What It Means to Meditate

I’m okay with meditation. It’s strange for me hearing people complain about their inability to meditate because they think too much or too quickly to benefit from meditation. It’s a bit of a humble brag. There’s just too much going on up there. I guess thinking a lot of thoughts doesn’t mean they’re all smart and good. All our thoughts can’t be winners. Which is why meditation is useful. Meditation is for those people who overthink.

If I’m getting this right, put simply, it is actually thinking of nothing. Or trying to. Sometimes. But there’s also some body scan work being done and visualization which involves thinking of people you love (and eventually people you hate) enjoying themselves and experiencing a sunny beach or something. This is supposed to give us inner peace and calm and teach us to handle frustrating situations with grace.

I started my meditation journey (barf) when my mom wouldn’t stop telling us about hers. She listened to calming music and closed the door to her room for an hour a day. When I lived with my parents, it always made me laugh when I would barge in demanding to talk to her about something trivial and she would be sitting very still in her meditation/reading chair with her eyes closed and she would say so quietly “I’m meditating.” I’d always be like “Fine. Cool. Sorry.” and walk out like I wasn’t impressed and I didn’t just interrupt her but I was and I had. She wasn’t bothered though. That’s what meditation does for her. Here she was on a Saturday just becoming a Zen master and what was I doing? Probably nothing of value.

When she wasn’t meditating in her room, she would show us her ding dong tapes (just one or two half hour tapes of bells ringing that she had on her ipod mini). She’d encourage us to lay on the couch and listen and try to just think of the tolling of the bells. It was boring. It wasn’t fun but occasionally I’d fall asleep to them and this is what started a weird education on how to meditate myself.

Meditating has never been easy for me or anyone I know who has tried it. I feel like I have told myself that my stream of consciousness is too erratic while also being physically too tired to sit in silence and think of nothing without falling asleep. While I can appreciate my own smart excuses for not taking time to myself for meditation, I have had to educate myself on what exactly it means and discipline myself in doing it regularly to fully feel its benefits. Again, it has not been easy. But it’s helped to know more about what it means to meditate.

First off, I disservice myself and others by presenting meditation like it’s thinking of nothing because that’s so boring? It isn’t. It’s trying to think of nothing, acknowledging that that probably isn’t going to happen because we still have to function and like, walk around every day, and then quietly greeting our thoughts and feelings respectfully and letting them go away in favour of focusing on something more tangible. Like our breath. Or our steps. Or what we’re looking at or what we’re feeling in our hands at the moment or the food we’re eating. The goal isn’t to stop thought completely but to avoid resisting bad thoughts and feelings. They come to us, they happen often, and it’s alright. We mostly have to keep moving and try to be present. As ridiculous as being present sounds, (because how could you be in any other time besides the present?) it’s essentially just not thinking of the past and how stupid you used to be or the future and how stupid you’re about to be.

Being present is only allowing yourself to be worried about what is currently happening in front of you at this moment. This leads you to focus more on the task at hand and where you are. I used to think that meditation was the solution that spiritual healers came up with as an alternative to how terrible people had become. They were like “okay, we can’t ask them to do good things because they’re hopeless and selfish and we’re way beyond that being a viable outcome now. Let’s just ask them to do nothing and to think of nothing. This has to be an improvement.” And I still kind of believe that.

What I don’t love about the practice is that everything I’ve ever read or researched about it suggests it’s a cover all. In a way, it is, because it’s free and anyone can do it when they’re not busy. But there are many apps and subscriptions that cost money and businesses that have cropped up in cities that essentially charge you to sit in a beautiful room and to listen to a hot woman guide you through a meditation. When I asked my mom how she felt about the meditation-for-profit business model, she said she was less concerned about the businesses being evil and capitalizing on a self-help trend and more concerned about people who think they have to spend money to get guided meditations. What a Zen master response. She told me about a bunch of church basements that she goes to where people sit in a circle and someone puts on a tape and they just meditate together like that. And it’s free. I’m not there yet. Obviously. But meditation doesn’t feel like the answer to every problem even though it sometimes presents itself that way.

The positive outcomes of regular meditation for me have been that sometimes I sleep better. There is typically a wider window between when someone tells me something and when I react to it. Which can be useful because this break in time gives me the power to just forget about what they’ve told me in the first place so I never have the chance to react to it. It makes me more compassionate for people who bug me on the subway. It makes me more aware of my surroundings when I’m walking home late at night. It makes insurmountable tasks feel less daunting and it makes me feel less alone somehow. It also makes me go slower in my breakfast making and getting ready in the morning. Which is a bonus, I guess.

The negative outcomes are wild and varied. I told my therapist once that I didn’t think meditation worked for me because I kept thinking about the possibility of my ex starting to play basketball and joining a professional team. She was like “Why does that even matter?” and as far as I knew, he didn’t even like basketball that much. When I can’t sleep and I listen to three sleep meditation sessions in a row, it makes me feel like a failure. It can also feel incredibly lonely to listen to one of those at 4am when you know your roommates and everyone else on your street are sleeping. One time, when I went to visit my friend and her boyfriend, he suggested we listen to a productivity themed meditation. When done, he left the house to go to work and I sat and watched a marathon of Catfish. I only left the house to go to the local soup place which was five minutes away. So it’s not always 100% effective.

From what I gather speaking to people about meditation who regularly do it, you’re supposed to look forward to it. It’s not supposed to feel like a chore and for a while, for me, it did. Now it’s something that I get to a few times a week hoping that it will make me feel relaxed and clear-headed and hopefully make me a better person if all goes to plan. I like the visualizations on kindness and imagining that my body is shooting out laser beams of sunshine. I always think of the second last scene in Shrek (before the Shrek in the swamp karaoke and credits) when Fiona has true love’s first kiss and takes true love’s form and then all the light beams shoot out of her body and all the windows break in the church. And then she’s like “I’m supposed to be beautiful” and Shrek is like “but you ARE beautiful.” That’s what meditation is like for me.