Because he has been practicing Vipassana meditation for many years, I was eager to pick my friend Max’s brain about his experience. His story was bitter sweet, beginning with the death of his father. But, as you’ll see, his practice was an important tool in helping him to get past that tragedy. And it has improved his life in many ways. Here’s what he told me:
How did you come to meditation?
I found meditation after I lost my father to cancer. I was trying to dig myself out of the depression that set in after that experience. Most of the time, I just wasn’t happy but didn’t know why, what to do about it, or who to turn to.
I discovered a book: Mindfulness in Plain English. It explained the Buddhist belief that all of life is suffering; that we connect daily events and emotions to suffering. It also provided guidance on training the mind to become an observer, untying ourselves from our attachment to pain. An important tool to do that is meditation.
Did you notice immediate benefits?
When I first started meditating, it was more of an experiment. I wasn’t convinced that it “worked.” I tried to keep expectations to a minimum and experience whatever came up.
The first challenge was just mustering up the willpower to sit. In the beginning, I probably practiced no more than once or twice a week. And it took a while before I actually had any realization I felt was worth noting. But here’s what I soon figured out: once you get to your seat, whether the experience is pleasant or miserable, whether you are in pain the entire time or a state of bliss, the important thing is that you are there. Once I made it a point to be consistent and made meditation a priority regardless of what else was going on in my life, things started to fall into place.
Over time, I noticed other benefits like greater mental clarity, improvements in my organizational skills, a heightened sense of awareness and an increased ability to listen to others. Now, I don’t worry as much about myself and I find it easier to refrain from getting sucked in to triggers of anger, jealousy, impatience, frustration, sadness, etc. And some of the realizations I make while sitting still blow me away. I never know what my mind will throw at me.
When did you begin to think that it was “working” and what did that even mean for you?
I think the tipping point came at sometime during the first year I practiced. I finished a session and just felt a sense of bliss. My mind was clear. I noticed individual leaves on the trees in my backyard. The clouds were more beautiful than I had ever seen them. My interactions with people for the rest of the day felt more genuine, selfless, and rich. I felt like I was on some sort of drug without the hallucinogenic side effects. I had awareness of being alive and in the present moment.
But I want to be clear that, for the most part, I don’t have these kind of experiences filled with vivid sensations and awareness. I embrace them when they come, but they’re not why I practice. I meditate because it takes me out of the constant cyclone of day-to-day thought. The idea of expecting any particular result is actually counter-intuitive to the goal of mindfulness which is letting go, observing objectively, and becoming aware of all that is happening.
All that said, have you had any mystical, metaphysical experiences?
I have had a feeling of floating. Once, I felt my father in the room with me. I have had the experience of forgetting where I am and envisioning strange beings. But those were tangents and not really the point.
When you are able to focus and still your mind, sometimes crazy things happen that make you think differently and believe in things you didn’t before. But these are not the goals of meditation. They, too, are just distractions that require you to return to a concentrated point of focus or anchor (for example, your breath or a mantra).
What if my mind just won’t turn off when I try to meditate?
That’s the thing: your mind is not going to turn off. Restlessness and boredom are a regular part of the practice for me. And my brain won’t shut up either. Ever. It never will. That’s our human survival instinct filling us with enough anxiety so we know when to run from danger.
But actually, that’s not only OK, it’s the entire point. Continually bringing your mind, gently, back to your anchor is the practice. Take the opportunity to observe your mind and emotions. Notice the physical sensations, even if it is discomfort. Observe your response to the challenges and obstacles you encounter and let that serve as a guide as your practice evolves.
Our minds are kind of crazy; they like to play tricks on us. They lead us into twisted stories, jealous thoughts, and sometimes very dark places. But just take a mental step back, observe, and practice letting go.
What if I am really struggling every time I sit?
I used to really struggle because there were major frustrations I needed to come to terms with. But now, I actually find it pleasant to sit. The experience is something I crave and look forward to. But there are definitely still times when I find it challenging: when I’m feeling depressed, frustrated or just generally overwhelmed. But I know these are the times when I actually need meditation the most. So I’ve come to cherish those sessions, despite the challenge. And if I’m feeling so exhausted that I can’t keep my eyes open, I take that as a sign that my body needs sleep more than it needs meditation.
Can you describe your practice?
I set a timer, sit down in a comfortable seat and take three deep breaths. I relax my face and body as much as possible. Then I close my eyes. The entire time I sit, my concentrated point of focus is on the rims of my nostrils. That is my anchor. In a perfect world, the entire session would be solely focused on the feeling of the breaths and the pauses as they relate to the rims of my nostrils (the feeling of breath, where the sensation is, what the texture feels like, what the lack of sensation during pauses feels like).
But I am human. So my mind usually jumps into thought pretty immediately. That realization (“oh my mind just took me to ___”) is mindfulness. You become aware of where your mind is drifting. You step back, observe the crazy flow of the thought, wait for it to pass, and gently return your attention back to your anchor. Each time you successfully return is a great success. The practice of doing this over and over is a way to separate your mind from the constant flow of thought that it is usually tied to.
This analogy was really helpful to me: imagine your mind is a glass of muddy water. The longer the cup of muddy water sits still, the more the mud settles to the bottom and the water becomes clearer. Similarly, the longer you sit still and quiet in meditation, the more your mind is able to settle down and experience the present moment.
How often do you meditate?
I try to meditate once every day, but usually end up getting in about five sessions a week. I try to get in at least 10 minutes, regardless of how busy I am that day. If have the time, I will sit for upwards of 50 to 55 minutes.
What would you say to encourage someone else to meditate?
Everyone’s path is different, so I don’t go out of my way to “spread the word.” Even though I am a believer and think everybody would benefit from meditation in some way, it’s a choice. I try only to suggest it to someone if I think they could really use it. And, of course, I will help those that express an interest in it. But I try to be polite about pushing it on others.
If you are interested, though, I really encourage you to take advantage of what’s already out there: read a book, join a community, or listen to a guided meditation. Educate yourself on how and why to meditate. I can’t say enough about Mindfulness in Plain English, which can be read online for free. It was life-changing.