When what to do might be nothing at all
It’s a funny thing to write about why you should meditate. The benefits commonly bandied about are so numerous, it’s almost paralyzing to narrow it down to a single over-arching reason. Do we lean into happiness? How about a calm nature for a world on fire? This shell of a body we walk around in seems pretty important, maybe we can use it to improve that?
Those are all singular reasons though, so if we’re looking for one to rule them all, I’ll take a swing and proclaim it this: you can change. It doesn’t need to be this way. The idea that we as people and the world around us are set in stone is silly old-timey thinking, and we can prove it.
It’s a very human thing to assume we’ve got it all figured out. It’s all fun and games to look back in history and bask in the moronic glow of yesteryear. Running for a reason other than fear was peculiar. If you wanted to see a guy with muscles you had to visit a freak show. The doctor who suggested his colleagues wash their hands between performing an autopsy and delivering a baby was fired.
What’s less fun is trying to figure out what we’ve got wrong currently. Here’s one of note: within the last couple of decades, the idea that our brains more or less stop developing beyond our early 20s was a common belief. It took us a while, but science would eventually show that much like those freaky body builders, our minds can be strengthened as well.
If ever there was a reason for abstract pie-in-the-sky spirituality and cold Godless science to meet up for drinks, it would be to discuss the benefits of meditation.
Thanks to advances in brain imaging, we were able to show quite quickly that the brain can change through experience. The group we are forever indebted to for this? London cab drivers. London has a notoriously maze-like layout, so cab drivers must undergo an intense training to mentally map out the city (commonly referred to as “The Knowledge”, which is equal parts intimidating and bad-ass). It can take up to 4 years to train for, and involves the memorization of 20,000 landmarks and 25,000 streets.
Sucks for them, but handy for brain researchers! The hippocampus is an area of the brain that gets worked hard in this scenario. If you’ve ever studied for a test or given somebody directions, you have your hippocampus to thank. Unless you failed, in which case you have a very bad hippocampus.
Through brain imaging, scientists were able to track this region and watch it grow in size throughout the process of acquiring The Knowledge. Consequently, it was also shown to return to its original size once the cab drivers retired.
To oversimplify: doing stuff (like learning or meditating) physically changes your brain, and this result is not locked to a certain age. What’s particularly fun about this finding is it’s only about 20 years old. In scientific terms, it’s still a baby.
If there’s a knock against the scientific findings behind meditation, that’s a big part of it. A lot of what we’re learning is quite new. Science doesn’t move as fast as we’d like, and with every new discovery comes several new questions. If we’ve only known that the brain can change for 20 years, the questions around meditation that springboard from that finding are only beginning to be asked.
It’s not hard to find the purported benefits of meditation. Stress relief, a decrease in cancer risk, and everything in between. While many of these benefits will require more study, the early science can be quite appealing. That said, science is not infallible and a lot of research is being done by researchers who don’t fully understand meditation. In addition to this, there are concepts that don’t exist clearly in a lab. To take up the practice purely based on the science might not be the best idea because the jury is still out somewhat. But there’s plenty more reasons…
Prepare for the unexpected (and it’s all unexpected)
Regardless of your current situation, none of us has full control over more than a handful of things. Every day we’re met with thousands of events far beyond our control, ranging from inconsequential to positively devastating.
I came across a helpful saying that I return to whenever the shit of life invariably hits the fan: What will your mind be like on the worst day of your life? It will be however you’ve trained it.
The uncontrollable bad events will never cease until the day we’re met with the ultimate uncontrollable bad event, so you may want to have a tool in your back pocket to help you navigate them. There’s no bad situation we can’t make worse by losing our minds, so if there’s a practice that might help us stay somewhat balanced, it would be wise to explore it.
We’ve all been mentally railroaded by something so unpleasant that it hijacks control of our mind and body. Perhaps you’ve been in a car accident and you can’t remember how to operate your phone, or your partner becomes unexpectedly mad at you and the only words you find make everything worse. The mind introduces a sort of tunnel vision to help you deal with the crisis at hand. What is happening directly in front of us is all that matters, so the rest of it fades to black.
This tunnel vision is overly helpful when we are in serious trouble; nobody should be thinking about their taxes while being charged by a grizzly bear. Sometimes it can be tuned a little too high though, and we may find a potential solution to our problem inadvertently consumed in that shadow. Meditation is how we adjust the light to see a more complete picture. We can use it to regain the balance we’ve lost, and make more informed decisions as a result.
Accessible to all
While there are many avenues to improvement (pills, therapy, fitness, diet, etc.) the accessibility of meditation is probably near the top. While it is true that some problems require a more multi-pronged approach than just one thing or another, the fact remains that it is fully available to all of us.
Despite the fact it’s rooted in spirituality, there’s zero need for religious belief to fully access it. There’s also no barrier with cost. While resources such as books, apps, coaching, and retreats exist, anybody armed with a library card or internet access can find a lifetime worth of guidance.
As long as you have the ability to think, you have the ability to meditate. There’s no monthly membership, base-level income, or home equipment needed.
It’s applicable to almost any problem
A funny trend begins to emerge if you look for solutions in this silly, annoying life. Should you find yourself reading books on parenting, relationships, productivity, addiction, learning, loss, or general health, you’ll find mindfulness on all the good pages. It may not be called out as such, but it’s certainly there. Mindfulness is merely the ability to be present in the moment and not be swept away in the happenings going on around us, and meditation is one of the main paths to it.
Good parenting involves empathy. Relationships require an understanding of the self and proper communication. Productivity employs the cultivation of inspiration. Overcoming addiction requires the recognition of past pain and finding love for oneself. Learning requires a gentle inner voice of encouragement. Working through loss requires proper mourning to process complex emotions. General health requires a focus of what matters and what does not.
The examples never end because living mindfully is merely a method of existing well, and one of the clearest paths to living mindfully can be found through meditation.
But wait, there’s more (as in everything)
Most people come to meditation for some singular reason. Usually it’s a bad thing they want to escape (that’s how I found it). A terrible stress in their lives has taken the wheel of their experience and they’d very much like that wheel back so they can focus, escape pain, do better at their job, or get some sleep.
As Sam Harris puts it: “The purpose of meditation is to truly wake up from the unhappy dream you call your life, not to lower your blood pressure in that dream.” Perhaps you can lower that blood pressure (thumbs up if you do), but we can also gain a better perspective on why certain problem keeps arriving. You can spend your whole life trying to get better at a never-ending game of whack-a-mole, or you can unplug the machine.
Your mind is the artist to your entire reality. It dictates which hues of paint and brushes you have available. At the risk of perhaps setting the bar paralyzingly high, your mind is quite literally everything. If there is a black belt to pursue in something, understanding the nature of your mind is probably it, and meditation is one of the best tools to attain it.