Hi, I’m Sara, and this is Tiny Revolutions, a weekly dispatch of personal writing and links about the art of becoming who you are. Reply anytime, I love to hear from you.
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I got a few questions this week about meditating, and since there seem to be a ton of misconceptions about what it is/isn’t and why you might want to have a meditation practice (I think every human should!), I figured I’d share a response I wrote to one of them.
I have been meditating for six months now. I can barely sit without thoughts for a few seconds during meditation. At times it makes me think that this is useless. Of course, once in a while during the day I catch myself being angry or frustrated for things not in my control. I would love to talk to you about your experience and get your insights about mediation.
I am not sure what style of meditation you are using, but I can speak to my experiences with learning to meditate in both the Shambhala and Zen styles.
What you're describing sounds to me like a common misconception about meditation -- that it's about clearing your thoughts. It's not! Your brain's job is to think -- there's simply no way you could stop it from thinking. That's like asking the heart to stop beating, or the pancreas to stop making insulin. Impossible -- and not what you want anyway!
What meditation is really about is changing your relationship to your thoughts. It's critical to understand this. When you meditate, you’re not trying to stop thoughts or quiet them, but more that you’re trying to become a witness to them. You're trying to detach from them essentially. So each time you notice you are caught in a thought, you just put it aside and come back to the present moment. And you may do this 100 times or more in 20 minutes -- that is a given! But over time, as you practice, it might get a little easier to do -- both catching yourself when you're lost in a thought and being better able to let go of it and come back to the present moment.
As you get more practice, you might find you have a bit more time of emptiness of mind before another thought comes rushing in to fill the void, but you can't really count on that either. I've been meditating for more than 10 years and consistent about it for the past three years, and there are definitely days when my sessions are just full of thinking. (And lots of days where my mind is pretty empty but I'm also really bored, but that's a different story.)
Anyway, if you keep doing this over time, a lot of amazing things happen. You start to know yourself better, for one thing. You start to see that your thoughts and feelings are in a constant state of change, sort of like the weather, but that the blue sky is always constant underneath it.
I could write a lot about the benefits of meditating, but I think for starters you just have to remember that, despite what you may have heard about it (ahem, I’m looking at you, popular meditation apps), meditation is not just about clearing your mind and being calm. Those things do happen with regular practice, but in the meantime, you'll find that your brain will dredge up *everything* you’ve ever been, done, or thought about — especially the things you’ve been running from or trying to suppress.
Because when you create that space for yourself, you give your mind the ability to breathe. And so it likes to take that chance to be like, “hey, um, I know you don’t want to think about this, but don’t forget about [insert nightmare scenario from your life that you desperately wish was not happening].”
But this is by design: meditation forces you to confront the dark parts of yourself as well as the light. A lot of people never make it past that fact alone, because, frankly, it's difficult.
We spend a lot of time in life trying to avoid or escape reality because reality can be really unpleasant. “Too real,” as the kids say. There’s no getting around this. But reality can be sublime too, and again, over time, you begin to see that there is a full spectrum of emotions and thoughts present in you, just as they are present in the rest of humanity. Being able to experience them is a great privilege. It means you are having the full human experience, and learning to deal with the good and the bad and developing an understanding that you can live and even thrive through it all.
So be kind to yourself -- you are doing it right! The thing that is mysterious and awesome about meditation practice is that you gradually learn to lean into the idea that you're not really in control. And while I get that that might make you angry at times, it's ultimately the most liberating thing imaginable.
I hope that is helpful! If you're ever curious about learning to do zazen, or Zen-style meditation, Angel City Zen Center does Zoom sessions that are open to anyone. I’ll be leading a discussion in the session this coming Saturday at 10 am PT if you’d like to join.
Writing this made me think of a great song.
RIP Chris Bell and all of the guys from Big Star. ⭐️
Did you know that Nick Cave has a newsletter? It’s called The Red Hand Files, and it’s excellent. Here’s a passage from a recent issue about mercy, which he calls “a value that should be at the heart of any functioning and tolerant society.”
“Cancel culture’s refusal to engage with uncomfortable ideas has an asphyxiating effect on the creative soul of a society. Compassion is the primary experience — the heart event — out of which emerges the genius and generosity of the imagination. Creativity is an act of love that can knock up against our most foundational beliefs, and in doing so brings forth fresh ways of seeing the world. This is both the function and glory of art and ideas. A force that finds its meaning in the cancellation of these difficult ideas hampers the creative spirit of a society and strikes at the complex and diverse nature of its culture.”
Thanks to reader Ron Hogan for the heads up! Ron writes another great newsletter, Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives, about developing your writing practice. He was kind enough to mention Tiny Revolutions in a recent issue.
Finally, I had another great conversation with a reader last week that inspired me and made me think about how best to evolve Tiny Revolutions. I’d like to talk to more of you, so here is my request: will you reply to this email and let me know why you keep reading? Even a sentence or two will do. You can also @ me on Twitter if you’re into the whole public discourse thing.
That’s all for this week. Be safe and well.
p.s. Thank you for reading! If this resonated with you, please share it with someone who might like it too.
I love this newsletter Sarah! I look forward to it every Sunday. For me, it’s like having that one real conversation, where everything is honest and nothing is forbidden.