Elana Kopelevich

On meditation

December 17, 2023

meditationmind training
tldr: Meditation, AKA "mind training" teaches you to be aware of the present moment. This is the foundation for solving all of your problems. It's helped a lot in my life.

On the one hand, everyone is doing it. There are trendy documentaries about it, a million apps, and many more books (ancient and recent). Companies encourage their employees to do it. Schools guide kids to do it. Most community centers offer some form of it as a practice. Its terminology has made its way into common vocabulary -- mindfulness, presence, letting go, etc. It's so trendy that we don't always register it when we see it.

On the other hand, not enough people are doing it. And many people are not even scratching the surface of the practice, with the popular apps that either frame it as stress relief or just provide a soothing voice that tells you a story as you fall asleep. Other people sign up to follow the big names, the trendy "gurus" who sell it as a way to manifest what you deserve.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to gatekeep meditation, as though the forms of the practice that I am beginning to understand are the only ones that provide value. I am actually more concerned with the overall resistance to really trying it, or trying something that isn't exactly meditation and giving up. Why does this concern me? Because it is a free, effective practice that improves your wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around you. I like when people suffer less.

Part of me recognizes that even bringing up meditation to those who aren't interested comes across as either basic or cultish, but I think there a lot of people who recognize its value and just haven't found the right approach. Or they've given it a chance, but were unable to build a lasting habit. Over the last few years, I have processed a variety of resources and tried various styles of meditation - most of them helping me or teaching me in one way or another - but it took me some time to find an approach that really resonated with me. I understand that some people just stumble across a guide, or an app or a simple set of instructions, that works for them right away and the rest is history, but I imagine that a less perfect path to a meditation practice is a much more common experience.

Although I am far from experienced enough to write an authoritative how-to guide superior to the others that I will point you to at the end of this post, that is not actually my purpose on this page. My goal is to explain what meditation helps me with and how I practice it.

A personal experience

Like most people, I've always lived with some anxiety, but it reached the peak that led me to make some changes in my life in 2018. I was having a very bad time in my relationship with work. It got to the point that passing a particular park on my morning commute triggered pretty severe feelings of dread, like every day. I saw the trees and the ducks in the park and I felt doom because I knew it was only a few more minutes before I reached the office. This was not a good association. For whatever reason, I had wound myself up to what seemed like a point of no return.

Around the same time, my partner was dealing with his own peaking anxiety (our conditions were probably intertwined, but the point of a meditation practice isn't to unravel a story). We had both been absorbing the themes of the times (as people do), hearing Alan Watts pop up in sound bytes in the music we were listening to, poking around in meditation apps, picking up some books from the featured tables at the book stores. We were unconsciously dipping our toes into the water, but at some point we had a conversation (or ten) about how there must be a better way to live, and we started investigating more deliberately.

A rough survey of the early meditation-related inputs into my brain:

I listened to a lot of Alan Watts' talks. Alan Watts is delightful. This man was a self-styled "philosophical entertainer," credited with popularizing Eastern philosophy in the modern Western world. In his rambling lectures, he makes a multitude of excellent points, but it is the rambling nature of his lectures that makes it hard to get beyond a certain point of understanding with Watts as your guide. He pulls ideas from Buddhism, and Hinduism, and general Eastern thinking to entertain. His voice is soothing and funny, and often, thought-provoking, but his intention was never to provide either a cohesive philosophy of life or a set of practices for living. Also, keep in mind that these talks are about 70 years old, and that some of the things he says and some of the ways he says them are a bit dated. You can take the wisdom, and leave the outdated ideas. I do recommend listening to Alan Watts, but not only listening to Alan Watts.

I discovered Matthieu Ricard. At some point, my partner and I were talking about life and happiness and I remembered a video I had seen. "Do you know about the happiest man in the world?" I asked him. No, he hadn't. We quickly looked up Matthieu Ricard and watched his TED talk. If you want to see a really delightful human being, watch him speak. He glows with happiness. But his designation of "happiest person" is not just the result of a subjective observation. He was part of a study at the University of Wisconsin that measured the brain's gamma waves when the subject meditated on compassion (gamma waves are associated with happiness and concentration). His numbers were off the charts.

The point being, this guy has a lot of things about living figured out. He is a Buddhist monk, translator for the Dalai Lama, and the author of several valuable books. My favorite of these is Happiness. This is a concise, well written guide on how to be happy. I highly recommend reading it, and reading it again. I'll give you a preview of one of the most important practices Ricard recommends: meditation.

These resources were just the beginning. I read Emotional Intelligence, Calming your Anxious Mind, Altruism, dozens of other books and articles, and watched several documentaries. My partner and I started using a meditation timer with regularly timed gongs to keep us focused. I practiced watching my breath, repeatedly letting thoughts go through visualization and naming techniques. I practiced focusing on the attitudes of mindfulness. I practiced body scans. I practiced sitting and letting my mind wander, then recognizing the wandering and beginning again.

All of these exercises were useful as I got more and more familiar with them. I felt more able to function in the work environment in which I was so unhappy. I started sleeping better. My general emotional state was more steady. Meditation was doing the thing that everyone sells it for - soothing my anxiety. There was a problem, though. When it worked - when I wasn't feeling anxious - I skipped sessions. Subconsciously, I viewed the practice as a quick remedy to a symptom of distress. When the distress was less present, I thought I didn't need the medicine. My partner did a great job of keeping up the habit, but my own practice was kind of flakey. Of course, I noticed that I felt more grounded when I made myself make time for it, but it was so easy to "do something more productive" instead.

While I was better than I had been before I started exploring the practice, there was still room to improve in terms of understanding, consistency, and focus.

Mind training

We label a lot of common mental and emotional problems as defects in the individual. There is a major problem with this perspective. When you view anxiety or trouble concentrating as an imperfection that is inherent to your person - as a condition that the gods stuck you with, as opposed to a condition that anyone could experience - you may start to believe that there is something wrong with you. As a culture, we either consider the suffering person a victim of fate (and let them keep suffering) or treat them with drugs. Certainly, some ailments warrant modern medicine, but there is a broad spectrum of problems that are ephemeral conditions and that respond pretty well to non-pharmaceutical treatment. Some of those problems are anxiety, depression, and trouble concentrating. One of the treatments is mind training.

Mind training (like physical training) is another way to frame the practice of meditation. It is a therapy (like physical therapy) when our minds are out of shape.

We live in a society that recognizes the importance of physical exercise. Many of us may not hit the gym enough, but we don't live in denial about the importance of exercise. Most people understand that physical training makes you strong and healthy and that abstaining from it keeps you weak and sickly. We can't really say the same about our cultural understanding of mental exercise.

What's more, we are experiencing a global crisis of widespread anxiety, depression, and ADHD. Sure, some of the cases are a result of chemical imbalances (that would benefit from medicine), but the massive rise in these conditions points to something more systemic. I'm no expert, but the wars, pandemics, political chaos, unsustainable cost-of-living, greed, media inundation, shitty processed food, and looming climate collapse, may have something to do with the downhill turn of our collective mood. We have so little control in global systems, so solving these problems to make ourselves feel better is kind of a non-starter. However, we do have another option for finding peace amid the doom. We can learn to respond to the condition of our environments with more equanimity, if we train our minds.

Viewing the practice of meditation, not as a palliative stress reliever, but as an exercise in understanding what consciousness is, was a subtle but important mental shift for me. This framing is something that I read about early in my exposure to mindfulness, from Matthieu Ricard and others, but didn't really internalize until I started using Sam Harris' Waking Up app. When you view meditation as a sedative, it's only going to help you get to a certain point of peace. When you view meditation as a long term practice that will dramatically shift your perspective of reality, with the side effect of feeling more calm, happy, and focused, you will live a better life. It's for that reason that I was critical of apps that just read you stories or gurus that talk about manifesting what you deserve. These things are useful, I'm sure. If they help you sleep or help your self esteem, there is value, but they are falling short of the real benefit of meditation.

What exactly is mind training?

The default mode network (DMN) is a system of connected brain areas that show increased activity when a person is not focused on what is happening around them. Everyone is walking around most of the time with their DMN turned on. This manifests as ruminating on past events, worrying about and planning future events, thinking about TV shows, looping songs on repeat, thinking about what's for dinner, and jumping chaotically from one half-formed thought to another. This state also shows itself as negative reactions to discomfort, bursts of anger, unnamed fear, and judgment. With mind training, the idea is that we deliberately practice being aware of what is right in front of us, without judgment. We focus on our breath or open our awareness to everything around us, including our thoughts, and we let them be. We realize that thoughts arise and fade away without our conscious intervention. The formal practice of meditation has us sit comfortably for twenty, or thirty, or forty minutes, and practice doing this. In other words, we practice being aware.

The long-term goal of meditation is not to become a good meditator, but to incorporate the habit of being aware into every moment of waking life. That said, I think it's going to be hard for most people to find and maintain this state of awareness, without setting aside the time to practice. It would be like expecting to be able to play the piano beautifully whenever you feel like it, without setting aside the dedicated time to learn the basics and repeatedly move your fingers along the keys to internalize the patterns.

And what is the ultimate benefit of being aware? Wasn't the selling point of all of this to feel better? To be free of anxiety and to be able to concentrate? Awareness of the present moment is the ultimate relief from anxiety. Being able to examine a worried thought that pops into your mind and let it go, is how you find relief. Recognizing a rumination and visualizing its dissolution, is a skill that mind training reinforces. Seeing an imagined story for what it is, brings peace.

And the concentration aspect that I mentioned? Well for one, fewer distracting thoughts about the past and the future make for a mental environment that is conducive to concentration. Beyond that, the practice of concentrating on something as simple as your breath, strengthens your ability to maintain focus on a coding problem or a piece of writing or a conversation with a friend. The idea is that you practice training your mind in a quiet, dedicated environment , much like going to a gym to work out, and you apply the practice in the noisiness of your regular life.

Is this a panacea?

In theory, yes, meditation solves everything. The only thing you need to stop suffering is awareness. There are countless stories of people who found themselves in harrowing conditions (torture, severe illness, disability, etc.) but were okay because they had a practice of meditation. It can be everything that you need and it has been enough for many people. That said, in the messiness of modern life, I have to acknowledge that awareness works better as part of a larger system of healthy habits. You may think of mind training as a leverage point - a place to start. The shift in your mindset can be a catalyst to change in the rest of your habits. For the most part, the other changes aren't complicated or new: drink water, sleep enough, eat less processed food and less animal products, exercise, go outside, put down your phone, talk to people. You don't need to schedule and control these behaviors excessively. You just need to cultivate a mindset that is conducive to internalizing better habits.

There are also philosophical ideas and practices that can help you cultivate happiness and purpose, but even those are easier to digest when you start developing the ability to be aware.

Start with meditation. It will help you think more clearly. It will increase your ability to organize yourself. Do as much of the other things on the list as you can. They will make you feel even better. You will have bad days. You will still get sick. You will still get anxious and angry, but when you keep coming back to meditation, you will be amazed at how quickly you recognize negative emotions and let them go.

Where could you start?

I'll make this a short list because, like I said, the resources are endless and you don't need to read and listen to a thousand different people explain what to do. While it's a pleasure to learn about this practice and the philosophies that surround it, the most important thing is just get started. Practice is the only thing that will actually change your mind. These resources are the ones that spoke to me the most clearly and got right to the point.

Finally, I highly recommend finding a friend to share this practice with. If there isn't already someone in your life that wants to change their mind with you, find a meetup or join a meditation society, preferably IRL. It helps so much to have someone to talk to about consciousness as you learn more about it.