Years ago, the promise of a quiet mind able to remain focused through stretches of work got me intrigued about the power of meditation. Not being power-hungry, I did nothing with that curiosity. I’ve since found better reasons to learn more, and I’ve noticed a few patterns out there that I want to address. I am still early with meditation, but I have beliefs I would like to share.

  1. Whatever your goals may be for taking up meditation, I do not doubt their validity and worthiness. If you have no particular goals at all, that’s perfectly fine, too. You’ll benefit anyway, similar to whether you exercise for the abs or just because everyone says you should. But if you have specific goals, you should check whether there is a form of meditation that actually is a good method of achieving them. There might not be.

  2. If your goal is what I once had—to develop superpowers, essentially: the ability to churn through work efficiently and to have unshakable confidence—I sincerely hope you intend to use the power for good and not to further selfish aims.

  3. If your goal is to study or adopt the exotic philosophies of the Far East, more power to you. But don’t expect admiration for this alone. It’s one thing to acquire knowledge and have compassionate ideas. It’s another to live those ideas in action and to establish healthy, compassionate habits.

  4. If your goal is to experience transcendental states of mind, cool. I’m all about feeling oneness with universe. I hear psychedelics can save a lot of time and effort, though I can’t condone the use of controlled substances. And as before, please recognize that this manner of practice doesn’t by itself make you a better person. Habit over ideas.

  5. Finally, if your goal is to foster equanimity—if you seek to quiet negative thoughts, manage stress or chronic pain, or relieve the effects of some trauma—then welcome. I have much more to say to you. This has been my more recent goal. I recognized that the negativity I bore translated into weakness and a burden for those who care about me. So I’ve been trying to meditate to train these habits out of my mind. And as inconsistent as my practice has been, the effects have been noticeable. The rest of this post is addressed to you.

I’m often unsure whether I’m “doing it right”. I don’t like guided meditations because I find them distracting, and I don’t want to rely on an external source for serenity. I want to alter my persistent traits rather than slip into altered states when the time suits me. But observing my breath and letting my mind wander feels too passive. How can I challenge myself? I can’t seem to just follow a set prescription, so I came up with my own theory of how meditation might work for me. Your experience will be your own, but perhaps the following may seed your own ideas.

In Buddhism, the doctrine of anatta, or no-self, is a difficult concept rejecting a permanent self, soul, or essence. I tried and failed to make sense of the particulars, so I’ve drawn from it my own notion. My version of it is that we each change over time, we’re all composed of constituent conscious elements, and we’re all part of greater social organisms. I’m not the same person as 12-year-old Alfred. One part of me can handle strolling through a park while a different part listens to music and another contemplates the weather. My team, my family, my company, my city, each has a personality and memory, and the dynamics of each affects and is affected by me. Thus there is no persistent, singular, isolated self to be the subject of the whims of life.

If we accept this, then many (by no means all!) of our personal worries and preoccupations melt away. Some things just aren’t important if I can expect the next moment to be different, when I can attribute a pain to only a portion of my person, and when I can see my place in larger wholes. In other words, perspective enhances equanimity.

But rejecting the self is a radical departure. Obviously I am me, right? Aren’t I meditating in order to improve myself? My “self”? Alas, reason alone is insufficient. I will need the force of habit to realize the equanimity I seek, and habit comes from practice. That’s where meditation comes in.

What am I practicing? Observing myself as a neutral third party. The breath is the standard object of focus, but what makes it so useful? It’s the fact that you’re always breathing, usually on autopilot, but you can also take complete control over it, within physical limitations. What’s really, really hard is to observe your breath without affecting it. Not just to notice at moments now and then, but to really watch it like a movie. Once I can do that, then it’s on to the much harder challenge of observing the latent, inchoate thoughts and feelings swimming around, rolling and tumbling over each other in my head—those multitudes we contain—without affecting them.

(I want to note also that I don’t think it really matters where or how you meditate. You can be walking to work, sitting in traffic, taking a shower. You can focus on your steps, hearing, chewing since they’re also automatic actions that you can control when so inclined. The point is just to observe yourself as if you’re not yourself. Furthermore, the advice about sitting upright in a quiet, dark room makes things easier since there are fewer distractions, but it’s not the one right way. In fact, I think it’s probably advantageous to perform some form of practice in active situations lest the effects remain compartmentalized to easy surroundings. Mindfulness emphasizes maintaining awareness throughout the day, so it appeals to me.)

As I become more familiar with this mental storm, it becomes easier to observe it manifest in others, and to observe it with compassion. It explains why we can all be so hypocritical and inconsistent. I have to give up the simple, convenient stories I want to tell myself about others. I start to see how our minds dance together through our interactions. This compassionate practice might be overlooked if I focused solely on self-development, but understanding our shared experience is vital perspective for the equanimity I seek. (Equanimity for … myself? There is no self! Never mind that! Just do it!)

This practice of perceiving the chaotic, connected kinetics of human minds changes the premises I bring to my evaluation of everything. This fear is temporary—I can ignore it. This unfair treatment was unintentional—I can forgive it. This happiness is fleeting—I can revel in it while it lasts. This good fortune is a gift—I can share it. Practice develops a habit of perspective thus enhancing equanimity.

As worthy a goal equanimity may be, on its own, it’s selfish (cf. my messages #3 and #4). I don’t want to be a solitary reed bending back and forth in changing winds doing nothing for my neighbors. (“Hey man, it doesn’t affect me, so I don’t care.”) I want to develop the strength and presence of mind to act for the sake of others. The habit I’ve so far described is a habit of mind; let’s not neglect to develop habits of action. Please, yes, use meditation for healing, but don’t fall into the trap of being so self-absorbed that we fail our communities.

This is the understanding I’ve reached at my early level of experience with meditation. Your mileage will vary. I hope these thoughts help you shape your own practice into a form that feels right for you.

EDIT (2018-03-24): My friend pointed me to this succinct, practical advice on meditating. I found it a very useful reminder. Highlight:

My first suggestion is that you begin meditation with an attitude that it’s something you are going to experience,, not something you are going to do.