No One Can Teach You How to Meditate
I was on my way back to India from Nepal on a cold October night, in a government bus which was on its last legs. My feet were cramped between two people for almost 12 hours without much movement. The co-passengers were not quite making it easy either, one suffered from motion sickness, puking out through the window most of the night and another was snoring and slumping against me in his sleep. To top it all, the bus broke down sometime during the night and filled up with smoke. It took a while to sort out the engine and carry on with the journey.
Though this sounds like the bus journey from hell, I was surprised to find myself not as bothered or irritated as I would have been a few weeks ago. I was on my way back from a 10 day intense meditation retreat and apparently I had picked up some equanimity along the way.
Historically, I have not always been this immune to irritability. Though I have dabbled in meditation since a young age, I could never muster enough discipline to do it consistently for more than 3–4 days at a time. Growing up, I was surrounded by texts on the benefits of spirituality and meditation; I’d read something, get inspired, meditate for a few days, almost feel the benefits but then I’d just forget about it for months at end. Despite all the assurances I heard about the practice, I wasn’t truly getting anywhere, maybe because of my ADHD or maybe it’s just the way I am, Concentrating on one thing for a long time and sticking to routines at a stretch is just not what I am capable of.
This is becoming a prevalent issue, more and more people are losing this very essential skill very rapidly. It doesn’t help that there are multi billion dollar businesses that ply their trade by keeping us distracted and our attention wavering. Inundated by notifications all the time, we are losing our ability to notice things as they are.
The more distracted and cluttered our brains become, the more we intuitively look to something like meditation for help. Interestingly, this is where the whole Meditation Industry steps in. It caters to our whims with its countless apps, tutorials, books, videos and merchandise to help us meditate better. However, it is often lost on us that we turn to meditation as a means to escape this commodification and opting for these numerous tools has turned it into a commodity itself.
I was stuck in this cycle for a long time. Trying this book, that tape, that perfect cushion and that perfect app. Anything to help me get started and keep me on track. This problem may seem trivial to most people because we can’t see its immediate effects, however the issues gradually keep accumulating and compounding. Maybe people with better concentration will not understand this, but the rest of us have to live with the consequences of leading a life with concentration levels below the red line. You go through life without seeing, listening and feeling because you are never there when life’s happening.
But I did not know that it was that bad because I did not know what I was missing. I have always been like this. In 2016 I decided again to start my meditation practice, but this time with an app to keep a track of time and consistency. However, my old habits weren’t going to change immediately, in search for an app, it wanted more; more features, more information, more things to read, do, learn and process.
Maybe, the primary mistake was choosing my phone as the medium to hone this habit. However, you generally tend to use the tools at hand. I needed something to record my practice and keep me from slacking.
Probably, the second mistake was choosing an app which had a ton of features and a large number of people teaching how to meditate. It was great for a while and gave me the perfect placebo feeling of accomplishing something. There were a wide range of teachers promoting various methods of meditation and except a very small cross section, a lot of it was derivative and the same message in different voices surrounded by a sense of ever present mystery.
I set a goal for myself, come what may, I’d meditate everyday for at least 365 days consecutively and subscribed to a group where the users encouraged each other to do that.
Soon, I realised that consuming those free audios wasn’t enough, I had to get the premium ones, because that’s where true wisdom would lie. I became a paid user with a recurring monthly subscription, learning a valuable marketing lesson in hindsight, that luring people with free samples definitely works.
After regularly meditating for about 30 days, I realised that I was making no progress at all. All these guided meditations and people telling me to breathe for just one minute several times a day were making me feel like I was doing a lot, while there was no actual improvement in my ability to focus, or mental well being or stress and anxiety levels. No universal truths were unfolding themselves to me and it made me feel like I was doing something incorrectly.
It took me a while to understand that the app, while well intentioned, was so full of features that it was a sheer exercise of will power to not get distracted by the UI and actually meditate.
Most of these tools have a lot of functionalities like networking, friendship, configurations, meditation methods, choices of bells, badges, competitions, teachers, courses to choose from and a lot of other stuff. For a person who’s already suffering from the disability of not being able to focus, it becomes impossible to ignore these and meditate without getting sidetracked. In the guise of meditation, I was sending out friendship requests, chatting with people about their practice, gloating over the badges and stars I was acquiring, browsing through hundreds of meditation courses while my actual average time on mat without guided sessions, was lesser than 10 minutes per day. Getting small dopamine boosts of badges and stars on even a 1 minute session kept me from trying harder to increase my sit time and made me complacent.
I decided to scrap the tech altogether and resorted to paper and pen. I made a calendar in my diary and decided to keep track of my unbroken streak by cutting dates off with a line. It was much more rewarding than any other method I had tried. And the pain of breaking my streak after 50 days worth of session investment was so much that it really kept me disciplined.
I found myself investing time into building the habit and was able to meditate for 200 consecutive days, with meditation sessions averaging more than 20 minutes per day. Being unaided helped in finding my own voice and thought patterns. At the end of 200 days I felt capable of attending a rigorous 10 days Vipassana retreat in Nepal, where for 10 days you don’t have any external communication, don’t consume intoxicants, eat very little food, wake up at 4, don’t read/write, and meditate for upto 11 hours everyday.
A detailed account of those 10 days is worthy of another long blog post, but after I came back, I had a very strong realisation:
We don’t need to be told how to meditate.
We already intuitively know how to do it, the more we read/hear about it, the more our minds chalk it up as some complex act, to be done in a very specific fashion, which is far from the truth. In my opinion and experience, no two people should meditate in the same way, everyone has their own unique brain chemistry, everyone will have to find their own way. A method which is great for a specific type of person might not work for me at all and what works for you may be frowned upon by some other experienced meditators, but it shouldn’t stop you. Complexity of techniques and insistence on adhering to strict rules should always be a red flag and the same rule applies to guides who’ll pander to you and will keep you in a dream of attainment. Meditation is about freedom from delusions, not acquiring new albeit pleasant ones.
In the end, I would urge that before you start looking for a guru or an online counsel, please give it a serious try yourself, on your own, let it take a few years, it’ll be worth it. And yes, although the tools are important since we are on our own and not living in ashrams with gurus handling the discipline. Any system that’s simple and can still help us quantify the hours and motivate us to not procrastinate is enough. The less features, the better.
Our minds are capable enough to figure out on their own what needs to be done for its survival and betterment. We just need to put in the hours; for some it will take less effort, for some, maybe more, but eventually when you are able to see the processes in your brain and will understand your own machinery of quirks, habits and thoughts — insights will come, problems will start resolving themselves everyday. You can read a thousand books and watch a terabyte of videos about how to swim, but the only way to actually swim is to enter the water and keep up a regular practice even after failing at it everyday.
One day, it just clicks.
originally published on medium here.