Meditation really does work. It really is a game changer. The things you see and read in the news about mindfulness are not all hype. I titled this post Meditation 101 because I’d like to share some insights that get to the foundation of the practice. These insights are important for beginners to understand, and nonbeginners can benefit from reminders that keep us inspired, motivated, and engaged.
There are many amazing resources out there for learning how to meditate. I learned through the Ten Percent Happier books and app, which I cannot recommend highly enough. I also did 15 or 20 neurofeedback sessions, which helped me understand what calm brainwaves feel like. I’m not sure I could have figured that out on my own. If you think neurofeedback might help you, look around—your local therapist or counseling center might offer it.
But this post is not about how to meditate. Today, I’d like to focus on the deeper question of why to meditate. After all, you’re not likely to make time to do something, if you don’t know why anyone would do such a thing in the first place.
Eastern Medicine vs Western Medicine
A few years ago, in a strange and quirky book, I encountered a succinct description of Eastern medicine vs Western medicine. The author of the book traveled to Hainan Island, in China. He asked his guide and interpreter what he thought about Eastern medicine vs Western medicine. The guide and interpreter offered the following analysis:
“If I have some disease or any headache I will come to the hospital for urgent things. But in daily life, I would like to have some Chinese medicine for my best health. Chinese medicine can help with good health, and in daily life. But it cannot cure a disease. . . . You know Western medicine can do a little harm to the body. Chinese medicine seems to have less harm. But Chinese medicine takes a long time to cure.”
These words stuck with me for years. What the guide seems to be saying is that the two types of medicine work in different ways, and for different purposes. Both are important in his life. Western medicine is great at curing a disease or ailment that’s already present, but isn’t as good at preventive maintenance. Eastern medicine is great at preventive maintenance and general health and well-being, but isn’t as good at quickly fixing a major problem.
(The strange and quirky book in which I discovered this gem is called The Geography of Madness by Frank Bures.)
If you own a car, you probably get regular oil changes, tire rotations, wiper fluid refills, and other tune-ups. These are minor procedures that you get done even when nothing is wrong or broken. You do this to keep the car in good working condition: to prevent larger problems. If something does go wrong with the car, you get diagnostic tests, and once the problem is pinpointed, you get repairs or replacements in a more major procedure. But it’s better to avoid problems through preventive maintenance, because it’s annoying, time consuming, and expensive to have a broken car.
This is common knowledge among vehicle owners. But while the same principles apply to our bodies, the knowledge is not as common—at least not here in the West, or at least not for all parts of the body. In the past few decades, we have seen great awareness arise around the importance of preventive maintenance when it comes to exercise and eating healthy food. Most people know that regularly exercising and eating well can prevent future diseases, even if they haven’t yet implemented these findings. But preventive maintenance for the mind is, I believe, behind in this, and only recently starting to catch up in the public understanding and imagination.
Why Meditate? My Story
I have a history of struggling with anxiety, plus physical ailments related to anxiety. I realized a while back that I needed some kind of preventive maintenance—something that Western medicine was seemingly unable to provide. If I had an anxiety attack, there were all sorts of pills I could pop and psychotherapists I could consult. But my doctors were generally silent about how I might manage my health so that that the anxiety attacks didn’t happen in the first place.
From my reading, I knew that Eastern thought held amazing promise. So I tried meditation. But it was hard. One year ago, I wrote a blog post about how difficult I found it. I wrote: “It seems that my anxieties are preventing me from using meditation as an anti-anxiety technique.”
However, over the long term, I have found that this type of Eastern medicine works just as the guide implied it would. Meditation does help “with good health, and in daily life.” In other words, it helps keep me healthy and well in the first place. Also, meditation “takes a long time to cure.” Yes. A long time. But it “seems to have less harm” than prescription drugs. Yes. Less harm.
I am happy to report that I have made astonishing progress in meditation in the past year. Whereas, a year ago, I struggled to sit for 5 minutes, I can now do 10 or 15 minutes easily. I no longer experience weird muscle tension while I meditate. But the most profound change I’ve noticed is that my daily practice does, truly, ground me. It does, truly, leave me feeling refreshed afterward and prevent the worst of the anxiety beasts from appearing.
I still find meditation supremely difficult. But I also find it supremely worthwhile. It’s a long road, this meditation journey. Yes, it’s the long game. It doesn’t cure instantly, like pills. But it does cure. And it cures in ways that are not also harmful.
So, why meditate? Here’s the Meditation 101 answer: meditation works in preventing problems of the mind, and there are no side effects. I’ll take it!
A Poem That Offers Insight on Why to Meditate
Today’s blog post arose out of me discovering the following poem by Hafiz (from the book The Gift, translated by Daniel Ladinsky). Check this out, friends.
FIND A BETTER JOB
All your worry
Has proved such an
Find a better
What a lovely metaphor. Yes, if you have a job that’s not earning you sufficient money, it makes sense to get a different one: one that pays better. That’s a concept we Westerners can easily understand. But the same applies to worry. Thinking in this way is less familiar to us. Is worry helpful? Is worry personally lucrative? It’s important, of course, to plan for the future. However, all the excess worry that many of us do, above and beyond mere planning, is unhelpful and often detrimental. And yet, still we worry.
We worry and we worry. We get into bad patterns that we don’t know how to break free from. We don’t give our brains an oil change, we don’t give our neurons the exercise that keeps them firing smoothly. And so we trap ourselves in greater and greater worry, until some major part breaks, and the entire thing needs to be taken into the shop for some astronomically expensive repair service. For, keep in mind that, in contrast to your vehicle’s parts, your body parts are not so easily replaced. Especially not your brain parts. Any broken brain parts must be painstakingly repaired.
Why not find a better job?