It’s taken me until now to write this article for a few reasons. First off, I felt that there were other more important things to write about. Secondly, I want to publish material which people find useful rather than just accounts of personal experience which don’t necessarily draw any conclusions.
I’m not all that fond of blogs or LiveJournal, whose contributors are focused exclusively on detailing their own experiences and impressions. I believe that personal experience is only useful or interesting if it serves as an illustration or evidence of ideas that help people move in the direction of self-development and getting rid of their personal problems.
I don’t see the sense in talking about myself, my own experience, outwith to context of practical recommendations about self-development, so this is exactly why I didn’t write this particular article sooner – I didn’t think the information would be of interest to anyone since it’s purely my personal history.
But one of the readers of my Russian blog wrote that he would like to see such an article. I was trying to think of a subject I could write on the theme, and I realised that this actually could be useful. My aim in this article is to highlight all the things I’ve learned from meditation, so I’m going to talk about what you can expect from the practice, how to carry it out correctly in order to obtain the maximum amount of ‘bonuses’ and the dangers you should watch out for.
I believe that this story could be of practical use to at least some of you. If you’ve been practising meditation for a while but haven’t seen any positive changes, then maybe this article will help to change that. If you haven’t tried it yet, you’ll find loads of reasons here to take it up. I hope that my personal example will give some of you the motivation you’re seeking.
An article like this is also an excellent way to get across many of the important ideas I haven’t managed to include in other writings on meditation. But there’s one thing I want you to keep in mind when you’re reading it: although all the personal changes I’ve written about below were made possible by meditation, it doesn’t mean to say that meditation is the only source of these changes.
It wasn’t meditation alone, but the metamorphoses I underwent which were at the root of my work on myself. I’m not going to go into detail about this just now but I’ll come back to it later in the article more than once.
How it all started
As I’ve written somewhere before, when I started meditating I hadn’t yet begun to think about self-development at all. I hadn’t even considered the fact that if I had shortcomings, I might be able to find a way to get rid of them. These ideas simply hadn’t occurred to me, just as they haven’t yet occurred to plenty of others.
My personality seemed to me to be something complete, a given, a constant. I didn’t even see many of my weaknesses as weaknesses. Nowadays I’m often surprised by the fact that so many people have never thought about how to develop themselves. When I think about it I can start to feel slightly indignant and in order to stem this, I remind myself of how I was a few years ago, of how I had no wish to think about personal growth.
This immediately helps me to understand these people. The fact is they’re just not thinking about it: the issue of personal development simply doesn’t exist to them.
Like many others, I believed that people were bubbling cauldrons of passions, desires and other innate qualities which controlled them, leaving them with no free will. It even seemed to me that deliberate change of one’s personality would constitute a violation of its sacred, eternally determined, natural state.
Therefore I wouldn’t say that for me this idea contained any kind of manifesto. As mentioned, I didn’t especially ponder personality development – the issue wasn’t within my sphere of interest, so ideas hadn’t even formed into anything cohesive in my consciousness. The assumption of the unalterability of personality was deeply ingrained, far from the surface. But still, it conditioned my thinking and determined its boundaries. I believed in it unconsciously and never even mused upon it.
I took up meditation not for my own development, but in order to get rid of my depression, panic attacks and constant mood swings. I can’t say that I unequivocally believed in its effectiveness, but I realised that I didn’t have a choice. I was tired of my turmoil, I didn’t want to suffer my whole life and I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t think of any other way to get over it.
I saw medication as an absolute last resort even then; but meditation offered a glimmer of hope that I might be able to get past all of these troubles. A desire to master the practice arose because I believed that meditation might imbue me with exceptional abilities. I don’t mean anything psychic; I just thought that someone who meditated may have more capabilities than other people. (After all, there must be good reason that so many people do it.)
So the idea didn’t take shape as a clear ambition towards development; I was more looking into the idea of getting rid of my emotional blues. But nor can I deny for certain that latent, barely acknowledged motives to become something better (exactly what, I didn’t know) were guiding me even then.
I actually didn’t have any desire to spend my spare time on meditation. I preferred to devote it to other things, namely any rubbish I could think of. So I started to meditate on the train to and from work – after all, I wasn’t doing anything else as I sat there.
What started to happen after
The first changes started a couple of months or so later, but I didn’t notice. The first palpable effect manifested itself after about six months.
My account below won’t be chronological in terms of the changes that came about through meditation. It would be difficult to keep them in order firstly because the metamorphoses occurred smoothly and gradually. They weren’t preceded by any sudden insight and I can’t actually remember the very moment I realised that I could choose not to be led by my emotions, or when I understood what it was I wanted from life.
The ideas didn’t come immediately; it’s as if they were building up and being guided by my new life experience. The experience preceded the idea. At first I was acting unconsciously, intuitively, but the understanding started to come to me that I was doing everything right. Only then, after some time and bit by bit, did I deduce from these actions, and the results of these actions, the ideas which laid the foundations for this site.
These ideas, therefore, have flesh and blood; they’re not simply in floating about – they’re based on experience, my own experience.
This is one of the reasons it’s hard for me to keep the changes in sequence. It was more of an ongoing process than a distinct act, fixed in time. In addition, they happened in parallel with each other.
Secondly, this isn’t just a biography of the past few years of my life. It’s a structured article which talks about the transformations people undergo when they take up meditation. Thus I’m placing emphasis on the changes themselves and laying them at the heart of the composition of this post. The next part of narrative will therefore be set out as points, each of which relates to a specific personal metamorphosis not necessarily associated with an explicit time.
So, let’s begin.
Change #1 – I realised that I could change myself
Unlike the other changes, I can trace the semblance of a starting point here. It happened around two months after I took up meditation. I believe it will be of interest to people who are suffering from panic attacks.
One night, I was trying to get to sleep when I felt the sensation of rising anxiety – I was having a panic attack.
When I realised it was coming, I all at once became interested in what would happen if I tried to focus my attention on it, to kind of submerge myself in it – to go deeper, even try to bring it on more severely. I’d never thought of doing this before, either simply trying to suppress the episodes with pills or alcohol, or sinking right into the panic and associated depression.
This time I tried to exhibit some will and concentration. I didn’t have a prepared idea in my head which was directing me in how to act. I just became interested. Would I have any strange feelings? What would happen? Would it help?
It was as if I wanted to seize awareness of this episode, to get inside it and understand it as I’d never felt the strength to do before. At first it was horrible – the panic got more and more intense; I continued to observe it, though, and gradually it started to diminish. My anxiety was transformed into joy at the fact that I’d controlled the situation, or accepted it rather than resisting. I could do it! If I had another episode I’d know how to deal with it!
I was delighted that I’d managed to cope with a panic attack on my own.
Only then, and despite my previous opinions, did I start to realise that a person could find within themselves the strength to defy their emotions or calmly accept them. And this realisation came about through my specific life situations. If before I’d always done what my emotions told me, now I found I was sometimes able to act in spite of my feelings and moods.
I started to understand that spite and irritation didn’t yield anything and just wasted my energy. Envy and conceit led to suffering. I realised that I absolutely didn’t have to be malicious, nervous, jealous or cowardly simply because I had become so during the course of life – I could decide myself how I wanted to be, because ‘I’ am not my emotions, fears or moods.
These are just ripples on the water while the real Me lies deeper, is something more constant and autonomous. Finding this real ‘Me’ is at the heart of spiritual development.
Previously, slogans such as ‘find the real you’ or ‘stop identifying yourself with your emotions’ had seemed like esoteric clichés to me, catchphrases which sounded nice but were empty of meaning. How was I supposed to stop identifying with my emotions? I was my emotions. ‘Me’ was something whole and indivisible. All my passions and flaws were just as much parts of my personality as love and intellect, and these passions controlled me. So I used to think.
But in some roundabout way, and without reading any spiritual books, I came to realise truths, as ancient as the world, about the nature of my ‘Me’: that it was not my emotions, and that it could be changed by my will and was not at the blind mercy of instincts and passions. I imbibed these truths through life itself with my own experience of changing; I didn’t just take them on trust because I liked how they sounded.
Meditation taught me how to observe what was going on inside and led me to develop my awareness.
Change #2 – I reassessed my values
Another important effect I noticed was that little by little the need to be running around all the time, to be doing something active during my free time, started to die off. Before I started meditating, I was very anxious, as well as active in a negative sense. During the week I regularly stayed late at work. On my days off I was unable to stay in one place: I met up with people, played on my computer and drank.
If I unexpectedly found myself stuck at home on a day off, it made me really uncomfortable. Up until then I’d never seen a problem with this; I thought I was just active and energetic. But in actual fact, it was anxiety which didn’t allow me to relax. I was almost constantly on the go: weekdays saw me immersed in work while at weekends I was busy socialising and doing things.
I rarely spent time alone with my thoughts as I was always occupied with one thing or another. I had no time to examine my life. I was just mechanically going with the flow of fate and living without thinking about it.
After taking up meditation I noticed that I was spending more time alone with my pursuits. I started to get pleasure from reading, watching classic films, walks, my bike, the arts. I began to feel that I was living not just during the times when I was actively doing something, but also at other times when I was simply enjoying some quiet relaxation or new interests. In short, meditation broadened the range of activities I found satisfying and beneficial. I didn’t have to be rushing off somewhere, getting drunk or frenziedly engaged in diversions. I could stay at home or go and buy a book or go for a walk or just do nothing and let my mind unwind.It was up to me to choose.
I started to relax more often and in better ways. I felt that I was becoming more self-sufficient: I no longer needed to be entertained, to spend money, to party, to drink, to receive such strong impressions in order to get pleasure from life. Before this it had seemed that life itself was contained only in these things, and the space between frantic activity and pleasure was filled with a depressing void.
I started to find pleasure in quiet walks, I enjoyed the weather, the smells and sounds of nature surrounding me and my thoughts. I became interested in hobbies I wanted to do at home. My anxiety and restlessness disappeared and the flow of my life started to take on a calmer and more measured character. I stopped feeling bored and started to see joy in each moment of my life.
This couldn’t help but affect my values: they underwent a fundamental change. Although in fact, it’s not quite correct to talk about a change here. Rather, my values and aims started to take shape. I hadn’t had clear aims before and I didn’t really know what I wanted from life. The only way which was clear to me was that you went to work, had fun on your days off, spent money and went back to work. There was no other meaning of life as far as I could see, not because I wanted those things but because I just wasn’t aware of any alternative.
Without constant work I’d get bored. I needed to be engaged in some way which would absorb all my energy, even if that meant doing silly or uninteresting things. In my view, this is they way most people are living at the moment. This doesn’t mean that they’re satisfied with it; they just can’t guess at how different their lives could be.
Something in this reminds me of the film The Matrix, which you could say is a harsh metaphor for modern life. People live in an illusory world of bustle, work, never-ending tasks, shopping, instant gratification, ambition, passions, satisfying others’ wishes and never guessing that there exists another, far more real world…
For me, meditation was Morpheus’s red pill: it helped me see my true wishes and aims, to look past the boundaries of the illusion. I realised that I wanted simply to live and enjoy it, and that I already had all I needed to do this!
I didn’t have to work until night time or rush around on my days off, making sure I was always doing something. I started to feel much better; I learned to enjoy the quiet and my own thoughts. Before, work had taken up all my attention because, like a lightning rod, it pulled in all of my excess energy. And I hadn’t found another use for this energy.
Work had given my life meaning and direction. I lost myself there, which was just what I needed because I found simply being alone with myself so excruciating.
But when I found meaning outside of work, when I learned to appreciate solitude, constant busyness started to feel like a nuisance, something unnecessary. I wanted to spend my spare time doing things by myself, to devote the hours to my hobbies and thoughts. At work, I had to do what others told me. It took up a lot of time, time which I could be putting to far better use: I could be spending it on my development, with my wife, doing my hobbies, reading, walking and travelling.
After I learnt how to enjoy my spare time, I found I didn’t have enough of it. Previously I had found relaxing for a week or two at a time nigh on impossible – I got bored. But now this seemed hardly any time to enjoy resting and making the most of my new-found happiness!
As a result, I stopped staying so late at work and after a while I got a different job. At the new place I was rigid with the issue of never doing overtime.
Before, life had seemed to me to be a period of time you had to burn away with work and play so it passed as quickly as possible! Now life feels like a gift too valuable to so aimlessly waste.
Why I believed in meditation
It could be that meditation helped me so much precisely because of my scepticism. I was always far removed from mysticism and parascience, therefore from the very beginning I didn’t perceive meditation as a definitive boon or panacea for all my problems. This meant I didn’t do it unthinkingly, as if I was just swallowing pills which would sooner or later start to have an effect.
I tried to find a meaning for meditation. Some obvious, worldly meaning, not something ultramundane or esoteric. Given the fact that I always doubted everything, I couldn’t have taken up meditation if I hadn’t been able to find a simple and logical interpretation for it.
And I started to seek this interpretation in my own experience. I started to notice that meditation gives us the possibility of looking inside ourselves as if from the side. The practice requires the practiser to concentrate on something (their breathing or mantra) and not get caught up in their experiences, emotions or thoughts.
With time, I realised that it isn’t just some mystical tradition but actually a pretty effective exercise. In order to develop strength in your shoulders and back you have to exercise them on a continuous basis, for example by doing chin-ups. And in order to learn how to keep track of your emotions and not surrender to them, to direct your attention, to calm your mind, it’s also essential to practise these skills, for example by meditating.
I found that it got easier to disengage from my emotions in real life because I was practising it twice a day! I also noticed that after a meditation session it was easier to make decisions and to solve problems which before had seemed impossible.
This was because during practice, I was saying to my emotions ‘not now; later, after I’m finished’. Over a 20-minute period I tried not to get involved in my experiences and fix my attention on one point. This developed a certain skill, a habit of awareness, which was transferred across to my real, everyday life – I became better at ignoring intrusive thoughts and calmly releasing negative emotions. This freed my mind from emotions, clarified my thoughts and also deeply relaxed me.
After meditation I felt calm and pacified. If I’d been edgy, angry about something or down in the dumps, it all felt easier. (Not that feelings of appeasement and calmness are the only aim of meditation! If you don’t always manage to relax during practice, don’t worry – this is normal.)
This is the real, practical, worldly meaning of meditation which I found for myself. It’s an exercise in increasing awareness. It’s the extension of ‘Me’ beyond the boundaries of the world of uncontrolled emotions. It’s liberation from prejudices and illusions. It’s getting rid of stress. And it works on the principal of normal training through repetition, in the same way you work on your muscles or mental arithmetic skills. But it’s an exercise which is rendered less effective if you don’t understand how it helps in real life.
Remember: meditation isn’t a panacea but is an effective tool!
This statement can be clarified by comparing meditation to stretching your muscles in preparation for exercise such as gymnastics. We all know that you shouldn’t even entertain the idea of doing gymnastics without stretching first – you simply can’t do it. But at the same time, stretching doesn’t teach you how to do gymnastics; it just prepares you for it.
It’s the same with meditation: it’s undoubtedly of some benefit in and of itself, but it’s important to understand that meditation only prepares your mind for working on yourself by developing the skills required for this work. If you meditate without thought, impatiently waiting for it to lift you out of your depression or bestow you with superpowers, but don’t start working on yourself in everyday life when you’re not meditating, you won’t achieve the most amazing results.
Think about the meaning of meditation. Why does it work? How does it help you in your life? How do you feel after a session? What changes are happening to you? And don’t forget: approach meditation consciously!
Work on yourself. Meditation develops the skill of awareness, so try to apply this to life. Observe your emotions. Learn not to identify yourself with or always be led by them! Become more introspective and try to recognise your weaknesses. Which areas do you still need to work on?
To be continued
Thank you for your attention!