There’s been a meditation boom recently. I’m sure you’ve heard other people saying they meditate, or wish they meditated more, or maybe saw an ad for a meditation retreat. For many, the thought of meditation brings to mind images of red robed monks sitting on a mountaintop and not moving for hours, or maybe a lady who calls herself a yogi, has kids named Riverbed and Albatross, and refuses to eat anything that’s come within a hundred feet of anything she’s deemed a “chemical”. Since mindfulness isn’t built into our western world, it can be difficult to see how real people can use meditation and what changes it would bring to your life.
I personally picked up meditation about a year and a half ago, in the fall of 2017. I really couldn’t tell you why I did it; I’m not sure if I didn’t have a reason or if I’ve just forgotten the reason. All I know is that that’s when I started. I did it frequently for several months, and made my 2018 New Year’s Resolution to meditate every day. I made it until mid-February without missing a day.
After I broke my streak, I fell off the wagon for a bit. It was the end of my senior year of college at that point and I was very busy with schoolwork and just didn’t make time to meditate. At that point, I’d been at it for long enough that I could apply the principles of mindfulness to my daily life without necessarily setting aside specific time to meditate. For most of the spring and summer of 2018, I only meditated a few times each month.
Starting in the fall of 2018, I began meditating more and more often before finally making my 2019 New Year’s Resolution once again to meditate every day. It’s now March 12th, 2019, and I’ve only missed one day so far. Sometimes I even meditate twice per day. Meditation has become an invaluable habit in my life.
I’m a regular person, just like you. Until recently, I worked a 9-5. I have a fiance, an apartment, and a car. Sometimes I struggle to do the things that I know I need to do, or I’m unsure of what I should be doing with my life. I’ve struggled with depression and still struggle with anxiety. I have good habits, and I have bad habits. Meditation has impacted every single aspect of my life in a positive way. It has made me much more aware of my thoughts, of who I am and what I want, of what makes me happy and what I struggle with. I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t find benefits in meditating. Not to overhype it or anything, but it really is this little ten minute ritual that changes the entire rest of your day.
Before I get into how meditation has changed my life, I want to clarify one quick thing. Meditation is not trying to clear your mind of all thoughts. The goal is not to have an empty and completely quiet mind while you meditate. Meditation is noticing the thoughts you are having. As you sit and focus on your breathing, thoughts will float into your mind. The aim of meditation is to notice those thoughts, but not interact with them or run away with them. Just observe. After you’ve acknowledged the thought, let it float away. Do not judge the thought, just notice it.
If you decide to start meditating, I recommend using a guided meditation for at least the first few weeks. I personally still use guided meditations most of the time, since that’s just how I prefer to meditate. I absolutely love the Calm app, but there are plenty of other meditation apps out there, as well as meditation podcasts. Find something that works for you.
Okay, enough of all that. Let’s get some details. How exactly has meditation improved my life? First of all, meditation has made me a much less anxious person. I’m still definitely an anxious person. I’m one of those people who struggles to order food at a restaurant. Phone calls leave my heart racing for a good twenty minutes afterward. I should probably go to therapy, but the thought of going to therapy makes me anxious. I’m that kind of anxious.
But meditation has helped me to be less anxious. Instead of completely avoiding a situation that previously would have triggered my anxiety, I can now take a minute or five to step back and breathe through the panic. I am better able to notice my anxious thoughts and see them for what they are. They are just thoughts, and I know that none of these terrible things that I’m imagining will actually happen. I relegate the anxious thoughts to the little staticky neon green ball of anxiety that lives on my shoulder. The thoughts that I put in the ball are not allowed back into my brain.
With the anxious thoughts somewhat contained, I can step back into the situation that’s causing these thoughts and do a marginally better job of navigating it. Meditation has in no way cured my anxiety completely, I don’t think that’s even possible, but it has given me a very useful tool to control it and be more able to go about my life without serious disruption or inconvenience.
Along the same lines, meditation has also helped me to be better at handling stressful situations. Shortly after I first started meditating, I began interviewing for my first Real Adult Job, and that’s a stressful situation if there ever was one. Meditation again has made me better at stepping back from the situation and pausing to collect myself. Whenever I was asked a difficult question or put into a situation where I was unsure of myself, I was better able to stop, focus on taking a deep breath, collect my thoughts, and reply with a meaningful answer, instead of immediately stumbling out some awkward half-answer.
Meditation, at least the kind that I do, focuses on the breath. You are reminded often to pull yourself back to the breath and focus on breathing in and out. Whenever you are pulled away by thought, the aim is to notice that thought, and return to the breath. This focus on the breath has helped me to pull myself back to my breath whenever something stressful or irritating is going on. At this point, nearly every time I find myself stressed or upset about something, I automatically pull myself back to the breath and focus on taking a few deep breaths in and out. Then I can reassess the situation to determine if I even need to act at all, and if I do, what the best course of action is. This pause gives me a moment calm down and avoid overreacting.
Picking up the practice of meditation has definitely made me a much happier person. Because meditation focuses on continually pulling yourself back to the present, I’ve become much more able to experience the moment instead of getting lost in thoughts of the past or worries of the future. Existing solely in this moment and being present to fully experience whatever is happening right now is typically very enjoyable. We bring so much negativity into our lives by focusing on past or potential negatives, instead of just existing in the present.
If the present moment isn’t a pleasant one, I’ve learned through meditation to breathe through it. It is important to experience negative and painful emotions and sensations sometimes, as these offer some of the best opportunities to learn and grow. In times that are unpleasant, I’m better able to experience and learn from the pain, while avoiding suffering. Suffering is of our own making. We only have to experience the actual pain of the moment, and drawing it out longer than necessary or dwelling on it afterward is the cause of our suffering. This is our own doing. Meditation has made me much better at releasing negative thoughts and emotions after an unpleasant event has happened. The sooner we can accept what has happened and move on, the sooner we can bring ourselves to a state of peace.
Since I’ve begun meditating, I’ve consistently had a significantly easier time falling asleep. Before, it wasn’t unusual for me to spend upwards of two hours trying to fall asleep each night. Now, it typically takes twenty minutes or less. Because meditation has taught me how to notice when my mind has wandered, acknowledge the thought, and let it go, I can do this over and over as I’m falling asleep, instead of letting my mind run off with every thought it encounters. Do you struggle to fall asleep because you can’t get your mind to shut up? Then meditation is for you.
Along with enabling me to quiet my mind more easily, the Calm app also has meditations for sleep and Sleep Stories. Sleep stories are basically bedtime stories for adults. Listening to someone tell me about the birds of Yosemite or what it’s like to stargaze on Stewart Island easily lulls my mind to sleep. If I’m not in the mood for a story, the meditations for sleep help me to relax and unwind my mind and body to quickly fall into a deep sleep. I listen to a sleep story or meditation nearly every night. I’m getting better sleep now than I’ve ever gotten, and you guys know how much I love sleep.
Meditation has helped me so much in learning who I am. You know how people are supposed to spend their early adulthood “finding themselves”? Meditation has helped with that more than pretty much anything else in my life. It has helped me to become more aware of what I want and what brings me happiness, as well as what isn’t serving me and needs to be let go. Too often, we think we want things because others have them or tell us we need them, without realizing that those things won’t actually improve our lives. We spend too much of our life doing things we hate in order to earn the money we need to make others think we’re happy, without actually considering what truly brings us joy.
I’ve become more able to be honest with myself. Sometimes we don’t want to admit hard truths to ourselves, but when those truths keep showing up in our mind, we can only acknowledge and let them go so many times before we have to accept them as true. Being authentic with yourself allows you to live a much more genuine life, and authenticity will always bring more true happiness than living the life we think we’re supposed to be living.
Now, instead of running away with my thoughts or over analyzing them, I am able to notice them and consider why I might be having that thought and what that might mean when applied to my life. I feel much more in tune with who I am. I know myself better. Being connected with my thoughts and emotions makes it easier to recognize what I’m struggling with and what brings me joy, so that I can let go of the things that aren’t right for me and bring in more of what is.
There are many situations in which I’ve found it necessary to deviate from the expected path in order to find happiness. Society’s expectations frequently are not what’s best for me, and I suspect the same is true for you. Being open with myself and honest with the thoughts I have helps me to connect with myself and live an authentic life.
Meditation helps you to know yourself. So often our perceptions of ourselves represent who we think we should be or who we want to be, but they don’t actually represent who we really are in this moment. There is a disconnect between what our thoughts are and what we want, and what the world wants for us or from us. By meditating and becoming a more mindful person, you gain the ability to know yourself and what really brings you happiness in order to intentionally choose a path in life that is right for you.
Something just clicks at some point. Maybe there wasn’t a specific instant, but at some time in the last eighteen months, I went from being someone who just floats around life, doing what’s expected of me, to someone who boldly goes where I know I’m meant to go, even if I have to push past people trying to hold me back. I make big decisions and powerful moves in order to do the things that I know are right for me. Meditation has given me that power and direction and has been an integral force in helping me live a life that is right for me and brings me genuine joy and happiness.
It’s been difficult to put all of this into words, not emotionally, but because these are big concepts that rarely get talked about. Many of us aren’t out there searching within ourselves daily to find the path in life that’s right for us. We want to travel that path but aren’t sure how to listen to the voice that’s telling us all of the answers. Meditation has been the tool that connected me to myself and made me self aware enough to know what’s right for me.
I can’t promise that meditation will do all, or even any, of these things for you, but with the doors it may open, isn’t it worth giving it a shot? The better you know and understand yourself, the easier it becomes to create a life that you love to live. Meditation connects you intimately with your thoughts, and so often, our thoughts are what’s running amok, preventing us from getting where we need to go. Instead of letting your thoughts and impulses control you, meditation helps you to collect the information that you need, and prevent all of the extra crap from happening, hopefully leading to a much happier and more fulfilling life that brings you genuine joy every single day.