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  • Writer's pictureRyan Allen

Discovering the nature of consciousness: my experience so far with meditation

If someone would have described to me a few years ago the profound impact that meditation would have on my mental health and overall experience in such a short period of time, I honestly would have thought that person was being ridiculous. Now, I consider this practice to be an essential part of my daily routine, and an invaluable tool for coping with even the most stressful or difficult circumstances. In fact, I feel it has seriously helped me approach my most recent major challenges—such as my diabetes diagnosis or upcoming MCAT exam—with a healthy level of assurance rather than panic.

I can understand the doubts that many express when it comes to getting involved with meditation or mindfulness practices, because I was quite hesitant myself. Prior to progressing from high school to college, I had a very set view of mental health, and always felt that there was no need to take any action on that front. I’d never felt like I’d struggled with it, especially not to the extent that others had described. I also had a pretty rigid mindset regarding what health practices I felt did not work, did not matter, or did not actually affect anything. One such thing on this list was, of course, meditation.

With the transition to undergrad, like many others I had the realization that I finally bore the responsibility to look after my own health. Along with this came a newfound curiosity into why I thought the way I did about not only mental health, but health in general. Eventually, I would ask myself the question, why do people meditate? Is this a legitimate practice that could benefit me?

Beginning to finally do some research myself on the practice of meditation, I was shocked by some of the comments I was hearing across the board from reliable sources (doctors, neuroscientists, and scholars across many fields). The way I had heard the potential of meditation harnessed by some seemed akin to the “life-changing” experiences of psychedelic drugs, so I was understandably curious to explore this, not knowing fully what I was expecting. However, what was really important to me was that, contrary to my previous thought, it seemed to be an actual well- established, accredited practice.

From my own practice, I have discovered the crucial point that meditation is a valuable process with no clear end, but seemingly constant improvement and enhancement of day-to-day experience. This thinking is very important, because for me it’s critical to not necessarily have any expectations going in. If you’re hoping to one day reach some climax that suddenly results in you becoming a better person (which is subconsciously quite common while meditating, myself included), that’s not exactly going to happen. I have, though, noticed clear positive changes to my life over my timeframe of meditating. It may sound a little crazy for someone who has not consistently engaged in this practice, but I have realized that I seem to overall just have better days when I meditate in the morning compared to when I don’t. I have also noticed improved relationships with others, better communication with these people, listening skills, empathy, and more.

So, the practice. What is it that I do while meditating? I personally have been grateful for what I’ve gained using neuroscientist Sam Harris’ app Waking Up, although I have heard of many others having positive experiences with other guided meditation programs or apps (Nick has used both Waking Up and Headspace, praising both for different reasons). In the daily guided meditations on Waking Up, Harris focuses on a number of different meditation techniques, the most common being what’s generally referred to as mindfulness meditation.

In mindfulness meditation, I began by focusing closely on the crude aspects of consciousness (sights, sounds, sensations, etc.). Over time, I’ve come to realize through meditation that one’s state of consciousness is simply the space that gives rise to all of these appearances, it is the collection of all of these experiences. We, therefore, are nothing more than that. Our lives, ourselves, are these experiences. Through this and much more, I feel like I’ve been given a sense of clarity that has allowed me to rid myself of stress and negativity, knowing that these are just appearances in consciousness and nothing more. By the way, I know that there is certainly a possibility that this makes no sense right now, which is totally fine. That was definitely the case for me for a long time. Always remember, meditation is a process.

Other types of meditation I’ve used in Waking Up include metta meditation, literally meaning “loving-kindness,” which has usually focused on envisioning a person and actively wishing them well. Often, this starts by thinking of someone close to you with whom you have a very good, uncomplicated relationship. You then try to replicate these same positive thoughts for someone you are completely neutral to, like maybe a clerk at the store you always visit. Eventually, the challenge is to do this for someone you have difficulties or issues with, someone you just don’t like.

So what’s the point? Well, in addition to my strong recommendation that you try meditation for yourself (and be patient), I cannot stress enough how this new flexibility in my approach to medicine has drastically improved so many aspects of my own personal health (via not just meditation, but several other lifestyle changes I look forward to detailing in future posts). I feel that this open mentality is perhaps the single most important point of advice that I would like to convey here. If you take nothing else away from this post, make sure you just note the following: our thoughts on health must be adaptable. The odds that we have been fed at least one complete misconception about health or medicine in our lifetime are quite great, and the odds that the evidence and thinking of the scientific community will evolve over time are even greater (in fact, this is certain). So be flexible, be adaptable, be open to hearing and even trying things that may completely contradict your current thinking. You never know what it might do for you.

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