Before we get started, I want to provide a preface to the article. This is my attempt to summarize mindfulness meditation and its teachings. I hope it’s simple and consumable but I’m no expert, this is simply what I have been able to ascertain.
Many Buddhist traditions teach the practice of meditation but fall short of conveying its deeper truths through language.
In fact, some explicitly advise practitioners against it, regarding it as knowledge that should only be experienced.
I tend to subscribe to the belief that it can and should be discussed. Although some topics here may feel uncomfortable to read, there are important lessons revealed that are backed by science and can help you live more compassionately.
The entrepreneur’s need from meditation
It’s not uncommon for entrepreneurs and business owners to feel stressed and overworked. With success dependent on work ethic, the quality of our ideas, and many other factors, we’re often driven to achieve perfection.
These demands and expectations can be overwhelming. You might find yourself not sleeping well, struggling with anxiety or feeling depressed. We have a tendency to compare our results to others and if you haven’t met your goals, it can be difficult to keep negative thoughts at bay.
Meditation is often touted as a way to calm the mind and help with some of these stressors. It’s viewed as a natural remedy to the mental anguish we go through.
While meditating does help with this, it accomplishes this in a different way from what most people expect. Meditating can actually re-frame your experience and change the way you view the world.
While we will explore the benefits with tips and tricks on how to meditate, I will start by covering some of these lesser known aspects of meditation.
Meditation helps silence the mind by revealing it
When you first start meditating, there is a tendency to think you’re not doing it right if your mind is still active. Thoughts are often viewed as an enemy to the practice and excessive thinking results in frustration.
In reality, thoughts are an inevitable part of being human and meditation isn’t actually an effort to reduce them.
Rather than silencing thoughts, meditation aims to illuminate the awareness of thought. This is something you are inherently already capable of but it is rarely practiced in western cultures.
In this awareness comes a sense of calm and peace, partly because thoughts naturally become less captivating.
When you are aware, you begin to realize thoughts arise and dissipate on their own. Only when our attention is focused on our thoughts can they become ongoing thought streams.
This is when we find ourselves getting lost in thought and failing to notice the world around us.
The mind has a way of rambling-on excessively when we allow our attention to drift from the present moment. Should you have enough time on your hands where you’re not distracted or in-flow with your work, these thoughts can turn negative. When this persists, they can easily become intrusive and make us feel powerless to their control.
This is a big reason why people tend to keep themselves busy. Distraction is their best known solution.
Although it feels counter-intuitive, becoming more aware of thought may actually be a far better approach.
The mind evolved to find and solve problems
There are evolutionary reasons our minds favor negative lines of thought. This has been studied for decades and the exact reasons are still in question but it’s generally agreed that the mind is a problem solving tool.
Unfortunately, when there are no real problems to be solved, our mind prefer to continue looking for them.
Our modern and amenity rich society means the dangers of our past are long gone, but the mind is exceptional at continually searching for problems. This is why we sometimes find ourselves laying in bed at night analyzing our interactions with others and questioning the day’s decisions.
Where do thoughts come from?
The key revelation of meditation is that you, the experiential sense of self, are not truly authoring every thought.
This doesn’t mean you as a person aren’t authoring your thoughts, but rather, you as an identity – what you believe you are and have become identified with.
Your brain is still responsible for producing thought, just as it is the beating of your heart and the regulation of your breath.
But you, as an identity, don’t have to feel responsible for every thought you have. They don’t have to be taken seriously.
To illustrate this, consider that thoughts enter the mind sporadically. Only once you become aware of a thought do you notice it has appeared. This can be imagined as thoughts “poofing” into existence in your mind and this becomes evident as you meditate. You begin to notice the hundreds of thoughts, unprovoked, zipping by. You had no prior awareness the thought was coming before it was already there to be observed.
If you were to truly author your thoughts, you would technically need to think them before you actually thought them, right?
At this point, you’re probably experiencing some push-back. Maybe you’re thinking this sounds a bit weird.
That’s because this doesn’t feel like our experience. We feel as if we do truly author our thoughts. It is only when you begin to really pay attention that you notice this to be false.
This doesn’t mean that some outside force is responsible for your thinking. You as a person and organism are obviously still producing these thoughts. However, the experiencer or thinker that you believe yourself to be identified with, is obviously not the one producing them. You are simply aware of them as they appear. And if you’re not the thinker, then you are this awareness. That is where your true identity lies.
Nature and nurture
To put this in another context, you, as a conscious and aware self are not directly responsible for every thought. They are often a result of genetics and environmental upbringing. There are many things in our past that have left imprints on our mind and cause thoughts to be produced today.
Knowing this, why would you ever beat yourself up for a thought?
Or why would you ever talk to yourself like you need to explain or explore every thought you have?
Intellectually we can reason we shouldn’t but yet we do this everyday. We find ourselves fighting mental battles that we didn’t intend to start.
You didn’t choose what events of your past would matter to you so much today. Your brain latched onto these experiences and encounters, mostly out of your control.
There are bound to be many thoughts that simply don’t align with who we want to be and how we want to spend our lives.
The unnecessary identification with thought
Since you, the experiencer, doesn’t author each thought, it doesn’t make sense to identify with them. But yet, we have a way of identifying with our thoughts that simply doesn’t match up with what we know about the mind.
We often say things like, “I am anxious” when we are experiencing anxious thoughts.
We are closely identified with the mind’s current stream of thinking. So much so, in fact, that our attention is focused on it. We reject thoughts outright when they make us feel uncomfortable and our state of mind becomes anchored in pushing them away, wishing we could just think about other things. We often even blame ourselves for having bad thoughts to begin with.
This creates a nasty feedback loop
Our identification to thought makes us so repulsed by traditionally negative thoughts that we have trouble escaping them. Our attention gets trapped. What we don’t realize is, it’s this obsession with thinking, and not wanting to be thinking, that makes the mind produce more thoughts.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “monkey mind” before, in reference to the unsettled and restless nature of the human mind. When our attention is on our thoughts, which it often is even when we don’t realize it, the mind can be a lose cannon. It can go anywhere and think anything.
This means we’re at the mercy of whatever thought our brain produces next.
Awareness is freeing
When you become aware of a thought during meditation, the thought dissipates almost instantaneously. It’s a very different experience from our normal state where we allow the mind to wander.
Consider your experience when you’re taking a shower. Do you often end up not noticing the water, its temperature and the smells, but instead you’re in conversation with yourself? Most of us are very familiar with this.
Awareness unveils that streams of thought come to an immediate halt almost the second they arise, when you can be truly aware. When you notice sounds, sensations, sights, smells, tastes and thoughts themselves, the awareness takes precedence.
This is true for emotions as well. Anger, sadness, jealousy, etc. can only last for mere seconds without our attention.
This is why meditation is such a valuable practice. It is the superpower of having enhanced awareness in any given situation. It can give you the ability to cut through classically negative states like anxiety and depression.
Think of a time you overreacted or made a mistake. What if the pitfalls of your thoughts and emotions were illuminated, prior to the action you would soon come to regret? You likely never would have done it.
For new meditators, this is difficult to discover. It can take some time before this sense of clarity and calm arises.
Can you just think happily instead?
When I first heard the concepts of meditation described to me, I remember thinking: “Surely being aware of thought can’t be better than just directing my thoughts positively. If I just remind myself to think happy thoughts, I will be in a state of bliss. There has to be a secret that doesn’t involve
wasting time meditating.”
Of course, training yourself to direct thought in a more positive manner is a worthwhile task.
However, negative thoughts will still surface. When your solution is to think positively all the time, you haven’t built an ability to withstand real adversity. Life inevitably knocks us down and when this happens, thinking positively usually goes out the window. We no longer have the energy to act and we tend to fall back into what we’re used to.
Neutrality is strength
You can think of meditation as a neutral path. Buddhists called this the “Middle Path.”
It’s not encouraging happy thoughts and it’s not discouraging negative ones. It’s embracing everything, at any moment, so that you can truly rest without having to “do something.” Your mind can be at ease with whatever is happening.
In this way, meditation doesn’t accomplish serenity through force but through an unpeeling of the onion, so to speak. It helps reveal the layers that molded you into who you are today and come to terms with them. It allows you to compassionately see and accept whatever thoughts, emotions or feelings arise.
There’s no need to change or alter your experience. There is no need for judgment. Rather, you can see things clearly and openly in a way that doesn’t fragment reality through your mind’s impulsive interpretation.
As you progress in meditation, you tend to embrace the present moment with more ease. Classically negative states of mind become less repulsive and are opportunities to strengthen your practice.
Is the self an illusion?
Many suggest that the ultimate message of Buddhism, mindfulness and meditation is that your sense of self is actually an illusion. Before dismissing this as nonsense, it’s important to distinguish what this actually means.
You obviously are a self. You have a body, a brain and are present here in the world. However, it is your sense of self, that is in question, and not your existence as a living person or self.
You can think of this like so – If you didn’t have any problems to solve or any thoughts to have, who are you, then?
Because the mind is closely identified with thought, it tends to anchor itself as the thinker. It creates an illusion that you, your sense of self, are at the center of experience. Your identity is the rider on the horse of consciousness.
In meditation, we tend to find that consciousness is open to experience and not centered anywhere in the mind. But since we are more or less constantly in thought, this can be difficult to notice without a consistent practice.
We often feel as if we are the director of attention. That there is no awareness outside of our ability to decide what to be aware of. This is likely because thought is dominant in our lives. We feel that we must analyze and have control of experience.
Mindfulness shows that experience is a moving process. It is hearing, feeling sensation, seeing light or even thinking.
Thoughts can be noticed just as sights can be seen and sensations can be felt. But yet we don’t identify with our vision or sensations. Perhaps we shouldn’t identify with our thoughts?
After all, we know that vision and sensation are experiences produced by the brain. Your ability to see is not a natural phenomenon. It is a construction of the world that your brain produces based on light’s reflection on your retina. It can be flawed, as hallucinations illustrate very clearly.
Meditation shows there is a free-flowing awareness that permeates your mind. It’s not sticky and easily hung-up, it’s child-like. It doesn’t think before it notices. It moves from one moment to the next with ease.
This is what Buddhists and meditators mean when they say the self is an illusion.
This awareness is what you actually are as your essence and your identity – a true sense of self to be derived from. Thoughts, sounds, sights and emotions arise. But through it all, there is this background awareness that you can always observe from. And from this vantage point it feels as if there is no center. There’s no point in the mind that your sense of self resides.
In other words, you’re not directing consciousness. You are consciousness. You are not just your thoughts.
If you haven’t experienced this first hand, it can all sound a bit mystical. This is why many Buddhists believed we shouldn’t talk about the self. They say the revealing of our true nature can only be experienced.
I like to believe it’s useful. By better understanding this, we can be less attached to our thoughts and emotions and understand the intellectual implications of this perspective.
The Benefits of Meditation
If you’re like most people, it is the benefits of meditation that have drawn you in. There are a lot of benefits. So many, in fact, that it’s difficult to pinpoint which ones are reasonable to expect.
Here are some of the common benefits to meditation:
- A new perspective on stress and its connection to our thoughts
- Increased self awareness and the ability to recognize unhelpful thoughts and emotions
- The ability to stay in the present moment with less distraction by thoughts
- Increased patience and tolerance for others
- A reduction in anxiety, depression and more
- Increased attention span and ability to stay focused
- Reduced age related memory loss and potentially dementia
- Increased compassionate behavior and kindness
- Can help with addiction and provide the ability to overcome urges
- Decreased blood pressure and prevention of other health concerns
Unquestionably, meditation is a great for us. While some of these benefits you can ascertain from other things such as exercise, mindfulness has a subtle and profound way of impacting the mind.
In many studies, meditation has been shown to physically change the brain and provide ongoing benefit to participants.
A Harvard study found increased cortical thickness of the hippocampus – a brain structure that serves a major role in learning, memory, and in some parts of the brain, emotional regulation.
This same study found decreased brain cell volume in the amygdala – the area of the brain that produces the fight-or-flight response and regulates fear, anxiety and stress.
A Yale study showed reduced activity in the default mode network (DNM) – the “me center” of the brain that produces mind wandering and self referential behavior.
John Hopkins conducted a study that showed consistent meditation rivals the relief provided by antidepressants for depression and anxiety. It effectively reduced symptoms to a comparable degree.
A team at Stanford found in their study that mindfulness can relieve symptoms of social anxiety by impacting brain regions involved in attention.
UCLA determined that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains with reduction in the effects of aging. Same aged non-meditators had significantly less grey matter, which is where the brain’s neuronal cell bodies are contained and the processing of information is performed.
Meditation has also been shown to be highly effective for overcoming addiction. Several studies monitored self-control regions of the brain and found that participants had a much better chance of quitting smoking when mindfulness was introduced.
How to Meditate
Please, whatever you do, don’t spend money you don’t have on learning to meditate.
Sam Harris has an excellent app called Waking Up and while it does cost money, you can simply send an email to [email protected] and ask for a free year. They approve 100% of those requests, no questions asked.
I recommend this app because it’s more than just learning to meditate. There are podcasts, guided meditations and discussions.
If you want to learn more about meditation in a formal manner, particularly the deeper truths discussed here, his book, also titled “Waking Up” is an excellent resource.
As a quick “how to” for meditation, this is all you need to know to get started:
Sit in a comfortable position, preferably upright in a chair or on the floor to prevent falling asleep.
Close your eyes and feel your body. Feel your back, if it’s resting against something. Feel your legs and the sensations there. Feel gravity weighing you down. Feel your fingers and hands.
Let this constant changing sensation dissolve into a cloud. You don’t need to direct attention to each body part, just let it flow from one sensation to the next, however it does.
When you’re ready, feel your breath and the sensations associated with it. Feel your chest or your stomach moving inward and outward. Wherever you feel the breath most, that’s okay. It could even be the tip of your nose as the air moves in and out.
When you notice a thought, simply come back to the breath. You don’t need to judge the thought or feel critical that your mind is active. Simply observe the thought and come back to the sensations of the breath.
That is it. Meditation can be as simple as this.
Each time you notice a thought – acknowledge it, observe it, and come back to being aware of the breath.
This can also be expanded where this same awareness is brought to sounds, taste, smell and sight, just as it’s done with sensation. When you realize you have become distracted by thought, become aware of the entire spectrum. Hear the sounds as they hit your eardrum. See the light and changing colors underneath your eyelids. Feel the sensations in the body.
This is what is meant by mindfulness. You have an all-encompassing awareness that can free-flow from one thing to the next without directing your attention. Whatever you notice next, allow that to be your object of meditation just as you did with the breath.
The same techniques are used in mindfulness. When a thought has interrupted and distracted you, revert back to the object of meditation. It could be whatever you happen to notice next or you could continue to use the breath as your anchor, always reverting back to the breath before opening up to everything else.
This is as complicated as breath meditation and mindfulness has to be. As you can see, there’s no need to pay exuberant amounts for this information. It can be learned in a few minutes.
Keep in mind, there are many other forms of meditation. For instance, mantra meditations have you recite a specific mantra rather than bringing awareness to the breath, sensation or sounds.
Whatever you choose, it’s more about consistency than it is about the style of practice. The more you meditate and develop your mindfulness, the more of a difference it will make in your life.