I’ve been meditating off and on since I was in college and daily now for about four years. I don’t remember exactly what got me started in it, but I suspect it was a way to try to deal with my depression. It has been both one of the hardest and one of the easiest things I’ve ever done. It’s very simple and really only involves me sitting quietly and breathing in and out while I focus on the quality of my breathing. It’s called mindfulness meditation. The idea is to focus on your breathing while letting go of the normal chaos of thoughts that pop in to each of our minds constantly. I didn’t realize just how chaotic my mind was until I purposefully sat down to do this. The thoughts come endlessly. All I have to do is recognize the thought and let it go. And when I say all I don’t mean that part is easy. That’s what I mean when I said it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do. It’s unlearning the natural biological process of ones’ own brain in favor of something more productive.
And I’m still terrible at it after all this time. I actually think I’ve gotten worse at it over the last few years. My concentration seems to wander much more easily lately than it used to. But I still find value in the effort. I don’t expect to reach some magical peak in which I have full control over my conscious brain. I’ve read enough about monks who have been meditating for decades to know that is not a reasonable expectation. It’s a matter of getting better in infinitesimally small steps. And as cliché as it sounds the point isn’t some destination, but the journey towards that goal. The value lies in recognizing the process of wandering thoughts and not mindlessly allowing them to push you in every direction at once. There is a calming effect that comes with regular practice. Though I know I am still doomed to fail at stopping the endless stream of thoughts I can learn to see them for the natural biologic processes that they are. Seeing those thoughts however doesn’t mean that I have to like them, or even believe what they have to tell me. I can say hello to a passing thought and let it pass right by me as if it were a leaf blowing in the wind. I have about as much control of the randomness of my thoughts as I do the leaves blowing by me and as such don’t need to give them much more thought.
And so the lesson that meditation has slowly been teaching me is to let go of the tight grip of (the illusion of) control. I’ve become aware of how little control I have (or anyone else has) over the thoughts and emotions that flit through my brain on a moment to moment basis. Holding on so tightly to things I can’t change is fruitless and wasteful. I do have a bit more control over what I do with and how I react to those thoughts though. And that’s the important part. Letting go of control and giving up the effort to change the unchangeable is one of the hardest things we can do as humans. Our entire history as sentient beings has been predicated on our increasing ability to control our world. But in that rise we’ve convinced ourselves to believe that ability to control is infinite. It’s not. And that false assumption is often very dangerous to our own well-being, both as individuals and as a species. We need to learn to be not just sentient, but sapient as well.