Why I meditate
sitting in silence for hours: path to liberation, or giant waste of time?
Everyone is on the brink of going insane. I’m exaggerating a bit, but really not that much. People are anxious, depressed, and dissociated, or at best they’re on the cusp of becoming so.
I wrote earlier about how having been depressed once, you’re always aware of the specter of falling back into it, and you use little things to help you stay afloat, like reading textbooks. Meditation is another one of those anchors for me. I start most days with somewhere between 45-80 minutes of sitting meditation, and I frequently experience states of bliss and inner quiet that help reduce the degree of mental friction in the rest of my day.
I think of my practice as a requirement. This feels fine, because it has increasingly become something I enjoy and look forward to. Sometimes though, I get frustrated that this is where I’ve ended up. Am I really the kind of person who needs to meditate 80 minutes a day just to function?
But putting it this way isn’t quite fair, because the more you practice, the more you see what different forms of daily existence there are, and the higher your standard for “barely functioning” becomes. Consider the following details about my life in the 1-2 months after my recent ten-day retreat:
I almost never checked my phone first thing in the morning, and spent much of the day with my phone on airplane mode.
I spent most of my commuting time (e.g. sitting on the subway or walking) doing nothing and genuinely just enjoying my existence.
When cooking at home alone, I would eat without any other stimulation and enjoy it.
Most nights, I would be able to fall asleep without a book or show.
When scary-ish things happened, like learning that someone broke into my upstairs neighbor’s apartment, I would not have a meltdown.
The post-retreat state has slowly worn away—it’s still there but only semi-consistently, depending on how much I’m practicing. Now, I sometimes do reach for my phone early in the morning, and I’m often unable to sleep if I don’t sedate myself with a book or a podcast.I spend more of my time running around like a headless chicken.
Being a headless chicken, to me, is not actually about the level of anxiety or sadness or anger that I feel in the day: those are all dependent on circumstance. Headless-chicken-ness is a measure of compulsiveness and resistance. When sadness arises, do I feel comfortable just letting it be there, or do I immediately spiral into intellectualizing thought loops around whether the sadness is justified? Do I feel safe enough to allow myself to cry, however briefly?
My meditation teacher joked during the retreat, “well-adjusted people go on vacation, while we come here.” And it’s true. There’s something counterintuitive about actively seeking out an environment where you are not allowed to talk, read, write, or access the internet for ten days or longer. But for some of us, this maniacal clearing of the plate is necessary to come back to the noise of modern life with some composure. The ideal scenario would be to live a life where practicing meditation is not something you need to take time out of your day to do, but is in complete harmony with the rest of your life.
A friend I admire once said, when we were discussing the point of meditation, I’m ok with things as they are, I like being anxious! This is something I literally cannot imagine myself saying. The Buddha claimed that the principles he espoused were true of all humans, and that’s how I generally think about it. But sometimes I imagine that there’s a specific category of people for whom meditation is truly helpful, and I happen to be one of those people. It works for me because I’ve never been energized by anxiety, anger, or stress. I’ve always just found those things suffocating. So I would like to have a better relationship with them, and also not feel them when they're completely unnecessary.
Individual differences aside, I also think there are background factors about our culture which contribute to why I and/or a lot of people are tiptoeing on the brink of sanity. It’s because we live extremely atomistic, hyper-stimulating lives. Even with so many friends now, I still feel alone a lot of the time. There’s very little sense of mutual interdependence, especially if you’re not in a relationship. I often think about how if I fell off the face of the earth, aside from my parents and roommates, literally no one would notice for days if not weeks, because there is no one else I talk to frequently enough for them to notice. Even having family and roommates is more than some people have, but still, there’s something devastating about the way we live. We’ll look back on this period of our history with a compassionate sadness for how we designed our cities and social fabric, and for how isolated it made us.
Meditation doesn’t end the isolation, but it makes it livable. It helps you realize that you are not as separate from the world as you tend to think: you are part of it, in constant exchange with it. People love you even when they don’t take the time to tell you every day. Meditation also helps interrupt the negative feedback loops that can turn a surmountable problem into crippling depression and anxiety. I think of meditation as half of the two-fold process of living a good life: put some of your effort into making things better, and some of your effort into loving things exactly as they are.
So yea, I need to meditate because I’m on the brink of sanity, and I’m on the brink of sanity because the world is a sanity-straining place.
I recognize this is still a good place to be, compared to friends who have it much harder with sleep. But also, I sometimes meet people who have no trouble with sleep whatsoever, and I think, how in the world!!!
What counts as an emotion being “unnecessary”? A good example is being angry to wake up and notice that your phone is broken. This has happened to me twice: once before the retreat, and once after. The first time, I could not help but be angry the entire day and at many points in the weeks that followed. The second time, it just felt so, obviously clear that anger was unhelpful and unnecessary, and any little flittering of it passed as quickly as it came on.