Meditation and Imaginary Bad Things

“Meditation” is an overloaded word. Colloquially, it means to think deeply about; in pop culture it means various things including to clear your mind of thoughts; in most traditional meditation schools, it refers to mental exercises to train a specific skill, e.g. concentration, empathy. In pop culture, meditation is used as a relaxing, post-activity cooldown or calming ritual. In traditional practices, meditation is (obviously) the primary activity and it’s hard work – the goal is to reprogram your mind to reach nirvana. Roughly, the three stages of progression look like this, where “equanimity” means “mental calmness”:

Beginner Expert Master
  • Perform breath exercise to build equanimity:
    1. Focus on the breath
    2. When attention wanders, gently bring it back to the breath
  • Maintain a daily practice of ~2h/day
  • Able to maintain unwavering focus on the breath for a long time ~1h
  • Use unwavering focus on other exercises, e.g. examining sensations on the body, incoming thoughts
  • Nirvana – effortless and constant equanimity, even when not meditating

Some arhats, people who have reached nirvana, claim that nirvana is possible in a single lifetime [citation needed], as opposed to the general claim that it takes countless lifetimes. As someone who doesn’t have an active practice and is no longer even a beginner, I’m not going to address these claims because, in both cases, they are very far away for me. Instead, I want to share two things I learned that might help those new to meditation.

1. The point is equanimity

My key learning in the beginner stage is that the point of the breath exercise is not to maintain focus for a long time but to quickly and gently return your attention when it wanders; the success metric here is not how long you can continue uninterrupted, but how quickly and calmly you can return your attention when it wanders. This is something my instructors told me repeatedly from Day1 but didn’t sink in until years later. As a man once said:

Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again. ― André Gide

2. Imaginary bad things

In the Vipassana school, something that is emphasized early on is that meditation is meant to improve your daily life and that you should expect to see improvements in your life off the mat. Specifically, the mental pattern – of “take advantage of the gaps in your thoughts to gently return to where you want to be” – you train when doing breath exercises applies to normal life. Everyone finds themselves stuck in thought loops of imagining bad things and scenarios happening to them. After beginning meditation, I found that I was able to recognize this behavior faster than before and cut off these self-defeating trains of thought.