At heart, I’m a skeptic. For years, I’ve heard about the benefits of meditation, about how useful people have found it for emotional health, focus, and rational decision making. However, I wrote most of these claims off; how could simply breathing and trying not to get distracted really provide these grandiose benefits? It seemed like a byproduct of the placebo effect, that people who meditated were just more likely to convince themselves that it was working.
That was until I stumbled upon Tim Ferriss’s video on meditation, where he clearly and objectively explains the specific benefits of his form of meditation, which I like to call stoic meditation. This video opened my eyes to the power of meditation. I decided to spend the last few weeks extensively researching the art with the goal of constructing a logical and applicable understanding of it.
The most popular form of secular meditation is based around breathing techniques. Basically, you close your eyes and attempt to stay focused on your breath for a period of time. There are many styles and variations which build off of this, but they are all rooted in this basic practice.
I call this form of meditation stoic meditation, because of the overall effects of it, which I will discuss shortly.
To understand the higher level results of this form of meditation, it imperative to analyze exactly what you are practicing when completing each step.
When you meditate in this fashion, you are basically repeating this cycle over and over again.
Whether you’ve been meditating for years, or you just started, this is the cycle that is constantly repeating itself in every session of stoic meditation.
If every meditator does this, what’s the difference between the experienced and the inexperienced?
The difference is the timing; the time allocation to each step drastically changes based on who you are. Experienced meditators probably spend 70-80% of their cycle in phase 1; they have the extraordinary ability to stay focused on their breath for long periods of time, without being pulled away into distracted thought. Beginners are the opposite; they usually spend 70-80% of their time in phase 2, if not more.
The better you are at meditating, the more time you spend in focus and awareness and the less you spend immersed in distraction.
What’s interesting is that beginners actually feel as if they’re getting worse at it with each meditation session, at least at the beginning. This is usually because they are only just realizing how much of their attention is lost to distracted thinking, as meditation is helping them be more aware of their own thoughts.
The key characteristic of distracted thought is the lack of awareness. When you are immersed in thought, you are not aware that you are, and therein lies the problem with it.
In his book on meditation and spirituality, Waking Up, neuroscientist Sam Harris discusses the illusion of the self.
Basically, the self is the feeling that there is some sort of being inside your body, this experience that there’s a ghost-like creature behind the windows of eyes, operating your body and controlling your movements and actions. The self is what we call the pronoun I in most cases.
Everyone experiences this; if you lift your arm in the air right now, you didn’t think about sending a specific electrical signal from your brain to your muscles to contract them in some exact manner. You just did it. It feels like you’re this spirit that has complete control of the fleshy apparatus of muscle and tissue that is your body, without any specific regard to the precise physiological changes that are happening with every action.
This self is an illusion; an illusion is something that disappear upon closer inspection, and this feeling acts exactly in that manner. If you look closer at the neurobiology of the brain and examine this feeling, it completely disappears. There is absolutely nothing on a cellular level which promotes this behavior. There is no self, no I.
For more information and evidence concerning the self, read Waking Up by Sam Harris.
When you are in distracted thought, you are having an experience that is separate from the current moment. The key aspect of this is that you feel as if your “self” is somewhere else, not in the immediate present. Thus, because the self is an illusion, to practice distracted thought is to perpetrate this illusion; it is inherently something we should avoid because it is not real.
The major issue with distracted thought is not the thoughts themselves but the feeling of thinking without realizing you’re thinking.
However, it is much more complex than that, with several tangible negative effects of practicing distracted thinking.
On a purely productivity standpoint, when you’re in distracted thought, you’re not accomplishing anything, and thus you are wasting time. If you can train yourself to spend more time in awareness and less in distraction, you will be able to get much more work done and focus for a much longer period of time.
One key aspect of distracted thought is the emotions associated with it. Whenever we are lost in a state of emotion, we are in a form of distracted thought. The feelings associated with several emotions, such as anger, distress, sadness, those are all areas of distracted thinking.
When you are unable to stay in the present moment, you become extremely reactive. There’s a term in poker called “tilt;” this is when you allow frustration and emotion to affect your logical decision making, which results in illogical moves and mistakes. This is a major negative effect of distracted thinking. If you cannot distinguish reality from the world you create in your mind, every decision you make will be one rife with splintered logic and purely emotional reasoning.
What are the benefits of focused awareness of the present moment? The term for this awareness is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to experience more clearly; to be aware of every mood, thought, and sensation occurring in the body without being influenced by them. It is the ability to notice your pain without being submerged within it, without letting it control you.
Mindfulness is the ultimate goal of meditation.
One of the greatest benefits of awareness is the skill of recognizing when you are distracted and then bringing your attention back to the present. When you meditate, you consistently practice bringing your attention back to your breath, over and over again.
Over time, this can be expanded to include any task. If you’re studying for an exam, it’s easy to be pulled away from the present task. However, if you’re trained to recognize when you become lost in distracted thought, you’ll be able to return much more quickly every time.
This will drastically increase your ability to focus, allowing you to maintain deep work for extremely long periods of time. Most of our work is done in the state of deep focus, so if you can extend that period of time you will be greatly rewarded.
We spend so much of our lives immersed in thought. Practicing meditation and increasing mindfulness will increase your logical decision making skills, while also providing solace when you are suffering and submerged in deep emotion.
Humans are inherently emotional beings; every decision is made with emotion as a factor, usually a strong one. However, if we can learn to think more logically rather than emotionally, most of our decisions will be better ones.
When you meditate, you practice recognizing your thoughts rather than being immersed in them. Over time, it’s as if you learn to gaze at a waterfall from a distance rather than standing underneath it, feeling the torrential downpour.
If you can acknowledge and understand your emotions in any moment, you’ll be able to consider them and recognize the influence that they have on your thinking, which will allow you to make better decisions.
When someone upsets you or does something to make you angry, the feeling of anger or annoyance only lasts a few seconds. What you do shortly after is construct a list of arguments as to why they should not have angered or annoyed you, and then you convince yourself that you have a right to feel that way. In other words, you force that feeling on you by defending its validity.
This does not have to happen; the actual feeling, the result of their actions will die off in a few seconds if you allow it to. If you practice mindfulness, you’ll be able to easily recognize when your mind starts to generate these defensive arguments. You’ll also be able to focus on the actual feeling of anger or sadness, and you’ll realize that it suddenly disappears when closely examined, like all other illusions.
The feeling that you are immersed in emotion is an illusion, and will vanish if you learn to recognize it. Mindfulness will teach you to be less reactive, and control your thoughts, feelings, and actions in any situation.
If you consistently practice mindfulness, you will build up an impenetrable mental fortress. Nothing out of your control will phase you, as you will have total and utter command over your feelings and actions in every moment.
This is why I call this style of meditation stoic meditation; it teaches you to only focus on the things you can control, and to leave the rest, something that is deeply embedded in stoicism.
I use the Waking Up app for daily meditation, and I’ve heard good things about Headspace as well.
If you want to build up your mental fortress, allowing you to think clearly with more mental clarity, start meditating today.
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