A Handful of Quick Points About Meditation

I started learning about and practicing meditation a little under a decade ago – that is, if you discount the time I’ve spent as a kid trying to mimic the meditation practice of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. 

I’m not an avid meditator; I’ve been doing it on and off, somethings practicing every day for almost a year, and then stopping for months at a time. I’ve tried several types of meditation, and while I can’t speak about achieving enlightenment, I can generally feel a subjective improvement in the quality of my life when I do it regularly, much like what happens when you practice regular exercising or healthy eating. 

All spiritual considerations aside, I feel that I stand on very solid ground when I say that it’s a healthy habit. What follows is a list of points that clear some misconceptions about the practice, and of stuff that I wish someone had told me and ended up having to discover by myself:

You Can Fail At Meditation

“You can’t fail at meditation” is the biggest misconception about the practice. This is a pernicious lie, and you’ve probably read it at least a dozen times if you’ve browsed the web looking about information on how to meditate. There’s a lot of “feel-good,” wishy-washy woo-woo nonsense in the personal development space, and part of that is a taboo on discussing failure.

You can meditate wrong. You can sit and think you are meditating while, in fact, you’re just sitting for 20 minutes stewing in your own thoughts. Learning to meditate is not hard, and virtually anyone can learn it within 5 minutes with the proper guidance, but you still have to learn how to do it, and you can indeed progress and get better at it through experience – this is why we call it a “practice.” If you can’t recognize when you’re doing it wrong, then you can’t course-correct toward improvement.

It’s Not Spiritual Nor Religious

Meditation can be a spiritual practice, but it doesn’t have to be – nor must it be associated with a specific religious tradition. It can be a mere exercise in awareness, a purely mental exercise. 

Once, I talked with a friend who felt that if she meditated, she would be sinning against her Christian faith. This is the same as saying that a person must be religious if he or she appreciated the architectural beauty of a church. While meditation is deeply integrated with some eastern religious traditions, a practice such as Vipassana meditation can be taken up in an entirely secular manner.

You Don’t Need To Sit In A Weird, Uncomfortable Position

This is one more misconception to chalk up to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles years. The lotus, or similar cross-legged sitting positions, are cool because the tension on your back and spine help you stay more aware of your body and don’t allow you to fall asleep too easily, but they are entirely optional positions.

You can meditate with as much quality in any sitting position, even on your favorite chair or couch. Theoretically, you can also do it lying down in bed, though in practice this seems to make it harder. Don’t let an uncomfortable position get in the way of your practice.

You need not sit on the floor or on a cushion. Your average garishly yellow couch will do just fine.

Having a Practice Group Has Pros And Cons

When I started my practice, it was as part of an online challenge group. It’s nice to have such a group – online or in real life – because you can keep each other accountable to the “do it every day” goal; and it’s helpful to share experiences and insights. 

On the other hand, people tend to get competitive in a “my way to do it is the right way,” if not in the “I do it better than you” way. This is not good. While I’ve established above that you can, contrary to popular belief, fail at meditation, it’s up to you to be the judge of your practice. Especially if someone is at more or less the same experience level as you are, they have no business providing directions. 

Comparison only leads to a dead-end, in this situation, mainly because most of us lack the vocabulary to adequately describe our meditation experiences.

Guided Meditations Help

Even after nearly a decade, having someone’s voice guiding me through the practice is still very helpful. You can find a lot of 100% free and paid-with-free-trials apps around. It’s fantastic for beginners and useful for people who have tried it on-and-off like me and would like to be more consistent. 

Part of what makes meditation a tremendous mental health practice is that it is always available to you anywhere, under any circumstances, so you might think that relying on an app defeats the point. The thing to consider is that you should treat an app as you would treat, let’s say, a Tennis or Chess instructor – when available, you’ll learn and improve your game, and when not available, you can still apply what you learned by yourself.

Meditation Stuff That I Like

(I’m too lazy to set up affiliate links, so I earn no compensation from sharing these. I link to them because I like them.)

App (free for the basics, subscription for the advanced): Waking Up guided meditations – the newest one on the block, I’ve been using it since release, and it’s my favorite yet. Sam strikes a good balance between guiding you, explaining the nuances of the practice, and just leaving you to it, without being intrusive.

Book (free!): Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book – that’s a long title, and it’s a hard read, exactly as it says in the title: hardcore. I guess that’s why I like it? It goes against all that woo-woo nonsense that permeates the internet and goes into minute detail about what a meditation practice should and should not feel like. If you are allergic to religion, don’t let the Buddha and Dharma in the title scare you – there is plenty of practical instruction in the book. It’s FREE!

I started this post off thinking it would be a quick list and ended up going into a lot more detail than I wanted to. Ah well. Hope it was of use to you.

Reminders of Death

I was once told a story about a ritual observed by the generals of the Roman Empire after a victorious campaign. As the general was paraded in full shining regalia through the streets of Rome, waving atop his chariot to the people gathered in celebration, he would have a slave standing beside him, a little further back. This slave would be holding a dagger to his back, concealed from the populace by the general’s cloak. Periodically, he would lean in and whisper:

“Memento Mori.”

Remember death. Recall, oh victorious one, that you are mortal. That your victory – and life – is but a plaything of the Gods, a thin thread ready to be plucked from the wheel of Fate.

I’m doubtful that this story represents, in fact, historical reality. It seems a bit too perfect, a bit too wise. It remains, nonetheless, one of my favorite stories, because it is true in a sense far more critical than the historical truism. It is true because it is useful.

A couple of days ago, a friend’s baby daughter died at one year of age. Upon being told this, my American friends were dismayed from me not using the term “passed away.” In the Portuguese language, we don’t have an equivalent to “passed away,” unless you stretch it. Death is serious business. That girl died. It’s up to the philosophers and theologians to discuss what happens after that.

For the rest of us, what’s left is to take in the full brunt of the experience, to take in the sorrow of the mother as she closed the casket, weeping all along. To feel the father straining in his self-control, knowing full well that he could not crumble at that moment, that his wife needed him as support. To feel the shock of the grandparents, the cousins, the aunts, and uncles, who were deprived of a shining beacon of light, forever snuffed from their lives.

This is a real-life “Memento Mori.” Remember death. It’s for this reason that it is our responsibility – and our privilege – to bear the full burden of suffering and sorrow, with no sugarcoating, of the event. Because, if nothing else, it is a costly reminder that all that we cherish and love is but a gift that can be revoked at any moment, with little to no notice. The grim reality is that, but for the whim of fate, it could have been me, or any of the people reading these lines, standing there, closing the lid of the coffin over the face of a loved one.

It’s pretty cool that the Greeks saw Fate as a tapestry where each individual thread – representing the lives of each of us – was woven into by three seamstresses. It accounts for the element of seemingly randomness and paradox that feels weird if we assume that everything is set in stone by a single mastermind. The seamstresses need not always be of the same mind on how to pursue their craft.

The point of memento mori is not to lead you to depression and despair. The value of these words is in the reminder to cherish what you have, to cherish the people you love while they are here, no matter how imperfect they are and how strained the circumstances of your life might be. To be kind and compassionate and humble in your victories, because even as you parade in all your glory, the specter of death holds a cold dagger to your back. You live and celebrate and enjoy happiness at Fate’s discretion.

If you kiss your loved ones with the full realization that it might be the last time you can do so, then you’ll cherish the moment appropriately. Because one day, it will indeed be the last time. Death will touch either one of you. And while we like to play the “age game” in our minds and tell ourselves that we know who will go first, that is but an illusion, a lie we tell ourselves. Every one of us has their clock ticking, the hourglass steadily emptying, but no-one knows how much sand lies within.

As I can’t afford to own a slave, there are a couple of trinkets that I find useful to have around for the purposes of “Memento Mori.” I’m linking them here because I think they are worth having; I earn no compensation from the people who produce them.

First off, is a Memento Mori medallion. I keep this by my bedside while I sleep, and next to my laptop while I work. You can get it as a necklace too, if you’d like to keep it close to your heart. Then, I have the WeCroak app installed on my phone. This little gem – available for iPhone and Android – sends you the most crucial notification you’re going to get on your phone: one reminding you that you are going to die. It does this five times a day. You get a quote about death thrown in for free, but I find those to be of varying quality, and not necessary anyway – the reminder is the key.

You’re not going to live forever; nor are the people who you love. Act accordingly.

Persona 5 and the Integration of the Shadow

Persona 5 is about many things. One of them is growing up. 

The game’s teenage heroes are struggling to grow up in an oppressive, strict society. The surrounding adults view them as either a commodity or a nuisance. The game reflects this through its story. The common bond between the characters is that all them were exploited by adults in some fashion.

But their society also has some things that they value and produces a lot of things that they like. A lot of time spent playing Persona is spent enjoying the products of the very society that oppresses the characters.  

So there’s an unspoken dichotomy here. The characters want things to change, but they don’t want to tear down society. They don’t want to remake the world, they want to course-correct what they perceive as a corrupt system.

The problem they face is that they are powerless kids. They can’t do anything to fight the injustice around them. Until they gain their “powers.” In the game, this is represented by a scene where – pushed to their limits – the characters tear a mask from their face. This scene is a grisly one –  skin breaks, and their faces bleed. 

Doing this, they unleash their magical alter-ego. This being can actually face up to the psychological tyranny of the adults. 

(Most of the action in the game happens inside people’s subconscious, for reasons that are worth exploring in a different essay.)

This is a powerful representation of the Jungian concept of the unleashing and taming of the inner shadow. It goes something like this:

You stop being a defenseless child once you recognize that there’s something inside of you that can hurt others. And you figure out that the only thing preventing that beast from wreaking havoc in the world is your own sense of morals and willpower. 

persona-5-arsene
Joker’s alter-ego is Arséne, named after the famous thief. There’s a lot to unpack here – the Joker is a wildcard, and the Joker is also the one who brings change, mythologically. Persona 5 is rich in meaning.

If you believe that there’s only goodness and innocence inside of you – as the Persona kids did – then you’re a sheep. A sheep doesn’t have the option to be good or evil – it’s just a damn sheep! 

But if you recognize that there’s a shadow within you… If you understand your potential for rage and murder and destruction and the general causing of suffering, then now, you have a choice! From this choice is born the concept of good and evil. You can’t have morals without options.

And now that you recognize that you have a choice, you aren’t a defenseless child anymore. You can visit suffering upon others. You are an adult. You can be a good one, or you can be an oppressive tyrant like the ones that you’ve rallied against – that’s up to you. But you have the option; by recognizing the darkness inside, you’ve grown up.

Partly. 

There’s another part to growing up that’s beautifully portrayed in Persona 5. That’s sacrificing the unlimited potential of childhood for the focused realization of adulthood. This is what helps solve the dilemma that the characters face between the rigidity but usefulness of their society, and their own aspirations of individuality. But that’s yet another essay. 

The reason that I wanted to focus on this part first is that I see too many “adults” every day that never tore the mask off. They walk around, lamenting their lives and claiming they are “good,” but they aren’t. They are wolves without teeth.

Don’t be that way. Don’t be the person that never learned to stand up for his or herself because “that’s not the kind of person that I am.” Don’t be a child. Tear off that mask – find out what’s dangerous, lurking inside. And once you find it, don’t let it hurt anyone. Only then can you truly say that you are “good.”

The mere knowledge of the beast will help you stand up to whatever life throws at you.

Writer. Podcaster. Marketer. Dental Surgeon. Gamer.