On Meditation

I’ve been experimenting with and thinking about meditation in recent years and thought I’d share some of my thoughts with you. 

What this post is not: it’s not another “you should meditate” article. Even though I’ve seen quite a few valuable benefits, my practice is still semi-regular. And l debate how much time I’m willing to spend on meditation, given the opportunity cost. 

Instead, I’d like to share a few observations and invite you to share yours. If you have never meditated, some of these ideas might intrigue you and spark an interest in trying. And if you have experience with meditation, I’d love to compare notes!

Here are some realizations I had over time:

1. Our thoughts and emotions largely determine our destiny. And unlike other factors, they are not entirely outside of our control. Of course, they also define our subjective experience.

2. We probably shouldn’t believe all our thoughts. 

Our thoughts are quite random and are not necessarily representative of what we really think or want to think, especially the instinctive thoughts that come first. When you sit down to meditate, you realize how much stuff just pops up out of nowhere. 

Here is a thought experiment. Once you notice yourself making a strong judgment in your head about something, pause for a second and wonder if you actually fully agree with this judgment. It’s also interesting to wonder whether this judgment could have been different on another day—when you had more sleep, ate better food, had different levels of hormones and neurotransmitters or simply were in a more cheerful mood. 

3. We have some degree of freedom in choosing our internal experience—interpretations, opinions, and emotions—and external actions. 

It’s not like we can simply re-write the entire code of our operating system. But by repeatedly making different choices we can nudge ourselves into thinking and behaving differently.

We can, of course, go into a rabbit hall and argue about whether the thoughts that come after more deliberation are any different. But other things being equal, it’s safe to say that some reflection is better than no reflection and that a bit more involvement of frontal cortex and a bit less involvement of the limbic system is probably better—at least when it comes to making complex and high-impact decisions about the modern world. 

In theory, even without ever meditating one can: 

(a) understand these three ideas rationally by reading and thinking about them, 
(b) see them as true via having a first-hand experience,
(c) and even apply them in practice.

It’s just that when you sit in silence with nothing but your thoughts, you are more likely to get that first-hand understanding. And that first-hand experience is more likely to motivate you to experiment with putting these ideas into practice.

I do wonder whether the repeated formal practice is needed to strengthen or maintain this understanding and motivation—and how much is needed. An appealing alternative could be integrating moments of heightened awareness into regular life at appropriate—or all—moments. The goal would be to eventually have fewer automatic reactions or have automatic reactions that are more in line with the vision we have for the type of person we want to be. A possible intermediate and time-saving approach I’m experimenting with and having mixed results with is meditating during other activities, e.g. when going on long slow runs. Overall, I still feel like I only scratched the surface and hardly put anything in practice. 

Here are some books on this topic that I liked:

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