Sit still. Keep your back straight, set your arms on your knees, and sit motionless. Don’t do anything. Don’t think about anything or focus on anything but the perpetual flow of your breath… In and out, in and out. Empty your mind, relax your body. Let the nothingness of the universe engulf you.
Seriously… Set a timer for five minutes on your phone and try doing this.
(I’ll wait here for you).
(You can do it).
Alright, five minutes is up! It’s difficult, isn’t it? Even when we close our eyes, the engine of our internal dialogue starts to rev furiously. Inner dialogue is noisy, constant, and may sound something like this:
Alright, closing my eyes. Doing nothing for five minutes. Doing nothing. Nothing at all.
*Brief mental silence*
Hmmm…. shit, did I pay my bank bill yet? I hope I haven’t reached my credit limit. Damn, I’m out of milk, need to get on that. I should try to get some more protein in my diet. What’s going on this weekend? Oh wait, there’s that young professionals mixer… Hopefully there’ll be some girls there, I really need to be more proactive about meeting people. Boobs. I like boobs. Who doesn’t like boobs? I think I read some study that staring at boobs for extended periods of time was good for you. I need to be healthier; I’ve been eating way too much fast food lately.
O wait, right, emptying mind, emptying mind. Maybe I can do that weird thing monks do— NOMMMMMMMMMM. NOMMMMMM.
It’s difficult, isn’t it?
Our minds are so used to running in overdrive that when we slow down and try to idle for a few minutes, the residual momentum of our brain gears tries to kick us right back to highway cruise control.
The official term for this doing of nothing is “meditation.” There are countless articles and research on the web which describe its benefits (which I highly encourage you to search out and read) but for this write-up, I want to focus on my personal experience with meditation and mindfulness in general.
Like many young American male millennials, I was diagnosed with ADD. My freshman year of Electrical Engineering, I struggled to maintain focus both inside the classroom and outside during self study time. So I did what everyone else was doing and went to the doctors office to get the fabled, magical Adderall prescription. This seemed to be the panacea for most college students’ ailments (mainly not being able to stay up all night and study/party) so I figured it could work just as well for me.
And it did…. to an extent. My focus went up, and my retention of the material improved. However, I felt artificial. With the help of this academic performance enhancer, I was zoned into my studies, but I felt like I was muting another part of my brain. And I felt like I was taking the Lance route (too soon?) instead of finding my natural potential. So I stopped taking it.
I looked for another, natural way to improve my focus, and I found a plethora of articles online about the importance of a proper diet (read: a balanced mixed of whole, unprocessed, unaltered foods) and workout regimen to your mental soundness. Check and check on those two fronts (I’m kind of a health nut). I also found some literature about the benefits of meditation to those who struggle to focus. The most basic form I read about was “breathing meditation,” and it involved sitting in an upright position, with your eyes closed, focusing on nothing but your breath for an extended period of time.
I tried it, and it was EXTREMELY difficult at first. It was honestly one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. When your mind is running helter skelter for 20 years, then you try to put it in standby, it doesn’t come naturally. However, I kept with it— 15-20 minutes a day. And I stopped taking Adderall. Aside from the meditation, I also tried to incorporate a practice of mindfulness into my daily life. To me, this simply meant being fully awake and aware of what I was doing in the present moment and why I was doing it (why I am writing this article, anyway?). Mindfulness is a state of mind hard to come by these days with our smart phone driven, robotic, mindless lifestyles.
The change and benefits experienced from this practice of meditation and mindfulness were not sudden or drastic. My focus slowly improved, but classes were still difficult. However, looking back on it, after five years of fairly habitual meditation, I can say that my thought process, focus, and mental pathways have been radically altered… for the better. Here’s the big changes that I noticed:
1) I am more adept at catching when my mind is wandering and focusing it back on the desired path.
Stop yourself where you are right now. What are you focusing on? What’s going through your head? Are you reading this article as you’re trying to multitask with two other activities? What is your ultimate purpose of this day? Why are you doing what you’re doing? Learning to ask yourself these questions as you proceed through your day will help you give more meaning to the actions you choose to take. Don’t allow yourself to be robotically swayed by the pull of the world. Take hold of your consciousness and make a concerted effort to tap into your natural focus.
2) I have more patience and am not as quick to anger.
Whether it’s being cut off while navigating the roadways in my sleek midsize SUV or dealing with a unexpected timeline shift (URGENT: NEED BY EOD!!!) at work, I feel more relaxed and calmer in the midst of what would normally be an unsettling situation.
On the road, I am more mindful of the situation of the other person I’m encountering and why I should first seek to be empathetic towards them before choosing a state of blind anger.
At work, I try to think about why that other person might all of the sudden be escalating this need. I think about the worst thing that could happen (most likely missing a date arbitrarily set by a higher level manager), which usually puts things in perspective and settles my nerves. Then, I think about the tasks that are needed to create a deliverable in order to appease the party who is currently freaking the fuck out. Seriously bro, calm down.
3) I stop and think about the bigger picture more often.
Two or three times over the course of the day, I’ll mentally remove myself from the hustle of the here and now and just think about how vast the universe is. I’ll wonder if other intelligent life is out there. I’ll wonder about the glue that holds this whole framework of existence together. I’ll ruminate on why Europeans have bidets but Americans don’t. When you do this for a bit and return back to reality, it helps to clear your head and see things with an improved lucidity.
4) My stress levels are much lower.
While I was struggling through classes my freshman year of college, I was a wreck both physically and mentally. I literally started getting white hairs on my head. A lot of them. Stress makes you physically tired and mentally muddled. Having a period of emptiness and self-reflection via meditation every day was the first step to eradicating this default state of stress. I’m no scientist, but meditation apparently also has a direct positive impact to the physiological triggers that cause stress (like holding in your bowel movements for too long).
5) I’m much better at separating myself from my emotions.
Oftentimes, we forget that our emotions are simply the result of chemical and electrical exchanges in our brains and body. Happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and lust may come and go, but they do NOT define who we are. Unfortunately, a lot of people let themselves become victims to their emotions and never really truly discern their underlying character. Meditation will help you objectively recognize when an emotion is hijacking your thought process and allow you to override this mind terrorist and stay in the driver’s seat.