Note: This is the final post to the four-part series Finding Our Mental Sweet Spot. To Read the entire series visit my Publications link.
We are living through troubling and uncertain times. A global pandemic is taking the lives of thousands of souls each day. On the political front, this has been an anxiety-filled year in American life, and everyone is holding their breath to see if our democracy will survive another week.
Our natural response to this chaos is to “fight or take flight.” And we are all doing a hell of a job at it. Collectively, our fight responses are operating in full combat mode. We are all feeling compelled – no matter what our political persuasion – to do everything we can to bring stability back into our lives.
So, this may not seem like the best time to talk about meditation – and yet, it is the perfect time. If that is, you would like to discover a new way to restore balance in your life.
Take a mental head trip to relax
I understand the resistance. Our inclination is to stay in the heat of the battle, to keep feeding off the information coming at us and firing back with our opinions to combat perceived threats. But think of meditation as an opportunity to take flight; to enjoy a head-trip of sorts. To disengage from social media and the hysteria of life if only for a few minutes. To breathe and collect your thoughts, gain perspective about the best course of action, and to re-energize to fight another day.
When it comes to meditation there’s a lot to talk about. There are things that beginners or novices might want to know, and there are dynamics of meditation that can only be experienced after years of practice. What I wanted to write about today is the single best reason you should start meditating. But once I’ve covered this, I also want to offer advanced insight about just how powerful meditation can go towards establishing permanent equanimity to your life.
What’s the best reason to start meditating?
That’s easy. Meditation gives you the chance to simply catch your breath. Yet, this is an understatement, because designating time to sit and breathe produces real changes to your mind, body and spirit.
Here’s the quick “biology lesson” writer McKenna Princing describes in this Right as Rain article.
“Your autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary actions like heart rate and digestion, is split into two parts. One part, the sympathetic nervous system, controls your fight-or-flight response. The other part, the parasympathetic nervous system, controls your rest and relax response. These two parts of your nervous system can’t be turned on at the same time, which means if you work to activate one, the other will be suppressed. [Italics mine.]
The upshot to all this is, simply focusing on the in and out rhythms of your breathing is the “how-to” part of learning how to meditate. It’s just not that complicated. Focused breathing also happens to be one of the most effective ways to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system and restore a sense of balance in your life.
Changes you can expect in the first year of meditating
When you first start meditating, you’ll quickly discover it’s hard to focus on breathing for any sustained period of time. In the weeks and months to come, however, you can work your way up to sitting for 10, 20, and 30 or more minutes at a stretch completely focused on your breathing.
During this initial learning period, you’ll start noticing subtle changes occurring within your thought processes and overall mental state. You should expect to feel much calmer and less prone to mood swings. You should also experience an increased ability to focus and stay on task. And you should also expect to feel greater emotional stability and mental clarity.
In actuality, you will experience a variety of positive and consequential changes during the first six to twelve months of meditation – many of which will surprise you.
To offer two quick examples … at some point within my first year of meditation I no longer experienced road rage. It simply disappeared one day, and I’ve never felt it since. Meditation also helped me to stop rehashing things that happened in the past. It freed me from a lot of negativity, and helped me to move on from painful memories.
These are just a few of the advantages that can be reaped by meditating, and these changes can go a long way towards helping to restore balance in a person’s life.
Forms of meditation are now being used in a variety of different contexts. Buddhists have used it as a gateway to enlightenment for centuries. Meditation is now being utilized for anything from pain management, to having better sex, to mental training for sports athletes. Most of these avenues all begin with some variation of concentration on the breath before deviating into other paths of thought to achieve different results.
While focusing on the breath has its own rewards which I discussed above, the added benefit of meditation is to invite a person to achieve deeper levels of concentration so they may gain clearer insight into different areas of life. A term you may have heard is “insight meditation.” The trick to gaining insight is twofold: It’s important to acquire a certain level of mental attentiveness, and this is acquired through proper breathing. Once this level of absorption has been established, a person can use this heightened mental perception and channel it towards gaining a better understanding about whatever they want.
As a free thinker, I enjoy the balance meditation brings to my life. But I primarily use meditation to enhance my free-thinking skills. I’m not interested in using it as a path to achieve a level of perfection or enlightenment. (I don’t believe either of these options is even possible.) Rather, I meditate to gain a better understanding about myself and how life works.
Naturally, this involves thinking about everything. This might seem like a ginormous task, but it really amounts to just gaining a better understanding about the flow of life. To keep things simple in my head, I break it up into three general categories of thought you might find helpful:
- Observations about life
- Personal insights
- Understanding universal principles
These concepts may seem abstract, but they really aren’t. What this all boils down to is that after I’ve achieved a certain level of mental acuity through breathing, I make a concerted effort to better understand the thoughts and ideas floating around in my mind. My goal is to investigate how the events and circumstances in my life are influencing my thought processes, and consequently, how those thoughts are affecting my emotions and mental states.
You can imagine how beneficial this can be. Many people move through life at the speed of blur getting bounced around by random events and never being able to comprehend why things are happening to them. Meditation gives a person the opportunity to start connecting the dots. It helps to expand the level of awareness so that a person can actually “see” how their thoughts flow. It opens up a whole new area of exploration in which one can come to understand how and why things happen, and how the events and circumstances of their life affects their emotions and mental states. And when you can see all this happening in real-time in your mind, it puts you back in control.
Yet, it’s also important to consider the third point I mention, which is taking the time to reflect upon all of the other “higher-level” factors in life that influence our thinking processes. What I’m referring to is a host of other complex dynamics in life that we all ponder such as:
- universal concepts like compassion and love
- getting a better understanding of human nature
- contemplating the merits of religious or philosophical belief systems
- considering the ramifications of politics and culture
- reflecting on grand themes such as justice, equality or freedom of speech
- or simply, pondering the meaning of life
Everyone, of course, thinks about many of these dynamics throughout their days. So, I don’t want to give the false impression that I understand more to life than anybody else. All I am saying is, that meditation brings such clarity of thought that it greatly enhances our ability to understand ourselves and the world around us. And having this kind of insight goes a long way towards providing balance to our lives.