Over the years, I’ve heard literally thousands of different questions from meditators about their practice. Interestingly, all those questions really condense down to three: what, how and why.
When someone asks “why meditate?” they are often asking, “what are the benefits of meditation?”
“What will I get out of spending all that time developing present moment awareness?”
This is an absolutely essential inquiry!
When we know some of the common benefits to look out for, we’re more apt to notice them when they start happening, and, accordingly, we naturally boost our motivation & commitment levels.
Even though it could be argued that the core benefit of mindfulness meditation is freedom more, suffering less, I today wish to give a more personal, less abstract list.
After having logged 10,000+ hours of formal meditation, what do I actually see as the major benefits on my life?
On my first 10 day meditation retreat, I ended up weeping for hours as I saw myself more truthfully than I had ever seen myself before. An ego-death. At the end of the weeping, all I could say was, “there’s so much love, there’s so much love.”
Over the following months, I was considerably nicer to people than before. Life just didn’t feel so serious anymore, and it became 1,000 times easier to default to kindness. My friends and family also noticed this in me.
Fast forward several years to after returning from my 21 month meditation retreat. When people asked what I learned, I usually said, “I learned how to love myself.”
Through spending so much time in silence studying myself, I saw all my neuroses so clearly. I re-experienced a lifetime of emotional memories. I couldn’t run from myself.
It became to feel so pointless to pressure myself to be “better.” I developed a deep trust in simply following my intuition. The net effect is that I radically accepted and allowed myself to be as I was.
That kindness I extended to myself has become even more easy to extend to others.
This is all another way of saying, because freedom is more and suffering is less, it’s easier to be kind.
2) Less Reactive.
Before I started meditating, I thought of reactivity only in terms of reacting to external events. How did I react when people were mean to me? When there was bad weather? When my car got broken into? When people were being obnoxious?
After meditating for a while, I realized that the core of reactivity is not so much how we relate to others, as it is how we relate to our own thoughts, feelings and sensations.
About a decade ago, when I was grumpy, everyone around me knew I was grumpy. I was not pleasant to be around. I was sharp and snippy, and carried a scowl on my face. Grumpiness, or something similar, happened pretty often. Especially the first couple hours of most days. I would get totally lost in it!
Inversely, these days when I’m grumpy, I know it’s “not me”—it’s just a fleeting emotion. It’s way easier to not react than it used to be. I’m very capable of still living my intentions, and maintaining kindness and peacefulness even amidst this unpleasant internal feeling.
This moment-to-moment insight also makes it way easier to not react strongly to external events, like when people are mean to me or something gets stolen from me.
However, I’m not perfect. Reactivity definitely still happens. I still have urges to withdraw and be smug. Sometimes I do act it out. But when I look at the contrast of a decade ago vs. today, there’s a difference the size of Antartica.
Less reactive is basically a way of saying: freedom more, suffering less.
3) Mental Efficiency
Have you ever noticed that when reading a book or a long article, or when listening to a podcast, your mind seems to drift off on its own for significant chunks of time?
Have you ever noticed that even without a significant medical condition, you generally don’t fall asleep within a few minutes of lying down?
Prior to meditating, I answered a screaming yes to all these questions.
I often felt a scattered mind. It was difficult to focus. Even though I knew most my thinking was repetitive and useless, it was so seductive that I spent nearly every free moment cycling through thoughts about the past, future and fantasies. I couldn’t stop it!
Nowadays, I haven’t perfectly solved these questions, but I’ve made enormous traction. None of them seem particularly troublesome anymore. My mind has become considerably more efficient and doesn’t so much do all the repetitive thinking or feel so scattered when trying to read, listen or do work.
This mental efficiency allows me to more so use my mind in ways that flow from my deeper intentions. In other words, freedom more, suffering less.
At one point, it suddenly occurred to me that I was hurrying through my life. When I brushed my teeth or folded my laundry, I had a subtle sense of “rushing.” There was always some implicit belief that I couldn’t relax until I had “finished all the things.”
For many years, I would often finish all the things and was able to sink into some deep relaxation. However, I would oscillate between hurry mode and relaxation mode. I started watching these poles and eventually was able to root in relaxation mode and simply not go back into hurry mode, even in a time crunch.
On a level even deeper, I often took life and my tasks a little too seriously. This is why I was hurrying. It’s also why I was very relentless as a meditator, initially pushing myself too hard.
When we take ourselves too seriously, we get caught up in results and we become agitated. When we relax, we’re contented to move in a direction without worrying about how it will end up.
Mindfulness has brought me back to the present, away from stressing about becoming something or going somewhere.
To put it another way, because freedom is more and suffering is less, I’m able to enter into a kind of relaxation that goes way beyond taking a nap or getting a massage—a deep inner relaxation.
While present moment awareness is a vehicle for insight and growth, it’s also inherently enlivening.
In the past, if I would go on a forest walk, most of my mental bandwidth was spent cycling through my own inner psychodramas. Of course, I’d catch some bird songs and notice any particularly huge trees, but I missed out on a lot of the details.
Nowadays, I notice significantly more details around me. I notice the little shifts in wind. I notice the different directions sound is coming from. I notice the various shades of green and how the sun shoots through the gaps in the branches.
I also notice my inner events more vividly. I don’t just get sucked in by the stories. I can go about my day, washing the dishes or writing this essay, all the while feeling the subtle changes in my body sensations as well the shifts of feeling and emotion.
Mindfulness makes my life richer as it gives me a simple tool to experience the moments and days more lucidly.
Once again, I live more lucidly because I’m more free from my psychodramas and suffer less the pain of dullness and distraction.
Sincerity is essentially kindness + living truthfully.
It’s tempting to think we can only have one or the other: care for others or care for ourselves. However, mindfulness has taught me how to have both.
While kindness initially came after that first retreat, my ability to live truthfully stemmed from a deepening self-awareness that grew over time.
When I began meditating, I was self-employed, selling used consumer electronics. I had a whole system figured out, which allowed me to set my own hours, to only work about 30-35 hours a week, and make more than enough money to support my lifestyle.
While it was tempting to stay in a situation that was “comfortable,” my mindfulness practice brought increasing clarity to what my inner voice was saying: this work isn’t deeply fulfilling. In turn, I sold the business and followed my inner voice onto a multi-year spiritual journey.
In other words, the basic mechanics are that mindfulness brings increasing clarity to the inner voice. It becomes impossible to keep lying to ourselves. There is a felt sense of how painful it is to keep living inauthentically. At some point, we feel absolutely compelled to follow our truth.
Bringing it all together, the reason that first retreat increased kindness was in large part because I saw how deeply I care about others. I’m absolutely convinced everyone’s inner voice cares deeply about others.
The magic of mindfulness is that it offers us inner voice clarity which shows us that both kindness and authenticity are of supreme importance. The process of sincerity is a lifelong harmonizing of those two drives.
Of course, it’s only possible to really live my truth because freedom is more and suffering is less.
Summary of benefits
Another meditator could have listed a completely different list of benefits. Likewise, a neuroscientist or spiritual guru would offer their own anecdotes. What I have shared is only my own personal reflections.
However, on a deeper level, if you look at anyone’s list of benefits, it really all comes down to a simple phrase:
Freedom more, suffering less.