The Real Point of Meditating
On the Humble Purpose and Understated Benefits of Meditation, and How to Do a Minimal Viable Practice
Humans have been doing some form of meditation for thousands of years. But it seems like only recently that we’ve started to warm up to the idea that it’s a form of beneficial exercise for the mind — much like running or push-ups are for the body. To a certain extent, I can understand why we held out. We wanted data, we wanted peer-reviewed, double-blind, university-published analysis. We wanted the science!
Well, the science is in, and it shows a whole bunch of data to support the idea that meditation is beneficial. But I’m not necessarily interested in that science. Because at the end of the day, there is only one person whose data on meditation matters: you. And that data is easy to collect. You need only sit down and relax for a few minutes.
But here’s the thing. The data that represent the benefits of meditation are subtle. After meditating, you may feel just about the same as before you sat down. In some cases, you can meditate for a week or two, and still feel pretty much the same as you did before you started. But somewhere along the line — if you keep doing it — you pick up on something subtle: the space. And that space is the wellspring from which all the other benefits of meditation flow.
The Space is the Point
The main benefit of meditating is not enlightenment (whatever that actually means). In fact, any expectations beyond simply being present during this meditation session are actually antithetical to the practice of meditation itself.
The point of meditating — regardless of the type — is to to carve out a bit of space between stimulus and response — between thought and action. A little bit of space there can be the difference between regret and contentment. It can be the difference between achieving your goals and derailing your plans. It can be the difference between an open and caring relationship, and a toxic rivalry.
Even further down the rabbit-hole, meditation is about creating another kind of space: space between your thoughts and your concept of self. We each have thousands of thoughts and emotions per day, which means there are thousands of opportunities each day to make the mistake of identifying who we are with some thought in our head. But doing so is ludicrous. We each have so many conflicting thoughts each day that identifying with any two can put us at odds with ourselves numerous times each day.
But when you meditate, you carve out space between your concept of who you are, and whatever happens to be in your head at the time. You come to see thoughts for what they are — passing things that rise and fall away. They are things that just happen to fall into your mind — the way a feather happens to fall into a pond. But we would never think that the feather is an important part of the pond’s identity, so why think that random thought are part of ours?
Creating this space helps you get to better know your thoughts and thought patterns. Unless you have meditated for any period of time, you will be surprised by how often you think of things without even being aware of what you’re thinking of, or that you’re even thinking at all. And even thought you don’t often realize what’s going on in your mind throughout the day, your body does, and your subconscious mind does. And those two get exhausted — many times well before you’ve even put down your cup of coffee in the morning.
Even a Little is Quite Good
Just like with exercise, simply doing a little bit of meditating is still very beneficial. So however hectic your schedule is, you can fit in 5 minutes, or even 1 minute of just sitting, watching what is going on in your mind, and letting it settle down.
In the same vein of a little going a long way, there’s also this: mindfulness is not a competition. The point is not to get a good time, or lift a certain amount. There is no keeping track, no measurement of progress in any formal way. There is only sitting, observing, and creating space. You then carry that space with you during the day, and eventually, it keeps you from reacting so quickly and so thoughtlessly to things. It keeps you from treating people poorly. It keeps you from getting swept up in negative thought patterns and going down an anxiety rabbit-hole.
Meditation will never keep you from doing those negative things completely. In fact, it may only make a small dent in those negative habits. But a small dent — multiplied by each day — makes a big impact. I’m willing to put up a few minutes per day to realize that compounding benefit. How about you?
The Minimal Viable Meditation
Meditation is simple. You can do it now, and do it in the same way that old pros do it. You can receive the benefits as soon as you are ready to. Here’s a quick mindfulness meditation instruction set.
- Sit down anywhere where you are comfortable, but not so comfortable that you’ll fall asleep.
This can be literally anywhere — a plane, a bus, your chair at home, etc.
- With either eyes closed or not, take a breath in, and exhale, while focusing on what it feels like as the breath is happening.
- For however many minutes you decide to meditate, do the following:
- let your breath simply happen on its own (as much as you can)
- fully concentrate on your breathing as an observer, but not controller of it
- when your mind wanders (which it will, very quickly) simply note what it’s doing, and simply guide it back to focusing on the breath going in and out.
That’s it — 3 steps. It’s just about sitting quietly, trying to focus on your breath, and when your mind inevitably departs from that focus to some random thought, gently (and without judgment) guide it back to the breath. That’s the practice. It is simple, but not easy. Your mind will wander — every time. But every once in a while, it won’t. When that happens, the feeling is truly outstanding — and it helps your mind and body become better conditioned to just be at peace.
But here’s the sneaky benefit of meditation. That stillness and the joy that comes with it is good, but fleeting. You can’t expect it or try to hold onto it, because then you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment. The sneaky benefit is that you’re gathering data on your mind. That data is helping you to draw a conclusion about the relationship you have with your thoughts, and the conclusion is this: you are not your thoughts. Your thoughts are turbulent, contradictory, fleeting, and uncontrollable. You are just their vehicle, and you don’t have to follow where they lead. That knowledge alone — when truly believed and acted upon — is the real benefit of meditation, and it is worth any amount of minutes sitting.