An Ode to Meditation and its Only Lesson
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“As physical exercise trains the body, meditation trains the mind.”
How it started
Some time ago I wrote about my understanding of being, simply being. My understanding, while nowhere near complete, originated from a meditation practise that I started a few years ago. While my practice has been on and off since then, at some point I realised that in order to really explore and appreciate the benefits of meditation, I had to commit to it.
Not only did I need to commit to doing it, but I also needed to commit time to doing it. As it turns out, that’s not a small thing to do, and while there have been many days that I’d have rather gone without it, I stuck to my guns and continued the habit.
An old saying that has stuck with me since I first came across meditation in a practised sense, went something like this:
As physical exercise trains the body, meditation trains the mind.
And boy, have I come to know this statement to be true. On those days where I really didn’t feel like sitting down to meditate, when I came out the other side I had the same sense of relief and accomplishment that you get when you walk out of the gym after convincing yourself to finally pick up some weights. Even if you didn’t want to do it in the first place (whether you’re being lazy or whatever you’re happily telling yourself) you always feel grateful in hindsight. Meditation is the same.
And so I continued my journey. Through highs and lows, moonlight and sunlight, every single day I would sit down to meditate in some form or another. Has it been worth it? Absolutely. And as we recently celebrated World Meditation Day, I wanted to share some of the insights I’ve managed to gather from my practice.
How it’s going
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt along this mental journey, over a year into it, it’s that meditation isn’t thinking (or even the absence of thinking) but rather meditation is awareness. It’s awareness of our thoughts, our emotions, our physical sensations. Meditation is seeing something for what it is, unattached to it so that we can observe it and appreciate it for whatever purpose it may hold. But, of course, I have learnt more than one thing, so here are a few others.
1. It’s okay to pray in your car
Let me tell you something, no matter what people tell you (yes, I am aware of the irony of that statement) the act of meditation can be whatever you want it to be. Allow me to elaborate with a short story.
I’ve never been much of a religious person; spiritual, occasionally, but never religious. One of the biggest problems I had with organised religion at the time of its introduction into my life, was the organised part. Religion was too restrictive for me, and as a teenager, who wants to be told all the things they can’t do? Needless to say, it never caught on for me, and quite frankly, I have no problem with that. One of those particular restrictions was when and where I understood you were prescribed to pray.
I could never understand why it was only in a church that you were allowed to ask for forgiveness, or, to pray for something to happen at the foot of your bed every night. I know that thinking was juvenile, but only in hindsight, because now I understand the world is bigger than four walls and an alter.
How my family and I came to terms with our own conflicts with religion, was that we realised that it was okay to pray wherever you bloody-well wanted. Who cares if it’s on a Sunday on a folded chair, or in your shower first thing in the morning?
I remember sitting in a car on my way somewhere with a family member I won’t name, and we talked about why it would be a problem if you wanted to pray in your car. And, honestly, we couldn’t come up with a good enough reason not to. If you wanted to pray in your car, then why not? A prayer is a prayer, as long as it’s deeply intentional, right?
Why I illustrate this point using this story, is that my meditation practice has simply proven that thinking to me, time and time again. A lot of us think that meditation is sitting cross-legged on a carpet, barefoot and draped in a linen robe when in actual fact you can meditate while going for a walk. You also don’t have to meditate with your eyes closed (shocker, I thought so too at first).
What matters is that your meditation is practised with intention and awareness, no matter the type of meditation that you do. I’ve done running meditations, where I focus on my breath and the sensations of my feet hitting the road beneath them; I’ve done eating meditations, where I maintain awareness of the flavours of my meal and respect their origins; and I’ve done sleeping meditations, where I practice shutting down my muscles and preparing for deep sleep. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do it with intention and awareness. And while perhaps there are instances where I’ve felt that a particular type of meditation was silly at first, they’ve always deepened my practice in some way or another, which in turn deepens my awareness of the world around me.
2. Change is good
Change is scary, especially when it happens without us either realising or having control of it; but another thing I’ve learnt through meditation is that everything is in constant flux. Everything changes. Sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse; but, everything always changes. There’s no stopping that.
Probably one of the scariest forms of change that I have experienced is in my thoughts and ideas. You think that you know something, that you believe in something, until suddenly it changes. It’s scary when your awareness about an idea is jolted and thrown into the unknown; but, sometimes, ideas change gradually. In fact, there’s a word for this that you might already know of: learning.
We are constantly changing our ideas and our perspectives. Whether we like it or not, we’re always learning. The only difference when meditation and a practice of awareness enters the picture, is that we notice that we’re learning while it’s happening. We start to see the pieces changing, and we can appreciate the process for what it is in its purest form: constant flux.
This isn’t a bad thing, either, and it’s also not a good thing. It just is. You can either accept that or you can’t, but it doesn’t change the fact that it happens. All you can do is then decide to use that perspective to see its potential and action change that will be good. Either for you or the world around you.
Change happens, and there’s nothing you can do to change that.
3. Patience is a practice (not a virtue)
We like to think that patience is an innate ability that we have. We either have a lot of it or very little of it. In reality, however, we can both gain and lose patience depending on how we practice it. While it wasn’t a direct goal when I started meditating over time, I started to find myself becoming far more patient about things than I had been before.
Strangely, patience is a common result of awareness. When we are aware of something, and not springing to action on it, we are indirectly allowing it to simmer, so to speak. Patience is time, but it’s time that we choose to give to something, as opposed to time that simply passes without intention.
When we are patient with something, we are choosing to not act on it for one reason or another. When we practice awareness (for whatever you choose to) we start to see more time being given to that awareness. And when we give time to something, an often guaranteed result is clarity, and with clarity comes focus, and with focus comes intention; more than often sprinkled with a fair amount of certainty. Ergo, when we give more time to something, we are often clearer on why we are doing it, and whether or not it is the right thing to do.
Where am I going with this? Patience is considered a virtue because we hold the result of a patient action in high regard, but we need not limit ourselves with how patient we believe we are. It can change (there’s that word again) and it can both grow or wither depending on how we practice it.
Meditation fosters awareness, and awareness is not mutually exclusive with patience. And who wouldn’t like a little more patience?
4. Conflict resolution
One of the reasons I did originally want to explore meditation, was because I sought more control of myself in moments of conflict. I hate conflict. It terrifies me, and it would often paralyse me. Even in situations where I knew conflict would be inevitable, I would catch myself like a deer in headlights before it even happened. I wasn’t happy with that, and so I wanted to learn how to manage conflict better. As it turns out, conflict management has nothing to do with managing the other person involved, and everything to do with managing yourself.
When you are aware of a situation, either the situation itself or what brought you to it, you can understand it for what it is. Often conflict arises because we are not fully cognisant of all the sides of a story, we only see our own and therefore cannot understand that of another, which leads to conflict if you are not willing to be open to the full story.
By learning to control yourself, you can take control of a situation (or simply guide it where you believe it should go) because you can maintain your composure better. Also, I must note that “controlling” a situation does not always mean “winning” the conflict, but instead means not allowing it to escalate beyond where mutual resolution is possible.
Meditation often teaches how to control fundamental physical processes, namely breathing, which in turn allows you to control your heart rate and blood pressure. Have you ever noticed how your heart rate spikes when you’re in conflict (or even the idea of conflict at times)? That’s because your body ramps up the production of adrenaline, which fuels our evolutionary fight-or-flight instinct, and it gets you ready for whatever conflict you are about to walk into. Funnily enough, as our heart rate affects our breathing (because when our heart rate increases, we naturally need to deliver more oxygen to areas of the body) so can this process happen in reverse. By controlling our breathing more intentionally, we can directly change our heart rate to suit our needs, whether we choose to increase it or decrease it; directly giving us more cognitive control over a situation we find ourselves in.
This does, however, take a great amount of practice; but I can say with some success, that meditation has taught me how to manage my conflicts better. I might not always come out on top, but they are far more amicably resolved than I have experienced in the past. In fact, there have been many times that I have instantly averted a conflict purely because of how I managed the moments leading up to it.
Meditation teaches awareness, and awareness fosters control if we practice it. And through control, we can better manage our conflicts and lead them towards resolutions previously unattainable.
5. Forests and their trees
Ideas can take many forms, and as many forms as they can take, so can they be taken from many perspectives. Each and every one of us has an incredibly unique sense of lived experience, a lived experience of which directly influences how we see the world and the rest of us in it. But we also need not stay fixed in our own perspectives. Ever heard of the term “Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes”? While this particular quote has been iterated as many times as you can imagine, it carries with it a profound lesson: empathy.
With awareness, we have the ability to see different perspectives for what they are and where they come from, which grant us the opportunity to practice empathy. We can see our own tree in the forest, and through a practice of meditation, we can train the mind to travel through the trees on our left and our right. While holding our own perspective, rather lightly, we can begin to imagine a mile walked in someone else’s shoes. We have the awareness to experience that moment for what it is, and for what that perspective means to someone else; we have the patience to allow it to happen; we have the control to manage that experience, and we have suddenly crafted the opportunity to learn something.
Finally, we can see the forest for the trees, and we can appreciate the lushness it provides, whatever the intention.
A final thought
Funnily enough, where I originally thought meditation would teach me the skills I wanted to learn, all it really did was teach me a framework for learning. I didn’t learn to listen to my friends and family better, I learnt how to listen better in general, to myself to start with. And I didn’t learn to manage conflict better, I learned how to approach conflict better.
Meditation teaches you one thing, and one thing only: awareness. Only when you are aware, of your surroundings, of your body, and of your mind, that is when the real learning begins.