The world is filled with noise. Talking heads spewing propaganda disguised as news. Clickbait sites screaming for attention. Outrage mongers twisting your heart to become more like theirs. A never-ending stream of pop-ups and notifications and messages, all urgent, all demanding your time and energy. In the face of such madness, there is only one thing to do.
Take back your mind.
The Art of Stillness
Digital noise is like a tempest, blowing your spirit one way, then another. It wears you out, scrapes down your soul, leaving you with nothing. A steady diet of clickbait grinds down your ability to focus, to read, to think deeply. It short-circuits your brain, triggering your amygdala instead of your neocortex. Instead of embracing the rationality that is the birthright of all humanity, it leaves you mired in a cesspool of anger, fear, sorrow, outrage, a whirlpool of negative emotions like a tribe of ever-chattering monkeys.
The antidote is stillness.
Silence the monkey mind. Let no thought touch you and no-thought pervade your consciousness. With a still mind and calm heart, the stress of ever-rioting emotions fades away. Here, you can reclaim your soul and transform your mind into a clear spring. This state of being allows you to immerse yourself fully and deeply in life. With constant practice, you can ease your stress, sleep better, digest well, and move with grace.
There are many ways to meditate. Mine is simple.
Find a secluded time and place where you will not be disturbed for the next ten to thirty minutes. This could be your bedroom, a yard, a park, someplace that is reasonably quiet and free from people. Take no distractions with you: no phone, no computer, no television, nothing.
Sit upright. Spine erect, head upright, hands held upright on your lap. Beginners may choose to sit on a chair or cushion. More advanced practitioners can sit cross-legged on the floor, in the half- or full lotus position. The object is to place yourself in a neutral state that your body can hold for a period of time.
Now, half-close your eyes and breathe into your belly. If you need to, place your hands on your stomach and breathe. On the inhale, your abdomen should expand and your hands move. Breathe gently but smoothly, going as deep as you can go, then just as calmly, breathe out. This is a calm, unhurried motion: there is no need to pant like a dog.
As you breathe, find your rhythm. My preference is to breathe in for four counts, and out for four. Others may prefer different rhythms. Find one that suits you best and keep to it.
And now, just breathe.
Focus on your breath. Be aware of the air rushing through your nostrils, reaching into the depths of your lungs; feel the movement of your diaphragm, the rise and fall of your belly. Should stray thoughts away, return to your breath. There is no forcefulness here, just the deliberate direction of intention. Instead of squashing stray thoughts, focus your attention completely on breathing.
If you find your mind wandering, that’s all right. The objective is to develop mindfulness. By detecting a stray thought, you are cultivating mindfulness. Simply bring yourself back to the neutral state and carry on.
Beginners should try to meditate for five to ten minutes. When you find you can keep a clear mind, expand your practice by a minute. If you can meditate for at least a half hour, you’re well on your way to becoming an advanced practitioner.
You can mark your meditation progress by examining the intensity and volume of your thoughts while meditating. The softer and more indistinct they become, the better.
In the beginning, your thoughts might sound like this: Bread milk eggs is the kettle on boil i need to answer an email wonder whats for lunch work is…
Later, they may go: Bread…eggs…kettle boil…answer mail…lunch…
With consistent practice, they become increasingly muted: Bread…mail..work…
At more advanced levels, all you’ll feel is the impression of a thought, the incoherent firing of random neurons. It may feel like this: ?
When you are ready, all you will sense is this: …
When you have reached that state of emptiness, grow your capacity to meditate.
The Wakeful Mind
In the waking world, strive to hold that clear state wherever you can. It won’t be easy, of course, or desirable. There are plenty of activities that require you to think. But what you should strive for is the conscious direction of intent, the same way you consciously focused on breathing and a clear mind.
When thinking through a complicated math problem, this means applying one hundred percent of your thoughts on cracking the equation instead of drifting off into unrelated tangents. When driving, you’re focusing on the wheel, the road and your vehicle instead of a random butterfly. When talking to someone, you’re focusing on what he is saying and how your words affect him. This is the state of the wakeful mind.
Buddhism teaches that there is a gap between the creation of a thought and your perception of it. Meditation teaches you to find it. It is something to be experienced, not read about. Once you find that gap, you are better able to respond appropriately instead of reacting unthinkingly. If someone bumps into you by accident, this allows you to smile and shrug it off instead of flying into a furious rage.
At a higher level, you may find your thoughts circulating around fixed themes and ideas. No matter how you try, these ideas colour the way you think about something. This could be things like “I am ugly” or “I am a victim”. These thoughts come up again and again everywhere you go.
These sticky thoughts are attachments. They stir up your emotions, making you feel a certain way. Every time you touch it, you will get the same emotional response. Such thoughts prevent you from fully living in the moment. Here, apply meditation to dissolve these thoughts. Calmly examine these thoughts, digging deeper as you go. If you mind that these thoughts are baseless, apply the same mind-clearing process to dissolve them. If these thoughts are not without merit, you can reframe them.
For example, someone may think “I am fat”. If an examination in the mirror and weighing scale reveals a perfectly healthy body, then the thought is obviously a delusion and can be released. If evidence suggests otherwise, the thought can be reframed as as a catalyst for action: “I am fat now and I do not like it. I will find a gym and sign up for personal training.” While you don’t need to be a meditator to do this, meditation makes it easier.
In a meditative state, there are no positive or negative emotions. Only a calmness as serene as a peaceful lake. In this state of perfect serenity and awareness, you can act without hesitation, without mental roadblocks, without fear. This is the state of a wakeful mind.
Feeling emotions is not wrong. Every normal and healthy person will feel emotion. You should neither shun negative emotions like anger, fear or sorrow; nor should you flee from positive ones like happiness, joy or pleasure. By sealing off emotions you seal off your heart to life, the opposite of what we want to accomplish. What you want to do is simply feel them in the entirety and let them go when the moment passes.
Emotions should come and go like a meditative breath. They should be experienced fully, then released completely. Imagine yourself to be a cup. A steam of emotions pours in, filling it to the brim. So long as it is full, it cannot hold more or different liquids. Empty the cup of your heart like you empty your lungs; let your breath carry out the emotion from the world. Holding on to emotions means holding on to something longer than is appropriate, leading you to self-harm.
Emotions are like snowballs. Small ones can pile up into an unstoppable avalanche. Here is a story about a famous warrior chief who decided to feed a flock of birds. As he scattered grains among them, he noticed that the grains were like the farms of a valley downstream of his village. Farms in lands he had taken from his former enemies as spoils of war. His enemies must surely be eager to take them back. He had to stop them! He must! So he gathered his men and marched to war.
This applies equally to positive emotions too. A woman decided she would never feel sad or depressed again. She went out with her friends, going to clubs and parties all the time. But she was never satisfied, graduating to drinking parties, hard drugs and one-night-stands with random men. She’s trying to numb herself by chasing highs, but all she’s doing is spiralling into self-destruction. This is the story of Tove Lo’s Habits (Stay High).
Thoughts control emotions. A wakeful mind can sever emotional attachments, preventing the avalanche before it begins.
(I should point out at this stage that meditation is not a replacement for psychiatric treatment. People with mental health issues should seek help from a professional instead of attempting to self-medicate with meditation.)
There are many ways to meditate. Some traditions use extensive visualisation exercises, taking the meditator on a journey to the inside of their minds. In analytical meditation, one attempts to investigate a topic deeply with the power of a focused mind. Another practice requires you to observe the flow of your thoughts as they wander in your head. Yoga and qigong demand absolute focus, calmness and relaxation, like meditation in motion.
Find the method that works for you. There is a plethora of benefits associated with meditation that make the time worth it. To start, all you have to do is dedicate five minutes a day, every day, just for conscious breathing. This is only one-third of one percent of your day — and the payoff is spectacular.
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