I’m not a meditation teacher. I’m not even a very enthusiastic meditator. I’ve averaged about 20 minutes once a week for the past couple of years, and any serious meditator will tell you that’s not enough to really benefit you.
Except it seems like it is, because I’ve noticed some benefits that I can’t attribute to anything else. I’m sure I’d get far more benefit if I meditated more regularly (I’m experimenting quietly with doing that). But here’s what I’ve gained even from a rather hit-and-miss practice.
Well-known benefits of meditation
Everyone who knows much about meditation knows that it helps to decrease negative thoughts and increase positive ones. It trains you to pay attention. It lowers blood pressure, reduces irregularity in heart rhythms and reverses the symptoms of stress. I knew all that going in.
What I didn’t expect were the benefits I’m about to describe. They come from the very nature of meditation, so even though they’re generally not among meditators’ goals, they come, as it were, with the package.
1. A tolerance for boring stuff
Meditation is, let’s face it, boring. You sit still and think of nothing. How amusing is that?
Which is my point. By practicing meditation, however inconsistently, I’ve developed my ability to endure not being constantly entertained and engaged. I can now do a tedious task at work without feeling so much negativity about it.
That doesn’t sound like much of a benefit, until you reflect that the ability to do boring stuff is a key element of success. Partly, this is because not many people will stick with it, so the people who can have an automatic advantage.
Practice that isn’t very entertaining is the way to become an expert, a success. Meditation helps prepare you for that.
2. The ability to be physically still
Most forms of meditation involve sitting still for a period of time. I haven’t gone longer than half an hour, but even so, sitting completely still for half an hour is something that a lot of people can’t do.
And physical stillness, without nervous fidgeting, conveys to the people around you that you’re calm and in control. Because of my meditation practice, I’m able to project confidence (and focused attention) – and this is another key element of success in life.
3. The ability to sit with emotions and let them be
A couple of years ago, it was my turn to lead my little meditation group, and as it happened, neither of the others turned up. There I was, alone in a large building, sitting. I have some issues around being alone, and so fear turned up to sit with me.
So I sat with fear. If I’d been doing something else, I would probably have distracted myself to cover it over, but I was meditating, so I kept sitting there. Fear came, and I let fear go, and fear came back, and I let fear go, and eventually the timer went off. And nothing terrible had happened to me.
The following weekend, I went to a professional conference – and was the most confident I had ever been, comfortable approaching people I didn’t know and chatting with them easily. Sitting with fear had taught me that I could let fear go, and that had transformed my confidence.
Not being driven by your emotions – including not being driven to distract yourself from feeling them – is going to make you more successful, because you have more control over your responses to situations.
4. The ability to let go of thoughts I don’t need
Most forms of meditation involve letting go of intrusive thoughts and deliberately shifting attention. When you practice that for a while, you build up your mental ability to let a thought go if you don’t happen to need it at the time.
Now, intrusive thoughts come along relatively often. Thoughts that you’re not good enough, the desire to do things that you know would be bad ideas, or just amusing distractions that don’t achieve anything. They come along when you’re trying to complete an important but not necessarily enjoyable task, when you’re trying to get to sleep, and when you’re making decisions.
Practicing meditation helps you let them go gently and return to what you were doing.
5. A wordless sense of self
This benefit, by its nature, is difficult to write about.
I’m a words man. I define myself, often, in terms of things I know, things I can do with my thoughts and my words. One of the things that I’ve struggled with in meditation is the fear that if I let go of words, I might not exist any more.
Well, it turns out I do. There’s something that persists when my mind isn’t talking. Through meditation, I’ve become more aware of that self, and it seems to be a calmer, stronger self than the one that chatters all the time. Because I can act out of that self, I’ve become more authentic in my decisions, my actions and my interactions with people around me.
You don’t have to do high-level meditation to get these benefits. You don’t have to do it for an hour a day for 20 years. (You’ll certainly be a very remarkable person if you do, but you don’t have to.)
That means you can actually start. You can start small. You can start by sitting still for five minutes a day, or 20 minutes once a week, and just gently letting go of whatever your gabbling mind brings up. Letting go, over and over, gently, without self-blame. It may help to have something to focus on – counting 1 to 10 over and over (when you hit 11 you know you’ve lost focus), staring at a spot on the floor, imagining your breath going into and out of your body, whatever works for you.
It’s boring, and all kinds of emotions can come up and rage around, and it doesn’t seem to do anything. But it does.
And as it does its gradual work, you become the kind of person who can succeed in life.