I started working on my habits in 2012. That story is now seven years in the making. One of its side effects is awareness. Self-awareness, mostly, but also awareness about many other things.
For a few years now, I’ve considered myself a mindful person. I know my strengths and weaknesses, and I spend most of my day in a self-aware mode of operating. If I’m biting my nails, I’ll know. Sometimes, I’m so mindful I can’t not notice things, especially the flaws and perfections of other people.
Because I was so aware and mindful already, I thought, “I don’t need meditation.” Until I heard Naval Ravikant speak about it:
“It’s one of those things that everybody says they do, but nobody actually does.”
Naval said many people abuse meditation for virtue-signaling. They pretend to care about mindfulness to look like a moral person without doing any of the actual, hard work of properly meditating. That’s why we have thousands of meditation apps, head bands, cushions, and other gimmicks when meditation is literally “the art of doing nothing,” as Naval calls it.
No matter whether you’re a fake meditator or a skeptic who thinks they don’t need it, like I did, chances are, you’ve never done an actual meditation session in your life. The reason you haven’t, if you ask Naval, is that it’s scary, because once you start, you’ll inevitably have to deal with all your unresolved issues:
“It’s like your email inbox. It’s just piling up. Email after email after email that’s not answered, going back 10, 20, 30, 40 years. And then, when you sit down to meditate, those emails start coming back at you.
‘Hey, what about this issue? What about that issue? Have you solved this? Do you think about that? You have regrets there? You have issues there?’ and that gets scary. People don’t want to do that, so they’re like, ‘It’s not working, I can’t clear my mind, I better get up and not do this.’ But really, it’s self therapy. Instead of paying a therapist to sit there and listen to you, you’re listening to yourself. And you just have to sit there as those emails go through one by one.
You work through each of them until you get to the magical inbox zero. There comes a day when you sit down, you realize the only things you’re thinking about are the things that happened yesterday. Because you’ve processed everything else. Not necessarily even resolved it but at least listened to yourself. That’s when meditation starts.”
When I heard Naval say these things, I realized:
The word ‘mindfulness’ is very misleading in that regard because being aware of what’s going on in your life and dealing with it are not the same thing, even if both require being mindful. In my literal email inbox, I get a notification for every email that comes in. But until I’ve opened it and looked at it, I haven’t really processed it, have I?
So actually, there are two kinds of noticing: the kind that nets you new inputs and more information which are then sent down to your subconscious, and the kind that processes those stimuli once they make their way back into your consciousness. One is downloading your emails, the other reading them.
Think of it this way: The most enlightened meditation guru will notice everything twice, once on the way down and again on the way up. There may be a delay in between, but, at the end of the day, everything is taken care of.
Often, that second kind of noticing is enough to deal with a problem because most of our problems don’t need to be dealt with in actions at all. They’re like notification emails. We just have to acknowledge them so they can leave our minds and not cause us stress. However, if you don’t make time to deliberately do this second kind of noticing, it never happens.
That’s why I decided to finally give real meditation a go. Today, I want to share with you what I’ve learned.
So, how *do* you meditate properly?
It’s not an excuse, but one of the reasons why I avoided meditation is that all these prescriptive practices I’d heard about sounded fake. Naval finally gave me a practice that sounded simple enough to actually feel like the real deal:
“It is literally the art of doing nothing. All you need to do for meditation is to sit down, close your eyes, comfortable position, whatever happens happens. If you think, you think. If you don’t think, you don’t think. Don’t put it effort into it, don’t put effort against it.”
Naval also explained that all concentration exercises, whether it’s focusing on your breath or something else, ultimately aim at letting go of whatever you’re concentrating on. Therefore, you might as well skip to the letting go.
“The problem with what I’m talking about, which is not focusing on your breath, is you will have to listen to your mind for a long time. It’s not gonna work unless you do at least an hour a day and preferably at least 60 days before you work through a lot of issues. So it’ll be hell for a while, but when you come out the other side, it’s great.”
Right now, I’m trying to get to the other side. Every morning after waking up, I set a timer for an hour on my phone. I sit cross-legged, lean against the wall, fold my hands in my lap, and close my eyes. Ideally, I remain in this position. If I feel my limbs falling asleep, I change how I sit but keep my eyes closed. Whatever pops up in front of my inner eye pops up. Sometimes I get dragged into it for a while, sometimes I don’t. That’s it. When the hour’s up, I’m done.
I set the goal to do an hour each day knowing full well I wouldn’t make it on some days. I’m on day eleven now, and, for the first seven in a row, I meditated one hour each day. Since then, I’ve also had days where I did 15 minutes, 25 minutes, etc. But whenever I can, which is about 80% of the time, I do the full hour.
Here are 7 things I’ve learned so far.
1. Your brain is fuller than you’ve ever imagined
When you die, supposedly, your whole life flashes before your eyes. In movies, this is usually portrayed in some form of montage, like a slide show or quick sequence of scenes. My first two sessions felt like that. Think the ending of American Beauty or the blackout phases in Limitless.
Except I didn’t black out. I just got scene after scene after scene. I jumped from a conversation eight years ago to a moment in kindergarten to recess in third grade to something that happened a week ago. It was like swiping through memories on Tinder, but I didn’t control the swiping. That was my first lesson:
Your brain is full. Fuller than you have ever imagined.
You won’t believe what you find once you start meditating. Actually, ‘find’ isn’t the right word. Things will just come to you. Your subconscious is like a fountain, always bubbling. But in your day-to-day, you’re too busy to see what comes to the surface. Meditating is taking time to sit and watch the fountain. Sooner or later, everything shows up again, if only for a few seconds.
2. Meditation is cleaning your brain in real-time
Especially in sessions where lots of memories pop up, I can sometimes feel my brain “pulsating.” Once in a while, it’s as if a wave of cold water runs down my head. I might get goosebumps, but it feels good. Like a weight is lifted. I can sense my brain getting “lighter.” The best description I can come up with is “cleaning your mind in real time,” but it’s enough to let me know it works.
3. You will get glimpses of nothingness
I can only assume these to be previews of what’s to come, but, occasionally, I found myself in a somewhat empty space. With so many thoughts racing through your mind, passing you by, eventually, you’ll wait for the next one, and it won’t come. There’s just…emptiness.
It’s like you’re pulling on a series of strings and are used to one following another. At some point, you automatically reach for it, and when all you grasp is air, that’s surprising. But it’s a nice surprise. It feels refreshing. A brief moment of silence in a sea of noise. It’s hard to describe, but I think, ultimately, meditation leads to regular visits in this palace of calm.
4. Every impulse has a thought attached to it
When you’re sitting there, literally doing nothing, your body will need some time to adapt. It’s physically uncomfortable, and you’ll receive physical signals that it is. A pang of hunger. The urge to shift around. An itch in your ear.
One thing I’ve realized is that every one of those impulses comes with a thought. And only if you jump on that thought do you reinforce that impulse. If you let go of the initial thought, the impulse quickly subsides. Take being hungry. You feel emptiness rise in your stomach. Maybe it even growls. And there it is: the thought. “I’m hungry.” This is where the rubber hits the road.
If you don’t engage with the thought, it won’t stick. But if you immerse yourself in it, it’s as if you’re grabbing an outside rail on a speeding train. In an instant, you’re swept away. Then, all you can do is hold on for dear life. The impulse is the train and being hungry will now dominate all your subsequent thoughts and decisions — until you let go or satisfy the urge. Of course, letting go gets harder each second you’re wrapped up in the idea. That’s why ditching the first thought is so powerful, and meditation helps with that.
5. You’ll let go of your urges more naturally
Science says meditation builds discipline and boosts willpower, and I won’t argue with that. So far for me, however, it has felt more like meditation makes it less necessary to summon these things in the first place. Letting go of the thoughts attached to my impulses feels like an act of compassion, not control.
This isn’t to say I don’t make any bad decisions anymore, just that when I manage not to, it comes more naturally. Before, I may have been self-aware, but would negotiate with myself and eventually give in to the desire anyway. Now, it’s utterly clear that going to bed if I’m tired is the right choice. I still don’t always make it, but it does get easier.
6. Good decisions become larger, bad ones smaller
Besides increasing your ability to make good decisions, meditation also seems to amplify them while dampening your bad ones.
This may be a placebo effect or wishful thinking on my part, but, over the past week, whenever I indulged in something, the indulgence was smaller. Instead of grabbing the whole bag of chips, I poured some in a bowl and ate just those. Instead of watching a movie because it was late, I slowly started on an important task but then did a solid two hours of work on it.
I’m assuming this is a side effect of the other benefits, but it still feels real.
7. You’ll have more energy
Whether meditation can replace sleep is under debate, but it can definitely support it. Since I meditate in the mornings, I might sometimes still be tired, but at the end of each session, I feel a surge of energy. For one, I’ve processed so many thoughts, I can’t wait to act on some of them or put new insights into action. I also frequently have ideas for my writing. But I’ve also just rested physically for an hour, so it makes sense that I now want to go, go, go.
Unlike energy from caffeine, however, which might be unleashed all at once (coffee) or gradually (green tea), I can control how I want to roll out this energy over the course of my day. Most days, I choose the green tea route and try to increase my pace gradually, but, sometimes, I also plunge right into a long, deep-work task, like writing an article.
In any case, more energy with more flexibility in how you spend it is a good thing.
At the end of my first week of meditating, I had a busy weekend. It was full of fun and events and meeting people, but on the drive home, I noticed I was getting anxious about all the work that was waiting for me. When I arrived, I meditated for 25 minutes. After that, it was easy to relax.
Processing my anxiety showed me that I needed some time to decompress by myself. So, instead of frantically trying to cram in two extra hours of work on a Sunday night, I decided to chill. This morning, I woke up rested. I meditated, worked out, showered, ate, and now, I’m happily writing this article. Then, it’s on to the next thing.
Don’t fool yourself. Your most important issues constantly get buried under a mountain of noise, emotions, and inner chatter. Meditation cleans out those things like a snow plow to make room for finding these issues and dealing with them. It’s a way of filtering your life and processing it at the same time. Learning how to do this filtering is easy. That part only takes two minutes. It’s the continued commitment to making time for this practice that’s hard.
Meditation isn’t about spirituality or wisdom or finding some elusive nirvana state. It’s about making peace in the here and now. Not finding peace. Making. Because that’s what we do with ourselves and others.
I hope you’ll give it an honest try.