When we discuss the ways in which men can work toward discovering and building our best selves, the word “meditation” gets dropped fairly often. However, not much ink has been spilled discussing how to use it effectively as part of a modern man’s routine. In fact, the idea of meditation is most likely to conjure up images of mommies in yoga pants sitting in the lotus position (contemplating the foam on their lattes) and swamis in orange robes sitting on a hilltop in Southern Asia (or Southern California). What has that got to do with the neomasculine man? And more importantly, how do you do it?
What is Meditation?
Meditation is best thought of as a series of techniques used to clean the debris from the mechanisms of your mind. Imagine your brain as a machine, filled with intricate, interlocking gears. Exposure to the gritty conditions of life causes those gears to build up dirt and grime, and inhibits their ability to work at their best. Too much grit in the machine, and the functioning of the mind can become downright painful. Meditation (when practiced with discipline) allows you to pull the cover off that mental machine, to let the debris fall out. As with any other machine, you may be amazed just how much junk is stuck to the works once you get the hood open.
It is this emptying of mental debris that attracts spiritual seekers and Eastern religions to the practice—after all, a clean mental machine is better suited to touching the infinite than one that is cluttered with minutiae. However, meditation itself is a technique, rather than an expression of faith. It is of equal utility to all thinking people, regardless of tradition or spiritual orientation.
Gain Control Over What You Think About and For How Long
In my early 20s, I became something of a religious tourist, exploring different faiths before ultimately crashing back into embracing my Catholic heritage. The most meaningful stop on my journey was with a Buddhist congregation in my city. I could never accept the dogma of Buddhism (for me, attachment is not suffering—it’s the power source of my life). Yet, having attended those services has been of lasting value to me. The services mostly consisted of different forms of guided and unguided meditations. I didn’t find my dharma. But I did discover that meditation allowed me to push past meaningless mental distraction, access my emotions free of doubt or lack of clarity, and consciously prioritize the activities of thinking. It became easier to recognize where to put mental energy and effort versus where such mental effort was wasted. As a result, the brain works more efficiently, with less stress and anxiety—because the various tasks of the inner life develop a hierarchy of priority and importance that simply can’t happen without de-gunking the gears of the mind. Less energy is wasted on the things we should let slide; more energy becomes available for the things that warrant focus and mental engagement.
How To Do It
What follows is my own take on the guidance I learned from the time I spent with Buddhists, and my own unguided regular meditation practice.
Body position: Find somewhere quiet, private, and reasonably free from distraction. Being safe and comfortable is definitely helpful. A good body position is to kneel on your shins (seiza-style), or sit Indian style.
You are going to sit still (ideally unmoving) for a span of time here, so you’ll need to set your back in a stable position. Imagine your vertebrae as toy stacking blocks. Arrange them within your body, stacking one on top of the other, into a stable tower. Take your time, feel the balance and functioning of your body. Once you have got it, squeeze your abs and glutes hard to lock your back into position… then release your muscles down to a 20-30% hold, to maintain posture without transferring undue stress to your spine.
Let your hands fall into your lap, so that your shoulders are balanced at the top of the spine tower. Don’t let your shoulders pull you in one direction or another. Figuring out what to do with your hands can seem crazily daunting and confusing when you are getting started, but you will figure out your own groove with time. Just remember that what you do with your hands is really about keeping balance with your shoulders.
Breathing: Next, turn your mind toward awareness of your breathing. Breathe in and out only through your nose. Exhale as deeply as possible, squeezing your belly and diagram to (slowly) force out the reserve air from your lungs—you want them emptied to wind-knocked-out-of-you levels. Immediately after, the temptation will be to breathe in hard: don’t! Slowly, draw breathe in through your nose using even control. Fill your lungs as full as possible (I like to imagine filling myself with air flowing all the way to my toes), but with strict control.
From here, we begin the count. One to ten. Odd numbers breathing out, even numbers breathing in. Consciously think of nothing but the count. If you lose count, start over from one, breathing everything out again as you do.
This is where things get challenging. While you kneel (or sit) and breathe, every trivial little thought lodged in your short-term memory will begin to burble out and scream for your mental attention. Do not attempt to fight this. Let the thoughts come. Let the distractions come. But do not engage them. Visualize those thoughts (or emotions, or environmental sounds/stimuli) as objects or people that you see walking toward you on the road. Acknowledge them. Recognize them. Then allow them to pass you by. See them moving past you, out of your line of sight, out of your peripheral vision, and gone. Do not engage with them. Simply recognize, acknowledge, and let them go.
This is the debris clearing itself from the gears of your mind.
Attend to your breathing, keeping it in control, and keeping the count. Slow breaths, even tempo, strict count. These should be the only thoughts to which you give mental effort: breathe in all the way, deep as you can; breathe out all that you can without losing control. When you lose count, start over.
Note, this is not easy… and the learning curve is very steep at the beginning. Don’t quit. Acknowledge your frustration, as you would an object or person at the side of the road. Recognize it, then let it go. Do not engage it, as it moves from your line of sight, past your peripheral vision, and gone.
How long to meditate: Always use a timer.
Shoot for 5-minute sessions when you begin. Once your breath control becomes good, move up to 10min sessions. When you do achieve 10min, you will begin to notice a change in the character of the thoughts that arise. They become less trivial, and more integral and vital. This time, as you recognize them, you will begin to see unexpected wisdom in them. However, you will also feel a strong urge to stop the meditation session, as it can be mentally uncomfortable to shake out larger sized chunks of cerebral debris. I’ve felt panic-stricken to get out of meditation sessions, not because of any freaky insights, but simply because of the mental ache associated with the cleaning process.
When you are able to achieve 20min, the nature of the thoughts that rise up will change again. These thoughts are mostly free of trivia. They come from the deeper gears, the more fundamental elements of your mind. Genuine insight is to be found here—the deep truths that are too fragile and too still to be heard beneath the regular noise of our heads. Nevertheless, treat these thoughts like any other: acknowledge them, and let them go. You can think about what they mean later, after the session. Do not engage them.
Maintaining this level of breathing and mental discipline, I have never been able to mediate longer than 25min.
Will mediation make you a serene, peaceful person? Maybe not. It certainly has not done that for me. But it will offer you a system to apply discipline and control over the fitness of your mind. Like lifting, nutrition, financial savvy, and Game, meditation is a means to exercise reasonable control over an area of life that should never be left to negligence or chance.