspiring you to keep fucking fighting.
Because you — and your wellbeing — are inherently worth goddamn fighting for, with every weapon you can lay your hands on. Whether that’s Sleep or Yoga or Meditation or Not Drinking or Avoiding Social Media or Intermittent Fasting…
Or whatever the hell else Agnieszka’s got planned for us in 2018.