Meditation Is Not What You Think It Is
The Tao Te Ching states: “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.“
The same applies to meditation. The mediation that can be explained is not meditation. It sounds confusing, but it isn’t. Take another example. Kissing. Try to explain what kissing is like to someone who never did it. The other person is madly in love, but has never kissed anyone in that way. How would you explain the experience?
All you can do is drawing comparisons to other similar experiences. But is it similar to kissing?
What you’re left with is a vague description: It may be wet, and warm on your lips, with a slight pressure, but not too strong.
You may be quite imaginative in your attempts — but is that kissing?
Too many factors play into this experience; it is virtually impossible to pin down the essence of what it’s like.
This is the main reason why every attempt to explain what meditation is like will fail; it has to be experienced.
So every book you read, every video you watch, every class you attend is not it. It’s like reading a description of a product you wish to buy without ever buying it. Even hundreds of reviews will not bring you closer to understanding what it is about.
When someone says, it calms your mind, then we speak of an outcome but not about meditation, rather about what it does. That doesn’t help either.
So what else can we do?
A former business partner of mine once said: “I don’t need to travel, since I can watch all of that on YouTube and television.”
It is an option. Get stuck forever in front of a screen and watch other people’s experiences from an armchair. Nothing wrong with that.
I wouldn’t want to have every experience myself; I’m totally fine watching people climb the Everest without me ever being there. I’ll give them a share, like, and thumbs up, but I don’t need to see my footsteps on that slope.
And again, all of these comparisons make no sense at all, because even in the case of kissing, there is at least something you can say, be it as stupid as it may sound, but you get to say something — but what can you say about a complete inner experience that has no description whatsoever?
Everything you say would be dull and vague without any real substance.
No wonder that spiritual teachers speak about everything except for what meditation is like. They’ll point you to it, and encourage you to do it, but they’ll avoid speaking about it in a descriptive way. Not that they wouldn’t want to, there’s just nothing to say.
What a product. I can’t tell you anything about it, but it’s great. Who’d buy into such a thing?
Well, it seems that in spite of its unattractiveness, it gained much traction, and continues to grow in popularity for reasons that can’t be explained. How exciting is that?!
It calms you, it focuses you, it centers you, it grounds you, but how do you know this? Through the practice you discover you were agitated, unfocused, and floating aimlessly, and once you have the experience, you recognize the transformation. But even that is a description of an outcome. Now you’re calm, peaceful, and so on.
It’s like in the Tao Te Ching. In the first line it says: The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao, and then the author goes on to write a book about it. That’s exactly what it is. It is “a thing“ that has no description, and yet it exists.
I like to think of it as the pause in between songs. You’re awaiting the next song, but it hasn’t started yet, that blank, silent anticipation but without any expectation. Marcus Aurelius describes this pause beautifully:
”To shrug it all off and wipe it clean — every annoyance and distraction — and reach utter stillness.“
When you’re doing the dishes, and your focus is only on that. The water, the dish soap, every plate, every single piece you wash, you do just that. Like an observer without any thought. And if a thought comes, you watch that too. If you have a dishwasher, then that’s a problem.
Instead, do the laundry, same procedure. In fact, all the things you usually do on auto-pilot, where you think about a million things simultaneously, try to focus only on what you’re doing. After a few days it’ll become easier.
It is a practice.
When you drive your car, walk your dog, go on a bus, anything like that, you can practice meditation. I would make the claim that it’s safer to drive a car with a clear mind than when having a thousand thoughts running through your head.
The degree of awareness you have when you do that is extraordinary. Your reaction time is faster, it seems as though you foresee the other driver’s action much more efficiently because “you’re there“ instantly.
When you’re absorbed by your thoughts, you need some extra time to react which in traffic may be the split second needed to react appropriately. When you’re “there“, you catch a glass falling from the table before it hits the ground. You pull a person aside just before a car was about to hit it.
Everyone can do that, the only difference being that you are “there“, and others are submerged in their thoughts. It’s all there is to it.
But again, I’m speaking of an outcome. This is not what meditation is like, it’s just the effect it has on your behavior.
There are many “schools of thoughts“ out there that try to tackle this subject, but in the end, that’s all they are: schools of THOUGHTS.
Meditation is not that. You can practice yoga all day and may never meditate a day in your life.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Meditation is the hardest practice in all of yoga, asanas included, and yet it needs no effort. It is the ultimate undoing. If everything needs to be built in life, then this is the deconstruction of all effort.
Eating in silence is a great practice. But not the outer silence — the inner silence in your head. Because you can turn off the music, or your computer, and pause scrolling your social media feed while eating, but that alone won’t bring silence to your mind. In fact, everything may be turned on, but if you’re silent in your head, you’re meditating. However, turning off outer noise may certainly help to hear the noise in your head and establish silence more easily.
Meditation is like a tool, when you look at it, it seems worthless. Like a hammer or screwdriver. If you didn’t know what to do with it, tools looked like items of no particular use. The only difference being that meditation brings results that may not be of interest for everyone. Who wants to be calm, peaceful, centered, and focused for no particular reason?
Just to have the enjoyment of peeling a banana without a thought in one’s head. Gazing through a buss window, watching people doing their thing without any commentary going on in the background. Going for a walk with nothing to discuss, not with yourself, not with others. Dancing comes close to it.
When you’re totally into it, you just dance, without any thought. You don’t contemplate any specific movement, you let it happen, for no reason. It just flows. One move into the other. People next to you also dance, and maybe you catch a smile here and there, but you don’t think about it. The music makes you move, you feel content, and suddenly someone comes to you and says: Hey, what’s it like to dance?
If you boil down all the reasons for meditation to one essential purpose, it would be: reducing the amount of redundant thoughts going through one’s mind. The energy saved is enormous.
Nonstop thinking puts a great toll on your body and psyche. This is why reducing the constant workload on your brain saves up power for other activities that are much more pleasant than thinking. Now does that downplay the importance of critical and analytical thought? No, not at all, it just frees up space and deletes malicious and unwanted clusters from your memory that do nothing but harm your system as a whole.
Many studies show that physical health is indeed undoubtedly connected to your psychological well-being, and a great way to put that into practice is through meditation.
The result will be: more and better critical thinking. Because thinking that exhausts your brain brings no extra value. Redundant and repetitive thoughts take up the vast majority of all thoughts going through our minds. And one of the reasons to meditate is to find out this truth through this practice.
Normally, you are unaware of your thoughts, you’re consumed by them, and when you meditate, you turn that around. In this practice, you are the observer, and not the target. All you do is watch the thoughts coming. Good, bad, morbid, happy — it doesn’t matter — whatever comes, don’t add any label to it. Just watch.
What you are doing is not practicing a religion or a belief, you are practicing concentration and focus. And the reason why you want to do that is not to become a spiritual person, or to become anything for that matter. The idea is to discover that the thoughts in your head are mostly unorganized, randomly appearing mental ideas and suggestions which did not originate in your head.
Throughout our lives, we pick up vast amounts of junk thoughts that flow into our minds without ever noticing just how much they influence our daily behavior. The resulting everyday habits of these thoughts is what we call “our life”.
Through observation of your mind, meditation helps to make an inventory of what’s inside your head. Most people keep stuffing new and new thoughts and ideas into an overloaded space. To assume you have an overview of what’s going on inside your mind is a fallacy.
As beautiful as the collection of our thoughts and ideas may seem, there is an astronomical amount of unnecessary, outdated, and false “files and folders” which require serious revision and oversight. Many mental issues derive from these bits and pieces that are flying around like stray bullets — killing you unintentionally.
“Put things in order before they exist” means to spot those stray bullets before they can harm you. And meditation makes you skillful enough to catch them.
But is that meditation? No. It’s just one of the things it can do.