How not to meditate
Pay attention to something in the world, like your breath. As you do that cultivate an open awareness of everything that’s happening in the present moment. This includes your breath but also sounds, the sensations of your body, and any thoughts or feelings in your mind. As you discover a thought has arisen, calmly note that it happened and return your attention to your breath.
When you are focusing on your breath and no thoughts are arising, that’s good. When you are focusing on your breath and a thought arises, that’s good too. Non-judgmentally return your attention to your breath. Non-judgmentally means it was neither good nor bad that a thought arose. If you return your attention to your breath 10 times a minute, that’s fine, if you do it more or less than that, that’s fine too.
The goal is not to clear your mind, however if you cultivate mindfulness you will tend to notice when a thought arises, you will acknowledge it, and then it will fade away. Therefore you will tend to spend less time mind-wandering if you are mindful.
This tendency to stay in the present can profoundly alter your moment to moment experience of the world in a deeply positive way, even while you are not meditating.
Your brain has massive untapped capacity and dedicating it to experiencing the present moment, steering it away from worry, guilt, regret, jealousy, anger, rumination, fantasizing, wishing, rehearsing and other dubious pastimes, can lift the veil on the world revealing a high-octane technicolor reality that you so often were sleepwalking through in the past.
The goal is not to eliminate thoughts, that’s not possible, the goal is to be aware of what’s happening in the world and in your mind. In fact there is and cannot be a “goal” to mediation, but while meditating you should be aware of the present moment including what’s happening in your mind.
You may come to realize your mind is not as special as you thought, it too is part of the world and part of the present moment, it too can be observed, it too can be believed or not believed.
There are many different types of meditation and this is just one of them, called Vipassana, or mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is something you can do throughout the day even while not meditating. Meditation is something you can do throughout the day too, with your eyes open or closed, while seated or while walking or driving or mowing the lawn or gardening or biking.
Seated meditation with eyes closed is a particularly “pure” and “potent” type of meditation and people with a daily meditation practice often do daily seated meditation with eyes closed, but it’s not necessary to do it that way.
There are many ways to meditate and none of them are wrong. Meditating for ten minutes or five minutes or one minute is valuable, while some people build up to mediating for hours per day. Meditation is really just spending time observing the world and your mind and there are many ways to do that.
Mindfulness and meditation often leads to “discoveries” about your mind and the world. Vipassana is also known as “insight meditation” and if you work at it it’s likely you will periodically have insights about the world and your mind.
These are typically things you might have heard described or claimed by others, but suddenly you experience them for yourself. You see that they are true, and in some cases you can’t unsee them and your life and life experience will be different from that point on.
Therefore some people call these awakenings, as they can make you feel like prior to the realization you were somewhat sleepwalking through life, unaware of fundamental things that are now self-evident.
Speaking of the self, one thing many people “discover” through meditation is that their “self” is not what they’ve always thought it to be. Some conclude “the self is an illusion” or at least they conclude their “self” is different from what they thought it was. They realize it is less solid, less persistent, less real.
A related realization is that their ego, the thing they so strongly identified with in the past, the thing that was bruised whenever they were slighted, is also “an illusion”, or least much less solid and real than they previously thought. Their ego something in the world they can distance themselves from, they come to realize they are not their ego.
Many people end up concluding that perhaps free will is yet another “illusion”. They cease to feel responsible for authoring their own behavior moment to moment and instead learn to sit back and let decisions arise, like any other thoughts. This can be massively freeing and lift a huge burden from their shoulders, for the rest of their life.
What is left then if everything is crumbling away as an illusion? The world still exists, or at least the best theory we can come up with is that it exists. Perhaps it doesn’t exist and life is a dream or a simulation, but if it is it’s one where the dream or simulation is seamless and inescapable, so does it even matter?
Therefore you might as well consider the world to be real, and consider other people to be real. It’s the theory with the most predictive power, it’s the simplest explanation, and it will make you seem the most sane.
In this real world stuff exists, all the matter and energy in the universe is currently in some state, some configuration. And that configuration will change and evolve as time marches on, the state of the universe will evolve.
Small concentrated portions of the universe are dense highly complex structures cleverly designed, by evolution, to create subjective awareness. These portions of the universe have thoughts and feelings and opinions, they make choices and judgements, these portions of the universe are brains.
You, if we can use the word, are a portion of the universe that’s having the subjective experience of awareness, awareness of that same universe. Since you don’t really exist, in many ways, there is nothing to worry about, and things will be fine no matter what happens. This should give you a deep sense of calm that you can bring to every facet of “your” life.
You seem to have an identity, and that identity seems to stick with you as time progresses, but in reality you exist at every point in time only by happenstance. If the molecules in your body were scattered to the far winds you’d instantly cease to exist, but they tend not to, they tend to stay in roughly the same configuration such that your subjective experience has continuity from moment to moment, from time to time, until it doesn’t.