Meditation is a practice with a slight image problem. It gets nothing but praise from health and psychology literature, and from our most elite performers. But most people see meditation as a bizarre first step towards a life of Volkswagen vans and Birkenstocks. Meditation undeservedly suffers from many negative connotations and labels. It conjures associations with a battery of pseudo-sciences and weird superstitions: hypnotism, tarot cards, and people who make their own soap and feed their dogs a purely organic diet of free range unicorn meat sourced from a land of zero pollution and no conflict where the national anthem is Kumbaya.
Particularly for young adults trying to define themselves in a world that increasingly removes the challenges necessary for growth, meditation seems a step too far into Wimpytown. The guttural response to anything defined in this “hokey” box is to drive fast, eat hamburgers, curse creatively, and find some fireworks to blow up. The vast majority of Americans will hear of meditation’s benefits, nod politely, and carry on, deeply intent to never notice how they breathe. The reality is that meditation is the essential antidote to our unnatural 21st century patterns. We all would benefit greatly from adopting this daily habit.
Our Foreign, Modern World
The human organism is not designed for most of the fast-paced developments of life in post-industrial revolution society. From our unbelievably full calendars, to the tyranny of the clock over our lives, to daily traffic jams, to the ever-growing list of threats the news assures us will kill us next, we are constantly in a state of mental constipation and thought whack-a-mole. It all takes a mental toll. From all this overload, we grow numb to the challenges that really matter.
There is a visible difference in the current generation to the last, and it is most noticeable at school. Freshman and sophomores emerge from their parents’ vehicles without so much as a wave goodbye. They walk across the street, unaware of traffic as they scroll through their phones. Halls are quieter now. There is very low risk of fist fights or pranks, as kids wait for class by finding a seat and becoming lost in the isolation of social media and phone games. Why flirt with a girl in person, when you can control the delivery with a perfect snapchat? When class starts, the itch is felt and many students hardly realize they’re checking their phone every two or three minutes. I could go on, but you get the drift. Many adults aren’t doing any better; they’re just slower to adopt the technology.
Mobile phones are not the only unnatural development of our world; they are just the most obvious. Most people really have no control over their thoughts and actions. They are guided by the whims of advertisements and popular trends. They thoughtlessly satisfy their habitual cravings for sugar, information, and possessions that are supposed to bring fulfillment. They’re in a constant state of superficial desire.
The confluence of ubiquitous media and a life largely free of the challenges of humanity’s past have resulted in unrealistic expectations that create disappointment and a bizarre epidemic of victimhood. Anxiety and depression grow at epidemic rates. Our reaction, as with everything, is that we must need something—a pill, a new car, or a cupcake. We don’t deal with the causes; we simply seek a mask for the symptoms, and make ourselves oblivious whatever side effects come with it.
The Universal Utility of Meditation
We cannot persist with the notion that we don’t need any guidance on how to navigate or properly insulate ourselves against the massive issues presented by the drastic changes of the last century. We all struggle at some level with at least some of these challenges.
Many will say, “I’m not anxious or depressed. I don’t need meditation.” But like exercise, meditation is not a punishment. It’s a training process that provides an essential antidote for the unnatural patterns of our day, while giving a structured approach to improve any undesirable behavior. Are you angry, depressed, overwhelmed, and at the whim of every craving? Meditation trains you to dispassionately observe thoughts and let them pass. It trains emotional control, discipline, and focus. Similar to stoicism, it orients the mind for clarity and practicality of actions. You learn to focus on what you can control, and not be swept away by every fear and impulse.
For the chronically anxious, it’s a practice in feeling anxiety without feeding it. It’s a discovery that strong emotion requires a lot of thought fuel, and that these patterns can be stopped at any moment. So whether you are a parent who can’t stop worrying about their kids, or a student who is always anxious about social perception, meditation offers great utility. The parent can begin to allow their kids to live and make some mistakes that will help them grow. The student can begin that glorious process towards truly not caring what everyone thinks.
For the chronically unhealthy, meditation is a practice in discipline and noticing impulses. The first step to stopping mindless overeating is mindfulness. When we notice our cravings and identify them for what they are, they become far less powerful. Meditation also offers the perspective of a process-oriented approach. We can drop the worries of having to give up all these future sweets, and instead enjoy the process of trying something new here and there. For the physically wimpy, meditation allows one to stop sensationalizing future workout pains, and instead apply an appropriate attention to each moment of the training. It offers discipline not to let emotions talk us out of the actions that will bring real fulfillment and self-worth.
For the chronically impatient or angry, meditation offers a strategy to lower our stress level and reframe each situation in a neutral or even positive light. It allows us to get some distance from what’s upsetting us, and realize that the patience was within us all along. Andy Puddicombe, creator of Headspace, explains that meditation allows us to step back and see moments of stress, anxiety, and anger as if they are a storm we are watching from inside. It’s far less intense from the safety of your own home. The result of this mental training is that we drop labels like “I’m an impatient person,” and learn that these are simply feelings.
For the chronically negative or the persistent victim, meditation allows one to notice the negative pattern as soon as it starts. In his book, Hard Optimism, Price Pritchett explains that training a more optimistic mind is far less about forcing a phony positivity, than it is about noticing negative thought patterns and stopping them.
The Catalyst of Success
Becoming aware of the thoughts that drive our perceptions is very powerful. Almost all the labels and feelings we attach to things in our lives are just different interpretations and manifestations of the same challenges. It is from this awareness that change is possible. Often, what needs to change is our expectation of the world and where we choose to focus.
Meditation is a practice in mastery of the paradox. I accept myself as I am, and then I am able to change. I live more fully in this moment, and am more productive than ever, creating a better future. By trying to do less, I’m able to be far more productive in those pursuits that matter. Society has forgotten that inspiration rarely strikes without action. We all need the right actions; first a physical practice, and second a mental training practice: meditation.
Perhaps you’re blessed with abundant happiness and drive, balanced with high emotional intelligence. People need meditation to varying degrees. It certainly isn’t the only way to train the mind, and it isn’t a magical quick fix. There are tons of happy, successful people who’ve never meditated, and daily meditation does not preclude you from being a jerk. However, it is an extremely effective method that, over time, can become a catalyst for positive life changes and success.
If we can help erase the negative connotations of meditation, more people might be motivated to experiment with this mental training. Let’s redefine commitment to meditation as a marker of tenacity and strength, rather than hokey and soft. This pursuit is tough, and requires SEAL-like discipline.
There are mental training approaches out there that make foundational change possible. A new respect for meditation might open you up to more reflection and less distraction. It might help you see that there is no reason to empower any one thought, and that often the solution lies in returning your focus to the moment and what you can control.