I got into clinical psychology due to my experiences with Zen meditation, which completely changed my brain and life. The change was directly felt, and the experiences were undeniable beyond anything I had ever tried. It was better than any supplement, any therapy, and even better than benzodiazepines (or other drugs, for that matter).
I was a damaged person when I discovered Zen. I had a tumultuous and abusive childhood. I grew up in poverty, from a broken home, raised in various ghettos, and was even a victim of what arguably was an act of terrorism, which nearly killed me. Technically speaking, I was told I had died on the operating table at one point. Needless to say, my introduction to Zen wasn't at a day spa while I was getting a massage and planning my next cruise. Zen came around as a last-ditch effort to try and find something to help myself.
Three things happened to me that I want to share with you.
Firstly, after about a month or two of sitting in meditation for about 15 minutes a day, each day, without missing, I began to feel that incessant spinning thought machine in my head start to slow down. Thoughts started coming slower and slower, with less of an impact. They didn't feel as intrusive, loud, and serious. As a result, my anxious or depressive reaction to those intrusive thoughts began to fade. This was a blessing. This was enough to keep me meditating if that's all it did for me. After all, to have that impact for something I could do that cost no money, didn't require me to leave or go anywhere, didn't require me to buy or use some fancy machine or supplements, and which I could do in about 15 minutes, it was worth it. But to my surprise, it got even better.
Secondly, after a couple more months of daily practice, something else began to happen. I started to feel a pervasive sense of peace, then came some sense of joy. It felt as though these things were in the basement of my mind, repressed and shoved down underneath the incessant thoughts and all fixation on anxiety, depression, trauma, and insecurity. It's hard to describe it, but things started making more sense. I felt less at odds with myself, who I was, where I came from, where I was going, and the people and events in my life. It all just got...easier, for lack of a better word. And the peace was so refreshing. You know, many of us say we want to be happy. Everyone talks about being happy. But what is happiness? Happiness seems fleeting. Happiness is a nice hot cup of coffee on a cold winter morning. Happiness is a new car, a vacation to the beach, etc.
Whatever happiness is exactly, it is always fleeting, and it always seems dependent on other things in our lives coming together or leaving us. We think, "I'll be happy when....." Insert situation. However, peace, on the other hand, was different. Peace isn't happiness. Peace isn't dependent on anything else. You could have peace while lying in bed sick with the flu, though you wouldn't be happy.
It was through Zen meditation that I realized what I was truly after wasn't happiness. It was peace.
Next came joy.
Again, joy was similar to happiness but was different. It wasn't dependent on things coming together in my life, or some kind of big bank account, or beauty, or health, or anything. Joy was like the radiating gratitude I had just to be here, just to be alive. Or, as Joseph Campbell would say, no matter what seat you had, it was a good show. Referring, of course, to this ride we call life.
That seems so contradictory to our misery and suffering. It almost seems offensive at times. Perhaps that's part of the problem, that we push away peace and joy in favor of clinging to our misery. The human mind is a strange thing. I think we know more about the minerals on Mars than we do about the nature of our minds.
As peace and joy permeated my being, all of my relationships got better, even the bad ones. I enrolled in college and decided I wanted to make a positive change in the world. I was damn serious about it too. I felt it in my being as though it were a mission or task I had remembered through the meditation.
Finally, after several months of meditating, something else emerged. Again, I was completely shocked that this simple little thing I did for 15 minutes each morning could continue to offer me such profound life-changing gifts. At this point, I began to experience something I can only call spiritual. Not that it was tied to a religion or philosophy. In fact, quite the opposite. It was a feeling deep inside me that I was somehow profoundly connected to everyone and everything. That alone was life-changing. When you feel connected to everyone, you stop fighting and feeling so alien or disconnected. It's harder to get angry at people or be nasty to them because you understand they're essentially you. Getting angry at your neighbor is like getting angry at your big toe. Granted, people can be annoying, difficult, or even cruel, but I'm talking about it in the greater sense. I felt simply more connected.
It was spiritual. I felt connected to the planet, sky, and outer space. It all felt like one giant family, and I belonged. Creativity and purpose began to permeate and rise from the depths of my repressed unconscious mind. It felt like I was re-remembering something I had always known instead of discovering something new. That was surprising to me. What did this mean? Why wasn't I reinventing? Why did it feel like I was rediscovering what had always been there?
It truly was as though my thoughts and all of the fear and depression and low self-esteem (ego) had tied up my true self and thrown him in some dark basement. And there was this feeling the entire time, as I was meditating and going through these changes, that this voice of my inner child, my true self, was trying to shout and get my attention. As if to say, "Hey! I'm here! I'm still here! I've always been here! I've missed you!"
Reconnecting with this space of consciousness I knew as a child, before the world beat me down, stripped me from myself, and told me who I was supposed to be, was a feeling like no other. The joy of rediscovery is something one truly has to experience to understand. It was simply beautiful. And by rediscovering myself, I had purpose again. I had a real identity again, one that wasn't formed by the ego and the world. This was different. This was where peace, joy, creativity, love, and felt oneness all resided.
For me, this was enlightenment. Enlightenment didn't mean we could predict the future or levitate. It wasn't some mythical, magical state of being. No. Enlightenment just meant we had awakened from a dream, perhaps a bit of a delusion, and had remembered who we are and all the truth. The problem with enlightenment is that once you have it, you cannot go fully back to sleep, you can still slip back into autopilot and back into those old ruts and chains of ego identity again. Just like some old neuropathways we accidentally slip back into. It feels a lot like diving into the water and coming up for air over and over again. But it's okay. It's better than the alternative, which is like just living underwater.
Today, with all of our scientific advancements, such as functional MRI, we can see the evidence of what meditation can do to the brain. And it's rather incredible. It's capable of regrowing nad healing dormant parts of the brain, as meditation fuels neuroplasticity. It suppresses or reduces stress hormones while greatly elevating the feel-good chemicals in our brains. Meditation is like a viral removal software of our brain. It takes time, dedication, and patience, but the results are astounding.
In my opinion, meditation is the oldest psychotherapy known to man. And the bigger aim of meditation is that we live in that transformed state of being. Meditation isn't a fire extinguisher. It's not something we grab when we are suffering from anxiety or withdrawal symptoms. Meditation isn't just something we do before bed or first thing in the morning before work to gain clarity. Talk about missing the bigger potential!
I advise beginning small, with 5 or 10 minutes a day. Slow your breathing, and let go of everything. Don't be fixated on removing your thoughts. That's not even what meditation is. But learn to become aware, without judgment, and open yourself to anything and everything. Let go. In time, you'll see ~