Two years ago, I finally began to meditate. Inspired by Naval Ravikant, I managed to turn a decade-long aspiration into an actual habit.
For the first week, I did an hour a day, and, ironically, the sheer size of that commitment helped. I learned several things from my experience, the most notable being that I should continue to meditate, no matter how much.
As expected, life happened, and for a while, I only managed to meditate five minutes a day. Nowadays, I’m back up to 15.
When I say “meditate,” I mean “sit comfy yet straight, close your eyes, and wait.” That’s all meditation is. Beyond a timer, there are no apps, no music, no neural-activity-tracking headbands or wonky gadgets of any kind. Those things cause stimulation, which is the opposite of meditation.
Looking at my habit tracker, I see today marks my 825th consecutive day of meditation. What an appropriate day to share a few more lessons, don’t you think?
1. It’s okay to think
This is both a common and obvious lesson. I’ve seen it a million times. Yet, I, like most people, constantly forget it. “Damn it! Why can’t I stay in nirvana? Where the hell is my zen today?!” Probably wherever I left my manners.
The goal of meditation isn’t to not think. It is to realize that you think, what you think, and learn to change it if you want to.
Whatever states of blissful emptiness you may or may not achieve are as fragile as they are pleasurable, both of which make them dangerous to pursue. If you turn meditation into yet another pointless chase of the near-unattainable, you might as well stop.
When you notice yourself being lost in thought, that’s a good mediation session. When you realize you needed your entire 15 minutes to process an issue in your life, that’s a good meditation session. When you decide to let go of one thought in favor of another, that’s a good meditation session.
Meditation is the art of observing — and deliberately participating in — the activities in your mind. If our goal was to merely shut those activities down, we could develop a habit of napping instead.
2. Lean into what irks you
The best trait meditation will give you is patience. Calmness, serenity, inner peace — these are mere consequences. Patience is where it starts, and, forced to sit there without acting, it’s your only option.
Naturally, life will find ways to be particularly annoying in those 15 minutes you’ve anointed as your sacred time of silence. In my case, common instances are construction work in my building, passing cars honking outside, ambulance sirens wailing, and my ears starting to itch right when I close my eyes. These are perfect opportunities to practice.
For as long as I can, I try to resist scratching the itch, often literally. “It’s all stimulation. You don’t have to act on it.”
On a good day, I won’t fall for the distraction. Instead, I’ll become the distraction. I sync my mind to the rhythm of the drill or the sirens. They too are the pulse of life. Who am I to resist? I become the hair on my cheek, sitting lightly on human skin, ready to fall anytime. I become the hum of my fridge, buzzing away to keep the universe in balance.
It is a good skill, the ability to keep yourself from erupting like a volcano. It is better still, however, to be able to realize what’s poking you is just another, natural part of life.
3. Imagine your thoughts as a river
What makes thinking difficult to observe is that you do it all the time. Your default mode of consciousness is going from one thought to the next, never breaking the chain. It’s a chain that is highly flexible, seamlessly adjusting to impulses and interruptions. As soon as they’re handled, it’s back to the original lane.
If you want to observe your thoughts rather than bathe in them, you must turn them into a dynamic, abstract entity. Which image you choose is up to you. I like the idea of a river.
When my mind is calm, I’m sitting in the grass next to a little stream. I watch it ripple along, shimmering in various colors. I can see topics, ideas, even individual sentences float by. “Work.” “I need to check my inbox.” “The room feels cold.” My goal is to keep sitting, to not reach into the river and grab what I can see.
Depending on how active my brain is, the river will look different, but the goal remains the same: Just sit and watch. Don’t jump into it. Sometimes, my stream of thoughts feels as big as the Thames. I could sit next to gushing rapids or at the edge of Victoria Falls. It can be hard to stay on land.
This morning, I was sitting beside a creek. It was peaceful. Then, I thought about something I saw on Twitter. I chuckled and began to craft a response. Just before I could send it, I woke up: “Why am I wet? How did I get here? Why am I splashing in the river?” I stood up and, clothes dripping, sat back on my patch of grass.
4. Create a sanctuary (or two, or three)
Nirvana is not a place you can enter at will, but how you design your mind is up to you.
In the video game series Kingdom Hearts, there’s a place called Castle Oblivion. All of the rooms are white. One houses an egg-looking device called a “memory pod.” I like that room. I go there a lot.
I also like the version of King’s Cross where Harry meets Dumbledore at the end of Harry Potter. In the game Fable III, there’s no menu. Just a room, literally called “the Sanctuary,” where you can safely recover, change your equipment, and so on. Even the music is relaxing.
In Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On It, Kamal Ravikant says about his meditation: “I imagine all the light from space flowing into my head and down into my body, going wherever it needs to go.”
Light is healing, calming, warming. It keeps you away from the river.
When I meditate, I imagine myself in my sanctuaries. I just stand there and marvel at their infiniteness. Their bright, white light stretches out in front of me, never-ending, ever-comforting.
Design your own sanctuary. You will not regret it.
5. Don’t dismiss great ideas
You won’t be able to anyway. The only ideas you can dismiss during meditation are mediocre ones. Maybe they’re not fully fledged out. That’s okay. If they’re actually great, they’ll come back later.
Sometimes, a train of thought is too good to not board it. Whenever that happens, however rarely, get on and enjoy the ride. Chase your idea until you can grasp it. Like a salmon swimming upstream, it might slip through your fingers regardless.
The other day, my meditation was steamrolled by the idea to recap my experience of choosing a book cover. “I could do a workshop, I could do an interview, I could even do it live on my friend’s YouTube channel!” By the time my phone rang, I was ready to pour a sea of notes into it, which I promptly did.
Meditation is a time of gestation. Usually, the ripening will be passive. It’ll happen quietly, subconsciously, somewhere in the back of your mind. Sometimes, however, the fruits of your thought tree will bloom. When they do, it’s time to collect them. Don’t let them go bad.
Every now and then, it is time to jump in the river. Dive deep enough, and you might emerge with nuggets of gold.
In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry must catch the exact right specimen of a thousand flying keys. As soon as he gets on his broomstick to chase it, the entire swarm starts whizzing like angry hornets. Sticking his hand into a tornado, eventually, Harry manages to grab the right key — but not before the wrong ones have left several cuts on his skin.
Thinking can be like that. We’re ants holding out against a torrent of mental activity: Occasionally, we’ll get washed away. I think that’s normal. Nothing to be ashamed of. It is honorable, however, to try and step out of the torrent.
Meditation is the practice of observing the keys. You can look at them for hours. See all their marvelous colors? The shapes! The sizes! There is so much to witness; it takes time to zone in on the right one. Once you have, however, thanks to first observing, you’ll have clarity and confidence in what you’ve picked.
The right thought at the right time will fit into your life better than any key can ever match its lock. Meditation allows you to sync your mind’s activity with what’s happening around you, and nothing will open more doors than that.