In this series of posts, I’m dispelling a couple of myths about what meditation is, and explaining how it strengthens your mind. I show why there are psychological and physical benefits to meditation, how those benefits change over time, and how you can learn to incorporate beneficial meditation into your life, even if you don’t have time to sit down and meditate at all.
Everything I talk about in these blogs comes from my own experience learning mindfulness, as well as research findings from the scientific literature and my time as Chief Medical Officer of the mindfulness app Headspace. I’m not religious, or a trained mindfulness trainer – I’m just fascinated by how this age-old tool works, and how much potential it has to help us.
You can find the first post in the series here
So you’ve been meditating for 10-20 minutes a few times a week, for a few weeks. You’re stunned at how much clarity you feel after you meditate, and how much calmer you feel in general. People are even commenting on how you seem to be a bit more chilled in the office. But, secretly, you realise it doesn’t feel like it’s working as well any more. The difference before and after a meditation isn’t as distinct as it was. And you feel like worries that used to plague you, but vapourised when you meditated, have started creeping back in, and you can’t seem to budge them. What’s happening?
Well, you’re acclimatising to the new feeling. It isn’t as novel anymore, and so it doesn’t register so strongly. Just the same way as half the way through the bag of crisps you don’t get the same flavour explosion as you did with the first crisp.
It’s easy to give up on meditation at this stage. Not as an active choice, but simply because life gets in the way. And without a really big palpable benefit from the exercise, other things compete for your precious time.
But it’s important to keep going. Not just because if you give up things will revert to how they were before, but because there’s another level of benefits! I call these Level 2 benefits, and I think they’re much more fundamental and important than the Level 1 benefits. It’s just that they don’t get talked about as much because far fewer people experience them. They take a lot more meditation practice to achieve, and they’re more subtle. But they really can transform your life and help you to be the best person you can be.
I’m talking about what psychologists call ‘metacognition’. Simply put, this means conscious awareness of your own thoughts. At first this might seem a little odd. How can you be having thoughts and not be aware that you’re having thoughts?? Well, it’s not that we’re unconscious, but rather that we’re so caught up in the content of the thoughts themselves that we don’t appreciate that they are just … thoughts.
One analogy for this that I talk about is watching a horror movie at home. Imagine you’re alone at home, watching a horror movie on the TV, with all the lights off. You’re totally into the movie, and it has you gripped. Nothing else exists for you except the movie, and as a result, your emotions are putty in the director’s hands.
Contrast this with watching the same movie, at home, alone, but with the living room lights on. It’s still the same movie. You’re still paying attention to it. But now you also have a continual awareness of the context in which the movie is occuring: the safety and comfortable surroundings of your living room. As a result, you’re a little less emotionally ruled by the movie. When a particularly scary scene happens, you can say to yourself “it’s ok, it’s just a movie. I’m safe at home in my living room.”
Well, the movie is like your train of thoughts. When you’re not aware of them as being thoughts, they own you, and your emotional reactions are correspondingly strong. But when you can see them for what they are – thoughts, passing through your head at this moment, with a beginning, a middle and an end – you maintain a bit more emotional balance. People sometimes call this being ‘centred’. It’s the opposite of cognitive fusion, and it’s therefore a much more psychologically healthy way to live your life. It also means you’re less likely to react emotionally to whatever is going on, and rather respond in a considered way that is more likely to achieve the outcome you want.
So how do we get to this wonderful state? Actually, it’s simply by clocking up the meditation minutes. Or, more specifically the reps round the meditation cycle. Remember that the cycle involves focusing on something. Then at some point you’ll get distracted and caught up in a train of thought. But then you notice that you’ve gotten distracted, and you return your attention to the original object of focus. Well, in order to notice that you’re distracted, you have to notice that you’re thinking about something other than the object of focus. And you can’t do that without noticing whatever it is that you’re actually thinking about. The more you do this, the more get to see where your thoughts keep going. You start to see patterns. When I’m in this mood, I tend to think about that. When this is going on in my life, my thoughts tend to be dominated by that. And by seeing that patterns in you thoughts, and what influences them, you also start to appreciate that they are simply thoughts. Right now you have this one, but in the same situation on a different day, perhaps when you’ve had a better night’s sleep, you might have a different thought.
And slowly but steadily, you start to get a sense of what it’s like to see your thoughts as thoughts, even while you’re having them. That’s metacognition. It’s the light in the living room slowly coming on while you’re watching the movie.
At first, the light’s only on for a short time, before you’re caught up in the day-to-day and swept away until a later time when you spontaneously notice that it had been off (and in that moment it turns on again.) Over time, these moments when you notice your thoughts happen more frequently, and your awareness of your thoughts on each occasion lasts a little longer before you’re swept away again.
But you realise you’re on to something new. And then you start paying attention to how much you’re maintaining awareness of your thoughts, and you start to try and hold on to those periods of awareness for as long as possible.
The ideal would be to have total control over you awareness – to be able to maintain it for as long as you want to whenever you want to. (There are times when you might not want to be aware of your thoughts, such as when you’re in the cinema and you actually want to allow yourself to be swept away by the movie!) But the reality is that this takes a huge amount of practice. I’m nowhere near there yet, and I find my ability to maintain awareness changes from day to day. For instance the more tired I am, the harder it is to maintain awareness, and the more likely I am to be swept away by my thoughts and emotions.
But I can see why it’s a desirable place to reach. When you’re effortlessly and constantly aware, you can nip rumination in the bud, every time. You can see when your amygdala is being triggered, and defuse it before you descend into an emotionally-led state where you react automatically, rather than resonding in a considered manner.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve let my emotions get the better of me, and said or done something that immediately after I felt ashamed and foolish about having done. Wouldn’t it be nice for that to be a very rare exception? To be confident that, no matter what’s going on, you’re likely to always respond in the most helpful, constructive manner?
Awareness of our thoughts is a subtle, slow-to-develop, but incredibly powerful skill that can bring so much benefit to us as individuals, and to society as a whole. And the great thing is that it’s an inevitable by-product of doing reps round the meditation cycle.
In the next post, I’ll talk about some simple ways to build meditation into your life, without always having to take time out and sit down with your eyes closed, so that it’s easier to stay on the path to attaining the Level 2 benefits.