This article is from NF Team Member Taylor
There you are, settled into your life, somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the deserts of Tatooine.
You’ve gone about your life just like everyone else – school, a job, and the regular habits that come along with it. But what you don’t know is that there’s something missing in life, that’s actually inside of you – something waiting to be awakened.
And then one day everything changes – you purchase a few droids with a secret message, the Empire destroys your home, and before you know it, you accept your destiny and begin to train. Your powers develop, and soon you become a freakin Jedi.
This was Luke Skywalker – just a regular
joe Luke, with something powerful inside him waiting to be discovered and cultivated.
Now, what if I told you that in a very real way, we’re all like Luke – we all have something inside us that goes unnoticed and thus uncultivated – day after day.
I’m not talking about Superman strength or Spiderman genetics (though that would be awesome). Like the superpowers in Chronicle, this ability starts off almost nonexistent, and can be grown like a leveling up a video game character.
“This is my theory though, is that it’s like a muscle. That’s why I think we’re getting stronger, you know? Cause we’re working ‘it’ out.”
It doesn’t take a disaster to strike for you to be set on your path. Yet, so few people cultivate it, let alone masters it. How do we build this superpower?
Think of this superpower like the power of X-men’s Mystique, but for your mind. Instead of the ability to alter your appearance to meet the challenges of any given situation, meditation allows you to alter your mind to conquer the day.
When we are on our commute and someone is a jerk, we get angry. We don’t seem to have a choice in the matter – we just GET ANGRY. When a friend says something stupid, or something wonderfully intelligent, we react. There is no deliberation, no Council of Elrond to decide how you should feel and respond.
That’s just how our brains work. Daniel Kahneman, in the famed Thinking Fast and Slow, proposed we think about thinking in two ways.
- System 1: Fast Thinking – automatic, frequent, emotional, subconscious.
- System 2: Slow thinking – deliberative, effortful, infrequent, logical, conscious.
System 1 is responsible for most of what you do every day. This fast thinking does so much on your behalf, that you may not even realize it. In fact, system 2 doesn’t kick in until you are tasked with something like solving a riddle, filling out a tax form, or walking at a pace that is unnaturally fast.
Another social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, describes these systems with a different metaphor: a rider on an elephant, in The Happiness Hypothesis. As he explains, he selected this metaphor to demonstrate the power of the elephant (fast thinking), and the powerlessness of the rider (slow thinking). While the rider might feel in control, at the top of the elephant with reigns in hand, it is truly the elephant that is running things:
The rider’s inability to control the elephant by force explains many puzzles about our mental life, particularly why we have such trouble with weakness of will.
Meditation: The Science
Meditation is simply the practice of learning how to pay attention. It’s not something magic. It’s not a cult or a religion. Meditation is just a mental exercise to strengthen your mind. Learn from Ron Swanson – meditation can and should be done by everyone. What do CEOs, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Gates, Oprah, and even Wolverine himself all have in common? They meditate!
Meditation is supported by a huge body of scientific research, and has been shown to help manage symptoms and reduce risks for almost every bad thing out there, including:
- Anxiety disorders,
- Blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Sleep issues
- Weight loss, and more.
It’s not a panacea, but hits the bad stuff pretty darn far and wide. Dan Harris summarizes just some of these benefits.
At the end of the day, our goal here is to give you the tools to live healthy and happy life. And it turns out, at any given time almost half of us are lost in thought unrelated to what’s in front of us. And when we are mentally wandering, we are significantly less happy.
As Matthieu Ricard explains in his TED Talk – when neuroscientists looked at his brain while meditating, he scored “off the scale” in activity in the brain related to happiness, compassion, and altruism. And isn’t happiness what we’re all chasing?
How to Meditate
Ready to give this a go? Okay great! Head on down to your nearest Monks-are-us, grab a few robes, and then head over to the barbershop for a quick head shaving. Kidding! There’s not a single thing you need to have to start other than your brain. If you’re reading this right now, chances are good you still have it.
To start, pick a time in your day you can regularly designate as time to meditate. It should be a time you can find a quiet place, without distraction or interruption.
As a beginner, you don’t need to meditate for long. Just five minutes a day is a great place to start. Too much? Try TWO minutes. The important part is the building of the daily habit. Before we begin, I wanted to give a shoutout to both Calm.com and Headspace. These websites and their apps can help guide you through meditation as a beginner, and come recommended from some Nerd Fitness Team Members.
The meditation practice I’m going to describe for you below is a basic mindfulness practice. There are many different styles of meditation, but every style of meditation is about cultivating attention and awareness, or learning to be in the present moment without grasping. Be sure to set a timer before you begin.
- Find a place to sit that allows your back to be in an upright position. You don’t need to sit cross legged, but you can if you wish. A chair or sitting against a wall also works well. Feel free to use a cushion under your bottom to help your posture and make yourself more comfortable. The goal is a posture that helps you stay alert, but is still comfortable. You can meditate with your eyes open or closed.
- As you begin, take several deep, slow breaths to gather concentration. Inhale deeply, filling your lungs to the brim. Then slowly exhale. Follow your breath carefully with your attention through this process.
- After a few breaths, or when you feel your concentration has settled, begin to breathe naturally. Notice the breath at a specific point, most commonly with the rising and falling of the chest, at your nostrils, or at your abdomen. Don’t force it. Don’t glue your attention there. Simply allow your breath to come and go naturally, following it as it naturally unfolds.
- When you get lost in thought, simply return your attention back to the breath. Bringing your attention back to the breath is a central part of the process – think about it like performing a repetition. Each time you do this you are rewiring your brain – no different from doing a repetition in strength training. So, don’t feel guilty or beat yourself up. You can’t control when you get distracted. But then magically, each time you realize you are distracted and you “wake up” – at this point, just return to the breath!
This is where we recommend most beginners start – a broad and basic breath concentration practice. Think about this no differently than starting with just the bar before adding weight, when learning to squat.
Beginners often find it difficult to stay aware when thoughts arise, and find themselves noticing they have been thinking only after being lost in thoughts for several minutes. This is normal! However, some people will have such a busy, restless mind that action outside of meditation is first necessary: a focus on lifestyle changes, ethical action, relationships, therapy, medication, etc.
If you are interested in meditation I would encourage you to think about what you want out of it, and THE find a complete teaching. Teachers in person are preferred, but there are many great books out there to help you get started.
And if the above sounds intimidating, start with a guided meditation. Guided meditation are great to incorporate into anyone’s meditation practice, and certainly when the mind is especially restless.
- UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center – Simple and effective mindfulness guided practice.
- Ohio University guided meditations – a variety of styles to try.
- UC San Diego’s Center for Mindfulness – a list of long and short guided meditations.
- A compilation mostly mindfulness audio and guided meditations.
- Doctor Who fans might enjoy Dalek’s Relaxation for Humans, although I cant comment on its effectiveness.
The Superpower of Control
The superpower meditation builds is the ability to be at the character selection screen, for any given situation, at any given time.
You see, because of how our brains work, it can be hard to exert a level of control in our lives – from our response to a social interaction, to changing fundamental aspects of our life.
When something happens, we just react. That’s system 1. There’s no conscious deliberative process when a cute girl/guy walks up to you, or some car cuts you off in traffic. It’s no surprise that we often feel frustrated with our reactions after-the-fact.
Imagine the ability to replay the events, and always act with a calm and collected demeanor, delivering the best response you have to offer. That’s what meditation can help do for you.
I’m not talking managing an emotion, or suppressing a thought. This is not “serenity now, insanity later.” This isn’t about dealing with things AFTER you get angry or sad, but the power to actually change both how you feel and how you respond.
That is true power.
Neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor uses anger as an example: physiological response from anger can only last 90 seconds. Yet, as humans, we can stay angry seemingly FOREVER. Why? We are doing it to ourselves, by rethinking the thought and redoing the physiological response over and over. If you’ve ever gotten angry and let it fester, feeling more and more angry after, you know what she’s talking about. As she explains, we all have a superpower within us, but most of us surrender it.
Or as she puts us, we surrender our neurocircuitry:
“We are neurocircuitry. Your neurocircuitry is YOUR neurocircuitry, and you do not have the ability to stimulate and trigger my neurocircuitry without my permission. You cannot make me angry, unless I stick my trigger out there for you to pounce on and stimulate my neurocircuitry. If I give you the power to stimulate my neurocircuitry, then I have given you my power. And I give you my power, then I become vulnerable to you…”
This isn’t just helpful for our daily interactions, but for big life changes too – like cleaning up your diet or finally building that habit of exercise.
Through meditation, you can learn to focus your attention where you choose. As you begin the practice, you will start to notice your thoughts and feelings more consciously, and let go of the ones that aren’t useful to you. You will start to reforge the character of your choosing.
Meditation as a Practice
Now that you know how to meditate, you need to understand one final thing.
The kids in Chronicle had it right: you have to train this power like a muscle. Even if you have a good day or a good week in the gym, you need to be at it for months and months, and then STAY at it, to live with the benefits for a lifetime.
You are training your body to change. No different from squatting incrementally more weight, you are training your brain to get stronger. Just like squatting, you won’t see profound benefits after a single session. Instead, you will level up after weeks and months of consistency.
Just like squatting regularly builds muscle, meditation literally builds gray matter in your brain. Soon enough, that “automatic mode” or elephant we talked about enough will begin to change too (literally rewiring your brain). Just like groceries will slowly begin to feel lighter, so to will you gradually notice the benefits of meditation.
So before you dive in, you need to be in for the long haul. Just like rule 2.
It might feel intimidating now to think about, but just like with diet and exercise, once the habit is established, you won’t even notice. Once you become someone who goes to the gym regularly, that’s just who you are now. Once you become someone who meditates for five minutes a day, that’s just what you do.
Be happy, be mindful
We all know the story of Luke Skywalker, not because he had this power within him and chose to walk away from it, but because he seized the opportunity to understand the Force. Don’t be the Jedi who is walking away from your potential.
As a kid, I always thought that comic books had it backwards – the superpower found the superhero (I’m looking at you Spiderman), rather than the other way around. What if we all had the potential to develop our power, and only the true superheroes do? Now that would be awesome.
That’s what meditation allows us to do.
Today we’re issuing a meditation challenge: Commit to meditating every day, for two weeks straight (using an app, website, or guided meditation if you wish). It can just be for five minutes. Or two minutes. The important part is establishing the new habit.
What questions do you have about meditation? What are your experiences? Struggles? Victory?
photo source: Stew Dean: Armillery Sphere