Many people miscomprehend the meaning of “meditation.” There is the assumption that meditation enables humans to “find themselves” or discover the meaning of life. This assumption stems from meditation’s association with Hinduism, Buddhism, gurus, mantras, and new levels of consciousness. However, I hope not to disappoint anyone when I say that this could not be farther from what meditation entails. Dr. Paul Fleischman instead calls meditation “sitting.” He rightfully points out that “sitting has no connotations.” Meditation should enable sitters to simply focus on their breath for a period of time. There are too few moments in life when we can just sit and breathe.
The majority of my day is spent focused outwardly. I pay attention in class to a speaker, I read words printed in a book, I run how my coach tells me to, I relax with friends, I scroll through the Internet. Our whole day consists of distracting ourselves from what’s within. And how easy it is to do so! The stimuli are everywhere: sights, words, sounds, tastes. It is frighteningly simple to go through life without checking in with ourselves.
Our lives can become so busy that not only do we lose touch with our inner state, but we also lose consciousness of many of the things going on around us. Fleischman says, “I sit to open my pores-skin and mind both-to the life that surrounds me inside and outside.” Meditation, or rather just sitting, makes us more conscious of both our surroundings and ourselves. With increased awareness of what’s around us, we can feel the vibration of the buses on the roads, hear birds in the Yard that we forgot existed, see colors on our classmates’ coats, smell the exhaust from a nearby construction site. While it is easy to become inundated with distractions, tasks, worries, and qualms, heightened awareness to our surroundings can assuage our stressful, busy lives. It is through sitting that we can focus on increasing our awareness.
When I first meditated, I was told to focus on my breath. The easiest way to do this is to focus on the rising and falling of your stomach as you inhale and exhale, or to focus on the air rushing in and out of your nostrils. This may seem boring, or sleep inducing, and it certainly can be. Thoughts will certainly come into your mind as you sit. These daydreams are certainly more entertaining than focusing on air entering and exiting your nostrils, but mind wandering is not a sign of failure. By recognizing that your mind has wandered, you will have successfully increased your awareness.
Sitting requires self-control, too. You sit with your back straight for a given amount of time and strive to focus. Your feet may fall asleep, your back will ache, boredom will ensue…however, the pain will pass. Just sitting has taught me that all things in life, both positive and negative, will come and go in waves. Emotions are comparable to sounds and smells; they will come and go. Hardships will sting and happiness will create joy. But these emotions are not permanent. Experiencing levels of euphoria and pain can be exhausting. Sitting teaches us to strive for neutrality; to experience positive and negative emotions without strongly reacting to them.
When I focus on my breath and on my sitting, no outside emotions or factors can touch me. Grades, money, assignments, and friendship drama cannot affect me for those few minutes when all that matters is my posture and my respiration. When I open my eyes after sitting, I am recharged with the idea that my worries are temporary, that achievements do not need to be comparative, and that often the judgment of others is irrelevant. Therefore, while sitting does not necessarily bring world peace or solve the world’s hunger problem, I can return to my day with new excitement and sense of control. I cannot regulate what goes on outside of me, but I can control how I react.
Without a set time to sit, it is difficult to motivate myself to do so. However, I firmly believe that even a few minutes each day of deliberate increased awareness can decrease stress and reinvigorate oneself. I challenge myself, and others, to take the time to sit for a few minutes daily (preferably at a point when we aren’t too tired). Turn off your phone, shut down the laptop, and just focus on the breath. I am curious to see how sitting could affect our Harvard community. My hope is that levels of stress and competitiveness will decrease. But as sitting as taught me, I can only really focus on myself.