How I Finally Found the Magic of Meditation
You're Approaching it Backwards
Hi friends, today’s essay is about how I finally discovered the deep power of meditation after 10 years of only partially getting it. If you’re new here, please be sure to subscribe so you get my next piece in your inbox.
I wish I had taken meditation seriously sooner.
It’s the oldest, most replicated, widest spread tool that has ever been invented for reducing every form of human suffering.
But it has a branding problem and I think the apps hurt us as much as help us.
If you’re broadly aware that meditation is supposed to be good for you, but the habit has never stuck, then this post is for you.
My first foray into meditation happened in college. It was 2013, and I had started my first blog focused on building good habits and was following Chris Bailey’s work closely. He was working on The Productivity Project then, and one topic he often touched on was meditation.
He was ahead of his time. Headspace existed but wasn’t popular yet, and there was very little general awareness of meditation’s benefits. In search of some guidance, I found a guided meditation Sam Harris had posted on SoundCloud (long before Waking Up), and used that as my practice each day for a month or two.
But nothing happened. I never noticed any benefit. I didn’t feel any different coming out of it, so I shrugged and said that was a fine experiment, but no thanks, and moved on.
I made my second serious stab at meditation in 2016. I was living in Argentina experimenting with the 4-Hour Workweek life and adopted a daily meditation practice, now using the Headspace app. It was the most regular I had ever been with the practice, and I had hints of benefits. But again, the results were minimal, so I abandoned it again.
I didn’t pick it up seriously again until this year, and my experience has been radically different and incredibly beneficial. But to explain why I think that’s the case, I need to take you on a quick detour through another route to developing a deeper relationship with your mind:
I’ve had a few high-dose psychedelic experiences. Not the kind where you go to a rave, but the kind where you lay on your couch with your eyes closed and melt into your mind (or out of your mind) for a few hours. They’ve been some of my life's most helpful, transformative experiences.
Each time I’ve done psychedelics, I’ve had a distinct sense that they were not doing something unnatural to my brain or mind. Rather, they were helping me tap into something that is always there. A form of consciousness that can be accessed in other ways. This is a fairly mainstream idea now and is why many people prefer the term “entheogen” to “hallucinogen.” Hallucinogen implies you are hallucinating when you take psychedelics, but that’s not the case. They are not the manifestations of a crazy person. They are closer to a spiritual experience.
Psychedelics, when done in an introspective context, open a door in your brain into a new form of experience. They show you another way your brain and mind can operate. Another way of seeing the world.
But once you’ve had that high-dose experience, you can tap into a subtler version of it at lower doses. I started experimenting with microdosing psilocybin earlier this year on the recommendation of a friend. I was struggling with an incredible amount of anxiety and negative self-talk from working on the book (this is apparently quite common), and caffeine seemed to only make it worse. I needed a different writing drug.
It worked, but it worked in an unexpected way. I was somehow moving slower and getting more done. The work was better without being hard on myself. And then the benefits spilled over into other parts of my life, too. I started noticing more acutely how negative the effects of a drink or two were at the end of the day. I stopped getting as bothered by nasty comments on Twitter and Instagram. I was less stressed about the future. I was more present with my kids.
I worried, though, that this was just a drug-induced calm, and I didn’t want to need to medicate every day just to get through life. So, I started exploring what else could give me that same kind of benefit without the substance, and I suspect you can guess where that led me:
Back to meditation.
Now, I need to apologize to the serious Buddhists and other meditators out there for suggesting taking psychedelics as a road into meditation, but here is the problem:
If you did not grow up deeply steeped in a meditative, contemplative, or spiritual tradition, then I think psychedelics are the only way to quickly show you the other realms of consciousness that exist within you.
As a crude metaphor, imagine trying to teach someone how to swim without them ever having been in the water or ever seeing someone swim before. Maybe if you describe in incredible detail the way they move their arms and body, tilt their head, and kick their legs, they could eventually get it. But if you hop in the pool and do a few laps, it will make the process much faster.
I’m not sure what made me wonder if I could experience the same benefits of low-dose psychedelics by meditating. I honestly have no idea where the idea came from; it just popped into my head one day, and I decided to try it. I steadily reduced the dose and frequency of my microdoses and started meditating more, and suddenly it all clicked.
I’ve come out of (non-psychedelic-enhanced) meditations crying. I’ve sat and stared at the traffic outside my window for as long as I might normally have watched a TV show. I’ve had profound creative unlocks I’ve never experienced without drugs or other extreme state changes. I’ve even had brief moments of the fractal vision and plants breathing (IYKYK). It is not the same as a psychedelic experience, but they’re neighbors.
I know some people will read this and go pffffft this guy is on drugs or he’s some kind of weirdo. But… what if you need this the most of all? There’s no clearer sign that you are trapped in the prison of narrow consciousness than having such a strong, dismissive response to experiences you don’t understand.
I get it now. And it’s exciting that I am still so early in this. If I can invoke another crude metaphor, I feel like I’m only at the 50mg psilocybin “dosage” of meditation. An extremely small, barely perceptible dose, but subtly there if I look for it. If I keep practicing for years, can I reach a 500mg or 5g skill level? I believe I can.
But when I tell people I’ve finally realized the benefits of meditation, their immediate questions are the wrong ones:
Which app did you use?
How long did you meditate for?
I can promise you that those questions do not matter if you don’t first make yourself aware of the state of mind you are aiming at. And as far as I know, the only ways to do that are:
Extended silent retreat
Advanced breath work (maybe?)
This is, to me, the massive untapped potential of psychedelics. Much as MDMA can show you how limited your awareness of your emotional states is, psychedelics can show you how limited your awareness of consciousness is.
And once you’ve come to that awareness, you can work on developing a deeper relationship with your mind and consciousness through meditation.
It’s considerably easier to navigate a maze if you know what direction the exit is in.
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