Everything that insomnia taught me about mindfulness
When asked “What is enlightenment?” one zen master answered, “Wash your dinner bowl.”.
If you ever find yourself curled up on your bed punching into google dot com “how to be mentally strong” at 3 in the afternoon here’s what’s likely to follow. After 5 minutes of browsing you’ll come across mindfulness and meditation and you’ll scoff it off. Then just as you are about to switch to YouTube, accidentally, from the corner of your eye, you’ll notice that there’s an app for meditation. And then maybe you’ll install it only to discover that it requires you to pay money and just because you’re so desperate and weak and haven’t slept in 7 days you’ll do it. Even though you have never bought a subscription for Netlifx, or Amazon Prime or any service that’s so intangibly online, you’ll buy a subscription for a meditation app. Because you want to sleep.
About a year ago I began meditating regularly as an attempt to cure, what I realized 7 days later wasn’t a superpower to pull infinite all-nighters but a case of insomnia. Since then I have experienced, lived, enjoyed and marveled at the beauty of mindfulness. This article is not a scientific drill down or 8 steps to a healthy mind or take charge of your emotions, no. It’s a recount of my experience with mediating and what I discovered. If reading this gets you as curious as I was 12 months ago, all the keystrokes will be worth it. Are you ready to listen?
Being in the now, in this very moment is the simplest, most profound, most dispensed, most read, and written of all pieces of advice, probably. “Be yourself” is a close number 2, and believe me it doesn’t deserve to be there. Implementing “be present”, which is just two words at its very core to remind you again, isn’t something you can just do. It’s absurd, overwhelmingly absurd that something so simple is not easy. Being present? How difficult can being present be?
“How difficult”, “can”, “being present” “be?”
Is like asking, “Painting a masterpiece, how difficult can that be?” When you haven’t ever picked up a paintbrush or, “Writing a Novel, how difficult can that be?” when the closest you have come to writing fiction is writing captions for your Instagram describing how amazingly awesome your Sunday was. Being in the now as I have realized is a skill that you build, over time. As a small exercise do this, for the rest of the day from when you finish reading this article to when you’ll go to sleep I want you to count the number of times you sit. Just that, count the number of times you’re stood up and change your position from standing to sitting. You don’t have to do it right now, or you can. Pause, and then return to this article tomorrow after miserably failing at keeping a correct count. Yes, I am that sure you are going to screw it up.
I am aware that counting the number of times you sit through the course of a day isn’t the canonical method of “testing awareness”. But the way I foolishly kept failing at it for days in a row was painful and surprising at the same time. As you will realize, if you follow the exercise is that it requires an undying presence of mind to be pulled off, which honestly neither of us have to start with. It’s true, we’re never present, every single moment of the day our minds are either caught up in the past or it’s planning the future, or just somewhere where it shouldn’t be. Probably something completely different is going on in the back of your mind even as you’re reading, come back! Present, like the nose, sits in front of us and we ignore it. We see right through it and that veil of ignorance and preoccupation with what is gone and has not yet come is what keeps us miserable, isn’t it?
“Imagine that you are standing on a theatre stage. If the house lights are on, you’ll probably be able to see all the way to the back of the hall. But if you’re under a bright spotlight, you won’t be able to make even the front row. That’s exactly how it is with our lives. It’s because we cast a dim light on our entire lives that we are able to see the past and the future. Or, at least we imagine we can. But if one is shining a bright spotlight on here and now, one cannot see the past or the future anymore.” - From The Courage to be Disliked
Let’s start by trying to understand why not being preoccupied with the past or the future is important. Honestly, I don’t know, all I know is when I am not, I feel good. The state of flow where you are so engrossed in an activity that you forget everything other than what you’re doing is being present with that activity and not somewhere else. Having a good laugh with your friends or random strangers at a bar is being just there, and nowhere else. Imagine if that quality of mind where you are blinded to the existence of past and future seeps into every moment of your living day. How beautiful will that be? Can you feel it? I know you can, pause for a second and try.
A mind that is present. A mind that is free of conditioning. Quiet and confident, is an authentic mind. Buddhism uses the analogy of ocean and the sky to paint a picture of what the authentic mind looks like. The analogy could have also been of a busy intersection if something of that sort existed 2600 years ago. How? Here’s how. Imagine walking across a busy intersection at 2 AM. Is it busy? It’s not, that’s why you were able to walk across it dumb dumb. It’s two past midnight, there’s no one around. Pay close attention and you can see the tar, the road, the tiny details of where the paint has withered off. Except when you visit the same intersection in the afternoon, it’s a mess. But that road, that empty serene quiet road on which you can dance and roll and kiss someone in the pouring rain standing right in the middle of it, is still there. Beneath all the cars and footsteps and smoke and dirt and the noise, it’s always there. When the sky gets dark and cloudy, when there are enormous aggressive waves in the ocean, at the depth the quiet blue ocean is always there. Above all the dark clouds, the serene blue sky exactly the way it’s supposed to be, is always there. Beneath thoughts and regrets of past and uncertain plans of the future the quiet, confident, serene, the authentic mind is forever present. Being mindful means coming back home to that authentic mind. And when you do come back and you stay there, that is when you’re completely present in the now. Maybe then you can keep the count of the number of times you’ve sat through the course of the day let’s say… to about a 90% accuracy. Not so bad is it?
But how do you come back home when years of conditioning and trauma and the constant bombardment of thoughts has made home–the serene mind free of thoughts and feelings –to be nothing more than a myth. When was the last time you felt complete abandonment? No thoughts, no clouds, no waves, no cars no traffic just you, here.
“let go and live in the moment,” to “be present” to “live a conscious life” to “slow down” and to be “in touch with our feelings” Conscious presence, here and now, is the lesson of mindfulness.” - Lama Surya Das, Awakening the Buddha within
Meditating consistently is the path to mindfulness. Meditating every day is no different than waking up and hitting the road or going to the gym to strengthen your body. It is no different than picking up a paintbrush and attempting to draw your masterpiece, every single day even when at the end of the day all you have on the canvas is a big blobby mess of paint that doesn’t mean anything. It is no different than picking up your guitar and producing ear rupturing sounds and bleeding your fingertips. It’s all about practice. Meditating is a constant attempt to bring your mind to the present and keep it here.
I started meditating because I wanted to sleep. As I peeled off the layers, I learned I couldn’t sleep because my mind was busy. I couldn’t sleep because there was fear of the future and thoughts and plans and it was scary. My mind was anywhere but with me.
A gift from evolution is that when you’re scared your mind and body become alert, so alert that your ears pick up even the slightest of noises. Someone coughing, you can’t sleep. Someone shut a door, you’re wide awake the next second. Someone sneezed? there goes your entire night’s sleep. Someone walked by your door? …you get the idea. The headspace sleep pack is, or was when I first used it a 30-day pack. Which means you have to meditate, preferably every day for 30 days to successfully complete the pack. I felt 0 change, nothing at all for the first 28 days until the 29th day when I went to bed and the next thing I remember was waking up to bright sunlight. I had slept, for the first time in over a month.
Was I enlightened? Hell no! I just had a good night’s sleep. I didn’t even know what enlightenment was. But it got me curious and I started reading and learning more about mindfulness, meditation, and Buddhism as a whole. Did you know that like in the west and most of the world where children dream of growing up to become pilots, actors, musicians, Instagram celebrities and what not? Kids in Tibet believe that they can grow up to be enlightened, yes, it is that possible, at least to them.
For the next 8 months there were only glimpses of being present, it’s a hard skill to master. In the last 12 months I have spent over 3000 minutes meditating. About 10 to 20 minutes every day. When you practice something for this long you begin seeing changes. I know I am just at the first step of what is, metaphorically speaking the great wall of China and I probably will never be able to make it, forget about the end, but to the 3rd or even the 2nd step. But the process is beautiful. It’s akin to when you have been going to the gym consistently and you notice your muscles grow, even a slightest bit. Or you lose some of that belly fat and you can see it and feel it and it feels great! That’s what being present feels like. When you have gone 30 minutes without dwelling in the past or being afraid of the future, it suddenly hits you, wow! I was here. I wish I could be here all the time.
So how do you do it? What are the actionable steps here? For starters, get Headspace or any other meditation app with good reviews. Apps are easy to use and can put you on the right lane. Next, start reading. Don’t just meditate, know the why. Why are you meditating? Is it because it’s trendy and your favorite celebrity says she does it? (pssst.. she doesn’t). Or is it because you know how wonderful being in the present can be and you’re ready to do the excruciating task of sitting every day for minutes doing nothing. Know the why. I recommend reading Awakening the Buddha within, which is a book about Buddhism as the name suggests. The author among other theories and teachings of Buddha, goes over the Three Enlightenment Trainings: Wisdom training, Ethics training and of course, Meditation training. It’s a long read but totally worth it. The Headspace Guide to Mindfulness & Meditation I have heard is great for beginners. I haven’t read it myself though.
Like there are a number of exercises you can perform on a muscle group in your body, there are different techniques you can use to meditate. One of my favorite meditating technique is Noting. In Noting you sit down, close your eyes and concentrate on your breath. You concentrate on how it feels when the air rushes into your nostrils, how the air fills the lungs, how the air makes the body rise with every inhale and fall with every exhale. To help you get anchored better –honestly you can google “noting meditation” at this point–you start counting the breaths, 1 inhale, 2 exhale, you do this till 10 and then go back to 1. This, going back to 1 is important. While you’re doing this you’ll find yourself losing the count multiple times and it’s ok, you just have to note “oh I’m thinking” and then get back to counting again. Other two techniques that I enjoy the most are Walking meditation and a version of Walking meditation where you sync the movement of your feet with your natural breathing pace. That’s it, there are gazillions articles and books online that’ll teach you how to meditate better than I can, my goal with this article was to tell you why. And now you know.
When you become self-aware you stay calm even when things take a sharp turn to the south. I have felt it and I have questioned myself “Is that it? Is mindfulness a way to numb yourself to feelings?” Because feeling things deeply is important, if you don’t there is no depth, and a life without depth is by definition shallow. If you ever find yourself questioning the same understand that the problem isn’t with feeling things deeply but to attach and identify yourself with a feeling. The mind is fickle, feelings are fickle. The same mind that in the morning convinced you could take over the world by afternoon might ask you to swerve into oncoming traffic because it thinks you’re a real piece of shit. Do yourself a favor and try not to make the productions of such a faithless organ your reality. Notice, what the mind is telling you, recognize it and then let it go.
“Self awareness - recognising a feeling as it happens – is the keystone of emotional intelligence” - Lama Surya Das, Awakening the Buddha within
Each thought that the mind throws at you has hooks attached all over it. Once you let yourself get caught in them they’ll pull you in all directions till you’re so torn open that your peace of mind leaks right out. See the mind as a kid and watch it frown, adorably so, as you dissolve it’s every attempt to provoke you. For that to happen you need to be present, in the now, aware of everything that’s going outside and inside you. That’s mindfulness.
Meditation isn’t a pill that you can take in the morning to feel good for the rest of the day. Meditating is practice, meditation goes far beyond than just concentrating on your breath or feeling your tummy rise and fall. In the words of Jiddu Krishnamurti,
To be aware of this whole process of existence, to observe it, to dispassionately enter into it, and to be free of it, is meditation.
To be aware of every thought, to know from what source it springs and what is its intention—that is meditation.
When you are driving a car or sitting in a bus, when you are chatting aimlessly, when you are walking by yourself in a wood or watching a butterfly being carried along by the wind—to be choicelessly aware of all that is part of meditation.
I began this article with a Zen story, which reminds me, I have another one for you. Once years ago in China, a young monk asked his Zen master, “What is enlightenment? What is it like to you?” The master replied “When I eat, I eat. When I sleep, I sleep”. It’s that simple. When you eat, just eat, when you sleep, just sleep and when you’re washing your dinner bowl, just wash your dinner bowl.
From the shelf
Books that inspired quotes and ideas in the article.
Lama Surya Das
Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga
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