The other day I was at a friend’s house for a little gathering and the subject of meditation came up. The women at this gathering discussed the many ways meditation had helped them, or what they thought were benefits of meditation based on what they’ve experienced from friends and family.
We all seemed to agree that meditation was a good habit, and that it was important to not get caught up in the idea that it has to be done correctly or for a certain amount of time. Any time you can just sit quietly, take a break, breathe and observe your thoughts, even if it’s for five minutes, was a good thing.
There is a common misconception that meditation is about suppressing thought. Meditation is not about “not thinking” but rather allowing the thoughts, observing them, and then going back to the breath. In this way, meditation is a way for us to let go of our attachment to the meaning we assign to our thoughts.
Detaching ourselves from the emotional triggers our thoughts create is one simple and very important benefit to meditation.
I’ll offer an example from my own experience with meditation. Many years ago I was taking an online meditation class at Naropa for my graduate degree. We were required to sit at least 20 minutes per day and journal about it afterward. I hadn’t done any serious daily meditation before. I’d meditated only a handful of times before and with a group. Never alone and never consistently.
I was ready to see what it’d be like to have a consistent practice. I prepared my space. I put down a couple of couch pillows on the floor. I set up a timer on my phone so I wouldn’t constantly be watching the clock. I got into a comfortable position and touched the “start” button.
The first few times I meditated I kept glancing at the timer, thinking that surely at least 20 minutes had passed, when in fact it had only been five or ten. It was excruciating to sit still doing…nothing. My thoughts started lining up.
My back feels stiff. What if I start fidgeting. Will that be wrong?
Back to the breath…
There’s a lot of dust under the entertainment unit. Ugh. I have to dust that later.
I can’t forget to make that appointment today.
Back to the breath…
Will I have time to get that project done and do this meditation, too?
I wonder what I’ll make for dinner? Not now, back to the breath.
…and so on.
At first, I was totally “buying into” these thoughts. I would start to feel anxious, overwhelmed, disgusted even. I was a terrible house keeper. I had too much work to do. I wasn’t totally happy with my work because if I were, I wouldn’t feel so stressed all the time. Why was I so forgetful lately?
The meditation felt excruciating because I wanted to keep DOING instead of just “sitting there” obsessing over something.
After a couple of weeks of this, I noticed a pattern. I noticed that the same exact thoughts would come up, day in and day out. The noticing of the dirt and dust in the room as I sat with my eyes open with a soft gaze. The discomfort of my position because my core was weak. The sense of overwhelm about all the things on my to-do list that day.
That’s when things began to shift, ever so slightly. Instead of feeling anxious over the many things I believed I had to do that were pilling up and creating ever-increasing urgency, I began to look at the thoughts themselves with a little bit of irritation. Why was I so obsessive? Why was it so hard to relax for 20 minutes and let things go? The world (and my to-do list) wasn’t going anywhere for 20 minutes. Why was my brain making it so difficult for me to just sit?
I was really judging myself!
After another couple of weeks, I began to look at my irritation in a different way. I saw that I was resisting, but what I was resisting was the letting go. I wasn’t resisting taking 20 minutes away from my schedule to just sit, I was resisting the idea that I stopped buying into the idea that the thoughts themselves were all that important.
Was it really that important that the room had pockets of hidden dust that I hadn’t cleaned?
Was it really that important that I get everything done on my to-do list a week ahead of schedule?
Was it really that important that I be absolutely 100% comfortable at all times?
What I was witnessing was the ego having its little power struggle. As Eckhart Tolle would say, our ego wants us to believe that it is much more important than it really is. It wants to be in control. It doesn’t want to be released or gently set aside. Letting go of our sense of importance is really one of the most difficult things we can do, but it can be the most liberating.
And that is the one simple reason to meditate, in my opinion: To observe those repetitive thoughts and be able to unplug from them, and to be able to unplug from our ego’s sense of importance. This allows us to have more inner peace, because we are not always in some sort of competition with the world, our schedule or our ego’s idea of happiness and success
After several months of daily meditation, I was able to look at a thought that came up—about the dust or the to-do list—and chuckle. “Oh, right. You again.”