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#4: 🧘🏻♀️ On Meditation
How this ancient practice sows the seeds of inner stillness in the 21st Century
Welcome to the fourth edition of the Samadhi City - a series of articles to help you cultivate a sense of inner stillness amidst the chaos of everyday life. Check out this post to learn more about its goals and what you can expect from the series.
My first memory of meditation was from kindergarten. It was one of the morning sessions that the school had us do once a week. My classmates and I sat in neat rows on a large open floor with our eyes closed, and I had almost face-planted after falling asleep in the lotus position. My reflexes caught me in time and jerked my head up the same way it does when I doze off on planes. I opened my eyes, embarrassed, and looked around to see if anyone saw. My homeroom teacher was shaking trying to suppress her laugh.
I spent my early childhood years in Thailand, where meditation is heavily coupled with Buddhist tradition. The practice has been a part of my life, on and off for many years. Always in the religious context. Mostly either quick, monk-led, 10-minute sits at the temple, or a half hour session with my family in observance of a Holy Day.
Over the past couple of years I began to notice meditation being spoken about and practiced more widely. First, coming across scientific findings of the benefits of meditation, then witnessing the rise of guided meditation apps like Calm and Headspace, and then hearing from people about how a daily practice has improved their lives. I thought about all the years I have been exposed to meditation and wondered why I never felt like it made a significant impact on my life, at least not in any noticeable way.
This year, I decided to be more proactive in exploring what meditation could mean for me beyond the Buddhist context. I started sitting for 30 minutes each morning and complemented this practice with readings from Western and Eastern sources, secular and non-secular. The most extreme accounts presented meditation either as a glistening stairway to heaven or nothing more than psychological aspirin. For me, it was always somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Instead of trying to shift towards one extreme or the other, I wanted to experience firsthand the ways in which meditation can sow the seeds of inner stillness that can endure even the most chaotic of days.
Here is what I found.
Meditation helps us see things as they are, separate from our expectations of how they ought to be
I have yet to find a person or piece of writing that talks about meditation without mentioning detachment, letting go, observing thoughts, and being present.
At first, I was concerned with whether the “detached” state of mind would render my life colorless, that I would become apathetic and simply stop caring about things. Eventually I came to realize that the right kind of detachment doesn’t separate us from life, but instead frees us from the egocentric associations we so readily make with the situations that come up. By honing our ability to step outside fleeting emotions and get to the essence of what really matters, it helps us care better as opposed to not care at all.
Inner stillness arises from seeing things exactly as they are—impermanent and separate from your Self. Feelings are just feelings, and thoughts are just thoughts. In noticing the impermanent nature of our thoughts, we will lose our infatuation with them and stop trying to chase or escape from them. This is orthogonal from good or bad, pleasure or pain. The idea is not to run away from pain or towards pleasure, but to acknowledge sensations as they are and not cling on to them.
The more we realize that thoughts and sensations are just processes that come and go, the less they define who we are. We suffer when we compare the way things are now with how we wish they were. Ultimately, things are just as they are—only our comparisons cause us to suffer.
Meditation is not separate from the rest of life
When I was younger, I was very nit-picky about how my surroundings ought to be in order for me to sit and meditate. The room had to be quiet, the temperature had to be just right, the lighting dim enough to not be distracting. This was fine when I lived at our family house in a quiet part of town. But when I moved to an apartment next to the train station - where the horns blared every 20 minutes - these “requirements” were enough to prevent me from doing the practice at all.
We have much more control over our internal state than we do external circumstances. I couldn’t stop the train just because I wanted to sit in peace. So what were the alternatives? To move? To find a spot that met the conditions I thought was optimal, and go there every time I wanted to meditate? With this attitude, it was only a matter of time before some external circumstance stopped me from meditating again. The solution was to turn inward and make the shift within myself instead of expecting it from the outside world. I started treating meditation as an integrated part of life itself rather than something I had to escape to do.
Meditation is not an escape from reality, but a tool to help us live in it. Every thought, every emotion, and every physical sensation is an opportunity to practice. The majority of the time, you won’t experience the outcomes of meditation during the 5 or 60-minute sit. The benefits manifest themselves in how present and engaged you are in conversations, how observant you are of your surroundings, how you react when someone cuts you off in traffic. The summation of these little things is how meditation “transforms” you. The summation of these little things is life itself.
Peace is to be found in the same place as agitation and suffering - within oneself. It is not found in a forest or on a hilltop, nor is it given by a teacher. Where you experience suffering, you can also find freedom from it.
Proverbs and Prescriptions
If you read about meditation - particularly from Eastern sources - you’ll notice that there is a metaphor to be found in almost every other sentence. I don’t think this is an accident. Metaphors and proverbs are heavily used because they make you think until you intuitively grasp the essence of what is being said, as opposed to blindly following how-to’s.
Prescriptions can potentially distract us from the essence of the practice. In following a static, step-by-step guidance, we are constantly asking: What are the goals? What are the next steps? How am I supposed to feel? We get caught up in expectations and intellectual concepts rather than benefiting from practice through direct experience.
I’ve always loved following my curiosity and teaching myself things without enrolling in some formal course. But my progress in meditation stalled when I was being purely autodidactic. This is why a lot of people who want to go further in meditation often find themselves a personal teacher or at least a group of people they can discuss their practice with. Although the practice itself is personal, the right guidance from others will keep you on track and even catalyze progress.
In meditation, the journey and destination are sometimes indistinguishable from one another. If you follow prescriptions too rigidly, you can become attached to destinations. You want to get to the next step. You want outcomes. Wanting is based either on the future or trying to continue something from the past. Wanting becomes a veil, an obstacle to the present moment and the journey itself. The practice is the key, not any outcome in particular. If I told you that a milestone in meditation is to see a bright light or to have an out-of-body experience, you’ll begin to look for these things and get stuck. Any ideas of what is "supposed" to happen becomes a blocker because you become attached to it. When I stopped treating meditation like a series of destinations, I found fulfillment in the journey itself.
Whether the fruit of wisdom comes quickly or slowly, you cannot force it, just as you cannot force the growth of a tree you have planted. The tree has its own pace. Your job is to dig a hole, water and fertilize it, and protect it from insects. That much is your affair, a matter of faith. But the way the tree grows is up to the tree. If you practice like this, you can be sure all will be well, and your plant will grow.
As this tumultuous year comes to a close, I reflected on the successes and lessons from the past 12 months and one of the first things that came to mind was rediscovering meditation and how this practice helped me navigate the drastic changes 2020 brought.
With a COVID vaccine and changes in political leadership on the horizon, I hope that 2021 and beyond will be a time of healing, not just of public health around the world, but of the trust and patience we have with one another. I believe this interpersonal healing begins through our cultivating an inner stillness and clarity within ourselves. For myself, meditation has become an indispensable tool towards this purpose.
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Until next time,