Mindfulness is very popular these days, but is usually framed either in a cute de-stress way, or as a miscellaneous “mental health” practice. I never found either particularly appealing.
In my opinion, to understand it, it helps to ask: 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, you might not remember much about what happened because you just went into anxious autopilot mode; there was certainly 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.
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 (just look how kids draw them). A big part of learning to draw is learning to see what’s actually there, without using these subroutines.2
So, meditating is basically the practice of keeping your awareness open, noticing and preventing collapse, and overriding subroutines. Some benefits I’ve experienced:
- I have better impulse control; I react less automatically and erratically.
- I can notice patterns of thoughts or behaviour which make me feel bad. Sometimes just the noticing makes them stop; sometimes you can work backwards and find some unconcious belief underneath it all.
- Lessened anxiety in some situations, since it’s easier to stay grounded and pay attention. Lots of anxieties exist largely in our heads, and better awareness is the equivalent of turning the lights on when you’re scared: it’s not that it makes the darkness monsters go away or easier to deal with, it’s that you can see they’re not actually there.
The idea is that these low-awareness moments add extra difficulty and unpleasantness to your life, by
- concealing habits or subroutines, down to tiny mental levels, which make you feel worse when you do them
- affecting your ability to “see” properly and accurately process what you’re feeling, what your motivations are—as if you’re trying to visualise something via terrible drawings.
- even mundane actions can feel fresh and novel
First, let me say that the road to meditation might begin much further back than sitting and doing it. There are lots of good reasons that someone might find meditation emotionally challenging or difficult to deal with. It might get associated with “self-improvement,” or asceticism, or even selfishness—just like how starting to exercise can be pretty complicated. Meditation might begin by just considering meditation and working through what comes up. There aren’t any hard-and-fast rules; 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.
You can meditate anywhere, anytime, under any circumstances. It is just awareness. Awareness means you know what you are thinking, what you are feeling, what you are doing. […]
Many people think meditation is something very difficult, empty your mind, do not think of anything, concentrate. That is a misunderstanding of meditation. Actually, to meditate, you do not have to do anything, like blocking thoughts, or create a special state of mind, or be peaceful and calm. No need! Simply “be.” As long as you are aware of something and maintain that awareness, that is meditation.
– Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
This extends to how you sit. The recognisable lotus position 🧘 is not magic, or for show; it’s designed to allow you to relax as much as your body as possible without lying down, where you’ll probably fall asleep.
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.
Basically, 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 any particular thing. In other words: your brain by default is going to try and follow or hold onto things that it notices, and your goal is to exert some control over this.
There are a lot of different ways you can be aware. You can zoom your attention in on one thing, like breathing, and try to keep it there. You can be zoomed in but rapidly flick around to all the different things as you notice them. Both of these can be done in meditation, but what I recommend you do is try to create a very “wide,” “open” awareness where you can pay attention to things while being zoomed out. The brain is of course not a muscle, but there is a sense that you’re trying to get it to relax from gripping onto or bracing itself for incoming things.
If you feel any possibility to make things more pleasant, like by relaxing muscles, or breathing easier, or letting positive emotions in, let that happen.
To help with paying attention, you might like to label things that you notice you’re experiencing with one word, like “hearing”, “feeling”, “tightness”, “warmness”, etc. Even just acknowledging “this” when you notice a new thing can help. Mental Noting (7-8m read)
You will get distracted, probably many times, but that’s fine. You will naturally realise you’ve become unaware, and the exact moment you do so is the moment you become aware again. No extra effort or shame is required. As you go on in a session you may find that distractions get calmer and mostly stop (typically after ~10-15min for me), but it’s fine if they don’t.
You can also use these skills to find simple mindfulness literally anywhere you have some focus to spare, like on your commute, or when you’re cooking, though it’s definitely easier when doing a proper session.
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. It’s like 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 up, because I’ve usually been ignoring mess around me 😄
As an example of getting better at “seeing”: you might realise that something that looked like one 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. Sometimes the secondary feelings just immediately disappear.
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
- Metta bhavana, which can be translated as “development of friendliness/goodwill”, where you try to grow a feeling of compassion and appreciation for yourself and other people, like kindling a fire
- Loving Kindness Meditation - Metta Bhavana by Mindah-Lee Kumar (23:45)
- some thoughts about learning to cultivate metta
- Note that metta is not easy at first, or ever, for some people, and can be confusing and even repulsive
- Exploring some emotions, or processing memories
- “Focusing” Demo (14:58) - getting in touch with complex feelings and trying out different explanations to figure out what they want/mean
- How To Emotionally Process The Upsetting Memories That Fuel Your Social Anxiety And Insecurities (17-22m read)
- Introduction to Internal Family Systems: a Groundbreaking Psychotherapy, Self-Therapy, Communication Method and World-View (19-24m)
- Healing Your Inner Child: An Introduction by Sister Dang Nghiem (17:50)
- Deeply exploring something, like an idea or object
- Device Meditation - Guided by Brother Phap Luu (10:00) (I like this because it shows that the modern world and meditation aren’t separate; we don’t need to LARP as a monk and forget about technology etc.)
- Aro - Meditation FAQ
- First meditation instructions (16:22)
- Mindfulness Meditation - Guided 10 Minutes by TheHonestGuys
- Relax the Mind with Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (6:15)
- Post-conceptual meta-goodness and changing in the deepest of ways
- Review: Meditation from Cold Start to Complete Mastery
- technical debt, meditation, and minds
- dhammatalks.org ebooks > Treatises > The Buddha’s Teachings (free e-book)