Becoming a teen father, going through a divorce and building a high-growth startup were perfect opportunities to learn more about myself. In a crushing wave, as chaos washes away the ego and displaces you outside of your comfortable bubble and all its related distractions, you’re forced to look outside-in at the way you’re living your life.
Although you can deceive yourself otherwise, the only thing you have complete control over in life is your mind. You manufacture your own chaos—the stress and the anxiety—by conjuring up the narrative of expectations surrounding it. If you lose millions investing in the stock market, you set yourself up with the expectation that you’ll hit jack pot. If you get divorced or break up, you crafted that identity as a husband, wife or significant other. Whatever the situation may be, when looking at the spectrum of thoughts and emotions between pessimistic victimization to overconfident self-absorption, I’ve sought after equilibrium. I want to be grounded in the bigger truth, even when I play.
I appreciate and practice meditation for the same benefit of self-discovery, without having to artificially throw a curve ball at my life. You begin to understand your inner dialogue—the constant chatter in your mind, and your limiting self-beliefs and where they come from. You develop a vivid awareness of what’s happening in your mind and body without labeling them as good or bad. It just is. You can struggle to fight and deny this reality, or you can accept it and find inner peace during these challenging times.
Just as you would approach any other skill, meditation progressively cultivates your attention for a clear, undistracted state of mind. It takes time and practice. But it’s not just about thinking more clearly. Because what you think is also what you experience, you can also observe and move through life more clearly, without getting caught up in vanity, ego and materialism.
Although meditation is commonly associated in a Buddhist or Hindu context, you can practice it in a spiritual vacuum without any religious beliefs. Most of the meditation content out there can be offputting because they have religious or even weird New Age vibes (e.g. chanting in Sanskrit, unlocking your chakras, magnetic forces, acoustic vibrations, crystals and so on).
The various cultural constructs that surround meditation are sometimes useful tools, but most of them evolve into gimmicks that miss the point. Beyond the cultures that originally conceived of them as spiritual frameworks, the doctrines and rituals are mistranslated and the intended meanings lost as they’ve been geographically exported and passed down generations.
Yes, the exotic and the weird can be a nice hack to transport you out of your day-to-day mind set. For example, using Sanskrit mantras such as Ham-Sa during your breathing meditation avoids tapping your brain for any unnecessary associated thoughts or emotions to common English words you’ve lived with all your life. But you should be aware of the purpose of these beliefs and rituals and not blindly follow them as a brainwashed disciple.
Basic mindfulness meditation strips away the religious doctrines and beliefs, and it focuses on what matters: calming your mind and grounding you in the present. It’s important with this exercise to let go of expectations. Expecting a certain result from meditation—for example, a feeling of transcendence—is another form of pain you are inflicting upon yourself. If you seek it out you won’t find it.
Here is my personal technique for simple, bare bones meditation.
- First, remove and prevent possible distractions. Silence your phone, close your computer and retreat to a location where no one will unknowingly or accidentally disturb you while you are deep in meditation.
- Set a timer. I use the Insight Timer app because the interface is easy—considering it’s been designed for this purpose—and you can set sounds to warm up, begin and end the session. With that said, Insight Timer is bloated with unnecessary guided meditations in the developer’s effort to monetize, so if you don’t support that feature you can really use any other timer. Whether you meditate first thing in the morning or mid-day, you’ll generally be in the midst of your daily schedule of work and life, so it’s challenging to meditate without a pre-determined time block. Your anxiety can easily take over and botch the meditation session while you wonder how much time has passed or if you’re missing an appointment or meeting because you’ve gone over time. So with a timer you can at least compartmentalize and set aside this line of distracting thought—one less thing to worry about. Provide yourself with a comfortable box of time. Start at 10 minutes and gradually work your way up to 30 minutes of meditation.
- Sit comfortably. The common positions are sitting upright in a chair or sitting cross-legged with the back straight. It doesn’t have to be the cliché lotus position, but if that’s what’s most comfortable for you that’s fine too. You’re doing this for yourself and not to please others, and it’s a gimmick if you try to appear a certain way for vanity. What’s important is assuming a position that is relaxing while you can stay alert and aware. Not so comfortable where you’re slouching or laying down and you could easily fall asleep, but not so tense that you are straining to keep the position. The physical position itself is a metaphor for this exercise of finding balance. Also consider how you place your hands, because that can become a distraction and a point of tension as well.
- Close your eyes and become aware of all your senses. Settle into your body. Slow down your breath to a relaxed, calm state. Feel the points of contact with the seat or ground beneath you. Begin noticing the tensions, warmth & cold, and the vibrations in and around your body. Take in the scent in the air. Bring your attention to the sounds in the ambiance surrounding you. Here you observe and accept without labeling the sensations with judgment.
- Now shift your attention to different points in the body, beginning from the head down to your feet. As you focus your entire attention on that body part, notice the feelings there. I like to go in this order: starting with the top of the head, back of the neck & shoulders, abdomen, lower back, arms & hands, and ending with the legs & feet. It’s like a mental massage where your attention is giving compassionate care to all points of your body. If there’s physical pain somewhere, you can choose to go with the flow, or take the opportunity to study what the pain actually feels like and its root cause.
- Now focus your attention on your breath. Pick a point in the body where you notice the breathing most. It can be your nostrils, the pulse in your neck or your abdomen rising and falling. Notice the inhale and exhale. You can also mentally count the breaths to help keep the attention. The point is to place a mental marker that can gently nudge the attention back when you notice it strays. Every time your mind wanders, just bring it back to your breath.
- As you do keep your attention focused on the breath, you’ll naturally receive thoughts, emotions and physical sensations. Simply observe these as a witness to what’s happening. You’ll begin to notice the common pattern. They come, change in your mind and pass. Everything is a transitory experience.