I used to bite my nails. It was an involuntary, nervous habit. I didn’t even really realize I was doing it most of the time.
Last year I started meditating for unrelated reasons, and I stopped biting my nails.
I can personally attest to the multitudes of unexpected benefits I’ve gotten from meditation. Let me describe some of the ways learning to be present can benefit you (and indirectly benefit the people around you), and maybe you’ll decide to give it a shot.
Breaking Feedback Loops
This is the big one for me. It’s very easy to get caught up in the theater of the mind, reliving old experiences or creating elaborate scenarios for things that probably won’t even happen. By learning to be vigilant in redirecting my attention to what’s happening in the present moment, I’ve gotten a lot better at breaking the cycles in my head that might spontaneously create an emotional response I don’t want.
For example, I might get lost in my head thinking about how someone cut me off in traffic and what a jerk they are and how they probably don’t love their mothers and how they must love punching kittens in their adorable, helpless, kitten faces. By flexing the brain during meditation, you get better at taking a step back from the feedback loops in your brain that might be causing you to be angry at the terrible driver.
It’s not just for that anger scenario, though. Those same types of loops are prevalent in depression. If you feel like a turd, sometimes it’s hard to feel anything except for your own turd-liness and you can’t regain motivation to do anything until you can step outside that emotion. It’s the same for anxiety. When you’re anxious, you can’t even begin to calm down your cortisol and stress chemicals until you break the mental cycles keeping you in that state.
In order to break the cycle, you have to learn how. Meditation does that by learning to constantly refocus. Thoughts and feelings come and go, and learning to feel them and then let them pass is a trainable skill. You can learn through mindfulness techniques such as redirecting your focus to the breath, or to a sound, or to a visualization.
Meditation doesn’t prevent you from getting angry or sad or anxious, but it can give you the tools to change your relationship to those feelings and be able to process them in a more constructive way.
Meditation is a process of concentration. It makes perfect sense that developing that skill through daily practice would give you a greater ability to focus on certain tasks (Such as writing! Which I’m doing right now!). I’m not prescribing it as a cure-all for ADHD or anything, but it can certainly help.
In a way, this is related to breaking feedback loops because it’s another way to learn to vigilantly refocus. I’ve heard some people say they can’t meditate because their brain is overactive and they aren’t able to contain the mind to just breath, or whatever the focus may be. I think that’s an incorrect response. No one has a completely clear mind. No Zen master sitting under a tree can completely clear out all thoughts. In fact, thinking is a powerful activity and you shouldn’t be trying to completely relinquish yourself from its burden. It’s about learning to let thoughts come, notice them, and let them go.
I actually think focus can be one of the many ingredients in happiness. In order to feel productive, and like you’re contributing in some sort of meaningful way to your work or hobbies or activities, there needs to be a connection to a state of flow. You’ve got to be able to get in the zone.
That magic moment where you’re so inside the activity that the rest of the world drops away is what I mean by flow. It’s the fleeting feeling of letting go, and we’re all chasing it in different ways.
Personally, I find it easy to do with activities I love. Singing, playing guitar, and writing are all examples of things that it’s easy to lose track of time doing. Finding activities where it’s easy to do is important, but it’s equally important to cultivate your own mental ability to connect with the activity.
Becoming Comfortable With Yourself
I know. This is some big talk. There are a lot of people struggling with self confidence and acceptance and there is no magic bullet, but learning to connect with your thoughts and feelings and the impermanent nature of them is an important step.
Before you can accept yourself as you are, you have to know yourself as you are. It’s easy to create narratives about yourself in a way that doesn’t exactly reflect reality. Meditation is a way to learn more about yourself, all the positive and the negative thoughts and feelings. It’s a way to connect to self awareness.
From a place of awareness, it’s easier to see yourself in a way that is nonjudgmental. It is what it is. You think what you think. You feel what you feel.
The real problem is self judgment. Learning about your own thoughts and feelings can bring a sense of compassion, and that’s an important component of becoming comfortable with yourself and confident.
Let’s be real here. Being a human is hard. There are a lot of difficult choices to make about your own values and about what you want to do with your limited time on Planet Earth. Even if you know (read: think you know) those things about yourself, time can– and will– change everything. Cultivating that self compassion through increased self awareness is a valuable tool.
I’m not a meditation expert, and I’ll freely admit it. I’m on the journey, same as everyone else, so you can believe what you want. These are only some of what I view as the main benefits for me personally. There are a lot more that I haven’t talked about. But I’m serious when I say that I’ve experienced the changes first hand, and you can too. It doesn’t take much.
There are a lot of great free (or cheap) resources out there, including podcasts and apps that are incredibly easy to use and are at your (non-nail-bitten) fingertips. I mostly use an app called Headspace, but I also really enjoy listening to Tara Brach and a few others.
Here’s my challenge: Give it a shot. Find a guided meditation you like and do it for ten minutes a day over ten days. Then tell me how your brain feels. You’ll never go back.