Unnecessarily Practical Reasons to Meditate
And why you won't need them once you start
I recently crossed my four year anniversary with meditation. While that’s a small amount of time relative to the meditation teachers I’ve learned from, I’ve come a long way from who I used to be. In this post, I wanted to document some of the benefits I’ve accrued over the years in the hopes that inspires someone out there to start meditating too.
1. Reduce your time until awareness
If you’ve never tried it before, try focusing on your breath for a minute straight without getting distracted. You’ll most likely find yourself wandering off onto a train of thought that lasts anywhere from seconds to minutes.
And that’s normal. Whether you’re experienced or just beginning, distractions always arise in meditative silences.
What can make a difference in your life is this: How quickly can you realize that you’ve been distracted? How quickly can you bring yourself back to your breath?
What’s your time until awareness?
In life, chaos can occurs without warning - the panic of being late, an unfortunately worded comment at work, or touching a hot surface with your bare skin. Perhaps this frustrates or angers you. We can get lost in our emotions for seconds, minutes, or hours. We might even lash out at others. These negative reactions can deepen the spiral.
When you’ve had enough distance from the situation, you might be able to realize what happened by tracing your spiral back to that initial disturbance. But what if you could have realized that the disturbance occurred, observed the effect it was having on your mind, and chose not to react?
It makes a difference when awareness happens in the moment of chaos, and not afterwards. While hindsight allows you to learn from mistakes, present-sight allows you to adjust in real-time to change the outcome.
Unfortunately, the ability to realize what is happening to your mind in the present moment isn’t an epiphany that will immediately and irreversibly change you forever. It’s a muscle that can be weak or strong. It activates outside of your conscious control, and so must be trained over and over again to work effectively.
Meditation is how you train that muscle. Meditation teaches you to repeatedly identify your emotions and thoughts in the gym of meditative silence so that you can bring yourself back to your breath. That is how to give that muscle the reps it needs to grow stronger.
2. Improving your concentration
You’re in the middle of a task you hate when your phone buzzes. Without a skipping beat, your conscious mind context switches to the notification while your subconscious mind happily prepares for its next dopamine hit. Hello, 4 hours of TikTok!
I’ve been there. We’ve all been there.
Concentration is your ability to focus on a single task for an extended amount of time. This means that concentration is also about blocking out distractions - external (notifications, people interrupting you, physical pain) and internal (frustration, intruding thoughts, unhelpful thought tangents).
When you’re focusing on your breath in meditation, thoughts quickly begin to assault your awareness. In order to continue focusing on the breath, you’re taught to:
Become aware that you’re being distracted.
Label the distraction. Alternatively, locate its physical presence in your body (locating the physical presence of negative emotions is especially powerful)
Return to the breath.
#1 and #3 seem obvious. Why #2?
Meditation leads you to the powerful insight that any sensation has two components: The raw sensation and the meaning that sensation brings. Humans often react to the meaning, not the raw experience.
In other words, the reason your phone distracts you isn’t because the notification was loud or repetitive. It’s because of what it means: escape from the task you hate.
So how do you change the meaning of a distraction? Through #2. You observe the distraction, seeking to experience the raw sensation. Once you are there, label it (making plans, anger, phone notification sound) or physically localize it. In doing so, you’ve given it a new meaning (i.e. whatever you labeled it!). And so its power wanes.
The only way to get better at this is through practice. Meditate.
3. Pain Is Easier to Manage
Last August, while I was washing the dishes - yes this is a true story, no I’m not always this clumsy - I accidentally stabbed my thumb with a fork… right in between my thumbnail and thumb bed. Ouch. Immediate, excruciating pain. I applied pressure for five minutes. Fifteen minutes. Hoping the pain would stop.
It did not.
Over the next few hours, I started to go mad as the throbbing and stabbing sensation continued at full force. At some point I had to ask myself: How much longer could I withstand this?
In this moment of mental crisis, I remembered that there was a meditation about working with pain on my Waking Up app. As I began, the gist of the meditation was laid out to me - focus directly on the sensation of the pain.
Yeah, focus on the pain. Ask yourself: Where is the pain? What does it feel like? Is it throbbing? Prickling? Stabbing? Feel it directly.
It felt like I was being asked to look directly at a blinding light. Reluctantly, slowly, painstakingly, I obliged.
The bad news: The pain’s intensity didn’t change at all. The good news: I was able to stop the suffering, albeit for short bursts of time. Still, wow. After four hours of agony, those few moments of respite brought me to heaven on earth.
I was shocked at how effective the practice was. I continued focusing on the pain long after the meditation ended. It became my salve. My thumb slowly healed over the next few days, but to this day I always return to this practice whenever the need arises.
Through this experience, I learned that pain and suffering are completely independent. If you are lifting a heavy weight with your arm, the feeling of muscular contraction is painful, but you would not experience this as suffering. Yet if you were to experience that same sensation as a home intruder hits you with a bat, you might recoil in terror. The default meaning we assign pain is context dependent, but we can change that default.
Meditation teaches you to observe your conscious experience so that you are aware of the meanings you assign to sensations, whether that sensation is physical, emotional, or mental. Meditation enables you to choose a meaning that is most advantageous for you.
4. Your ability to empathize will improve
To empathize well, you must be able to:
Listen to what someone is saying with their words and body language.
Intuit their emotional state with some degree of accuracy. (It’s actually not important that you’re perfectly accurate, but that’s a topic for another post)
Do both without your own thoughts, emotions, and judgement getting in the way.
To get better at #1 and #2, practice on yourself first. In other words, you can use meditation to practice listening to your own thoughts and emotions, which will help you get better at listening to others’.
Meditation helps with #3 directly. In breathing-based meditation, you practice realizing that thoughts and emotions are simply objects in your awareness to be observed and labeled without judgement. Any judgement that arises is itself an object to be observed and labeled without judgement. In doing so, you dis-identify with thoughts and the judgements, allowing your attention to return to your breath. Or the person you’re listening to.
As your ability to meditate improves, so too will your ability to empathize with others and yourself.
5. Accepting Impermanence
Think of every experience you’ve ever had.
Your biggest wins. Your favorite TV shows. Your favorite vacations.
The most intense physical pain you’ve ever been in. Your grief when a loved one passed away.
It doesn’t last. Nothing lasts in consciousness. Time moves inexorably on.
If nothing lasts, does anything matter? Perhaps not. It’s easy to fall into nihilistic thinking or existential dread.
But something does matter: The present moment. It’s the only thing that lasts in consciousness, and it’s always here.
Integrated over time, your present experience defines your life. To improve your experience of life, improve your experience of the present moment.
How does meditation help us cope better with impermanence in our lived experiences?
Regarding negative experiences: There’s something remarkable in how drastically your mood can shift from the beginning of a meditation session to the end. It reinforces that you’re not just capable of escaping suffering, but that suffering doesn’t last.
On the positive side of experience: The ability to let go of extraneous thoughts and emotions allows you to relax more into the present moment. Sinking deeper into the present moment allows you to appreciate the joy it can contain even more deeply.
One can accept impermanence by appreciating its benefits: Suffering doesn’t last and the good times can be experienced more deeply.
So why meditate?
I hope these reasons motivate you to start meditating. But take solace in the fact that none of these reasons will matter once you begin.
Few consistently exercise because it reduces their risk of cancer. People consistently exercise because it feels good. You just feel better when you’re consistently exercising. The extrinsic benefits are the cherries on top.
The same with meditation. When you’re consistently meditating, your mind feels free in a way it doesn’t when you’re not meditating. Bad times phase you less. Good times feel gooder. It’s as simple as that. All of the benefits above? Cherries on top.
How do I meditate?
My very opinionated take:
Start with Headspace or Calm. These apps provide structure & reduce barriers to consistent practice for beginners. As you start experiencing the benefits, you might get curious about the broader themes. At that point, switch to Waking Up. It’ll satiate that curiosity like nothing else. It’s what I currently use today.
Meditate as consistently as you can. There’s a huge difference in meditating every day versus twice a week. But don’t let that demotivate you. There’s an even bigger difference between twice a week and not at all.
Don’t judge the practice. When I first started open-eyed meditation and sound-based meditation, I was extremely skeptical. I’d been meditating on my breath for two years at that point and didn’t think anything else could work for me. Two more years have passed, and I view those other meditation types to be just as important and enjoyable as breathing-based meditation.