Meditation: Your antidote to suffering

Philosophers and religions have warned against the peril of being a slave to your thoughts

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”- Blaise Pascal

Humor me with a thought experiment.

Imagine that you have a roommate that is constantly in your ear, talking non-stop, from the time that you rise from sleep and, in every waking moment, thereafter as you go about your day.

Imagine that your roommate assaults you with incessant monologues on how your day is going to be horrible, how you will likely not receive the little break you desperately need at work, and that your nagging headache is actually a brain tumor. You may exhibit some productivity during some parts of the day, but the roommate is always there; in your car, at work and home, with you in the shower and in the shadows, resuming their soliloquy on pessimism, till you drift off to sleep, only for it to begin again the next day.

Now substitute this odious roommate for something far more realistic; your inner monologue.

Without realising it, we spend each day lost in a fog of infinite thoughts. We have almost no control when these thoughts arise and when they lead us down some infinite rabbit-hole of the mind. This leads to us forgetting chunks of our day; the tasks that we completed, the things that we saw and the conversations that we had.

We routinely exclaim with astonishment that a year passed by so quickly (perhaps not 2020, but the point remains!), simply because we have been distracted and captured by our own minds.

Philosophers and religions have warned against the peril of being a slave to your thoughts. The first noble truth of Buddhism is that life is suffering, manifested mainly by our minds.

Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, the most notable practitioners of the Philosophy of Stoicism, stressed that our souls take on the colour of our thoughts, and that no external event is ever good or bad; it is only our perception of it that makes it so. For a lot of us, this is self-evident. We catastrophise bad events and underplay the good things that happen to us. We are wedged in anxiety and worry loops, as a result of the ceaseless, relentless chatter that overthinking brings.

Meditation is the antidote to overthinking.

Many will recoil at the mention of mindfulness or meditation because it’s become almost a cliché. It is the intuitively good activity that you’re supposed to do in order to gain social currency. Yet many, including myself when I first started the practice, deeply misunderstood the practice of meditation.

For starters, it’s not a series of complex yoga poses or locating your inner chakras. It also does not require retreating into a quiet, dark place, spending hours trying to elusively gain some semblance of enlightenment. It simply requires you to pay attention. That is all.

Without being too prescriptive or presumptuous, here is my meditation method: Simply sit on a chair or on the floor and close your eyes. Observe your breath, or sounds near you or even the darkness in your visual field. You don’t need to force any unnatural rhythms in your breathing. Almost instantly, your brain will resent the suspension of your inner thought process and will try to lure you back into thinking. When this happens, all that you need to do is observe the thought itself and go back to concentrating on your breathing or sounds.

This is the equivalent of doing a bicep curl for your mind. Your meditation practice can be timed for a period of up to ten minutes, where you will repeatedly be captured by thought, but you will be doing the practice correctly, if you witness it arising and go back to the practice. Essentially, imagine yourself a mirror witnessing everything arising in consciousness. Do the practice every day. Eventually, break it down to paying attention wherever you are. Before starting your car, sitting on your desk or dialling a phone number. It’s akin to a mental check-in which will start to come naturally, the more you commit to the practice and make it into a habit.

You can perform your practice upon waking up or before going to sleep. You can meditate amongst people or alone, in silence or in noise.

If you find it hard to sit in silence, you can start with a guided meditation. I prefer Sam Harris’s Waking Up App and the Headspace App for beginners. Harris’s App is a paid subscription, and whilst you may find his political or moral ideology offensive, yet his soporific voice is almost perfect for the meditation experience.

Other notable practitioners are the angel investor, Naval Ravikant, whose meditation method is to simply do nothing and focusing on nothing in particular, allowing your breathing, sounds and even thoughts to come naturally.

In time, you will graduate to meditating on auto-pilot, where witnessing rather than reacting to events would become your default mode.

What’s the point of all this, you ask? Well, for the scientifically inclined, meditation has been scientifically proven to activate the Prefrontal Cortex, the executive part of the brain that’s involved in decision making and concentration. It also has the dual effect of quieting the Amygdala, our reptilian brain, that activates our fight or flight response. It essentially thus performs the same functions as exercising or working out and is thus an effective therapy for anxiety and depression, if continuously practised.

But there’s one thing to quote scientific factoids, and another to commit to meditating. Like any good practice, it needs to be habit-forming, and a lot of people find it difficult to do so. This is because many either can’t sit still with their thoughts or find little utility in focusing on their breath. It is also equally true that a lot of people may go deep inside the recess of their minds and genuinely find nothing worthwhile to reflect on. In many ways, the practice, like eating healthy or working out requires your time and a committed buy-in.

When I started meditating, I didn’t feel any more enlightened after two weeks of continuous practice as compared to the start. But somewhere along the line, something subtle started happening. It’s difficult to put in words, but a sense of space started occurring between a thought and acting upon that thought.

Focusing just on the narrow prism of my professional identity of a lawyer and a University lecturer, my mind would invariably zero on towards unanswered emails, ominous court hearings, precocious students, as well as routine existentialist dread of being a Pakistani citizen, not to mention, COVID-19.

A couple of months into meditation, however, and I found myself being aware of the ubiquitous fog of thought. Furthermore, I started noticing moods more frequently, particularly anger, stress and melancholy. I found, to my genuine surprise, that witnessing a mood dilutes its sting, which is akin to a spell being broken, as you start interrogating yourself whether the monkey chatter is worth listening to or not. It also brings awareness back to your surroundings, which is the primary function of meditation.

So, by way of an example, going to a Court hearing, I would now find myself noticing the leaves on some magnificent tree on the Mall Road, or the shrill baritone of the hawker selling newspapers on the High Court premises.

Whilst talking to a client, I notice myself listening to them more rather than interrupting them to get my advice across. Also, you had best take my family’s word on this, but I think that the practice of meditation has made me a more accessible human being. When I am having a conversation with my wife or kids, my default mode of staring at Twitter whilst responding in inaudible grunts has now graduated to a more meaningful discourse, where they have my mostly unencumbered, if not undivided attention. It is a change that I unquestionably owe to the practice of meditation.

Many are familiar with Socrates’ most famous utterance: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Most understand the phrase to mean that the key to a good life is to introspect and critically challenge everyday viewpoints. This can be done in many ways. It can be through reading philosophy, through therapy and certainly through meditation.

Viewing it in another way, we spend the majority of our lives navigating relationships; with our spouse, our children, our friends and others. But the most significant relationship that we have is with ourselves; our own minds.

We take our thoughts at face value and we allow them to consume us. Our pervasive, non-specific anxiety that keeps us on the edge, is a result of being constantly imprisoned by our mind.

So, sit down, close your eyes, pay attention to your mind, your breath and your thoughts and see where the process takes you. It may very well be one of the best things you do for yourself.

Ali is a barrister who practices in Lahore. He tweets at @RezaAli1980