I’ve been meditating daily for the last two and a half years. I’ve recommended it to many people, but when it comes to explaining how it helps my explanations have been less than compelling. I’m going to
Similarly, If you search around for articles on how meditation helps, you’ll find usually one or two types of explanations:
- The health benefits that can be measured by doctors (lower this or higher that)
- Something vague like “lowers stress” and “increase creativity”.
Neither of these is terribly motivating or useful in developing a habit. If you spend any time reading about how habits are formed (I like this book on habits), you’ll see that they need to have feedback come pretty quickly after the action. The idea that if you meditate for months and then at your next annual physical your doctor might tell you that your blood pressure is lower might motivate you to get started meditating, but you’re going to lose interest without some feedback soon.
Similarly, “stress” and “creativity” are hard to measure on our own. We’re always going to have stress and how do you measure an increase in creativity?
Since I think there’s a lack of real world examples that demonstrate how you can get that feedback that your efforts are worth it, I thought I’d write some of the ways that it helps me in the real world. These are not sweeping life-changing panaceas. They are small and discrete examples. My hope is that you will think something like “oh, this is one small instance with one small impact but I have many similar instances in my life and if I benefited in all those instances then it would add up to a real impact.” Life, after all, is mostly a whole lot of small moments not a few big ones.
Let’s get to the examples in case what I said there is not clear.
I hate cooking. It’s a complete chore for me from beginning to end. It’s very easy for me to be slicing a pepper and thinking, “my god I hate this so much. Why can’t this just be over already. Ugh.”
The problem is not that I don’t like cooking. I may never like cooking and that’s ok.
The problem is that I am not thinking about the cooking. I’m just focused on being done. But I’m not done. And because I want to be done and I’m not done, I get upset. And I keep thinking, “God why isn’t this done”.
So where does meditation come in here? First, I’m able to realize that I’m not in the moment. Instead of being here now with what’s going on, I’m fighting the reality of it. And I’m trying to live in some imagined future where I’m done with all this cooking sh*t.
Once I realize that I’m not focused on what’s happening now but instead fighting, then instead of being mindlessly mad fighting an impossible battle to not be in the here and now, I can choose to focus on the now. I’m cutting this pepper. That’s what’s happening. As I think more about cutting the pepper I can realize that it’s going to take a minute and then for that whole minute I’m going to be cutting the pepper. If I accept that the pepper will take a minute to cut and and I focus on the pepper without getting distracted with thoughts of “why am I not in the future already!”, then things suddenly get easier. It feels more like my choice as well.
Similarly, I was filling a bucket with water from the tub the other day. The bucket would sit flat do to the angle I had to use to get it under the spigot and the water was coming out pretty slowly. Here again I was pulled into the imagined “done-ness” of the task and since it was taking a while I started getting irritated. But when you have a meditation practice you develop the habit of noticing feelings like irritation. And once you notice it, you have the power to make the situation better and you get your power back. I just accept that the bucket will take two minutes to fill and I can see how it won’t matter how much I fight it, it’s going to take two minutes. Suffering is fighting what is.
Mild Pain – Before It’s Major Pain
Meditation helps you see what is going on. Because in the meditation practice you are “checking in” with your body and paying attention to where you might be tense or sore or otherwise in pain – without fighting it- you start to develop the ability to where during the day if you are in pain you are more aware of it.
Many years ago I used to keep my wallet in my back pocket. Over a few years I developed some sciatica pain in my leg. The doctor said stop putting your wallet in your back pocket. The pain went away.
Recently I had my front pockets full and the wallet had to go to the back pocket while I drove to the store. It was very uncomfortable. Not in a sciatica way, just in a way that felt like I was sitting crooked because half my butt was sitting on top of some lump and half wasn’t. I think this awareness was due to my practice of being more overall aware to my body.
Or put another way, when I was younger I had little awareness of body and the wallet probably was sending signals of mild pain but I didn’t have the awareness. The body kept sending stronger and stronger signals until I finally went to the doctor (who was attuned to patient’s bodies more than some of the patients) and told me the cause.
To be able to be in tune with the body can really help head pain off before it gets too far. (See the book Mindsight if this interests you.)
The next category is related..
The beginning of my daily practice is relaxing my muscles. It reminds me of the way you might relax after after months long hard work at your day job you take a vacation and drive 20 hours to the beach through 19 hours of traffic, throw your stuff in the hotel room, run down to the beach, jump in a hammock and think, “Finally! I am now able to do the relaxing. THIS is vacation. THIS is what I’ve waited for.” And then you just sink and sink and sink into relaxing.
Imagine if you could have that feeling at will, anywhere. Meditation helps you get really good at conjuring up that feeling and relaxing your body.
Just like “Why am I not done yet!” can become a signal to accept the moment in order to end the fight and suffering, the feeling of being physically tense can become a new signal you recognize. And when you recognize it, you can drop into that relaxing feeling and let your body physically untense.
I’ll probably add other examples here as they occur to me. Here’s a couple that I will provide more details on in the future.
- Conversational awareness. This one is huge and deserves its own post. Being able to not just take what’s being said but being observant and seeing the emotions and what is being emphasized. There’s those things people quickly gloss over or mention in conversations that we often only catch on reflection – when it seems too late to bring them up. Mindfulness helps you catch these faster and gives you the ability to say things like, “hey I know you’ve moved on to other topics but I want to back up to when you said…”
- Realizing you are tired or having a bad day. Nothing makes a bad day worse than not noticing you’re having it. Becoming aware that your load is heavy automatically reduces the load and gives you power and perspective. The awareness that you start gaining with meditation helps you identify more bad days.