New Years 2015 I went to Bhopal, India for my first Vipassana meditation retreat. 10 days later I left with a sense of clarity I had never experienced before in my life.
2+ years later and I now practice meditation every day, usually for 1 hour in the morning and 20 minutes at night. I have completed 2 Vipassana meditation retreats as a student, and one as a server.
I love meditation and I tell everyone I know that they should try it. If Headspace offered Affiliates, I would be crushing it right now.
I tell everyone about it because it has helped my life in every conceivable way. It’s helped me with my ADHD, taught me about overcoming adversity, made me a less reactive person, and has improved countless relationships.
With that in mind, today I would like to share the lessons I’ve learned throughout the last three years of practice. Enjoy!
1) I’m less distracted and more focused
The first thing you are told to do in mindfulness meditation is observe the breath…which is quite possibly the hardest thing you will ever try to do. If you can last a few seconds or even a minute before your mind wanders, good for you!
Monkey mind has always been a problem of mine. Focusing on one task for an extended period of time while not succumbing to distractions is something I struggle with to this day.
In today’s world of push notifications and apps competing for our attention, it’s become increasingly difficult to block out the noise. Luckily, meditation has helped me to become more aware of my distraction prone mind so that I can overcome it.
In meditation I focus on my breath>mind wanders> realize I wandered>bring attention back to the breath.
Similarly, I noticed how this was happening in my work — Working> distraction arises that takes me on a tangent> oh shit! I’m on a tangent>back to my work>repeat.
Meditation has made me more aware of catching my mind when it has wandered off. It has helped me to stay on task, notice when I’m not, and then bring my mind back to what I should be doing instead.
Meditation has made me a more productive person. I’ve stopped compulsively checking emails and text messages, I rarely spend time on Facebook, and I’ve become comfortable with my phone on airplane mode for extended periods of time.
Meditation has taught me to block out the noise.
2) Equanimity — The end goal of meditation
I like to think of equanimity as keeping your cool. Even keeled. Remaining calm under pressure. A state of mind where there’s a buffer between you and your reactions. The external world can’t shake you.
In meditation this process of learning to become less reactive is referred to as developing equanimity.
For example, while meditating you might get an itch on your nose or a cramp in your back. How quickly does your finger react to that itch and scratch it? How long before you mindlessly shift your posture?
Similarly, maybe an enticing thought arises and you drift off for a while. How long does it take you to catch it and bring your mind back? Do you react to every thought, or can you objectively watch them arise and pass without reacting?
These micro reactions are a glimpse into how we react to small situations throughout the course of the day. By learning to not react to these small interferences, we develop a greater capacity to handle similar problems throughout the day.
This could result in keeping your cool during a tense negotiation. Or not reacting when someone baits you with an insult. Or something as subtle as the tone of your voice when having a conversation with a friend.
The practice of meditation has improved awareness of my reactions. I can now choose a different, more appropriate, response when needed.
Meditation taught me that while we can’t control our feelings, we can control how we react to them.
3) Progress isn’t linear
Unlike other skills where it’s easy to measure and track progress, meditation isn’t quite the same.
You might have one day with laser sharp focus, and then the next day your mind races in every direction. I’ve had days where an hour felt like 20 minutes, and days where 20 minutes felt like an hour.
When I first started out I would chase positive states. If I had a good session, I would try to replicate it. String a few good sessions together. Replicate breathing patterns and timing to make myself more likely to tap into flow.
Then if I had a bad day I would get frustrated. I would wonder why some days my mind was calm, and other days it raced. I was discouraged that I didn’t see a clear path to improving myself.
As someone who is very goal oriented and is always pushing myself (and often hard on myself), it was hard to learn to try less.
For a long time I felt like meditation was making me a bit too serious. I was so determined in my practice that it was making me tense. My mindfulness felt contrived and forced. It felt manufactured.
I’ve learned that progress in meditation lies in finding that balance. Finding the middle path.
As someone who’s goal oriented, progress for me learns to keep my competitive nature in check. For others who struggle with discipline their progress might be having a consistent routine.
I’ve learned progress is different for everyone, and we each have to walk our own path.
4) The Law of Impermanence
All events and experiences in life are impermanent. A good experience, no matter how amazing, can’t last forever. Similarly an unpleasant or horrible experience can’t last forever.
My favorite examples of experiencing the law of impermanence in action?
No itch last forever. No pain is permanent. No thought is tangible.
During my first Vipassana course Goenka said “No itch lasts forever” to illustrate the law of impermanence. While an annoying itch might seem impossible to ignore, if you were to observe it for some time, it would eventually go away.
Same thing happens with pain. While you might have a toothache that seems to be overwhelmingly painful, I will guarantee you if I poked you in the eye as hard as I could, you would quickly forget about your toothache and focus on your eye.
My favorite lesson of impermanence though? Thoughts.
What exactly is a thought? Can you touch it? Describe it? Does it have a shape or a color?
The average person has 50–70,000 thoughts per day. That’s between 35–48 thoughts per minute. Damn!
…The point is, everything in life is impermanent. Situations, experiences, thoughts, pains, emotions all popping up and passing away as we go through our lives.
If you’re going through a hard time in life, understand it’s impermanent. Realize that if you make a decision right here in this moment, you can change your reaction to that hardship. If you understand that it will eventually pass, you can figure out how to move forwards.
Similarly if you’re experiencing something blissful, relish it, because it could soon be gone. Once it’s passed, don’t cling to it hoping for more, because you will only set yourself up for disappointment down the line.
Life can change in a moments notice. One experience, conversation, injury, or illness can forever change the direction of your life.
I’ve learned to embrace both good and bad experiences as impermanent.
5) It has improved my relationships
Becoming more receptive and aware of my own feelings and emotions has also made me more aware of the feelings of those around me. I’ve become a better listener, and an overall more empathetic person.
I’m not a very good listener. I’ll be the first to admit it. I fall into the trap of thinking about my reply to what the person is saying, rather than giving them the space to speak.
I began to notice how my mind would wander to my intended reply while I was trying to listen. Then, instead of thinking of my reply, I would ignore whatever reply I had in mind and return back to being an attentive listener.
I also fall into the trap of an “advice giver”. I’ve learned that giving advice often leads to accidental probing. I begin asking questions, and before I know it they are on the defensive, trying to justify their own position.
I’ve learned that sometimes someone doesn’t want your reply or questions or advice…they just want you to listen.
I’ve also become more aware of my tone when speaking to someone. Am I too loud? Too aggressive? Too skeptical? Sometimes it’s not what we say, it’s how we say it.
The right thing, said in the wrong tone, can often create a reaction that wasn’t intended by the initial reply.
Lately a theme of mine has been letting go of the need to answer. Instead, I wait for someone to ask me my opinion…and when they do this, they are ready for it. If they want my advice, they ask for it.
If they have finished fully voicing themselves and there is a moment of awkward silence, generally the next thing they will say is “What do you think?”, “Thoughts?”, or “What would you do in my situation?”.
ALL of these realizations about myself came to me after I began meditating. It’s like I was able to get an outside perspective on myself and my relationships.
I’ve learned that meditation benefits not only myself, but those around me as well.
While I could easily write another 5–10 points of how meditation has improved my life, these are the ones I am constantly reminded of on a daily basis. These points have become mantras that I anchor myself to, so that when I wander or deviate, I know where to return to.
Meditation has improved my concentration and productivity, helped me to become less reactive, let go of expectations, live in the present moment, and most importantly, improve my relationships with friends and family. Not a bad exchange for 20 minutes a day as the minimum effective dose!
The best part? These learnings are applicable regardless of if you want to meditate or not. Awareness is the first step to taking action, and if you can improve your awareness of these aspects of your life, you can yield many of the same benefits.
Best of luck on your journey ahead! May you be happy and achieve all of your wildest dreams!
Thoughts? Similar experiences? Let me know in the comments below!
Also published on Medium.