It’s taken me a very long time to understand what meditation is for. When I first started to practice, I assumed that the time I’d spend on the bench was in preparation for something else. By sitting down and counting my breath (one-in-out-two-in-out) my brain was being molded in a way that would manifest elsewhere. I assumed that meditation was a ritual, and that like most magic it would work in ways I wasn’t looking for, that it would surprise me with its effectiveness when I needed it to. An incredibly stressful situation would arise, and suddenly I would get through it with grace, focus and clarity without knowing how it happened. One day, just like Neo in The Matrix, my eyes would open and I would simply see everything for what it is. Instead of lines of code, I would see another person, sharing the same air that I was, wanting the same things I did, no different from me at all. I’d put in the time, and there would be a reward later, a mysterious effect disconnected from its cause by time and thought.
That’s a completely shitty idea. I know that now, of course, but I didn’t then. It took me a few years of sporadic meditation to understand that meditation isn’t a preparation for anything. It’s an act, it’s *doing*, and that you’re expected to take the focus and awareness you cultivate on the bench and carry it with you through your day. Meditation isn’t a ritual that pays dividends down the line — it’s the beginner’s version of how Buddhists are expected to move through life itself.
It can’t start out any easier. You simply sit down, and pay attention. The ideal thing is to pay attention to whatever is happening in the moment without attaching to it; when you attach to it, the thought carries you away from the present along a stream of associated thoughts and moods. When that happens, let it go, then return to where you are. It takes practice to maintain that presence, but the idea is that when you do you find yourself responding to what arises in a much more centered way. And the bench isn’t the only place where this happens. Meditation is a practice you can cultivate wherever you are, whatever you’re doing.
That’s one of the things I’ve been trying to focus on recently. My meditation practice is as spotty as ever, I’m afraid (I’ve never been one to develop good habits), but even when I don’t manage to sit on the bench I’ve been trying to really pay attention to what I’m doing when I do it. If I catch myself getting stressed at work, I take a moment to step back from that emotion, figure it out and move on. It really helps when you’re dealing with anxious or angry customers I’ve found; instead of taking a remark or behavior and being carried away by it, I can try to anchor myself and focus on a need that’s being expressed.
And that’s a huge deal to me. I come from a long life of depression, which is a pretty self-centered condition to have. You get used to thinking in circles around yourself; everything comes back to you, how you’re deficient in some way, how no one could ever love you, so forth and so on. Even managing it, it’s difficult to learn to step outside of yourself if you don’t work for it. That’s what meditation does for me; it provides me a way to step outside of myself, simply by being active in my awareness and focusing on my surroundings, other people, or feelings as they arise and fade. That helps me relate to people better, it helps me solve problems more quickly and easily, and it helps me to understand people and their perspectives without warping it through my own.
One of the reasons I’m talking about this is to try and explain my perspective in the hopes of encouraging people to explain theirs. Meditation helps me quite a bit, but I know a lot of people really aren’t into it. I’m curious about what other folks think about it — is it useful to you, if you practice regularly? Did you try it for a while, but find no good use for it? What do you do instead, if you have something that centers you? How does it work?
I think it’s important to have a way to remember the things that are important for you, no matter who you are and what you believe. Meditation is mine. What’s yours?