If you discount the countless times I used to get stoned, I was 26 years old when I took my first fully conscious inhalation and meditated for the first time.
The stoner’s path just wasn’t an option for me. After being completely hooked I had finally given up a couple years earlier—it had stopped being fun and its function had become to make me feel normal, which seemed pretty pointless. As when I’d given up anti-depressants a few years earlier, I knew I had to discover who I was without all that.
I was on a mission to find ecstasy, or at least some peace of mind. The non-drug route was now appealing, if only because getting off my head had provided just fleeting respite from ‘me’ so far. After extensive immersion in losing my mind I had to concede that there were still as many downs as ups and I still hated myself.
Could meditation really offer relief from the depression and anxiety that wrecked each day? As the Buddha had observed, life was suffering, and I needed a way out.
So I started meditating.
I wondered exactly how I would find the time to meditate in a day that was already too short. There seemed only one way to do it. With a rare display of conviction I set my alarm clock 40 minutes earlier than normal. This was how it would be.
I remember the first time I meditated. I was hungover. I listened to a guided meditation on a CD. As I cycled to work later that morning, the colours and textures of the world were different. Richer, more detailed, more real. Maybe I was still pissed. Whatever, it was enough for me to figure that perhaps there could be something in this after all.
In those early days I was shocked at the sheer volume of shit that my mind insisted on spewing forth. It was a continuous tidal wave of mental and emotional sewage. I was amazed. Is this really what is happening whilst I attempt to go about my daily life? No wonder I’m screwed. The thought that peace of mind was an actual attainable thing seemed ridiculous as I cowered under this mental bombardment.
While frustrating, I had glimpses of what could be. Though hard to stomach, the notion that we can choose how to respond to our thoughts had been planted like a seed in my mind.
I recognised how this could be a remedy for the victim status I occupied in relation to my own mental activity. I dared to envision a day when this was no longer the case. I trusted what I had heard in regard to this being possible, and gambled that waking up 40 minutes earlier for the rest of my life was a price worth paying for that freedom.
The time I invested started to pay off. Sitting on that cushion I learnt not to judge the quality of my thoughts, but to simply experience them, recognise them for what they were, allow them to be, and let them go. In time, the intensity and imposition of these thoughts would slowly begin to subside.
With more time, I started to recognise how thoughts emerge from nothingness, that they appear for a while in awareness, and then dissolve back into the same void from which they came. I realised their transitory and illusory nature.
I spotted their cunning plan: to hijack my emotions, to fool me into believing they had substance and they were real, to trick me into thinking my thoughts and feelings were ‘me’, that my brain vomit should affect my mental state.
As much as I could, I stayed present. I learned how to feel but not respond to the sensations, emotions and thoughts that came.
I wasn’t blocking anything out. It wasn’t about trying to control the contents of my mind, but to let whatever it was just be, without invoking an emotional response. And if there was an emotional response, I tried to just hold that in my awareness without judgement too.
I was able to nurture a space between the arrival of a thought and how I responded in relation to it. In time that space made it’s way from my cushion to other parts of my life, and it continues to grow. Not smoothly though. Fuck no. Sometimes it feels like nine years of meditation was for nothing. But these downers pass, like everything else.
Sometimes I experience astonishing things. Waves of ecstasy. Compassion. Love. A strange and intense spinning sensation. Clarity. Insight. Focus. Having thousands of arms like a Buddhist deity. Often it’s the best half hour of my day.
I’m convinced that the activity of our mind that causes us so much trouble is like clouds in the sky. When we meditate it’s like sitting in a plane that’s taking off. As that rising plane pierces the clouds that shield the sun, we pierce the veil that keeps us from experiencing the clear blue sky of our untainted minds.
At other times I feel tired, frustrated, sleepy and blunt.
I learnt that actually none of this matters. What is important is to just do the practice. Witness the contents of awareness and let it be. Meditation is not about achieving anything, it’s the process of observing and letting go.
We cried in bitter anguish, we cried in utter bliss. We felt the devils anger, and the sweetness of a kiss. We meditated for so many years. Had therapists and many tears. We got drunk on beer and wine and whiskey and vodka and life. We got high, and we got low. We felt the heat and the ice.
We got sober. We ran away. We found the fields and the jungle and mountains and the cave. We drank the wicked brew and saw our lives break open. We travelled the world across land and ocean. We learned to be mindful, we learned to be still. We learned to forgive, just a little.
We did so much. And how we tried. And how we cried. We cut. We loved. We fucked. We sunk in to the ocean. We danced among the stars. We lied and we cheated, we collected many scars.
We tried to make things right. We tried to be good. We tried to live up to the expectations of others the best we could. We tried not to care. We tried to conform. We tried to be free. We tried to just be.
We tried to find the answers but we didn’t know the questions. We tried to find our way but we didn’t have directions. We sought protection from the world but we had no protection from ourselves. We were our worst enemies, not anybody else.
We tried to find god or spirit or love or nature or ecstasy or something. Anything, bigger and greater than ourselves and our parents and our education and our politicians and our culture and our society. Something to hold on to. Just something we could cherish and belong to. Something worth living for.
We never stopped searching. We kept on believing tomorrow might just be worth living an extra day for. But tomorrow never came. It’s still always today. And I’m still me and you’re still you. And we still want to change but we don’t know what to do. We still wish we were someone else. We’re still waiting to be saved.
When will this stop? When will this end? When will we get there? Does ’there’ even exist?
After all these years we’re still broken. Perhaps it’s unspoken, perhaps it’s not quite so much as before, but we’re still, frustratingly, achingly sore.
We still hate ourselves. We still feel weak. We still lack power when we speak. We still dream big, but our doubt is bigger. Too scared to try to actualise dreams, still scarred by painful memories of previous failures. Too self aware. Too hurt to care. Too clever but not quite clever enough. Too intimate with our minds and our flaws. Still unable to open doors.
Still unable to love. Still jealous. Still children, still seeking approval. We try and fail to be grown up. Trying and failing to be a success. Confused as ever about what we want from life, and still no clearer what any of this is for.
But there is no ‘off’ button, and we will go on. Learning, sharing, hoping, daring. Giving up, trying again, holding on, letting go. Finding ourselves, while getting lost.
When falling in love, we long for each other when we are apart and gain immeasurable pleasure from being together. Ecstatic energy flows between two bodies rapt in love. We blithely bathe in oceans of lust. When falling in love we cannot get enough.
For many people what they wish for most is to fall in love. And yet, the consequences of a love gone wrong are potentially so devastatingly and crushingly brutal that the aftermath of a relationship turned sour can literally be a life destroyed.
People kill others for love. People kill themselves out of love. Depression and heartbreak are symptoms of falling in love with the wrong person. All of which makes me wonder – is it too risky to fall in love?
Falling in love has to be one of the most intoxicating mental states available to us in the great pantheon of mundane and crazy experiences that comprise the human condition. In fact, looking back at the experience from a decidedly sober and not ‘falling in love’ state of mind, it strikes me how ridiculous and almost delusional the whole process seems.
It’s not just the subjective experience of being completely besotted with someone else, it’s the way we become so willing to give up so much to be with that other. Love is strong. Love strips us of our volition. Love derails plans, estranges us from friends and empties our pockets.
Falling in love is inherently risky. Most relationships fail and even those that ‘work’ are fraught with difficulties along the way. Falling in love exposes our deepest insecurities, triggers powerful feelings, and bestows great power in the hands of another. Falling in love opens us up to to the possibility of rejection, of not being good enough.
Falling in love makes us vulnerable and creates a gamble that wasn’t there before: that while we may win the love of another, we could just so easily lose it. The price of losing this gamble is rejection, and the triggering of any related past traumas. Love is a land inhabited by the demons and devils of our early-life conditioning. Only the brave would dare to tread here.
At least you’d think so… But in reality we do not choose to fall in love, love chooses us. Or rather, mysterious and powerful unconscious forces propel us irreversibly to collide with the universe of another.
Only if we have already been hurt sufficiently do we start to question whether we want to fall in love. Or maybe we proceed with more caution, chastened by experience, battle weary and wary of exposing ourselves to more pain.
Ultimately though, love can be a powerful tool. It is one of life’s great teachers, if we are receptive to it’s lessons and pay attention to the wisdom it can inspire. The burning light of love exposes the darkest recesses of our hearts.
It shows us the ways in which we hurt, the ways we react when our insecurities are triggered, and offers us the opportunity to bring these ghouls out of the dark and in to conscious awareness. Slowly we are given a method by which to integrate our pain, and with the other, or without the other, we grow.
It is sometimes said that before you can love someone else you have to love yourself. I think this is a stupid saying – not least because it gets banded about without anyone really knowing what it means, and in any case you can’t just simply decide to start loving yourself all of a sudden.
However I do think these words allude to an important truth. Before we can have a truly healthy relationship in love, one in which we are not using the other in order to fill something missing within ourselves, we need to be whole. This means we need to have developed to the point where our sense of self worth is not dependent on the validation of another.
Until life is ‘okay’ without the sweetness of our beloved’s touch, we run the risk of being broken by any subsequent withdrawal of love. And this is the challenge. Often, without consciously realising it, many people will use love because it will provide them with a sense of what they most need – to know that they are worthy of someone’s affection, to know that they are not alone.
But to rely on someone else for these comforts is to deny ourselves the opportunity of discovering them within oursleves. We take when we should give, and despite feeling strengthened by relationship, we give our power away.
Yes, it is risky to fall in love, too risky perhaps. It is also seldom a choice we make. But for those consumed by love’s mysterious waters, who are able to listen and learn, love is a teacher and love will help us grow. Love can hurt, but slowly love can heal.
An earlier version of this article was published in July 2013.
EDIT: Ok yep, this post actually doesn’t dive into the science at all, although it does summarise some scientific studies. I’m gonna revisit this again and get a bit more scientific-y another time.
Meditation rocks. If you can actually be bothered to do it more days than not, or even if you do it sporadically, there’s so much to be gained from hanging out on that cushion. Let’s face it though, it’s still seen as a pretty alternative practice by those who don’t close their eyes for extended periods of time except for when they’re sleeping, and for those of us who do, it’s tempting to keep our practice a secret to colleagues and certain friends, for fear of being called that most lazy of insults, a hippie. Or maybe that’s just me.
Thankfully meditators everywhere have a new ally. Science is on our side! Recent developments in research and in neuroscience in particular have shed fascinating insights into what happens physiologically and psychologically when we meditate, validating that ancient practice and demonstrating it’s universal worth.
Of course those of us who meditate know what good it does for us without have to turn to the ‘S’ word for validation of our practice, but it’s worth recognising what this research is telling us, partly because it’s great motivation to keep meditating, or maybe approach it with renewed vigour, but also because it’s great to have some handy ammo in case that ‘H’ word ever gets aimed at us.
Humans have known about the efficacy of meditation for thousands of years, yet in the west it’s only been relatively recently that it has started to catch on. Despite an increase in awareness of meditation, it’s still likely some of your friends will think you’re a nut for doing it, so here is what you’ve always wanted – a list of some of the profound benefits of meditation, as confirmed by those rational scientists. Who can argue with that? And if you don’t meditate, this is what you’re missing…
1) The mindfulness cultivated by meditation lowers levels of the hormone cortisol, of which high levels are associated with stress
2) The practice of meditation produces a relaxation response, even in new meditators, leaving you nice and mellow but without blunting the sharpness of your mind
3) Meditation actually causes physical changes in the brain, including an increase in the volume of grey matter in the right orbito-frontal cortex, and the size of the right hippocampus. Why should we care? This is good because it’s thought larger volumes in these regions leads to the cultivation of positive responses and emotions, and increased engagement in mindful behaviour.
4) Meditation increases cortical thickness, which recent studies have associated with lowering pain sensitivity
5) Meditating strengthens the connections between brain cells, and increases ‘gyrification’ of the cortex. This enables the brain to process information faster. Furthermore, it was found the more years you meditate the greater these benefits.
6) Just ten days of intensive mindfulness training can lead to improvements in working memory, sustained attention, attention switching and depressive symptoms
7) Meditation activates the anterior cingulate cortex, enhancing your ability to control worried thinking
8) Meditation decreases elaborative stimulus processing, resulting in the improved ability to attend to the continuous stream of stimuli we are exposed to without getting ‘fixed’ on one particular thing
9) ‘Open’ meditation increases creativity and the ability to come up with new ideas
10) In one study, meditation reduced the risk of suffering a heart attack, stroke or death by 48%
Who knew?! If you want to be creative, less stressed, more chilled, kinder, healthier and a better thinker, you know what to do…
Suffering sucks. Whether it’s a temporary case of the grumps or the desperate, agonising self-destructive death pangs of the suicidal mind, suffering sucks ass. Trust me, I know, and I don’t say this lightly.
But how to deal with it, when the dark seems to have extinguished the light? It sometimes helps me to remember that life is supposed to painful. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying ‘life is shit and it’s always gonna suck’, but there is no rule that says existence is obliged to feel good to us all of the time. Once I realised and internalised this, my own relationship to pain changed just a little.
I’ve started to think that there are two components to our suffering (of course there are more but let’s keep it simple). There is the thing that is causing our pain, and if you look carefully for it, you might just find the belief that we should not be suffering in the first place. This second component magnifies the impact of suffering. Therefore, the mere act of recognising this can take the edge off the hurt.
It’s tempting to think that life, existence and everything is or should be inherently ‘good’. If it’s not then this causes an existential problem—we might rightly ask, ‘what’s the point in any of this at all then?’ It seems as if life is not fulfilling its part of the bargain.
The problem with thinking that everything should be good and when it’s not something has gone wrong, as though life has somehow strayed from its default ‘goodness’, is that although it aligns with our human tendency to experience stuff as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it does not accord with the way things actually are. Hence, with this perspective we are doomed to suffer.
Recognising the universe’s inherent composition of both creative and destructive processes puts our experience into perspective. It teaches us that we have no ‘right’ to feel good all the time at all, but that moving between subjectively positive or negative states is all part of life’s ebb and flow.
Take the very origins of the universe itself. This was an act of profound creation and yet huge violence. Carbon based life on earth itself is the direct result of stuff being spewed by dying stars (it’s often romantically said we are made from stardust but in truth ‘stardust’ is the product of a massively violent cosmic death). Our earth as we know it has been shaped by tumultuous and violent events, as flooding, volcanoes and earthquakes regularly demonstrate.
The nature of existence is a dance between creation and destruction, and it follows that the human experience mirrors this fundamental state. That’s not too say we should give up on attempting to feel good. That, of course, would be dumb, as feeling good rocks and positively affects everyone around us.
What I’m talking about is recognising that part of life is to feel crappy sometimes, and that it just can’t be any other way. The physical and human realms demand this of us. Therefore it is not just you who is getting the bum deal, but all of us from time to time, and this is what we signed up for by being born. Yes, I know that it’s scant consolation for the most extreme suffering, but internalising this lesson really can help us get on with things when the proverbial shit hits the fan.
I repeat, this is not a depressing recognition. To the contrary it is liberating, because it reminds us that it’s okay to feel crappy sometimes. It can take the edge of our hurt and connect us with others who we know are also participating in the grand universal oscillation between joy and pain.
As a result we are less likely to attempt counterproductive avoidance tactics when we suffer. We can try instead to embrace our pain, to really feel it, to realise it is ultimately separate from that more real part of us that never changes, and through doing so release some of its psychic grip. We can recognise the lessons it can teach us, and perhaps even grow in the process.
Yes, life is supposed to be painful.