breathing enlightenment

[estimated reading time 9 minutes]

when i tell people i’m a buddhist, i get three questions — is that a religion (i thought you said you were against religion!)? what’s enlightenment? do you meditate?

the answer to the first is a resounding no. it’s not a religion. not even close. a religion has beliefs. it doesn’t have to have a deity but it has to have a belief system. buddhism is specifically designed to combat belief systems so it’s probably the anti-religion if ever such a thing existed. but that’s something i’ve spoken and written about at length many times and i’m happy to again if anyone’s interested in reading even more detail on it.

enlightenment is just a fancy word for harmony with your environment. no, not “the” environment, though that’s part of it. it’s about being at peace with everything around you — your situation, the people surrounding you, animals, nature, the air. accepting what is currently happening and continuing to be calm as you live without trying to fight or break that sense of peace. why do they call it enlightenment instead of harmony? well, it could have something to do with music having the monopoly on that word in english. or it might be because of the unimaginable sense of weight that is removed from your shoulders when you simply stop fighting against everything around you — no more complaints, arguments, debates. no more trying to start fights or saying things you know will annoy people or to get a reaction. no more letting your emotions decide your actions. enlightenment makes you feel like a feather floating through the world on a gentle breeze compared to the bull surrounded by priceless ceramics that symbolizes the approach you’re probably currently taking — confront your reality and you will be broken by it. bend like bamboo in a typhoon and you’ll almost forget the wind is there. easier said than done, of course. but doable.

but do i meditate? well, yes. thanks for asking. and you should, too. even if you’re not a buddhist. of course, you should be a buddhist. and that doesn’t mean you should stop attending services at your local synagogue or stop going to mosque. this is independent of religions or faith ideologies. i suspect you’ll find you enjoy the culture and ritual of your faith more as a buddhist than before you got on the train. but you’ll gradually stop holding any supernatural beliefs — they’re unnecessary. but that’s not the argument i’m making here. my point is you can seek enlightenment without changing your cultural or social allegiances or practices in the slightest. you, too, can meditate every day and get the benefits and the only thing you need to devote is a few minutes every day.

what? a few minutes? that’s what you’re thinking. you see zen practitioners attending week-long retreats with a hundred hours of silent meditation and chanting. monks sit facing walls for literal years of their lives. can you really get the benefits of meditation in a few minutes? sure. you can definitely get more benefits as an expert practitioner with longer periods of sitting but there’s no reason to dive into hours of floor-time right off the bat. actually, the biggest shift you’ll find in your life comes with only five or ten minutes of practice a couple of times a day. ten or twenty minutes total. that’s less than two-and-a-half hours a week. and i bet you spend a lot more than that on youtube. a lot more if you’re anything like me. and that’s the other thing — meditating and seeking enlightenment doesn’t mean reverting to a pre-technological life. it doesn’t mean giving up your phone, socials, car, jewelry or makeup — though giving up makeup might be a good plan and jewelry has always been a difficult one for me as i have it and never wear it, having many jewelry-making friends who are extremely talented and i’m a very simple person.

i guess we need to first answer a basic question. what’s meditation for? you could say it’s for “attaining enlightenment” and many buddhists will give you that answer because that’s what we’ve been trained to say. but that doesn’t really tell you anything. and it doesn’t say anything about either why it works or why it’s good for you. first we’ll look at the purpose. meditation is a training exercise for disconnecting emotion from action. it’s a separation fence between the limbic system and the logical, active decision-making centers in your conscious mind. put another way, it’s a circuit-breaker between “i’m so fucking pissed” and “i’m going to punch you in the face” or between “i feel depressed” and “where’s the knife?”. i don’t say this lightly. i’ve been very close to both. and i’ve gone places with them nobody should ever go so i know the deep power of meditative practice. in its simplest form, though, meditation does one task — it allows the mind to practice taking a breath between feeling an emotion and acting on it that makes it possible to stop the action before it happens. in time, this becomes automatic and emotions stop climbing the walls of your mind and jumping over the top. the end up simply falling in the gap and this subdues them before you’re even aware of them in many cases.

before we get into how it works, let’s talk for a minute about why it works and why you want it to.

it works because it’s practice. we are humans but humans are animals. that means we’re behaviorally-programmed. how do you know how to speak your language? walk? make a sandwich without having to compute anything about sizes and angles? practice. we learn things by doing them — not once but hundreds, thousands, sometimes millions of times. this is how animal behavior is regulated and most of our lives work this way, too. how do you know how to read? you didn’t know that when you were three, did you? you practiced. you started small and worked your way up to longer books with bigger words. you got used to the patterns and now you can read quickly and efficiently, at least in one language. want to learn to read in another? it takes only one thing — practice.

meditation works like this. the more you meditate, the more your mind and body get used to the task. when you’re in a highly-emotional state, your automatic programming takes over. if you’ve filled that program with thousands of repetitions of meditative calm, the emotional state will pass. if you’ve filled it with panicked responses and bad decisions, what do you think will happen? i see tension in your future. no crystal-ball required.

why do you want it to work? well, this may be an odd question but i’ve had it so many more times than i ever expected. “but i want to feel emotion!” or “don’t take away my right to be angry!”. this is blatant silliness. meditation won’t take away your right to feel or even your ability to feel. what it does is puts you back in the driver’s seat of your decision-making. instead of your emotions, hormones, reactive programming combining to force you into a snap decision that’s almost always going to cause you pain in the future, it allows you to make a conscious, logical decision about what you’re going to do. over time, this becomes completely automatic. you stop making judgments in the moment and live much more calmly, peacefully. life becomes smoother and less full of fights and pain. of course, if you don’t want your life to be less full of pain i have nothing to offer you. but i suspect this is, deep inside, what you want even if you haven’t realized it yet.

how it works is actually quite simple. what i suggest for anyone starting (and this may be the only form of meditation you’ll ever need or do — don’t let anyone tell you silent, undirected meditation is better — it’s not — it’s not better or worse, just different) is guided, breathing meditation. this is not “mindfulness breathing” where you have to be aware of the breath. this is programmatic breathing — in and out while counting seconds and breaths. there are other forms of basic guided meditation, too, though i believe this is the simplest and, as a result, the most effective starting. i’ve made some recordings and videos on various forms of meditation, including this one, but the starting version is extremely simple. you divide your time in three sections (if it’s ten minutes, do each for about 3-4 minutes — being precise isn’t important). in the first section, breathe deeply and after each breath count another number. in, out, 1. in, out, 2. in, out, 3. if you can make each breath last 8-10 seconds, this is probably a good place to start. even 5-6 seconds is more than you usually do and it will slow your mind. if you get distracted, start over. if you get to 10, start again from 1. when the first section is over, switch the order. now count 1, in, out. 2, in, out. every time you get distracted, close and open your eyes and start from 1 again. try to make your breathing even slower in this part. take a small pause between breathing in and breathing out and another between each out and the next in. that’s what the counting allows you to do. when the breath is done, count a number. in the third section (and this is where it really varies from the traditional approach), select any number before then repeat it at the end of the breath. pick a number between one and ten but not the last one you used. then move on. 2, in, out, 2. 7, in, out, 7. 5, in, out, 5. this lengthens the pauses even more. try to stretch those pauses at the top and bottom of the breath to at least 2-3 seconds, perhaps longer. the more you focus not on the breath but on controlling the breath, the more the rest of your mind becomes calm and you can live simply in the moment without emotion fighting its way in. you’ll be amazed how quickly ten minutes passes.

of course, there are absolutely millions of meditation forms and this isn’t either the simplest or the best. but it’s a great way to start and it’s easy to learn, remember and practice. practice is key, though. do this once a week and it will have absolutely no impact on your life. i guarantee it. none. think you can go to a meditation group and it’ll change your life when you commit to doing it every wednesday evening for a couple of hours. no. just no. the body and mind don’t work on those timescales. you have to do this at least a few times every day to have a real impact on your brain’s mechanics and programming. so when should you do it? well, when your mind is calmest is good.

when you wake in the morning, do you feel relatively rested? good. meditate then, while still in bed if you want, for ten minutes. when you get ready for bed at night or you’ve just taken a hot shower, that’s probably relatively relaxing, too. meditate then for ten minutes. while you’re waiting for your dinner to cook, i bet you’ve got ten minutes when you don’t have to do anything urgent. sitting at your desk on your lunch-break, ever find yourself with a few minutes and just endlessly scroll on instagram until the time has passed? you have lots of time in your day to find ten minutes here and there. do it two, three, five, eight times a day and in a few weeks you’ll notice yourself feeling more centered, calm and peaceful. you can seek other guided meditations ([try plum village] if you need somewhere to look for good places to start — i have a few issues with the slow speed of their meditations at times but they can be very helpful, especially for beginners but there are many good meditation practitioners on youtube, too — though there are many who will simply guide you into sleep and restless energy so try to be somewhat discerning about what they say the point is — if it’s not peace, tranquility and harmony, it’s not the right kind of meditation and it won’t, as you can probably expect, give you the right results). but this simple one i’ve just explained really will work for you even if you do the same thing every time, hundreds of times.

there’s another meditative practice i’d like to share before we finish, though. chanting or recitation. the point isn’t the words — actually, the words don’t really matter. the idea is controlling the breath and the mind. it distracts and forces the breathing into a particular rhythm. i like meaningful texts but you can actually choose your favorite collection of poetry. you can chant loudly or recite quietly or even just whisper. you can read whole poems, sutras or books if you like. or you can repeat a single meaningful line or mantra. here are a few of my favorites — i’m a buddhist traditionalist so this shouldn’t be unexpected. the english isn’t direct translation but it’s the general idea and you can chant in english or the original mantra — the effect will be the same. remember, the actual words are just to control the mind and breath. their meaning is just tangentially important.

gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha
(i have gone beyond the peace of enlightenment to tranquility.)

om mani padme hum
(i humbly ask for the jewel of compassion to live within me.)

nam myoho renge kyo
(i embrace the truth of all life as one.)

_ om muni muni mahamuni shakyamuniye svaha_
(i call on the sound of nature to nurture peace in every moment of my being.)

_ sarveshaam svaastir bhavatu, sarveshaam svaastir bhavatu, saveshaam poornam bhavatu, sarveshaam mangalam bhavatu, om shanti, shanti shanteeh_

(may we flow with life around us in peace lacking nothing, walking in health and happiness.)

you can repeat these for a certain number of times (108 is traditional) or just until you feel calm — or even set yourself a time like ten minutes, a very useful amount of time for many psychological reasons — it’s enough to break cycles of emotional stress but not enough to trigger boredom from self-awareness and repetition.

now you have two possible tools to create more peace and harmony in your life. and you know how to use them. find yourself ten minutes two or three times a day and try it. just for a month. seriously. don’t tell me you don’t have time. that’s less time than you spend on snacks or social media. want your life to be better? meditate. it won’t fix everything. but it’ll fix some of it. don’t believe me? prove me wrong. i’ll wait. see you in a month. thanks for reading!

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.