These days, I often think about meditation. Of all the genuinely transformative experiences I’ve had over the past year, it beats all. I just don’t know anything else that has that kind of effect, that dramatically – or so much payoff for trying.
I started to use meditation as a ‘circuit breaker’ on bad days. Whenever I had a sustained bad mood – a kind of proto-depression – I’d found that these 10-minute meditation blocks hobbled them. In fact, it really only took, at most, 3 stacked together to at make even the most emotionally disruptive events, manageable; anything above that was gravy.
Compared to other methods – say, eating out, or seeing friends, of hopping on the Internet – meditation was by far the simplest and most effective. Everything else was like putting money on a square you had very good reason to think would win, while meditation was a straight withdrawal. In other words, while those were indirect, this was direct; and once you know the direct route, why choose another?
But if short blocks brought this much benefit, that piqued my interest about what longer ones would do. I’d read somewhere that the fireworks, the really spectacular effects, started to kick in around the two-hour mark. I had aspired to meditate for two hours when I started, too, but it was just too unfamiliar, too dissonant in context to the rest of my mental experience, for me to reach it. I had to start smaller, and build up.
People have different ways of talking about what it’s like to start meditation, but for me, it was a lot like starting running. In the beginning, it’s a brute slog, getting used to it. You’ve spent so much of the rest of your life un-meditating – doing things to forget about other things in your experience, riding roughshod over your emotions, sublimating everything to something else – that meditation feels like sand on your tongue. Your initial reaction is to reject it, while doing it (the after-period, by contrast, always brings some noticeable benefit). You start there, and you spend a long time becoming familiar with it, with how it acts on your mind.
Then you scale up. Because if a little does this much good, what will a lot do?
As a sort of experiment in self-discovery, I recently hit the 2-hour mark: two 30 minute blocks dropped earlier in the day, and one hour-long block at the end of it. I’m starting to recognize this buttery, creamy quality to consciousness that has been massaged by meditation, that I notice and like when I start my day off with it.
At about the 1 hour 40 minute mark, something unexpected came through: a sort of chunk of self-loathing that suddenly broke free. I saw I was very hard on myself in some ways that are hard to verbalize, and I didn’t need to be; we all need to work, and work hard, but being extremely negative about our efforts is not helpful. And as soon as I saw it, it was gone; it was the seeing, that was healing.
The mind is, to all appearances, completely transparent, in your moment-to-moment experience – yet some things really are trying to hide. I didn’t see this until I felt like I’d pulled it out into the light of awareness. In fact there were a series of ugly mental images that preceded it – like landfills, basically – and then this surfaced. And then it was clear.
I see the connection to psychotherapy now. Your mind isn’t as transparent as you might think, as your self-confidence would lead you to believe. A lot of the memories that surfaced in the second hour were emotionally loaded, all right, but very odd; none of the usual suspects appeared, like ex-girlfriends or some sort of bully-like elementary school memories. Instead it was a bunch of agita-inducing no-name dreck, like the minutes before meeting strangers at a run.
Still, it felt like a breakthrough. And this was just two hours, still a small fraction of the day. What happens when you double that, or triple it? What happens when you meditate for an hour, day after day? What happens to your self-awareness, in that scenario?
I don’t know, but I’d like to find out.