Meditation is mental exercise. There’s basically no wrong way to exercise. If you’re moving, it’s probably just fine! The important thing is that you do it because everyone needs to exercise. And almost 0% of the population is in danger of exercising too much. And if you don’t do it for 10 years: no worries, no shame, but get your butt out there and start today!
But tons of people have given up on it because:
- they tried to take on too much
- the version they were doing wasn’t something they’d like
- they don’t want to try something they know they’re going to eventually quit
- it’s hard to see a point when they compare where they are with those who do it constantly: “I don’t care to get that ripped”
- almost everyone underestimates the value of exercise
- they want results faster than any reasonable exercise could provide.
[Sidebar] Some fundamentalist Christians are also frightened that meditation will take them away from God. But you’re already doing it right now! Like the guy who is afraid of doing situps…you do one every morning when you get out of bed. “So then why are you saying I need to do it if I’m already doing it?” Because one sit up a day is
But the consensus is right: exercise is important, and even a little is way better than none.
Do you need meditation? Maybe not. Maybe you don’t need to exercise more either. Maybe you’re comfortable enough with the fat, lack of mobility, breathing difficulty, and health risks that go along with your current level of activity. Most likely, you would rationalize your current physique to your equally gelatinous friends, but also fear the inevitable cling that comes from getting in the pool with your shirt on. Most likely, you’re not actually okay with the shape you’re in, but you choose to ignore those thoughts for some of the time, and feel guilty and ashamed the rest of the time.
I’m not writing to add more shame. This is not a pep talk or tough love. it’s just an exploration of reality. So let’s find out if meditation is right for you.
(I know that you know what my answer is already. Of course I think it’s right for you! But maybe I really don’t know. Some people are actually more okay risking heart disease than experimenting with more activity. Nothing is easy.
It’s a pain to live fat; it’s a pain to workout. It’s a pain to finish school, it’s a pain to live without a degree. It’s a pain to go in to work; it’s a pain to be unemployed. It’s a pain to meditate; it’s a pain to live with a squirrel brain. Nobody gets “easy”, you just get to pick your pain.
And I’m not going to judge you for your choice. I’m just encouraging you to choose. Otherwise, life chooses for you: fat, uneducated, unemployed, squirrel-brained. We’re all in there somewhere, some days. Some of my friends are very much in there, most days. It doesn’t affect your value, potential, or acceptability. But it usually affects your self-image. Life will make some choices for you, but when you have a choice, choose your pain. Don’t let life happen to you.)
You’re in control of your thoughts, right? Take a guess – how many minutes in a row do you think you can stay in control of your thoughts? Are you a cowboy, able to ride that bull as long as you want? Or do you have the mental control of a goldfish?
As a separate question, how long do you think a person reasonably should be able to stay in control of their thoughts?
Try this test to prove to yourself that you can do it:
- Set a 1-minute timer (or whatever number of minutes you think you can handle)
- Pick something to think about.
- Most meditation instructors focus on the breath, because that’s something that everyone who is alive has, and knows about. But it doesn’t matter what you pick. It can be the fur of your pet or a penny or your big toe nail. The important thing is that it’s something static, not a mystery. Don’t pick a person or the meaning of life, or the goodness of God. Nothing that already has a mystery or a narrative. The test is: focus vs. wandering, so you want an object of your attention, not a topic for your brain to wander around in.
- Press start on the timer and close your eyes…or leave them open; whatever you think is going to make it easier for you to win. Cheat as much as you can.
How did you do? How many out of the 60 seconds were you thinking about something other than the object.
Now consider: if this is how much you’re not in control of your thoughts when you’re focusing your whole attention on just staying in control, how much are you not in control through the whole of your life?
It’s quite possible you’re almost never in control of your thoughts, feelings, decisions, opinions. There’s a good chance you’re proudly sitting at the controls, unaware that an autopilot you didn’t program is driving your life while you take credit for the journey.
Meditation can put you more in control, if you’d like. It’s ancient, acclaimed, free and difficult, which is often a sign there’s some inherent value to it.
One thing we know for sure is that feeling guilty about meditation or exercise doesn’t help the problem, and it probably makes things worse. It should be a constant thing in the back of your mind that you aspire to do more of. And it shouldn’t be a thing that you think you should be “conquering” or will ever “do enough” or become a “master” of.
Only a few people in the whole world have any reason to try to satiate the illusion of “enough”. We’re aiming for “some”, and perhaps “some more” would be nice, but we’re not feeling ashamed of not getting “enough”.
You can exercise almost anywhere. You can meditate literally anywhere. So when is a good time to meditate? Whenever you remember, for as long as you want. Once a week for 20 seconds? Cool. 3 times a day for 30 minutes? Sure. Every morning for a week and then fall off the wagon and don’t do it again for 5 months? Yeah.
There are no awards, no one’s gonna even know, and your forehead’s not going to get a 6 pack that all your friends are going to congratulate you for, so this is really just between you and you.
Even if you get an app and create some social accountability club, my intuition is that, unlike exercise, if you’re meditating for the external rewards, you’re probably not getting as much out of it as you would if you’re just doing it for personal integration and growth. Buuut…something’s better than nothing, and I’m not even sure I’m right about my hypothesis. Do what works for you.
The test above works. That could fill a lifetime; the practice of trying to focus, getting distracted, returning to the focus, and eventually getting better at recognizing a distraction before it distracts you and being able to choose whether or not to think about it. That skill could really come in handy (most people believe they already have this skill).
Or there are a billion other meditations that are helpful, goofy, “scientifically proven”, free, paid, and every other variation. Even the worthless ones aren’t worthless if you get better at inventorying your thoughts and choosing your focus.
My favorites are compassion meditations, but meditating correctly is like exercising correctly: sure, it matters. But not for 99% of people – they just need to get off their butts and walk around the block.
So start learning to choose your thoughts on purpose. Pick your focus for real, if only for the practice of turning off the autopilot. Stare at the back of your hand, or count your heartbeats.
It doesn’t have to get all spiritual.
But also, maybe give that a shot too. Get out in nature and pay attention to the leaves or the rivers or the dirt, like the freaks.
I suspect that when you start focusing deeper, you’ll be blessed by the unexpected beauty of the mundane.
Because the truth is, communing with the sunset is natural. Being captivated by a flower pedal is deeply instinctive. Wondering at an army of ants is legitimate. Tricking a four-year-old…any four-year-old…but especially your own four-year-old into once again asking for another helping of “pasgetti”, long after you knew exactly what they were asking for, not so you can mock them nor capture the moment to share it with the world, but just so you can live a precious moment with them one more fleeting time.
This is the most reasonable, purposeful way to live. Jumping on a trampoline or letting your dog lick your ear or sitting and thanking the molecules we call “breath” for the miracles they work inside – these are the least crazy things to pursue.
The crazy ones are the ones on autopilot, too squirrel-brained to see the wonder beneath their feet. They’re stuck indoors, or in stores, with sunglasses on, shielding their eyes and their hearts from the nature they were born to equalize with; to be one with.
What’s your experience with meditation? What frustrates you about the topic?