My 15+ Year (On-And-Off) Experience With Meditation And Mindfulness
In my early 20s, I had a period of a couple of years where I would meditate daily for anywhere between 20 to 90 minutes per session, sometimes with multiple sessions throughout the day.
During that time I also read and studied a lot about meditation and consciousness, and I had even participated in a 10-day silent mediation retreat (which I left after only 2 of the 10 days… but that’s a story for another time…).
Then, for roughly 7 years, I dropped nearly all of my meditation practices.
Finally, for the past 4 years, I’ve been trying to get back into meditation, but I have not been consistent with it. I might meditate every day for a couple of weeks and then go for a month or two without a single session.
I am far from an expert, but I do have some thoughts based on the different experiences I’ve had with meditation over the years. Specifically, from the point of view of someone who went from consistently meditating every day, to not meditating at all, to having to restart meditating from scratch.
The Problem With The Word “Meditation”
There’s a lot of semantic confusion around the word “meditation.”
People often use meditation, mindfulness, visualization, stillness, etc. interchangeably, and this makes it confusing to those who are new to the world of meditation.
To me, the word “meditation” is very similar to the word “exercise.” In my mind, exercise means training for the body, and meditation means training for the mind.
Just like there are many different types of exercise (yoga, bodybuilding, powerlifting, cardio, HIIT, etc.), so are there many types of meditation (mantra, TM, open awareness, mindfulness, Vipassana, walking meditation, chakra meditation, loving-kindness, etc.). And just like with exercise, different types of meditation are used for different purposes and have different benefits. However, again, just like with exercise, there’s also a lot of crossover in the benefits received from different types of meditation. For example, just like bodybuilding, yoga, and powerlifting all build strength to some degree, so do mindfulness, chakra, and TM strengthen focus and concentration to some degree.
I believe that the key to starting a meditation practice is to first figure out what is the outcome, or benefit, you’re looking to gain from it in the first place. Once you figure out what you’re hoping to gain, then you can choose a meditation style that is best suitable for that.
Many people take up mediation because it’s a popular trend, and because they hear that many of the top CEOs, Investors, and Athletes use it. The problem with this is that many of the benefits of meditation take a long time to show up, and require a lot of practice over a long period of time (of course, the same applies to physical exercises as well). So people end up giving up because they didn’t see immediate benefits from the practice, and they’re not clear on why they’re trying to meditate in the first place.
The Map Is Not The Territory
I’ll start by saying that it’s very difficult to describe the experience of mindfulness and meditation.
It’s like trying to describe the experience of seeing something. You can describe the shape, texture, and color of what you saw, but none of those describe the actual experience of seeing.
Of course, this is an inherent limitation of language. The words I use will always be at least two layers away from the actual experience: first, the layer of my attempt to express my experience through the language I have available, and second, the layer of your interpretation of the language I use.
That’s why they say: The map is not the territory.
A map is an attempt to capture and describe a territory. But of course, even the best map of a territory would never be able to capture the full detail of the territory it represents.
This is how I feel about meditation, and why I recommend listening to experienced mediation teachers (I like Sam Harris) talk about mindfulness and meditation. They are much better equipped to draw a more accurate map. Over the years, they have developed the necessary vocabulary, and have learned how to explain things in a very nuanced and effective way that captures what the meditative experience is actually like.
However, for now, I’ll do my very best to try and explain my experience in a way that attempts to capture its essence.
A Broken TV Finally Gets Repaired
One of the things I noticed when I was meditating consistently was the experience of having the world around me slow down. As I go about my daily life, I often fall into the trap of being so busy and productive that life passes me by in one big blur. Days blend into weeks which blend into months, and it sometimes feels like I’m sleep-walking, or sleep-running, through my life. Interestingly, the more productive I am, and the more I accomplish in a week, the more of a blur the week ends up being.
When I used to meditate consistently (at least 20 minutes every day), I would notice many more moments throughout the day where it was as if time slowed down.
All of the sudden, I would feel perfectly clear, present, and aware.
During those moments, it felt as if I was experiencing life and the world around me for the very first time. I would notice the faintest of sounds, sights, smells, sensations around me. Of course, these details were always there, but my brain would normally filter them out because they were not relevant to what I was doing. During these moments, it felt like I’ve been living my life watching a broken TV with a blurry picture, and all of a sudden it got fixed and everything became crystal clear and 100-times more vivid.
These moments remind me of the movie The Matrix, where Neo starts to see everything around him in slow motion and vivid detail. Unfortunately, the world around me did not transform into a flowing construction of green, rapidly-flashing zeros and ones like it did in the movie. But, I did feel the slowing of time and an increased clarity and awareness of the world around me.
As I kept practicing meditation on a consistent daily basis, I started having more of these moments throughout the day, and I noticed that I was able to stay in each moment for increasingly longer periods of time.
Having these moments of presence and awareness throughout my days brought a deeper sense of peace, joy, and fulfillment into my life.
At the peak of my practice, I felt that my days stopped passing by in a blur.
Instead, I felt like I was able to experience and savor more of each day, and consequently, I was able to live and enjoy my life more fully. The whole experience made me feel like up until that point, I was sleep-walking in some sort of a trance, and only now was I finally truly awake. However, all of this only began to reveal itself after a long period of consistent meditation practice combined with many hours of reading about and studying mindfulness and meditation to prime my mind so it can better understand the experience.
The Gap Between Stimulus And Response
One of the other benefits I noticed from meditating consistently was that I felt more peaceful and less reactive.
At the peak of my meditation practice, I felt very peaceful, calm, and centered. I noticed that I wouldn’t get stressed out or emotionally triggered like I used to. Many of the things that used to bother me and stress me out lost their effect. It’s like I was going through life with this big fishing net. Before meditation, the holes in the net were very small so a lot of things got caught in it and disturbed my peace of mind. After developing a consistent meditation practice, I felt like the holes in the net got bigger, so a lot of things that used to get caught in the net and bother me just floated right through and didn’t disturb my peace of mind.
Just to be clear, this doesn’t mean that I was perfectly peaceful all the time. Far from it. There were still times when I experienced negative thoughts and emotions, but I found that this was the exception, not the norm. I also felt that the intensity and duration of my negative thoughts and emotions significantly decreased. I could notice myself have an emotional reaction, and that awareness alone would loosen some of its hold on me.
Over time, as I stuck to my meditation practice, I also started to notice that the gap between external stimulus and my response was getting bigger.
Here’s what I mean:
In all of us, there exists a tiny gap between what happens to us in life and our reaction to it. This gap allows us to become aware of our initial, knee-jerk reaction, and choose whether to act on it or not.
For many people, that gap is so small it’s as if it doesn’t even exist. This is what you would call being hyper-reactive: something happens, and the person automatically reacts in their instinctual and habitual way without their conscious mind getting involved in the reaction.
We’ve all been in situations where we’ve become aware during this gap, and chose to behave in a different way than what our initial reaction dictated.
For example, someone says something insensitive to us, and despite our initial reaction of anger or upset, we choose to assume they didn’t do it on purpose or that we misunderstood something, and we calm down and let it slide. On the other hand, I’m sure we’ve all had the opposite experience of getting carried away by our emotions and initial reaction, only to, later on, realize we overreacted and misread the situation.
For me, the practice of meditation drove a wedge into this gap and made it bigger.
Having a bigger gap between stimulus and response allows you to become more aware and observe your thoughts, emotions, and reactions. It also enhances your ability to choose whether to act on them or not. It gives you a chance to take back control from your automatic and habitual reactions, which may or may not be useful in a given situation. It allows you to stop moving through the world on auto-pilot. This goes hand-in-hand with the idea of slowing down time that I mentioned before.
The Many Benefits Of Meditation
I hope this gave you a good idea of at least some of the benefits you might gain from starting a regular meditation practice.
There are also many more benefits I have not discussed such as increased focus and concentration, increased creativity, improved self-esteem, improved ability to break bad habits, better interpersonal relationships, and many others.
As I mentioned before, I would look into the different types of meditation to better understand the benefits each one offers, and choose the one that is most suitable for your goals.
I also highly recommend Sam Harris’s meditation app, Waking Up. The explanations are very clear, practical, and down to earth. It uses a combination of guided meditations along with lessons that explain the finer details of the practice.
Meditation can be life-changing, but just like physical exercise, it requires a disciplined, consistent approach, and lots of patience to start to see the full range of its many benefits. Even though it’s a challenge to incorporate a meditation practice into our already busy lives, I also believe it’s one of the most important skills anyone can learn for living a more beautiful, more joyful, and more fulfilling life.
Let me know what you thought, and if you have any questions for me.