My take on meditation; why, how, resources

12 Nov 2022

TL;DR simple video: Mindfulness Meditation - Guided 10 Minutes by TheHonestGuys

Why meditate?

Mindfulness is very popular these days, but is usually framed either in a cute de-stress way, or as a miscellaneous mental health practice. All good, but if that doesn’t speak to you, you might be wondering what there is to it.

Well, what’s the “opposite” of meditation? There is this term awareness collapse—which I picked up from Michael Ashcroft—which describes when your attention shrinks down and is fully seized by something. When you are nervous and do a public talk or performance, you might not remember much about what happened because you just went into anxious autopilot mode. You certainly had no “space” to think fluidly and fully control yourself. This is collapsed awareness. Afterwards, your awareness zooms out again and you can become aware that you were not aware.

I think this idea is very deep. Just trying to notice when awareness collapses would probably get someone quite far.

Collapsing doesn’t just happen with anxiety or in big moments; it can also be very small. Ashcroft likens this to subroutines.1 Mundane physical actions like “sit down” are well-practiced subroutines in our mind that we follow without much thought. Our awareness often collapses when doing a subroutine: after you’ve stepped over the clutter for the tenth time, you forget it’s there.

Even brain functions can be subroutines. Seeing is arguably one; when we see a tree or a house, we only really see it as a simplified symbol, as evidenced by the way children draw them. Learning to draw is learning to see without subroutines.2

The idea is that quite a lot happens in these low-awareness moments, and much of it adds extra difficulty and unpleasantness to your life. So, meditating is basically the practice of keeping your awareness open, noticing and preventing collapse, and overriding subroutines. The benefit is that you learn to “see”, internally, and feel more intentional and authentic.

How meditate?

Setup

Firstly, I want to say that there aren’t any hard-and-fast rules for meditation. If it is tangled up with self-improvement ideas for you, like exercise is for many people, I suggest taking a slow approach and trying things out as they interest you (which may be never).

The only actual rule of meditation is that it’s fundamentally about awareness. Everything else is just a recommendation for how to make awareness easier to maintain.

Meditation Is Easier Than You Think (2:40)

This extends to how you sit. The recognisable lotus position 🧘 is not for show; it’s designed to allow you to relax as much as your body as possible without lying down, where you’ll probably just get sleepy.

Instead of the somewhat difficult lotus, you can just sit forwards on a chair, with your feet flat and back straight. You want your lower back to relax into a natural, slight forwards curve.

(If you want to try a floor position similar to a lotus: How To Sit For Meditation with Perfect Posture (5:11).)

Close or open your eyes depending on which is less distracting.

Set a timer on your phone. You can start with short sessions, maybe 5-15 min, and then extend over time as you get comfortable with it.

Starting

Then, we start. I usually do a simple noting practice. Just sit there and listen, paying attention to what’s happening:

  • your breathing: how it feels; whether you’re doing it manually; try to let it go back to soft automatic mode but still being aware of it
  • body feelings
  • sounds (hopefully quiet) around you
  • thoughts and mental talk

Your goal isn’t to zone out, but to be aware without getting invested in or judging any particular thing. Imagine your whole body as empty space, and all the things you notice are passing through you as clouds.

You might like to label things that you notice you’re doing with one word, like “hearing”, “feeling”, etc.

Mental Noting (7-8m read)

You will probably get distracted, but that’s no problem. After some time you’ll become aware you’re distracted and you’ll be back. No effort or shame is required. As you go on you may find that distractions get calmer and mostly stop (typically after ~10-15min for me).

You can also use these skills to find simple mindfulness literally anywhere you have some focus to spare, like on your commute, when you’re cooking, etc.

What does it feel like? What might happen?

Meditation has immediate effects how you experience things. For me as a novice, it feels like:

  • “catching up” with the world around me; often when we’re busy it feels like we’re one step behind and things happen long before we’ve got a chance to react; meditation makes my experience feel fresher, less cramped, and more up-to-date
  • realising I was listening to a podcast slightly too fast and setting the speed back to where it’s easy to digest

Commonly the first thing I do after meditating is tidy my room because I’m now aware of the things that I had learned to ignore.

As an example of getting better at “seeing”: you might realise that something that looked like one weird feeling or emotion actually has a handful or more secondary, smaller feelings attached to it that make it worse. E.g. you might feel good/bad about something but also feel shameful about feeling good/bad in several complex ways. You can then focus on that shame in a way you couldn’t before.

Another way of looking at meditation is Shenzen Young’s description of it as a way to develop three useful things:

  • Concentration power: the ability to focus on what you consider to be relevant at a given time; being in a flow state and in the zone; not feeling mentally foggy and forgetful
  • Sensory clarity: experiencing things as bright, clear, and fresh; knowing precisely what emotions you are feeling and not being confused; not feeling overwhelmed or numb/bored
  • Equanimity: the ability to allow experiences to come and go without push or pull; being able to fight less with bad feelings and be less tense about good ones, so you don’t mar them

Other things you can try

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