Here’s a screenshot from my profile page on the 10% Happier guided meditation App:
As of today, I’ve meditated for just over 500 days total with this app. My meditation habit actually started before getting the app, and I didn’t log a few days here and there, so overall I’ve probably been meditating somewhere around 600 days; averaging between 5 and 10 minutes each day. I can’t remember the last time I missed a day.
As someone who’s quite impatient, feels silly sitting still with his eyes closed, and tends to obsess or over-analyze just about everything, it’s been quite the journey. But I continue to come back to it every day because meditation’s had some powerful positive effects on my life. It’s helped me learn to be fully-present and listen during conversations, sleep better, and overcome some surprising anxieties (including a rather paralyzing fear of hospitals); but I’ll save these for another blog post. As the title suggests, I want to focus this one on the most significant takeaway I’ve had from all this sitting-with-my-eyes-closed-and-focusing-on-my-breath. So here it is:
“We cannot really control the sea, but we can learn to surf the waves”
Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve heard something like this before. Sayings that amount to “control is an illusion” are oft-repeated nuggets of profound wisdom, especially from the mouths of meditation teachers. And when you really stop to think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Despite our desperate attempts to, it seems like we can’t really control most of the outcomes we’d like to. We can’t really control whether we get that promotion or not, whether this latest relationship will work out, or whether our names will go down in the history books for something. Sure, we can influence these things: we can work hard or communicate better or try to do noteworthy things, but ultimately the outcomes are dependent on so many other things that it seems like we can’t really make these things happen (no matter what “The Secret” might have you believe). This can be an important, profound lesson: it’s probably a bad idea to chase such things, and an even worse idea to base our-self worth on them (Mark Manson puts this more eloquently here). We should probably practice more gratitude, smell the roses more, and generally learn to be happier with our lives and the gifts we’ve been given.
I used to think this somewhat trite lesson was the full extent of the “surf the waves” teaching. So I continued sitting with my eyes closed every night and trying to gain better control of my thoughts and feelings. I started to become more aware of myself, and try to catch myself better whenever I got mad or sad or overly jealous. I learnt to recognize and intercept anxious thought cycles that showed up whenever I stepped foot in a hospital. I continued my practice with zeal after gaining these abilities because I thought that eventually I’d be able to fully control my feelings and thoughts, to be able to be happy or focused or reflective at will.
It was with this excitement and zeal that I started trying to control my thoughts more; to truly master focus, calm and patience. I envisioned myself becoming like a wise old Kung-Fu master from the movies; someone who seemed to grasp deep profundities of life and was always in control of themselves. This process ended up looking a little like this:
My thoughts 2 hours after I’ve forgotten to eat lunch: Today has been a terrible day, just THE WORST. I’ve been so unproductive and useless even though I’ve spend all this (insert expletive) time trying to get this done. Everyone else seems to be just fine and doing much better than me; at this rate, I’m going to go no where in life and everything will just come crashing - Wait!… Man, this is such a useless thought cycle!
Hah! I’ve realized it - I’ve become aware! Yes, the meditation is paying off! Alright, now time to fix it, let’s take a deep breath…. Good, now, it’s obvious I’m hungry. We’ll fix that soon, but let’s first concentrate on this problem set and get it done. I control my thoughts - focus.
2 seconds later
My brain: That person who just walked in looked a lot like Sam Altman. Gee, I wonder what Sam Altman’s up to now; in fact, I wonder where he went to college, and who his parents were? Let’s take a quick refresher break and check that out.
20 minutes into break
My brain: Wow - he was doing cool things with his life even when he was 19. Damn - I’m not even doing cool things now… I’m really not going anywhere
Me: Wait! Again - it happened AGAIN!!!
After many more repeats of the above, I began to realize that leashing my thoughts and feelings to my whim was not really practical. “The Sea” from the saying was not just external, but also internal: the illusion of control seemed to run deeper than I’d originally thought. I realized I’d probably never be able to stop feeling hangry, or insecure or anxious. And at first, this bothered me: I didn’t like the prospect that I’d never be able to control my mind and stop feeling these things. The more I meditated and became aware of my thoughts, the more I realized how chaotic and reactive my thoughts really are. Try as I might to control them and change my reactions to things, it seemed my monkey mind would always find a way to win. It started to feel like all this meditating was getting me nowhere (and potentially even making me worse at controlling myself)
But, after a couple meditation sessions and some research, I started to realize this is simply the nature of things. All of us come packaged in bodies that are constantly pumped full of different hormones, bacteria and who-knows-what other things that influence our moods. Our brains have an amazing capacity for reason, empathy and care; but also can make us delusional or unnaturally sad or selfish. In totality, the evidence suggests our thoughts and feelings are biologically engineered to be influenced by an overwhelmingly complex web of factors; just one of which is our conscious will. So it’s not too surprising that I can’t will myself to be all sunshine-and-rainbows when I haven’t eaten for a day, or concentrate on work when I haven’t slept for the last 28 hours.
Sharon Salzberg expresses this idea nicely: “Why are you blaming yourself for this thought which has come up in your mind? Did you say that at 2 o’clock I’d like to be filled with fear or hatred? No - but when conditions come together for (a thought or feeling) to arise, it will arise”
At first, I thought this meant I should give up on meditation. After all, if the truth is simply that all my thoughts and feelings depend on all these external conditions, that I’m floating in a sea and fully at it’s mercy, then what’s the point?
As I later realized, the point is that we do have some control. We can learn to surf. More specifically, we can - provided we’re aware enough - choose to act differently than our whims would dictate. And through action, we can change the conditions we’re in and thus (admittedly roundaboutly) change whatever it is we’re thinking or feeling. A little bit of thought seems to confirm this. A soldier may never be able to stop being afraid of dying in battle, but they can train themselves to carry on with their mission regardless. A doctor may never get over the panic attack that comes with seeing a massive injury, but can choose to finish a surgery regardless. Similarly, though much more mundane, I’ll probably never train myself to be able to focus when I’m hangry, but I can decide to stop obsessing over my work and go eat something.
As has been repeated to me time and time again, the point of meditation is not to change thought patterns; but rather to become more aware of them so I can stop being so yanked around by them and take steps to change the conditions that caused them in the first place. And realizing this means accepting 2 things: (1) that the future will bring times of sadness, heartache, loneliness and other not-so-fun things that will just happen to me no matter how much I try to control / stop them, and this is both natural and okay; but also (2) that I can take responsibility for how I choose to respond to them.
In the months since I’ve realized all this, my life - and those of most people around the globe - have been tumultuous to say the least. The Coronavirus has turned both the internal and external seas of my life into maelstroms. But the recognition that this is only natural, and moreover that I can do something about this, that I can take responsibility for my actions and find interesting ways of surfing this unprecedented storm, has made all the difference.
I look forward to seeing what I’ll learn as my meditation journey continues!