Meditation And Focus

Have you ever tried to meditate? It’s difficult. If you’re at all like me, you won’t last ten seconds before your mind starts to wander, you feel the urge to start writing down the brilliant ideas and mental reminders floating in and out of your consciousness, and you get antsy thinking about the things you could be doing instead of sitting on a friggin pillow with your eyes closed like some god-damn hippie…

Anyways. That was the old me. Now I’m, uh, slightly better at controlling my mischievous monkey-mind. Sometimes. Serenity Now! And it’s improved my life quite a bit.

For example, I can read again. I never actually lost the ability to comprehend words and sentences and paragraphs. But for a while, I was simply unable to sit down with a book and read it. All but the best of books would immediately send my mind wandering to whichever corners of my psyche it felt like visiting.

I can also wait in lines, wait for trains, and wait for friends to show up for lunch without getting flustered. Why am I standing here LIKE A CHUMP, my brain used to demand, when we could be out DOING STUFF! ARGHHH! Since I’ve started meditating regularly, I’ve become much better at accepting that which I cannot change, and being content (grateful, even) with the quiet, undisturbed moments of ‘waiting’ that used to infuriate my old type-A insistence on doing, going, building, creating or destroying, 110% of the time.

I’m also more in tune with my own emotional states, and by extension the emotional states of others. One of my ex-girlfriends used to carry snacks in her purse because she recognized the link between my blood-sugar levels (this was before I started adhering to the Scientific Paleo Fuck You Diet) and my mental state. Whenever she noticed my mood deteriorating, she would offer me a granola bar without explanation.

(Come to think of it, she may have accidentally conditioned me, Pavlov-style, to snap at her more often. Hmm.)

Anyways. The point is that hunger affected my behaviour, without my conscious knowledge of the link. Meditation taught me that angry, happy, sad, and other emotional states, are the same as hungry. They can affect your thoughts and behaviour without your knowledge. I’m sure you already knew this, and I thought I did too. But after a few weeks of regular meditation, I became much better at identifying and recognizing my emotional states on the fly.

The most interesting change that I noticed though was the disconnect that developed between my brain, and me. Most people live with a two-factor model of what they’re constituted of: There’s the brain/mind/soul, i.e. the part that’s really you, and there’s the body, which is a tool that you use to navigate the world and manipulate it to your liking. Sort of like this:

Prolonged meditation gives me a greater sense of a third factor in that model. A higher awareness, a self that exists outside the mind, a – dare I say it – soul.

I won’t speculate on the nature of the soul. Maybe it’s the little piece of God that lives in each of us, that I can connect with it if I dedicate my life to seeking it out through meditation and other purifying rituals. Maybe it’s the good Baby Jesus shining his inner light into me. Maybe it’s a purely neuro-chemical illusion brought on by the recent evolution of our cerebral frontal cortex and its topographic isolation from the rest of the brain.

(Interesting aside: Close your eyes. Sit still. Where are you? Obviously, your body is in a chair, on the subway, or wherever. But where in your body does your consciousness reside? Where is the ghost in the machine? Almost everyone says, right behind their eyes, more or less the exact location of the frontal cortex.)

The ability to view your mind as a tool is immensely useful for improving your self-discipline. It will also cut you off from the bullshit rationalizations of refusing to make positive life changes because “it’s not you.” For example, say you never approach girls because it’s not who you are. Your soul, whatever it is, will laugh at this. Not approaching girls is just a habit your feeble mortal mind has developed. It is a choice. Your soul knows better.

So now you’re sold on meditation, yeah? All you need is a how-to manual.

Libraries have been written on the subject, and there are many schools of thought which purport to reveal the right way to meditate. But, I have never felt an obligation to accept the teachings of yogis at face value. Like any vast system of ancient beliefs, Yoga is some combination of useful wisdom and comical superstitions. Take that which is useful, and make it your own.

Here’s the meditation practice I follow every morning:

2-5 minutes of unstructured thought, focusing on calm and positive thoughts, visualizing what I’m going to do in the day, feeling gratitude.

Three Om chants. Focus on full inhalation and exhalation.

20 minutes spent slowly counting backwards from one hundred, silently repeating my mantra after each one. (My mantra is Serenity Now. Seriously.)

10-30 minutes of clearing my mind, letting thoughts float in to the periphery of my focus and gently nudging them out, staying focused on nothingness. Usually enter a mildly euphoric state, a feeling of being touched by Universal Love and belongingness. In other words, some real hippie shit.

Hardcore meditation addicts believe that the euphoria (which can get a lot more intense than what I’ve experienced) is really the experience of communion with God, the tapping into the all-encompassing network of love and peace that binds all living things, The Force, Cerebro, whatever you want to call it.

I have a different opinion. But I’ll save that for another day.