Meditation

I’ve been telling more people about the benefits I’ve received from meditation. Meditation has greatly influenced the way I think, behave, and relate to others.

Ripples

One reason I didn’t take up meditation for many years was that everyone had a different definition of meditation. It seemed that in an effort to let people discover something that worked for them without being overly prescriptive, all the sources I turned to ended up saying nothing useful about meditation. Apparently it could be literally anything or nothing. Some said it was thinking about something, focusing on a mantra or an image; others said it was enjoying the laughter of children; others a feeling of serenity and calm—all completely unhelpful to me. Everyone was talking about it, and the only thing I could conclude was that none of them were actually doing it. The jargon around it, and the glib catchphrases, turned me off even more. People seemed to rely on meaningless phrases as placeholders for real substance (“shine the heart forward as you connect your breath to your intention and invite your om shanti to blossom into full expression”).

Still other people seemed to have urban myth misconceptions, and warned me for example that I might never “come back,” telling me about people they knew who’d apparently turned into vegetables or become comatose. I suspect that either these stories were false or had more to do with other activities, such as heavy drug use. The idea that someone could short out their brain circuits does not seem realistic to me.

Meditation may have many outcomes, such as serenity and clarity, but the goal is quite simple: to train yourself to observe your own mind and see reality as it is. By doing this, you realize that you are not your thoughts. You learn that you are not your “self,” which in fact is a false identity created by the thinking part of the mind. You learn that you can be without thinking, that the mind’s job is to think, but that mistakenly identifying this activity as being is to miss that the mind and its thinking are ripples on the surface of a deep, still, underlying existence.

This “I think, therefore I am” mistake is like walking into a room with a radio blaring and mistakenly believing that the radio is the room. If you turn off the radio, the room still exists. You’ve probably heard some sentences to the effect of “what is the sound of one hand clapping” and “if you sit in silence, what you hear is the sound of the universe” and the like. They’re trying to explain the undescribable, that which can only be explained by pointing to what it’s not: the room is essentially silent, with radio noise in it. Take away the noise and the silence is still there. Turn the radio on again and the silence is still there, coexisting with the noise. Others explain it by saying that the pool is still at the bottom even if there are ripples on top, or that the sky is always blue above the clouds.

Meditation helps you separate your existence from your thinking, which helps you learn to sense and experience the silence, the blue sky, the stillness at the bottom of the lake.

By training yourself to observe your mind, you become conscious of what it does. Much of it is useful, but much isn’t. And if you are unconscious of these thoughts, then your mind is in control of you, and not the other way around. Developing the ability to witness your mind, and know it as something separate, allows you to be unattached to the mind’s cravings, fears, doubts, conditioned reactions, aversions, delusions, and other misery.

It’s taken me half a dozen years to reach the point I have now. There were many detours and many false prophets; many people teaching meditation without knowing it themselves. Now that I’ve found my way past those, everything is different.

I’ll give two concrete examples of how meditation has changed me. Some months ago I wrote about the agonizing pain and stress of being a founder. The company was doing great, investors were doubling down, customers were flocking to us, the team was clicking into high gear, I had absolutely nothing to worry about, and yet I was at the end of my rope. In fact, the better things got, the more exciting and promising the future looked, the more stressed I was. My mind was getting the bit between its teeth and running away, with me kicking and screaming along for the ride. What the hell?

Meditation helped me realize that my problem was attaching my attention to thoughts about the future. All of this good news about the company was tempting me to think about what might happen, what looked likely to happen, what could be. You who are practiced in meditation already know what I’m going to say. I was taking my mind off the now and projecting it into a nonexistent future, where good things might come to pass—but then again they might not. For every potentially good thing about which I could get excited, there was an equal and opposite fear that it might not happen. In other words, the future is a mental construct where the mind can project fear, doubt, and worry. It is a fabrication that the mind creates to facilitate attaching itself and its sense of self-worth to things that don’t even exist, so that it can freak out because they might never exist.

The second example is related to this projection into the future. The pain and stress were doubly acute for me because I wasn’t used to thinking about the future. Most of my life, just the opposite was true, and I avoided thoughts of the future. I spent years in therapy trying to understand and recover from some traumatic experiences I’d had. Every session my therapist would say, “Think back to that time. Tell me about it.” The therapist was trying, in a Freudian way, to help me do the same things as meditation does—see my reactions to my thoughts and memories, and disidentify from them.

Meditation has helped me more in the space of a few months than therapy helped in years. If I’d learned to meditate, I am pretty sure that I wouldn’t have needed therapy. And I always felt vaguely sure, in a way I couldn’t explain, that there had to be a more effective way of healing than repeatedly talking about the horrible things that I’d experienced. Now I know what I was groping for: a more direct and less abstract way.

Swinging from the past into the future, and experiencing it with a brutal shock, then becoming aware that this was what was happening to me, taught me that life must be lived—indeed, can only be lived—in the present moment. The past no longer exists. If I recall it, I’m recreating a memory of the past, and I’m doing it in the now. If I think forward to the future, which likewise does not exist, I’m doing the same thing and I’m doing it in the now. The past existed once, but when it did, it was the now. The future, when it comes to be, will come to be in the now. Now is the only moment that exists.

And there is no multi-tasking. Attention given to one thing is taken from another. Attention given to a memory is taken from the now that exists. In other words, remembering the past or waiting for the future is actually opting not to live at all.

To meditate is to be in the now, to notice when thoughts arise, and to release them rather than engaging them. Indulge me as I deploy another bad analogy: when you’re caught up in thoughts, it’s as if you’re reading the mail; the independent, outside observer is switched off and attention resides in the thoughts themselves. When you’re observing the thoughts and releasing them, it’s as if you’re simply handling or sorting the mail, shuffling it onwards without opening the envelopes.

To meditate is to see clearly the mind’s activity, the thoughts, as separate. It relies for its working on the impossibility of multi-tasking. You can’t stop a thought; the harder you try, the more you’re actually thinking about it. Instead, experiencing the object of focus (usually the breath) is a way of taking the focus from the thought and returning it to the breath. In time, with practice, you realize that there is a something that witnesses either the thought or the breath, and that something is what you might call Being.

This cannot be achieved by willing it; in fact, will is an exercise of the mind and only binds you more tightly. You achieve it by relinquishing, releasing, stepping back, surrendering, accepting, letting go of the will and experiencing what is.

Meditation is also not what some people commonly say it is. It isn’t relaxation or calm or inner peace (those are potential outcomes). It isn’t thought control, the ability to stop thoughts. It isn’t a way to exercise the mind to achieve greater intelligence.

It can’t be explained (and I’m not doing it justice), it must be experienced. It takes time. It takes practice. It is a training exercise. The goal is to carry present-moment awareness into every moment, to experience the present rather than to be a couch potato in the room with the radio, absorbed in the chatter, missing life as it exists in the present moment.

To meditate is to train yourself to actually live, to engage, to exist.

I highly recommend it.

Disclaimer: this post reflects my current understanding. Those who are more advanced than I will surely recognize my errors. To those who are less far along the path, I hope it is helpful, and leads no one astray.

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I'm Baron Schwartz, the founder and CEO of VividCortex. I am the author of High Performance MySQL and lots of open-source software for performance analysis, monitoring, and system administration. I contribute to various database communities such as Oracle, PostgreSQL, Redis and MongoDB. More about me.


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