meditation is like muddy water settling

another insight that has stuck with me from the mary karr episode of on being is from the following paragraph (so glad the on being podcast episodes have full transcripts):

DR. KARR: Yeah. I love that. I mean, I love that thing Thomas Keating says about practicing mindfulness, and that it’s sort of like — there’s a bunch of water that has mud and silt in it, and the longer you practice, the more that just kind of settles to the bottom, and you don’t feel any peace. You might practice for days and weeks, and it’s just cloudy and noisy. And he says what you don’t realize is that healing is happening, that that stuff — by doing that, you are settling it, but you don’t notice it because it hasn’t settled yet. You have to just — how difficult just to keep sitting there.

this has been exactly how meditation has benefitted me over the last couple of years. i started trying to meditate daily in jan 2015. i hit 250/365 days that year and, as far as i can remember, i’ve meditated 10+ minutes every day this year.

at first, i didn’t really notice anything. it didn’t seem like much was changing about anything i could sense or feel.

then, during the summer, i started meditating before i went to work. i noticed a significant difference in my ability to assess situations more thoughtfully. i could just see into a situation with more perspective.

that fall, when i got a new job, i began to notice that i could notice when i wasn’t focused. i would be focusing on a particular work task and then i would feel myself reaching for something unrelated. like… i could sense my brain wander away from what i was doing. or, to be more explicit, i noticed when thoughts crept in that weren’t related to what i was working on.

that proved to be unbelievably valuable because i could then either (a) find a way to deal with the distraction (which often just involved writing it down to do later) or (b) put it aside and refocus. either way, both of those options were better than what i would do previously, which was let the thought actually distract me and then snap out of it (texting, facebook, email, twitter, reading random articles) 30+ minutes later and wonder ‘wtf have i been doing?!?’

these two last things i’ve gained from daily meditation are probably the most impactful.

  1. by noticing which thoughts wander into my brain during meditation (i.e. what’s on my mind), i’m able to better parse out what is taking up my mental energy. that allows me to, outside of meditation, handle those things that would have taken up lots of mental energy over the day. i’m then freer to focus on other things with more calm and clarity. the positive impact of this cannot be understated.
  2. learning to let my thoughts come and go with the trust that the important things will come back when they need to. sometimes during the day i’ll remember something that seems so important but i won’t have time to process it properly. then, i would beat myself up and try so hard to think of the thing i had forgotten.

    it turns out, as i’ve meditated more and more, i’ve noticed that my brain is actually quite adept at not letting me forget really important things. the really important things always come back up (often during meditation, but not always). i’m able to process the thought then if i missed it the first time. and if a thought doesn’t come back up, it honestly probably wasn’t that important. now, i know that’s a very common trope that’s often seen as trite, but i’ve really begun to trust it lately and it’s brought a lot more ease to my thinking.

so yea. it really feels like the process of muddy water settling. you don’t necessarily notice it day-to-day, but over time, the ability to see through the increasingly clear water provides huge benefits. you just have to let it settle enough to get there.