A few days ago I met a former Buddhist monk. He introduced himself as Tom. When we first met there was no handshake upon introduction, no formal greeting like the Cambodian Sampeah (a gesture common in most southeast Asian cultures (although called many different things) where each individual greets the other with palms together to show respect). Nothing like that, all he did was a motion to the seat across from him, and yet it still felt more genuine than the hundred “how are you?” I would hear daily in the states.
Tom has studied meditation for the past forty years, and while I’m no stranger to meditation, the things I learned in the two hours of us sitting together has changed the way I look at the mind and intuition. Everything in this blog post I either learned from Tom or were reinforced by him. In the entirety of the two hours, we spent only twenty minutes of it actually meditating, the rest of the time Tom used to explain to me the benefits of meditation and how to do it correctly.
Tom had the energy of a teacher or even a master. I was eagerly awaiting his instruction to begin the meditation, instead, he raised one of his arms off his leg leaving it to hover there and turned his palm to face up and then continued to rotate his hand. His movements were deliberate and constant. There was no trepidation in his movement, not even a hint of thought. I was truly entranced by this man and I didn’t know why.
“Do you know how I am able to move my arm like this?”
A question wasn’t the first thing I was expecting when seeking to learn more about meditation. But I responded with “Your mind…tells it to?” His gaze was piercing like he was seeing me like no one had before, it almost made me feel naked.
“Indeed. The mind controls the body, that part is easy. You can force your body to move, but you can’t force your mind to think or feel a certain way. It takes practice to have control over your mind like you do over your body.”
“Think of the mind like you think of your body.” He let out a hearty laugh and patted his belly. “How do you get rid of fat in your body? With diet and exercise of course, why would it be any different in the mind?”
He could tell I was confused, so he continued.
“The diet is made up of your thoughts and emotions. Too much negativity, too much sadness or anger or hatred, and fat builds up in the mind. Meditation is the exercise to free your fat head.” This quip made him giggle quite extensively, as did I because everything about this man was infectious.
The First Principle: 5 categories of thought
There are five categories in which thoughts and emotions can be placed while meditating. Yes, I understand that sometimes thoughts fit “between” these categories, but it’s more important to choose a place for it quickly rather than to mull over the best option. Pick a label, and keep breathing.
- Necessary – thoughts like “I’m hungry”, or “I’m tired”, or “Do I have to poop or is it just gas?” You know, normal everyday stuff that keeps us alive.
- Negative – in short, self-deprecation. This includes things like “I shouldn’t have spoken out of turn in my meeting, I’m such an idiot.” Or it could simply be experiencing anger. Emotion usually coincides with thought, but sometimes emotion acts in its own accordance. For instance, you can feel angry for no apparent reason, if that happens you can still label it as a “negative”.
- Toxic – Toxic thoughts are the ones that linger. We all have them, some are better at dealing with them, and others are better at hiding them. Toxic thoughts or emotion are things like: rage, anxiety, and intense worry. It’s a step past negativity, and you’ll be able to tell the difference because it permeates through to a deeper part of yourself. For me, anxiety is the most frequent culprit.
- Waste – Tom explained that 90% of the thoughts we have in a day are a waste. Things that add no substance, or have such little weight they don’t even register as thought. Autopilot, if you will.
- Positive – if you’re just starting out with meditation this may be the least frequent of the categories visited. But, the more that you are aware of your thought patterns, the more a “well” of positivity will begin to fill up.
Meditation will not get rid of your anxiety. It will not get rid of your depression. It will not keep you from feeling angry, or sad, or betrayed, or lost. You are human, feelings like these are inevitable, but Buddha explained that while pain is unavoidable, suffering is optional.
If you’re like me then you know how terrifying panic attacks are, and how debilitating they can be. I felt out of control of my mind for so long, that it felt like I was in the middle of a torrential mental downpour. This difference that meditation has made in my life is the way I am able to deal with those emotions when they arise. In the beginning of my meditative practice it felt like I was seeking refuge under a leaf, then I upgraded to an umbrella, now I’m at a place where it feels like I am watching the storm out of a window. Sure the storm may still affect me, but it has no control over me.
The Second Principle: when to meditate
Tom taught me to meditate for fifteen minutes every morning and evening as the first and last thing I do. If I can’t fall asleep after I meditate at night then I read, but I don’t add to the “waste” category by hopping back on social media. Tom explained why it is important to meditate twice:
- Morning – It is hugely beneficial to set an intention for the day or week. Choose an attribute or emotion that can benefit your highest self. For instance, I like to stay really busy, but I’m also an incredibly indecisive person, so by taking fifteen minutes in the morning to set an intention to have more conviction I’m able to better balance my life without guilt. After a few days of focusing on decisiveness during my mediation, I soon learned how quickly it was being applied to my life. Even if I was choosing to take a 30-minute break to watch a show, or take a walk, I did not feel guilty about it at all because I DECIDED to do that, rather than rationalizing procrastination and feeling guilt begin to accumulate in my mind.
- Night – Tom said it best: “Everyone’s body sleeps at night, not everyone’s mind rests.” Holy shit is this so true. Sometimes my anxiety would be so bad as I was sleeping that I would bolt awake and have to vomit. Sometimes I would have night terrors and wake up in a cold sweat. Meditating at night is like asking your mind to rest, to take whatever happened during the day and store them in the five categories, and be at peace for the night.
When to not meditate:
- When you’re in the middle of the storm. If you’re experiencing a panic attack or other intense emotion forcing meditation is pretty much impossible and you won’t bring you as much comfort as you had hoped. Instead, use grounding techniques, you’ve got to find what works for you, I use intense exercise to expel the pent up negative energy (as a preventative measure) and breathing techniques and mantras as an immediate measure. Tom explained this as trying to use a small sailboat during a hurricane. You have to wait until the majority of your symptoms have subsided before you can truly be mindful.
The Third Principle: increasing spiritual quality
There are a few ways to increase spiritual quality according to Tom. He said that the goal is to “look at the world like you are two years old.” Wide-eyed, fascinated and exuberant.
- Respect yourself – everything starts with you. If you don’t love and respect yourself it becomes incredibly easy to feel jaded towards circumstance. When you learn to respect yourself others will begin to feel it. This is because respect can’t be demanded and if it is then it’s not. Respect comes from within; it comes from still and quiet confidence.
- Acknowledge the nobility of human spirit – every spirit, from every background, has worth and beauty. In Cambodia they use the Sampeah as a genuine sign of respect and recognition of spiritual valor, in Thailand they call it “Wai”, and in India, it’s the Praṇāmāsana. All of these are variations of the same thing, all offering deep respect to the other individual. This is something that I think is severely lacking in western culture, while there are no shortages of saying, “how are you?” there is an absence of genuine curiosity.
- Sharing – everything is amplified when you share something. Tom gave the example of watching a funny movie. When you watch it on your own it is funny for sure, but when you watch it with some of your best friends it may be one of the funniest things you’ve ever seen. The same goes with spiritual quality. Meditate with others. Share thoughts and feelings freely. Be open and vulnerable.
The Fourth Principle: relaxation
- Breathe – meditation is simply focusing on your breath. Knowing that the shallowness or depth does not mean good or bad, simply viewing it as a genuine curiosity. Breath through your nose and focus on the way the air is cooled when you breathe in and is slightly hot when you exhale.
- Sit up – you do not need to be in a lotus pose to be “meditating”, but you should be upright. The reason is twofold: first, because you’re meditating morning and night, if you try to meditate lying down it is very easy to fall asleep. And second, when tumultuous emotions do arise it is a lot easier for your mind to deal with them after practicing meditation upright. This is because your body relies on “cues”, if you only meditate lying down then it will be difficult to be as mindful while sitting upright.
- Scan your body – start at the top of your head and move downward being cognizant of making sure each body part is as free from tension as possible.
- Eyes open – This was very surprising. Every time I had ever meditated my eyes were always closed. Tom simply asked, “what if you are in an interview and you feel nervous? You would have to close your eyes to feel any relief. Closing your eyes is limiting yourself. Learn to meditate when your eyes are open and you can meditate anytime and anywhere.”
Tom has studied numerous types of meditation for the past forty years. I trust him, before he even spoke I trusted him. That’s the sort of presence he held, and that’s the affect I want to project.
Tom suggested to anyone interested in meditation to use guided meditations to begin with. When he is having trouble connecting his favorite app to use is Buddhify, which is a beautifully designed app from the US. I thought it was funny that a former monk was using an app like Buddhify, but then he said, “meditation is a journey through the self, The Buddha nor any other guru or God will guide you. Meditation is a way to better serve the ones you love by learning to love yourself.” I’ve never met someone who was able to answer questions that I had about meditation or spirituality in such a succinct manner.
After two hours of talking and sitting together in meditation for twenty minutes I felt…new. I was filled with so much energy, I asked him if it was okay if I came and visited him again. I thought if I practiced all week I would be much better at employing his techniques and wanted to talk with him further because I’m sure I would have more questions. I was surprised by his answer…
“No. You have what you need.”
I have what I need? But…what if I have questions? Who can I talk to about this? I’m not ready to do this all on my own.
“These are the rules I have learned in the past forty years that heed the best results. Any question that may come up, you can answer on your own. Trust me.”
And I did, since the beginning I trusted him.
He smiled warmly and wide and stood up abruptly, then said, “I must be going now.” Before giving me a chance to stand as well, he raised his hand to wave, but rather than waving at me he twiddled his fingers, “Bye-bye Wolfe.”
Bye-bye Tom. Thank you.
Much love & many adventures,