How I Started
For several days, I’ve had chest pains.
At first I thought I had caught coronavirus from our trip to Houston. But then after several days I realized that the tightness from my chest was from the anxiety of our moment right now.
Cases in Texas have been climbing and setting records daily, and now that the death toll is climbing too, I had to consider whether I would be seeing my parents, who were coming into town. That was today, and I have decided not to.
I could not have come to this decision without meditation.
I started Sam Harris’s meditation app back in March. It’s a 50 day introductory course, and after that you are welcome to the daily and practice meditations available in ten and twenty minute sessions. Along the way, you are given a series of tools to help you realize that “consciousness is always already there.” You can focus on the breath, or respond to snapping, or you can open your eyes and keep your field wide and try to find out who the person is that is seeing…what it is that you’re seeing. You can respond to the sensations in the body, whether it is heat or cold, the feeling of the chair against your back, or the sounds of the cars passing outside. With each lesson, Harris builds upon previous toolsets, as well as phrases, in order to sort of cue you into an attentive state of being.
I had been listening to his podcast, Making Sense, when I felt this same anxiety I’ve felt recently. My wife had mentioned that she heard about a teacher discount for the meditation app, so I took it upon myself to email tech support to see if this teacher discount still existed.
As a response, they gave me an entire year access to the app…for free.
I cannot tell you the joy that gave me. Not only would I be able to work on my focus and attention, and gain some awareness of why I felt the way I did by someone I trusted, I was given the chance for free.
Why, What, and How
I had tried meditation before and failed miserably. Mostly I would sit on the carpet in our study, with my back against the wall, and I would let my mind wander. It was more like daydreaming than meditation, and after several attempts in this way, I dropped it.
But Harris’s meditation was different. Contrary to intuition, his voice as a guide is not a hindrance to focus, but rather just the sort of guidance that can help bring you back. His repetitions in phrases, like “Welcome to day ____ of the waking up course” are just as much physiological cues as they are linguistic, and they are intentionally designed to bring you into a focused state of attention quickly. Later in the course, Sam urges the meditator to see if he or she can “get straight into it” without any delays, as if by making the switch quicker and quicker, the task can be transferred to daily life.
That’s the whole goal of meditating, after all. Harris says on the last day that the goal of meditation “is not to become a better meditator” but rather to carry with you the notion of selflessness that comes from building a skill. Meditation is incredibly powerful, and I doubt by now you are confused about why meditating is beneficial, and you might not even have a need to know how to do it. Evidence abounds on the medical and psychological benefits, and you have likely seen commercials or videos of people meditating in action. But more for me, I simply needed to know what to do at a basic level. The benefits after that will take care of themselves.
We have had quite a bit on our minds recently. I left my job in March because I felt I needed to grow as a teacher, and I was not getting that experience at my old school. Without meditation, I do not think I would have been able to make such a big decision. Coronavirus is spreading, and it largely seems to be from indoor “silent spreaders.” If we knew exactly who had the virus, the impetus for doing the right thing would be easy. But the harsh reality is that Covid-19 is just as much a test of our behavior as it is our immune system. Meditation has helped me to see what is at stake. I am a younger person, and may be much more likely to be an asymptomatic carrier. I must do my part.
Another aspect of meditation that I am grateful for is that “less is more.” So often it can seem like the more stimulation we get, the more intelligent we can be, or the more knowledgeable we can be. That could not be further from the truth. To be easily swayed into the infinite scroll of Instagram, or YouTube, or Reddit, is to admit to yourself that boredom is the worst outcome. But really, just a cursory attempt at meditation can lead you to the conclusion that boredom does not have to exist. As Richard Feynman says, “Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough.” And in meditation, you go after your own consciousness.
The conclusion I drew about my consciousness was how unintuitive my thoughts really were. The mind is simply an explanation machine. To admit to oneself that many of our thoughts take place without our best interest in mind, is to release yourself from taking things too seriously. I am not going to suggest here that I am some sort of enlightened guru, because I have only just begun practicing. But I will say that I have a much more leveled idea of the veracity of my thoughts. The humility that comes from seeing just how biological our mind is can really open you up to new ideas, new stories, and it can also get you to reevaluate yourself and those you live with.
I think beyond all the benefits for me, I think it has made me a profoundly better husband. Many times it may have seemed easy, living in quarantine, to snap at my wife. But there were certain arguments that could have happened but did not, and that is because we both decided to deescalate and communicate calmly, rather than simply argue. I realized that my share of chores in the house needed to step up. I realized that my wife needed a chance to have her frustrations heard by someone next to her, rather than someone on Zoom. I also saw that I took my ideas and my opinions for granted as canonical, when really it is foolish to think that any idea born on an island is ready made for the world. And strangely enough, I found that there are still plenty of deeper paths to go with my wife. It may seem like after five or six years you know your spouse, but we are constantly changing. Our “self” is permeable. And so I am delighted by the newness that meditation helped me see when living with her.
However, if you remember, you may have noticed that I started this post discussing anxiety.
It’s true. Just because you may complete a course on meditation, it does not mean it makes you immune to the trials of the world. I have had stomach pangs as well as chest tightness, and it is because I have a lot to think about. Should I change careers? Will I ever be able to teach the creative way I was taught in graduate school to K-12 grade? Will coronavirus wage holy terror on public schools this fall? Will my parents get sick? Can I get a job before my health insurance expires?
Meditation does not protect you from making decisions in the world. But it does allow you to give better attention to the moment at hand. Attention is the word in this conversation. We all wish we were better listeners. We wish we savored the very finite moments the world brought before us. We want to understand at a deeper level just what exactly is going on with our own minds, and better accommodate the minds of those around us. For me, beyond all the books and all the knowledge, meditation has been the best chance to get to the heart of these issues. It is simple and profound.
I think now is the time. More than ever before, in fact. It is a new world already. It is always, already unfolding. Please be ready to accept it.