Life is hard. Even a really good life has a lot of hard in it. There doesn’t seem to be any way to make life less hard. But there are ways to make it easier to navigate, which leads to more peace, more contentment, and more joy in life, even with its inevitable challenges. The primary way that has worked for me is meditation, which is a practice of developing a relationship with our body that is independent of our relationship with our mind. That works because what makes the hard parts of life so difficult for us to bear is not actually whatever is happening around us, but rather how our mind views whatever is happening. The stories, scripts, and patterns we accumulate over our lives (and probably over many lifetimes) color how we see everything we experience. In a very real way, our past colors our present. The mind is a storehouse of everything we’ve ever thought, said, or done, as well as every thought, word, and action we have ever been on the receiving end of from others. That’s a lot of weight! And it makes it very, very hard to see what’s happening for what it is, as opposed to how it looks through the lens of our past. It’s like sitting in a movie theater and trying to see the blank, white screen behind the story being projected. It’s not really possible.
When we live primarily through our minds, which most of us do, we get caught up in all the stories we carry, and when we encounter something hard, we may turn our disturbance outward and fuss that it shouldn’t be like that, or try to change it in some way, or we may turn our disturbance inward and feel defeated, powerless, or worthless. Either way, we have bought into the stories our minds are telling us, and there is virtually no way to resolve those stories satisfactorily in a way that lasts. Psychotherapy can help, and I’m a big fan of it, and even just growing older and gaining a broader perspective on life can help. But meditation is the real game changer. Either on its own, or even better in conjunction with yoga, therapy, or other things, meditation diminishes the power of the stories in our minds so that we no longer feel the need to fuss outwardly or suffer inwardly.
Meditation trains us to live primarily through our bodies instead of our minds. That opens up a way to experience the things that happen in our lives directly—as they actually are—rather than through the stories in our minds. Faced directly there’s no impulse to fuss or to judge ourselves. Things just are as they are. If we like them, we can enjoy them fully. If we don’t like them, we can take action to change them. But either way, we remain clear inside, and we feel peaceful and content. It’s something you have to experience to really be able to understand. All these words are fine—and true as far as they go—but they have no power to generate the kind of peace and contentment that actually practicing meditation can offer.
In fact, there are certainly thousands, and probably many millions, of words written about meditation and spoken by meditation teachers around the world. The teachings of the great masters of the various forms of Buddhism and yoga, as well as the organized religions of the West, and no doubt others, can be empowering and uplifting. Some go to great lengths to describe how to meditate and precisely what happens moment to moment in a meditation practice. Some teachers are so good at illuminating the process that they make you feel like you’re actually doing it as you’re listening to them, and you can even feel shifts in your body or consciousness during and after those sessions. For many years I consumed these kinds of teachings voraciously. I learned how to do it, and I learned what would happen as I was doing it and over time. I learned what some of the milestones or guideposts would be, and I measured my progress by reference to them, always keeping at the forefront the goal of complete freedom from the stories in my mind. As I meditated and felt various things in my body or my emotions, I was often confident I knew just what that was based on everything I had learned. Oh boy, was I wrong! Well, it’s not that I was necessarily always wrong, but that whatever I thought I knew was ALWAYS beside the point. And even more than that, it kept me pursuing the teachings instead of who and what I really was and really was becoming authentically. Ultimately, the teachings are a distraction, and they can even be used unconsciously as a form of resistance.
Meditation is at the same time one of the simplest and one of the hardest things anyone can do. It’s hard, because we are addicted to our minds, our thoughts. Many people even believe they would not be able to survive without thinking. That’s understandable, because it can feel that way. Try it. Try to not think, and see what happens. Try to imagine what life would be like if you literally never had another thought. Most of us recoil at that notion, for good reason. But as strongly as we may believe we need our minds to live good lives, that is just not true. In fact, our bodies contain 100% of the “knowledge” necessary to keep us alive and thriving, without any involvement of the mind whatsoever. It takes practice to convince ourselves of that, but it’s true. And we do not need to detach ourselves completely from our minds in order to realize that. Even a tiny bit of separation between our thoughts and who we really are in our bodies is enough to make the point convincingly. And it doesn’t usually take that much time into a meditation practice to develop that tiny bit of separation. It’s available to anyone who tries, and it grows as you continue to practice.
While meditation is hard for those reasons, it’s also incredibly simple, because all you have to do is bring your attention to your breath and keep it there as much as you can, and when thoughts come and pull your attention away and you realize that, just bring your attention back to your breath. That’s it. That’s 100% of the meditation instruction you need. (There are many other techniques of meditation, like mantra, flame, sound, and walking, but most or all involve fixing the attention on some object and coming back when the mind wanders, so the process is essentially the same.) A teacher once told me to throw all my spiritual books out the window and to stop going to workshops and trainings. I laughed. I rolled my eyes. I kept reading, and I went to even more workshops. She was a wonderful teacher, and I never felt judged by her. She continued to encourage me to put my own direct experience first, and something like 15 years later, I finally got what she was saying and could start putting it to practice. Thank you, Jane!
Let’s explore the simplicity of meditation. Using the breath as your anchor is helpful, because it’s always there. I like to feel it in the rise and fall of my abdomen as I inhale and exhale. You can also use the sensations at the tip of the nose or other places, but the expansion and contraction of the abdomen are very tangible sensations, so they’re usually easy to find even in the midst of “monkey mind” and other sensations in the body. And you don’t need to know anything about the breath—not how it works or why, not what it means when it’s slow and deep or fast and shallow, not why it’s sometimes “right there” and other times seems to be buried under a mountain of other things going on in the body. Even after all these years of practice, I sometimes still find that when I realize I’ve been thinking, I try to remember what I’m supposed to be working on so I know what I’m doing when I go back to my breath. Then I have to remind myself that I don’t need to know any of that—I just need to let my attention fall back onto the mere sensations of the rise and fall of my abdomen and let the process take care of itself. It’s a bit unnerving to let go of all the knowledge I’ve accumulated and invested so heavily in over so many years and to work on trusting that my body knows what it’s doing without my mental intervention. But when I come back into my naked breath—naked of all the teachings I’ve loaded onto it—it’s incredibly liberating. And after just a couple of breaths like that, I usually feel the vibration and energy of that liberation coursing throughout my body, which lets me know in a powerful way that it’s safe to be in my body without needing to know mentally what’s going on. That’s what’s so simple about meditation—just come back to the bare breath and let everything else go, and you will realize the promise of true freedom.
If you want to give this a try, you can use a short guided meditation I’ve recorded here.
And stay tuned for next week’s post that will reveal one of the most extraordinary things about meditation…