Tenets of mindfulness

Reflections and lessons from two years of meditation.

In late 2018, I was in my last year of college at Penn. Like many college kids, I was stressed, anxious, and struggled with low self-esteem. I knew about meditation and had given it a few tries over the years, downloading apps like Headspace or learning about breathing techniques in therapy. I'd always get momentary relief from those things, but they never stuck. Meditation seemed like a nice way to destress and nothing more. I didn't have the slightest inkling that every time I closed my eyes and focused on my breath, there were fundamental things to discover about my own mind.

Meditation means different things to different people. Generally, it's a practice of applying attention skillfully. Depending on the tradition or practice you follow, you might meditate on a mantra, on physical sensations like the breath, or on the feeling of being itself.

Mindfulness is a particular strain of meditation, where the goal is to find equanimity in the midst of present experience. You try to drop your reactivity towards emotions and sensations and instead experience them fully and without judgement.

What I learned at the end of 2018 was that it's possible to attain deep insight through a rigorous and consistent mindfulness practice. Meditation is great for stress relief, productivity, and finding inner peace. But it's not usually thought of as a method for discovering truths. There are some truths that we don't realize—or that we accept intellectually but don't genuinely feel to be true—that have a profound effect on how we live when we pay attention to them deliberately. Think of truisms like "life is short" or "you can't change the past". We know these things are technically true, but we often don't act like it. My meditation practice has centered around similar principles, and it has served to continually remind me of them. I'd like to share those principles here.

Caveat: these tenets are all meant to be read as descriptions of subjective experience, rather than facts about objective, third-person reality. There's a difference between describing something in terms of its objective properties (mass, energy, position), and its subjective qualities (what it feels like to see it and to touch it), and I focus on the latter here. Also, think of these claims less as "unquestionable truths", and more as work-in-progress explanations. Some of them might seem totally off to you, or they might seem so obvious as to not need stating. Consider them with curiosity, and assess the extent to which they do or don't hold true in your own daily experience. (In a future post, I'll get into the details about my meditative journey and practice – for now you can see my slide deck on that here).

1. You only ever experience the present moment.

grey analog clock near statue

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All of us have an understanding of what the past, present, and future are. We view time as this continuum that stretches in both directions, and we are perpetually moving through it. What we often don't acknowledge is that the present has a complete monopoly on our experience. It's the only moment you ever have direct access to.

In what sense do you experience the past or the future? In consciousness, the only residue of the past is your memory of it. But your memory of an event (say, a friend's birthday party) is not at all the same as your actual experience of it (when you were at the birthday party). Your memory is a flattened and distorted representation of what experience was actually like at the time. Likewise, your only access to the future is via predictions and anticipation. You can imagine what the future will look like, but you never actually get to be in the future. You experience the future as soon as...it has become the present. In some sense, you are standing still in the present, and time is moving through you. When you pay close attention this becomes quite obvious.

So even if you are reminiscing about the past or thinking about the future, you are still doing these things in the present. The present moment is the only point in time in which you reside. Internalizing this has a profound effect on how you experience time.

2. You have more control of your emotions than you think.

How often do you feel an emotion that you would rather not be feeling? Once you feel such an emotion, how long does it usually last? When something makes you upset or anxious, is it possible for that feeling to last for hours on end?

One of the exercises you can do in meditation is to intentionally think of something that brings up negative feelings—resentment, embarrassment, regret. And then you deliberately feel everything that floods in. Rather than resisting the feelings, you see what happens if you let the emotions pass right through you. What you find is that when you do this, emotions don't last longer than a few seconds at a time. This gives you an surprising level of control over how you feel, over what emotions permeate your day, if you're willing to be mindful.

3. You are not your face or your body.

What happens when you look in a mirror? If you're like most people, you identify the shape in the mirror as you. Just as we identify other people with their faces, we identify ourself with our face, head, and body.

But your identification with various parts of your body, and with other objects, is transient. When you're driving a car, your sense of self extends beyond your body and encapsulates the car itself. You know you're not identical to your car, but you viscerally feel it as an extension of yourself. Same thing with your clothes, your bike, your phone...and so on.

Your face and body are not that different from these objects. Yes, your skin is made of flesh and it shares your DNA and it send signals about touch directly to your brain. But the extent to which you identify with it can be dramatically diminished with meditation.

Recognizing that you are not your face and body changes how you think about your appearance. When you look in the mirror, you're able to place a healthy distance between "you" and the image that you see. You feel less compelled to make that image perfect.

4. Awareness is intrinsically serene.

Is it fundamentally pleasant or painful to be conscious? Or neither? Or both? Is the root of existence suffering, and we just try to cover that pain with the distractions of life, or is existence fundamentally joyful?

What does it feel like when most of the normal parts of our experience are dropped? If we briefly stopped thinking, stopped seeing, stopped hearing, stopped imagining...what would that feel like? Would it feel like anything at all? Imagine getting rid of all your thoughts, your attachments, your fears, your ideas about yourself.

An almost universal finding among meditators is that the more you drop—attachments, obsessions, ruminations—the more you come in touch with wellbeing. That somehow, that wellbeing is intrinsic to consciousness, and most of our suffering is a result of stuff added on top of that core. Some might imagine that suffering is core to existence, that suffering is the most real thing we can experience. Entering deep states of meditation gives the subject a sense that the purest forms of awareness are accompanied by wellbeing.

5. Impermanence: everything passes.

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Related to the primacy of the present, every experience you have ever had has entered your awareness, spent time there, and eventually passed. Every thought, every conversation, every emotion, every problem—all these things have come and gone. And they will continue to do so. Experience is defined by impermanence and change.

This applies more broadly to your whole life. You are impermanent. You will die and so will everyone you know, and so will everyone they know. We often don't acknowledge these things, perhaps out of fear or perhaps because we're too busy. But being aware of the impermanence of everything is a profound doorway into gratitude. When you remember that nothing lasts forever, the good moments become that much more special, and the bad become that much more bearable.

6. The conventional sense of self is an illusion.

Most of us believe that we experience the world from a fixed point inside our head. We receive signals from our eyes and ears, process them, and then output decisions and actions back into the world. Like this:

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We believe that this thing in our head (which is literally us) is fixed and *continuous—*even though your experiences change, the subject experiencing them remains the same. You are the same subjective point of view that you were yesterday, five years ago, and a week from now. This unchanging entity might be called the soul, the thinker of your thoughts, the homunculus in your head.

But all of this is a mental representation, and it can be unraveled just by looking closely. The sense that you are inside your head, creating your thoughts and intentions and actions, breaks down when you practice meditation for long enough. This may sound exhilarating or terrifying depending on where you're coming from. But in the right context, it's one of the most wonderful experiences you can have. This is often what people mean by "self-transcendence".

7. Much of our suffering is unnecessary.

Meditation has taught me that there is a crucial difference between plain old suffering and unnecessary suffering. Suffering is getting sick, being hungry, being in pain. It's losing a loved one or being socially isolated.

Unnecessary suffering is paranoia about getting sick and being in pain. It is a constant obsession with avoiding or preventing future suffering. It is jealousy, egoism, vanity, comparison, and many more things that afflict us entirely as a result of our thought patterns. It is suffering at the idea that we are suffering.

There are all kinds of problems meditation can't alleviate, and these are problems that we solve with action rather than introspection. But for problems borne of our own destructive thoughts, meditation is the most powerful tool. Seneca framed this well thousands of years ago:

We suffer more in imagination than in reality.

8. Nothing is mundane.

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What is boredom? Most of us think that boredom arises as a result of what we're surrounded by. You are not bored if there are interesting things to do (people to talk to, movies to watch, books to read), and you are bored if those things are absent. Just sitting and not doing anything quickly becomes boring.

But once you learn to meditate, you find that to be bored is to pay attention poorly. It doesn't matter what you're paying attention to. No activity is "inherently boring". The fact that there is a world at all, and that you are a conscious entity within that world, is a source of endless astonishment. How did that happen? What are the chances? What even is consciousness? Could things have been any other way? How much longer will this go on?

This may just sound like philosophical rumination, but you don't even need philosophy (or words) to experience wonder. There are people who have spent months or even years on silent retreats, having nothing to "do" but pay attention to their breath. As much as this may sound like torture to our internet-addicted brains, retreats facilitate genuine peak experiences and "enlightenment" among meditators.

All of the beauty and wonder and mystery of life is only ever manifested inside your mind. It is accessible in any "mundane" moment. If you train your attention, boredom becomes more and more ridiculous. You don't exactly eradicate it—you'll still have moments when you aren't being mindful and are caught up in some idea about how "boring" things are. But you at least recognize those moments are nothing but a temporary, misleading quirk of your brain.

What do you think?

My hope is that some of these ideas were intriguing or surprising to you. Ultimately, the point is not to be attached to a bunch of ideas, or even to spend a lot of time thinking about them, but to see if you can experience them directly. We're building familiarity with consciousness itself. What does it feel like to be aware? What does it feel like to think, to emote, to sit, to act?

For most questions, we have a conventional toolkit for finding answers: self-dialogue (i.e. thinking through things), experimental study (i.e. science), debate, or referencing a source like google. A blindspot for most people who haven't tried meditation is that there's another tool at our disposal: the refinement of attention itself. This is why it's important to meditate.

Being more mindful requires practice, and we can strengthen our practice by contextualizing it in theory, as I've tried to do above. In my own meditative journey—which has just begun—it's clear that meditation is much more than stress relief. The practice and theory reinforce each other, and together they provide insight and wisdom. This is the antidote to our most self-destructive tendencies as humans, much as it was for my worst tendencies as an individual. Because of our psychology, our evolutionary history, and our brains, we will never be done – we will always tend towards being more anxious, more agitated, less present, unless we intervene in the functioning of our own minds. If we want to see things clearly, we will always need to meditate.