This blog post is all about: what's mindfulness meditation (for real) & why you've been so wrong about it, how it helped (and keeps helping) me (as an engineer & creative knowledge worker), what does it have in common with working out at gym and what benefits comes out of occasional disabling all the thinking.
I've already mentioned that few times on this blog: I'm privileged to meet many software engineers in my job - of different specialities, varying experience levels, ones who work in barely comparable work environments. Some of them have heard of me, read my blog or watched my sessions - these ones frequently come up with some questions to ask: about my work, some ideas I've shared on my blog, etc. Occasionally such a discussion shifts toward different ways of preserving personal balance and/or self-development. That's the moment when I frequently mention "meditation" - astonishing many of my interlocutors:
I1: "Do you really believe in such cheap, spiritual tricks? It appears sort of desperate ..."
I2: "So you look for energy & support in ... religion?" (Buddhism)
I3: "Engineers are rather practical people - meditation doesn't sound ... scientific."
I've recently finished latest book by Yuval Noah Harari - "21 Lessons for the 21st Century" (my review here - recommended!) - its last chapter is on meditation & how it can help modern people in handling everyday challenges in 21st century - it was a great inspiration so I though ... hey, maybe I should share my personal learnings as well: how did I start meditating, what is it all about & how did it help me short- and long-term?
And that's what this blog post is about:
A shortish summary of my (so-far) adventure with mindfulness meditation - that's actually a quite interesting detail: "meditation" is a very common practice (utilised by many groups of people, starting with ancient Stoics, ending with Buddhists & Mindfulness practitioners) - what I describe here covers only a small "slice" I've learned & embraced personally.
I won't be boring you with how it started (via Buddhism ...), who've helped me, how I've struggled in the beginning or even - how does it look in practice. This is far less interesting than the really meaningful WHY - WHY the hell I am doing that?!
But first - let's dispel some myths ...
- Meditation is NOT about (any) religion. Or any belief system / god / spirit / worship / etc.
- Meditation is NOT about "uniting yourself with cosmos" (or any similar kind of bullshit)
- Meditation is NOT about "enlightenment", "finding your inner self" or any other kind of "true Matrix revealing experience"
See - no "mumbo-jumbo", no "kumbaya", no "ohmmmmmm, ohmmmmmm".
Pumping Iron (Mind)
Meditation is ALL about training the mind - nothing more & nothing less.
There's one thing to be clarified before we proceed further though:
brain != mind
The mind is not synonymous with intelligence (information "processing" power, ability to understand or memorise, etc.), but it represents all the cognitive powers of ourselves: ones related to perception, general awareness, assessment judgement, so-called conscious thinking (your inner voice you "hear" in your head).
The most revealing truth about the mind I've learned once I've encountered meditation was:
Mind is exactly like a ... muscle - it has to be trained - regularly exercised, occasionally pushed to the limits, "shocked" - all of that to make it more resilient, stronger, more capable.
Don't you believe me? You think you can fully control your mind with ease? Why won't you try it yourself then. Start with one of these exercises:
- think about ... nothing - literally empty your mind, for at least 5-10 minutes; can you prevent your mind from wandering around? or try focusing solely on 1 particular thing instead, without side-tracking or losing "mental grip"
- next time you experience fiery emotion (e.g. anger, irritation, fear, anxiousness) - try to tame it, silence it down - or even better: calmly break it down to the roots, find its reasons, its background and learn how do you feel about them (sometimes we over-react & emotions erupt in an uncontrollable manner)
- control the bandwidth (filter/un-filter) of the stimuli around you - e.g. start hearing/feeling/experiencing things you ignore on daily basis: background noise, the pressure of materials you sit on, all the actions & reactions of your body ("body scan") - this can be really overwhelming & hard to bear for more than few minutes
- increase the environmental awareness - which is basically about the same as the point above, but in a slightly larger scale: you eliminate yourself as a person & try to perceive ("cognize") all the interactions within your senses' perception area, like they were felt from the 1st person perspective
- visualise - enhance your reality ("controlled daydreaming") by adding an element which is just a creation of your mind - don't overthink it, don't focus on "technical" details, but on "completeness" of a feeling: e.g. warm light isn't just an visual effect, but also affects the temperature, sharpness of visible details, etc.
So, how did it go? Not so easy? Yeah, I thought so.
Our minds are like uncut diamonds - a material with a great potential, but working on it requires discipline, persistence, regularity. Of course one can just "go on with the flow" & count on life experiences to harden & train her/his mind, but ... well, just use the analogy to doing the regular physical workout vs being a coach potato :)
Well trained mind is essential:
- to handle stress & change
- to remain in control, regardless of whatever is happening
- to adapt, regardless of how situation develops
- to read unspoken signals
- to not get fooled by bias & environmental influence
- to handle impulses & instincts and act in 100% aware way
Being an accomplished, highly capable professional (e.g. a software engineer) is not only about technical skills. We are all humans and humans are complex, multi-dimensional creatures - to function optimally they need to achieve some sort of balance state (or in other words: their standards within any of their life's dimensions can't drop below some sort of threshold) - this balance is to some degree universal (however: different factors have different "weights" for different people).
To keep it, one should not neglect any of these areas: professional proficiency, emotional life satisfaction, social interactions, psychical health & well-being, off-work activities aimed to provide recharge ("hobby"), ... and in the end: healthy & stable state of mind.
Meditation is my preferred way to care for that last one.