Why I Meditate


I am a meditating freak of nature.

I don’t mean that I can move objects with my mind, or that I live in a cave in India, or that I am always a vision of calm, serene enlightenment.

(Far from it. What I should really call this post is: What Happens When I Don’t Meditate — And Why You Should Avoid Me If That Happens.)

But I have been doing meditation daily for 24 years.

Don’t think that means I’m an “expert.” I’m really no different than a beginner in that way. If I’m an expert at anything, it’s simply in how to stubbornly prioritize it in my life and schedule… A little more about that later.

It does probably mean I was a pretty bizarre ten-year-old though, when I announced I wanted to learn to meditate.

What I’d like to share with you is why I do it, and keep doing it, and what benefits I get from it. Because I think it’s been one of the most powerful things in my life.

I know what you’re thinking: “That sounds incredible, but there’s no way I could sit still with my eyes closed for 20 minutes every day. I’d be terrible at that.”

Let me disabuse you of one notion right up front: it’s not as hard as you think. In fact, it really doesn’t have to be hard at all. If it had been hard work doing that every day for the last 24 years, I definitely wouldn’t have stuck with it.

Now, there are many roads that lead to Rome. I happen to practice a kind of meditation called Transcendental Meditation. “Meditation” in general today gets kind of lumped into one thing, but there are different types, and those types use different techniques. And different techniques actually produce different physiological results in the brain. I’m not here to say that I think there’s only one way to Rome. But I will share my own experience with one type, Transcendental Meditation (TM for short).

First, let me describe what I do not do. I do not sit and concentrate. I do not spend 20 minutes sitting with my eyes closed in a torturous wrestling match with thousands of thoughts flying around in my brain at once, kind of like a doomed WWF match with a bunch of octopuses.

TM uses a mantra, given to you by your teacher, as part of the course instruction process. You sit for 20 minutes twice a day, comfortably with your eyes closed, and that mantra allows your mind quite easily to settle, and your body (intimately connected to your mind) settles with it. You are not aware of your mantra, or the clock ticking painfully slowly, or your mental to-do list for all of that 20 minutes. Yes, you do sometimes have thoughts, but the process is a kind of settling and rising, settling and rising, where thoughts come and go, but the technique makes it pretty easy to not get stuck on the “thought hamster wheel” so you can settle back down. The result is that it feels pretty easy and refreshing.

For me, there are two major levels of benefit that I get from it. One is the immediate, which means that when I feel dragged out physically, or kind of clouded and and not as clear mentally, or stressed from the day, the practice lifts a lot of that, kind of like going through the carwash and having the grime washed away. (This is especially true for me with my afternoon meditations if the day has been tiring or stressful.) Here’s what I notice when I don’t do it: I am more crabby with other people, cranky at drivers in traffic, and not as present with my students. I don’t think as clearly, and I’m not as productive. My sleep suffers — I pretty reliably know that if I miss a meditation, I will have more trouble falling asleep. It’s a very clear difference for me from when I don’t meditate, to when I do, an obvious boost (or decline) in performance.

The other part of it for me is what I feel happening long term. The most interesting piece of data I’ve seen on the brain and TM is the difference between the brain scans of a brand new meditator, and a meditator who has been practicing for decades. There is little difference in the brain imaging of the two people when they are in meditation — the brain scans show similar alpha coherence that shows up consistently when researchers look at TM and the brain. What is fascinating is what the pictures show outside of meditation — the brain of the newbie looks pretty normally random again, but the brain of the long-time TMer looks quite similar to the pictures during meditation. Meaning that the brain coherence and benefit you get is seeping more and more out into your regular life the longer you do it.

The is definitely borne out in my subjective experience. As time goes on, I feel more depth and equanimity. I can better handle the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” with some level of calm. I have an underlying feeling that while things might feel really shitty on the surface at a given moment, there is a part of me that is deeper and unshakable. That part offers a little whispered voice during those really tough moments, that says: this is the surface. There is something beyond this, and you are fine there. Overall, TM seems to deepen my experience of Self and increases the "hum" of the transcendent in everyday life.

But practically speaking, it’s still really hard to manage to fit it into your life. There is so much around us that is pulling us in the direction of: do do go go multitask overwhelm output push harder you snooze you lose etc. Our culture is not set up to support taking time out of every day to just be still, to cultivate silence. So while the practice itself is easy, trying to establish the practice is not the easiest, I admit.

It is, however, like any habit you want to establish or change. For me, I make it part of my morning routine. Even when I had to leave the house at 6:30am(!!) to go teach, I got up in time to do even a little. My daily routine looks like this: wake up, say good morning to the cats, fix myself a cup of hot water, roll around on the floor a bit with some yoga, and then settle in to meditate. In the afternoon, somewhere in the 4:30-5:30 range, I try and stop what I am doing to pause and meditate. Sometimes you actually have to stubbornly pencil that into your calendar. Or set an alarm or reminder app on your phone that pings and tells you to STOP. 

The other part of establishing a routine that helps me is having a little dedicated space to meditate in at home. Now fortunately, you can actually close your eyes and do TM anywhere, even with stuff going on around you, although it is harder to settle, or the “settling” is not as “settled.” (I’m writing this on a plane after I meditated on a morning flight.)  But in regular life at home, I find it very helpful to have a dedicated corner of space for particular activities. I write much better if I have a nook where just writing happens, I settle into my meditation routine better if I have a dedicated space where just meditating happens. Could be just a corner with a comfy place to sit, cordoned off by a screen. I think my practice is aided by that ritual though: I move to my nook, I dab a little of my favorite meditation essential oil on, I wrap up in my favorite soft blanket. It’s like a “trigger” that helps tell my body, “Time for this.”

Perhaps the biggest help for me in my meditation practice, though, is to have people in my life who reinforce it. Even if I’m not living with them, even if they’re thousands of miles away, having friends and family in my life who also meditate or have a similar practice reinforces it, helps support me in its importance in my life. And that kind of brings me full circle, because while I was a “closet meditator” for years and didn’t tell most people about it, now I want to bring it forward in my life and work. And here I am at Kindred Seekers, writing this for others like me, wanting to connect with and support each other on the path.

So how do you feel about meditation? Do you have a practice? Are you interested but terrified, or skeptical? If you have tried meditation, what benefits do you feel you’ve gotten? Join the conversation here.

{Photo: me, by moontorrent.com}