Meditation on the worst day of your life (so far)
Meditation has been widely (and unfairly) branded as a cure-all to many of life’s problems. While it can be remarkably helpful, to market it as some manner of tragedy ointment is misleading. Telling a parent who’s just lost a child to sit with their thoughts or somebody who’s just lost their job to feel their breath is unhelpful.
And yet it’s precisely these moments we often arrive at meditation. Rare is the time we’re sitting around, high on life without a care in the world, when we’re hit with the sudden inspiration to learn meditation. Instead, it’s usually when life has cut us in half at the waist and tossed us into the sea. The uncomfortable truth is this scenario is unlikely to end well (even aside from the fact that swimming in the ocean without legs is tricky). Meditation is a practice that takes time to understand, let alone take hold. If you’re just starting, the odds of it shepherding you through your current crisis are low.
That would be a terrible reason not to start, though. It’s an immensely valuable practice that I place above almost all self-care routines. While it may not help entirely with today’s tragedy, I assure you it can help with the ones still coming.
Life is suffering
Fun fact about me: I’m often given a hard time for being insufferably optimistic. So let’s do what we can to mitigate that outlook with the following sentence: if luck and effort align and you end up living a long and healthy life, you will see almost everybody you love die.
“Life is suffering” is a dreadfully pessimistic line delivered by somebody else seen as insufferably optimistic. You may recognize Buddha from most people’s gardens. He’s that chubby laughing guy. Sometimes he’s a fountain. That part isn’t cannon to his background; that’s just decorative. The smile is though. This version of him is known as “The Laughing Buddha,” which is unexpected given his somewhat devastating diagnosis on life.
The Buddha is credited with coming up with what’s known as “The Four Noble Truths,” which purport to cultivate a deep sense of well-being and contentment that is not dependent on external circumstances. Would you like to cultivate a deep sense of well-being and contentment that is not dependent on external circumstances? You do? Well then, grab a pen. They are:
- Dukkha: the truth of suffering or unsatisfactoriness
- Samudaya: the truth of the origin or cause of suffering, which is craving or attachment
- Nirodha: the truth of the cessation of suffering, which can be attained by letting go of craving and attachment
- Magga: the truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering, which is the Eightfold Path
At the risk of oversimplifying ancient wisdom, the gist is: stop wanting stuff. Pretty much all suffering can be traced back to wanting something to end, never end, get bigger, or get smaller. Cancer, love, babies, divorce, bank accounts, careers, parents… we all desperately want them to do something. If the good and bad moments of life never cease (and they don’t), the only thing we can really control is how much “want” we attach to them.
It’s the first Noble Truth I’ll use to make my case for meditation. A common translation of truth #1 is “life is suffering,” which is a little overly dramatic, but we’ll chalk it up to a language difference. While English typically aligns suffering with emotional or physical torture, The Buddha was more going for constant annoyance or inconvenience. It sounds like somebody being crucified when it’s more like asking for honey mustard but getting ranch instead.
You know how you can spend years with a goal in mind, and you’re sure that attaining that goal will surely change your horizon and make everything amazing? And then you get it, and everything is bliss for about a day, and then it all goes back to shit? Well there ya go. Life is suffering. Don’t worry, you’re not broken. If anything that pit of disappointment you feel in your soul is proof that you’re operating 100% as intended. It’s an inherent aspect of the human condition, and it arises due to the impermanent nature of existence. All things, including ourselves, are subject to change, decay, and death. We may experience temporary pleasure or happiness, but some form of pain, disappointment, or dissatisfaction inevitably follows it. Don’t shoot the messenger; blame the laughing, chubby guy in your garden.
One noble obnoxious truth
It’s gonna get bad. I wish it weren’t so, and maybe I’m wrong, and you can rub my nose in it (please do!), but given the history of, well, history, I’ve got a pretty good chance of being right on this one.
The 2500 years since The Buddha came up with this fun little rule has only strengthened his argument. That’s saying something because we live in the most abundant time in human history. So technically, we should have proven him wrong because life has objectively gotten rather incredible. And yet? It checks out… life is suffering.
Nobody particularly enjoys thinking about this fact. Marriages will collapse, kids will get sick, careers will implode, and spouses will die. Some of the luckiest people you know will still experience every single one of them. It’s common for people to shut you down should you even mention one of these, as if you’re a witch capable of making it happen simply by saying it. They’ll box their ears and hum loudly to drown out your words because, you know, you’re being weird and unreasonable.
Here’s my question: is it so bad to acknowledge that maybe the 2500-year-old wisdom that can’t be challenged might be worth listening to?
So we learn to meditate. Not because it’ll help us with today but because it’ll help us with tomorrow.
But I need something right goddamned now
Ugh. Fine. You’re so needy. So needy with your crisis. You know I also kinda take shit for writing posts that are too long? But whatever, it’s just my fragile and critical ego on the line. Let’s take a short detour before we get back on topic.
Should you find yourself in the unenviable position of being cut in half and tossed into the sea, some things are probably a better usage of your time than meditating in the short term. You won’t like them (nobody ever does), but don’t get mad at me. I didn’t make the rules.
I call them The Six Big Things, and that’s because they’re too vague, so nobody seems to have officially given them a name, so I’m just going to do that. Please reference me whenever you do one of the following:
- Sleep – If you can, 8 hours would be best. If you can do it without listening to a true crime podcast like goddamn everybody these days, it would be great also.
- Eat real food – I eat frozen pizza when I’m sad, and I can’t stress enough how much worse it makes everything.
- Move your body – A lot is better than a little bit; a little bit is better than nothing; find what works for you. It needn’t be intense (in fact you need to do it forever, so keeping the intensity down might actually be preferred).
- Relaxation exercises – This can be meditation, but it also can be breathing exercises or yoga (which also counts for #3, so feel free to cheat).
- Go outside – Sun on the body, fresh air in the lungs, it’s all good. Your plants don’t grow healthy from the light of a computer monitor, and neither do you.
- Connect with people – Our brains still think we’re hunting antelope as a group on an African plain, so humour it a little. We don’t do great alone.
Are there other things? What about cold plunges, scream therapy, and whatever Gwyneth Paltrow suggests we jam up our asses this week? Yes, those are things, but for most of us facing down some manner of catastrophe, nailing The Six Big Things™ will move you further than any candle that smells like a vagina ever can.
So meditation. Where should we begin?
If today isn’t the worst day of your life, I have fantastic news. We can begin training for its cruel and inevitable arrival immediately! I told you I was a ray of sunshine.
The good news is this is a practice that can pay immediate dividends. Perhaps not the specific dividend you want right now but in general, things can improve. Of course, the big payoff comes later, but when it does, you’ll be pleased that you began. Think of it as an investment in your health that costs nothing. Ready? Great.
You can read a more in-depth version of this in the dedicated post on it, but for now, some Cole’s notes:
- Start by sitting in a quiet room or place, set a timer for 10 minutes and observe your thoughts. I’ll tell you not to bother trying to clear your head, but nobody ever listens to me anyway, so you’re unlikely to buck that trend. Trying to clear your head and failing spectacularly is just a rite of passage, so I encourage you to fail away enthusiastically. When you’re done screwing around, observe them and do nothing else.There aren’t many certainties in life, but one is that you’ll be positively inundated with thoughts. Your only task here is to not view the flood of thoughts as a failure. Resist judging yourself and instead take a position of curiosity. I know, I know. “But Russ,” you say, “I judge myself for everything!” I know you do, and that’s a secondary problem we’ll want to address. Not today, though.Watch the thoughts come and go for many days. It might feel stupid or useless, but we must convince ourselves that our mind is a broken fire hydrant of thoughts that never turns off.
- Next, we try to determine where the thoughts are coming from. Most people think their thoughts come from themselves, which is fun when they’re helpful or awesome. It’s less fun when the thoughts are dark, sad, or destructive because they can make us feel like bad people. This is also a problem because the bad ones seem to outnumber the good ones by a lot.The solution to this is to go looking for the well. Find the source of all the things you come up with. Spend enough time looking for where these thoughts originate, and you’ll eventually prove that there isn’t one. Shit arrives randomly and frequently enough throughout the day that you don’t realize it. By sitting down and watching it happen purposefully, you can witness the pure chaos of it all.Sometimes people hear the phrase “You are not your thoughts” and nod in agreement, but until you watch it happen a few thousand times, it can be difficult to believe it (and believe it, you must).
- At this point, you can become skeptical of these persistent thoughts. It’s freeing because (as mentioned) most of the thoughts can be quite harmful and negative, so to see that they’re mostly smoke and mirrors is a great relief.You can also begin to understand on a deeper level some inherent concepts built-in to the tradition, such as how all things (thoughts and feelings especially) arise on their own and fall away just as easily. This can take time, but it’s a thrilling moment to realize that thoughts and emotions are cut from the same cloth, and if thoughts can arise and dissolve in moments, then emotions can do the same.
- From there, it can become a bit of a Choose Your Own Adventure. Do you want to continue exploring the nature of your mind? Do you want to find compassion for yourself and others? Become a peak performer? A better partner, parent, or citizen? It doesn’t matter, as the lessons are largely the same and transferrable.
That sure doesn’t sound helpful in a crisis
Now you’re getting it. This process takes time, and we’re just watching thoughts in the early stages. Even trying all this out on life’s benign, random, boring thoughts is oddly difficult. To do the above while trying to parse through, say, the death of a loved one is to play the game on a difficulty level you’re not ready for. We have to build up to it like any other skill.
Most people come to meditation not wanting to prepare for the inevitabilities of a cruel world but rather to bury something immediately. So the idea of blanking the mind sounds positively intoxicating, because in extreme stress, the mind screams like a circular saw.
The issue people with this intention run into is that mediation is the opposite of burying something. If anything, a more accurate metaphor would be to say that meditation is to dig something up. Go ahead and read up on any problem related to emotions. Intimacy, trauma, family relationships… you are unlikely to find any good advice that starts with “What we need to do first is ignore most feelings.” Common wisdom today–as it’s been for thousands of years–is to feel your feelings. Acknowledge them, let them have their time in the sun, and watch as they dissolve like everything else. Easier typed than done.
How can any of this be useful?
There’s a famous quote that I find treads an incredibly delicate line: “There are no good events or bad events, only our reactions to them.” I still struggle with this one mightily. I have two kids, and I’ve taken them to a restaurant. Don’t tell me there are no bad events. I will, however, admit to agreeing with the key takeaway: our reactions to things probably matter more than the things themselves.
Surely you’ve seen somebody become wholly captured by what appears to be a non-event from your perspective. I once listened to my father verbally assault another driver (privately and within our car only, thank Christ) for the entirety of an 8-hour road trip, all for the heinous act of driving several km/h under the speed limit.
We do versions of this all day long, every day. We do it so much we fail even to notice it happening. It becomes a blanket statement like “Everybody’s an idiot” or “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.” We do it so often that a simple traffic infraction can send us into a multi-hour tailspin where we notice nothing but our own blinding annoyance. So I ask you: if we can’t handle a poor driver in our lane on the highway, how prepared can we possibly be for the actual problems that are sure to visit us for the rest of our time here?
In pain studies, we can see that expectation plays just as strong a role as the intensity of the tissue injury. One such study from 2020 observed the brain (via MRI) while delivering several rounds of increasingly painful heat to the skin. When participants were told the pain would increase, they reported it as accurate. When participants were told that the pain would remain the same (a lie), they reported less overall pain, which their brain imaging confirmed. Score one for everybody’s least favourite doctor line: “This won’t hurt a bit.”
We don’t need science to see this in action, though. Anybody who’s witnessed a 5-year-old scream through a flu shot while later watching them fall off a couch and immediately shake it off because Paw Patrol is on can see that context matters. A flu shot doesn’t actually hurt, but it is quite scary to certain people.
There are “flu shots” in all realms of life, and the “pain” of these moments can be discomfort, annoyance, frustration, anger, or anything else that sucks. These events aren’t technically all that damaging, but the degree of unknown or fear around them signals that something is deeply wrong in their brain, and the result is–in one form or another–painful.
Meditation gives us that moment of potential clarity where we can ask questions such as “Is this a problem” or “What is the best way forward?” It can usher us from the scared child who doesn’t understand the flu shot to the wise and caring adult that knows it’s only a temporary pinch with a big upside. If we can get to a place where we appreciate the incredible control our minds have over our discomforts in life, we can progressively handle bigger and bigger things. Meditation won’t make the pain of losing a loved one go away, but it can help with that nagging voice that tells you, “This will hurt forever.”
Meditation is building armour for yourself, which can be a brilliant endeavour. After all, armour is going to be useful one day. The thing is, you don’t start building it while fighting the dragon. You’ve got dragon problems. It would be so lovely if you had armour for this dragon, but you don’t. You can only have armour for the next dragon.
And the next dragon is always on its way because that’s a little bit of what life is—just one damn dragon after another. The Buddha is widely credited with pointing it out, and if you’d like to see it for yourself, all you need is to pay attention.
If you’ve arrived at meditation in a panic and need something right away, consider that it may not immediately be what you need. For something more instant, it’s probably best to focus on some of The Six Big Things (sleep, real food, body movement, relaxation exercises, outdoor exposure, and personal connection).
Recognize that meditation isn’t suppressing bad feelings, but uncovering them, holding them up to the light, and examining them. Depending on your pain today, you might not be ready for that just yet, and that’s ok. Go back to The Six Big Things, and if you can see a therapist, please consider it.
If you find yourself ready to prepare for the next dragon, my personal starting guide for the practice is to merely sit and watch your thoughts for a time. It may be eye-opening or even uncomfortable to see how wild the mind can be, but approach it with curiosity. You’re not broken; you simply haven’t given them this much attention. Watch the thoughts until you become convinced that the person you call “you” isn’t creating them.
In time, you can perhaps begin to view things like fear and pain in a different light. Rather than objective things that happen to us, you can–as science has shown–view them as having a subjective component.