As a self-professed agnostic, I’m not a terribly religious, spiritual, or superstitious person. In fact, I’ve spent much of my life incredibly skeptical of both religions and religious practitioners. My skepticism was so strong that if you had told me 5 years ago that I would one day spend not one, but two full weeks in a Buddhist monastery, I think I probably would have done a spit take. And yet, in July of this year I did just that (minus the spit take) and, though I didn’t love everything about the experience, it was pretty incredible overall.
Of course, this change in perspective didn’t exactly happen overnight.
It all started when my father discovered meditation while I was in college. He found it helpful to him in his everyday life, and introduced my mother to it, who also took a liking to the practice. Together, they practiced a form of transcendental meditation, which often makes use of the stereotypical mantra that most people think of when they picture meditation. As parents are liable to do when they find something they think is good for them, my parents started trying to get their kids–my little sister and I–interested, telling us about the researched positive side-effects of meditation such as reduced stress response and a resistance to mental conditions like anxiety and depression. As children are liable to do when their parents tell them to do something, my sister and I both did the opposite. We went so far as to make fun of our parents for the way they would meditate, repeating their mantras back to them in mocking tones.
I became very resistant to meditation and to the idea of meditating because the form of meditation my parents practiced was closely tied to Indian spiritual and religious practices. Over time, I had developed an automatically suspicious response toward anything remotely religious or spiritual. I used to think of religious faith and dogma as nearly synonymous, and I’ve always refused to accept ideas from people who are unwilling or unable to think for themselves or who might discourage me from doing the same. To me, if a belief or an idea is really worth keeping, it must survive the scrutiny of reasoned doubt, and it must continue to survive that scrutiny as new information becomes available. I could never have respect for, let alone faith in, a leader or a deity who might punish those who seek to draw their own conclusions or find their own answers.
For many years I boycotted meditation, unable to extricate its true value from the religious leanings of my parents’ practice. I saw meditation as a spiritual practice and wanted nothing to do with it. It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I discovered an entirely secular form of meditation called mindful meditation. One of my acquaintances on Facebook had a spare coupon code for a free one-month subscription to a mindful meditation app called Headspace. To give away the coupon, he challenged his friends on Facebook to do Headspace’s free 10-day foundational series, and offered to raffle off the coupon to one of the people who did so and reported back to him. This was the first time I had heard someone other than my parents advocate for meditation, so on a whim, I downloaded Headspace to try it out.
To my surprise, I was really intrigued by my first 10 days of Headspace. In fact, I don’t think I would be exaggerating in claiming that those 10 days started me down a path that would drastically change my life for the better. That introduction framed meditation as a mental exercise rather than a spiritual experience, and helped to dispel many of my false preconceptions about the practice. Since the guy who issued the Headspace coupon challenge on Facebook was a mere acquaintance, I never actually told him that I was inspired by his giveaway, but I ended up buying myself a subscription to Headspace on my own and continued to practice.
Through meditating in the Headspace way, I’ve learned about mindfulness, which could perhaps best be described as the opposite of mindlessness. You know when you’re driving a car and you suddenly realize you’ve been on autopilot for the last 30 minutes while you thought about something totally unrelated and, often, really not that important? Or when you open a bag of chips for a small snack but before you realize it you’ve emptied the bag? Or the itch you get to pull out your smartphone anytime the world in front of you fails to provide the stimulating experience you’ve grown to expect? These phenomenons are good examples of what I would describe as mindlessness: a lack of awareness of and presence with wherever we are, whoever we’re with, or whatever we’re doing in the moment.
Benefits of Mindfulness
Without realizing it, many of us spend a large proportion of our lives in a relatively mindless state. While that’s not necessarily a terrible thing in all cases–multitasking, for example, can sometimes be beneficial though it necessitates a degree of mindlessness in dividing our limited consciousness–I’ve learned through practicing that there are appealing benefits to mindfulness as an alternative such as self-awareness of habits and patterns along with more initiative to change them; a resistance to getting caught up in the kinds of thoughts and emotions that otherwise lead people to anxious or depressive states; a heightened appreciation for the small things in life, leading to a higher average sense of joy and well-being; increased presence, which may correlate with charisma, focus, and flow among other things; and a greater sense of self-acceptance, and acceptance of others.
Sounds a little like snake oil, doesn’t it? Fortunately, there are a numberofstudies backing up the positive health and mental health benefits of meditation and mindfulness. Even without those studies, though, many of these effects make sense to me. At its core, mindfulness is about training our awareness so that we become practiced at recognizing when we’re distracted. Overtime as I’ve gotten better and better at noticing this during mindfulness exercises, I’ve begun to internalize the skill. With training, I find that I become distracted less often, and that when I do become distracted, I notice more quickly than I used to.
Cover of The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane
As a result of this awareness, I’m more likely to notice, and have the wherewithal to stop myself, when I’m about to take a habitually self-distracting or even self-destructive action (e.g. opening Facebook or Reddit). I’m less prone to get caught up in the negative thought and emotional loops that lead to anxious or depressive cycles because I notice when the loops start and am able to make the conscious choice to refocus on the present when it’s clear the current line of thinking can’t possibly lead anywhere good. At the same time, I fear my negative emotions less because I have come to realize that, like my breath and all things, all of my emotions are transient, and will come and go in their own time so long as I don’t get overly involved in them. When I’m aware, I start to notice and appreciate more of the little things in life like how blue the sky is today or how green the trees are–sort of the mindfulness equivalent of “stopping to smell the roses”–creating a sense of profound gratefulness and joy just to be alive. I’ve also noticed that charisma, as Olivia Fox Cabane claims in The Charisma Myth, has its basis in being fully present with people–people like being around people who offer the gift of their full attention and presence, which makes them feel important, special, heard, and understood–that presence and focus are nearly synonymous, and that flow–that sense of being on a roll when we’re working–is a byproduct of creating a working environment where we’re able to be totally present with what we’re doing.
Mindfulness in Many Forms
Mindfulness comes in many shapes and forms. Yoga, rock climbing, martial arts, and other physical activities that demand the full presence of our minds in unison with our bodies are other common forms of mindfulness that many people practice without realizing it. Improv, acting, public speaking, and other mental activities that require us to be completely present in order to succeed are also hidden forms of mindfulness.
In reality, meditation is just one of the many forms of mindfulness, but it also turns out to be one of the most portable and readily accessible methods available to us. In its most basic form, meditation is mindfulness applied to our breathing. It’s the art of being as close to completely present with the act of breathing as we can–following the cool rush of air through our nostrils, the expansion of our lungs as we fill them, the natural extension of our abdomens with each breath.
Learning to be mindful while breathing may not sound terribly useful or fun in comparison to activities like yoga or improv, but the advantage is that if you are a living, conscious human being, you can always breathe. You may not always be in a place where doing yoga stretches is appropriate, or where you have people to play improv with, but you will always have your breath–if you don’t, you have bigger problems to worry about than reading this; please pick up the phone and dial 9-1-1 or your local equivalent :). Meditation doesn’t have to involve all these things people imagine like sitting in a full lotus position, or pinching your fingers into the stereotypical O-shape, or incessantly repeating “Om”, or even closing our eyes. It can be done virtually anywhere and virtually anytime by simply noticing and following our breath.
While we don’t really need to practice breathing the way we may need to practice yoga or improv–most all of us pop out of the womb as experts in breathing already–learning to recognize when we’ve become distracted or lost our focus is a very useful skill applicable to nearly everything we do. This is the primary skill that we train when we meditate, or when we actively practice mindfulness, and it turns out to be a pretty difficult skill for most people to master, especially as our attention spans grow shorter and our lives get busier in the digital information age.
Other Benefits of Meditation
Mindfulness is actually just one of many skills that we can train through meditation, and the others I’ve found are equally powerful and profound. For example, once we get more accustomed to being mindful of the breath, or even just being present with the act of meditation, we can learn to introduce things like visualization into the practice. As human beings, one of the mental super powers we have is the ability to replay past feelings and emotions through our memories as if we are experiencing them in the present. With practice, this means that we always have access to frame of mind we need for the task at hand. In my daily uncertain and sometimes anxiety-inducing life as a nomadic solo entrepreneur, I use this often to help me reconnect to a sense of hope, love, and optimism so that I can avoid making decisions out of despair, anger, or fear, which I know I’m likely to later regret.
But I digress. All of this is to say that mindful meditation was an important discovery for me, and that this discovery was a crucial first step in what led me to a Buddhist monastery. While I discovered mindfulness years ago, the other important developments are more recent.
Anger and Buddhism
I have and have almost always had a difficult relationship with my parents. They never got along with each other, and as a result I always had a hard time getting along with them. I picked up a lot of bad habits and emotional patterns from childhood as well. Most notably, my sister and I are the heirs to my mother’s temper.
After I quit my job in Silicon Valley, moved out of my house, and said goodbye to virtually everyone I knew, I moved back in with my parents for about 6 months before I finally pulled the trigger and started traveling. Though I took care of myself and did well in school, I was never a terribly obedient child, in part because I recognized my parents’ inevitably flawed nature very early in life and questioned both their authority and infallibility. Many of these old patterns resurfaced when I came home, and as one might expect, the occasional argument ensued.
In the wake of one particularly heated argument, I remember angrily shutting myself in my room. Desperate for answers and for a solution to what felt like a never-ending cycle of rage and hurt in my family, I went to Amazon’s book section and searched “anger” (I do this often when I identify sticking points in my life :P). I bought the first few results and was particularly drawn to Anger by Thich Nhat Hanh.
The cover of Anger by Thich Nhat Hanh
Anger was one of my first true exposures to Buddhism and to Thich Nhat Hanh, who I would later learn is a famous Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master and Nobel peace prize nominee. Mindfulness turned out to be a central tenet of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings, and it would not be far from truth to claim that the flavor of Buddhism he teaches is the natural philosophical extension of what it might look like if the principles behind mindfulness defined an individual’s entire way of life.
Through reading just the first few chapters of Anger, I was introduced to the beginnings of a few important insights, which I would eventually develop further during my time at the monastery: that I was angry because I was hurt; that my parents get angry and hurt me because they are, themselves, hurting; that because I am their genetic continuation, try as I might I’m not so different or so separate from them; that hurting my parents with my anger because I am hurt will only ever cause them to continue hurting me in turn; and that my parents are, themselves, victims of their parents’ and their parents’ parents’ pain, some of which has almost certainly been transmitted for generations as a kind of twisted, unresolved emotional heirloom.
In the first few chapters of Anger, Thich Nhat Hanh also mentions Plum Village, which piqued my interest. By the power of Google, I discovered that Plum Village is a mindfulness practice center not far from Bordeaux, France that Thich Nhat Hanh founded in 1982. I also learned that Plum Village opens itself to the public during certain times of the year for mindfulness and meditation retreats. Because I was impressed by Thich Nhat Hanh’s writing and his ideas, this knowledge would become the seed that sprouted into my 2018 goal to attend a 2-week mindfulness retreat. Though I didn’t entirely connect the dots at the time, Plum Village would also turn out to be a Buddhist monastery home to 100-200 monks and nuns hailing from all corners of the world–Vietnam, America, Europe, Eastern Europe, and many more. I, of course, went in with the image of “mindfulness practice center” in my head–had I thought of it primarily as a Buddhist monastery, I’m not sure I would have gone.
Love and Buddhism
The last step, which reaffirmed my commitment to make my way to Plum Village, was traveling to Vietnam and falling in love. (Yes, I am aware of just how cliché that is.) My Vietnamese girlfriend blew me away during our first date by self-professing to be both a Stoic and a Buddhist–two surprisingly similar philosophies that had recently captured my interest, and which I was also exploring. For me, the connection was instant and almost spooky–I felt there almost couldn’t have been a better match unless she had literally stalked me before we met.
Having been raised Buddhist in much the same way many Americans are raised Christian (i.e. a follower in name, but not really in spirit), she had a much longer history with Buddhism than I did. Recent events had led her to rediscover Buddhism on her own terms, so she had discovered Thich Nhat Hanh earlier than me and had already read most of his books. During our time together in Vietnam, she invited me to watch Walk With Me, a documentary about Plum Village narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch,
The movie poster for Walk With Me, a documentary about Plum Village
and we passed many evenings talking about life and philosophy. Though Anger had given me a nice introduction and opened me up to Buddhist teachings, it quickly became true that I had learned almost everything I knew about Buddhism from her. What I learned fascinated me: Buddhism in its purest form is not a religion, but rather a philosophy that tries to unpack how the insights and practices that led the Buddha to enlightenment. In short, it’s a very practical philosophy that aims to provide framework for how to live a good life. Yes, there are more mystical components like reincarnation and karma ingrained in some Buddhist teachings, but even these can be interpreted in non-religious ways (e.g. reincarnation doesn’t necessarily occur in the literal sense that my consciousness will be reborn, but certainly occurs in the sense that all parts of what is “me” will be recycled and reused by the universe long after I am dead).
More than knowledge, though, my Vietnamese girlfriend taught me much about what Buddhism looks and feels like in practice. With her, from her, and for her I learned what it means to love someone with deep compassion and understanding, in the Buddhist way. While I had even been exploring books like Adult Children Of Emotionally Immature Parents and contemplating the idea of distancing myself from my parents as toxic influences in my life, she had acknowledged how and why her parents caused her suffering, and chose to love them anyway. When I returned to the States in May and was thrust into the middle of a vicious family conflict–this time between my sister and my mother–she was my guide in learning to view both sides of the conflict with compassion so that I might help them understand each other. Without her counsel, I know my instinct would have been to respond with anger, suspicion, and punishment rather than love, understanding, and forgiveness–I would simply have added fuel to the flames.
Though our relationship ended in a rather messy way and under complicated circumstances, I remain eternally grateful to her for what she taught me. I think it’s even fair to say I still feel that deep Buddhistic sense of love and respect for her, though I’m convinced that she and I have important growth needs that couldn’t be met by our relationship, so I try not to remain attached to it. This is, however, a longer story about love, suffering, forgiveness, and compassion which is not yet–and perhaps never will be–anywhere near ready to be told in so public a fashion.
When I finally made it to France, I made my way to Plum Village because I had promised myself I would; because it was a dream I had shared with my ex- to go; because I wanted to learn more about how to deepen my mindfulness practice; and because I knew there was much I could learn there about how to heal, both from the aftermath of my recent romantic relationship, and from the cycles of suffering extant in my familial relationships. I’ve made it part of my mission to end these cycles and learn to resolve my own suffering so that if I decide to have children someday I don’t unwittingly turn them into victims of my own, and my parents’ shortcomings. I’ve made it part of my mission to heal myself, and help the people I love heal, too.
Plum Village did not disappoint.
Stay tuned next week to read my reflections about my Plum Village experience. I plan to publish my journal from my time there in its almost-raw form, edited just for clarity and concision.