People talk to me about meditation a lot.
But what they say generally falls into two categories. The first is a question: How do you do it? And the second is a statement: I can’t do it.
Today I’m going to address both of these concerns. But first let’s consider a couple of more fundamental questions:
Why meditate at all?
And what exactly is meditation, anyway?
You’ve probably heard about some of the benefits meditation brings: inner peace, deeper calm, fewer worries, reduced stress.
All of these benefits are real. Meditation stabilizes my emotions and clarifies my thoughts. It helps to make me a calmer, happier, wiser person, and my life is better as a result of it.
But to me the greatest advantage of meditation is probably the one least talked about:
Meditation makes you significantly more effective at kicking ass.
A Secular Definition of Meditation
I am a secular man. I do not believe in spiritual beings, higher planes of existence, or etheric energy fields of any kind. Philosophically I have been influenced by Taoism and Zen, but I do not adhere completely to either of those traditions and I do not engage with their religious aspects.
When I meditate, therefore, I am not pursuing enlightenment, divine union, or spiritual powers. Instead, I meditate for a purely secular reason: because it makes me better at life.
Bearing that in mind, here’s how I define meditation:
Meditation is the mental discipline of deliberately placing your attention wherever you want it to go.
That’s what it is. A form of training for the will. A way of keeping your attention squarely on the task at hand.
The mind can distract you. The heart can distract you. The body can distract you. The world can distract you.
But meditation — that’s how you become indistractible.
A Simple Practice (Meditation 101)
Here’s a simple practice I use as a warmup each day before easing into more rigorous training.
In many cases this will be all you need, especially if you’ve never meditated before. It’s simple enough that just about anybody can give it a go.
This is a way to quieten the mind. I’ve used it to help ADD students cut through their mental chatter and to help stressed-out friends fall asleep more easily.
Here’s how to do it, step by step:
1. Mute your phone and find a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted.
2. Set a timer for 15 minutes. You can use a kitchen timer, or a meditation app, or a digital watch, or an alarm clock. Anything sensible really.
3. Sit, stand, or lie down in any position you like, with your eyes either opened or closed (I prefer opened but downturned). I also find it easier if I keep my spine straight, but do whatever works for you.
4. Quietly become aware of your thoughts and emotions. Watch them flowing by, as if you’re standing on a bridge and your thoughts are a river flowing beneath you. Don’t follow any specific thoughts; just let them flow along with the river. If you do find yourself following any thoughts, let them go and return to watching the flow of your thoughts and emotions as a whole.
5. (Optional step) After you’ve settled in for a few minutes, begin letting your thoughts float up like bubbles, one by one, pop, and disappear. Do this for each thought that you find yourself following.
6. End when the timer goes off, or extend your session by another 15 minutes if you wish.
That’s all. Simple on paper, but not always so simple in practice — some trains of thought can be very powerful, and we might not even notice we’ve been carried away until after several minutes have passed.
But remember this: meditation is not about having an empty mind. It is about the process of systematically refocusing your attention. So as long as you keep on letting your thoughts go, consider your session successful. With practice you’ll get better and better over time.
The Best Times to Practice
It’s best to meditate either first thing in the morning or at the end of the day before you go to bed. In the morning you’re fresh and your thoughts are less insistent, while at night meditation can help you fall asleep more easily.
Unless you’re extremely stressed out, it’s best not to meditate when it’s late and you still have work to do. Quieting your mind will give your body’s natural tiredness an opportunity to kick in, and that can shut you down for the day.
Many people report struggling not to fall asleep while meditating. In my opinion, if you experience this issue you haven’t been getting enough sleep and you should therefore go directly to bed. Many enlightenment-seeking religionists will disagree with me here; but from a secular point of view, meditation comes second to sleep as a performance enhancer. Fix your sleep first before you try meditating.
So there you have it: a very simple form of secular meditation that anyone can take up as needed.
I hope you give it a go.