This article is a continuation of “How To Gain Self-Discipline – A Personal Story, Part 1”.
This part of the story will talk about the habit I adopted while living in Mexico City for six months after leaving my graduate program in Los Angeles, California. It will describe the habit in detail; how and when I encountered it for the first time, where I learned to practice it properly and how it changed my life.
The article will also go into how, slowly but surely, I developed the discipline to make the choices I knew I had to make if I wanted to live the life of my dreams.
Discipline and desire go hand in hand. When you begin to act on what you desire with all of your heart you begin developing the discipline to follow through with yourself to get it. The crux here is knowing what you truly desire, the desire that moves you to your core.
But how do you learn what you desire? By knowing yourself.
And how do you know yourself?
This is where the habit I learned in Mexico comes in. It’s called meditation.
How I Began My Meditation Practice
The first time I encountered meditation was in Los Angeles. I was renting a room in a big house in Westwood along with five other young men. Since I had found the place through a rental company I didn’t know any of my housemates. On top of that, the company rented the rooms out on a month by month basis; people were constantly moving in and out of the place. A mountain of mail addressed to long-departed tenants regularly formed at the foot of the main door.
So at any point in time I was sharing the house with five strangers. One day, one of those strangers happened to be a young man from Germany, named Max. Max was doing a three-month long program at the university I was attending. He was friendly, polite and quintessentially German; a couple of weeks after he arrived he rallied the house’s tenants and together we performed a massive kitchen cleaning and reorganization. It made our kitchen much more functional, as thick layers of grime were scrubbed off the stove and long-expired beers were cleared out of the fridge.
The House Was Special
I didn’t have a shower in my room. In order for me to shower I had to leave my room, go up the stairs, enter a bedroom, proceed to the bathroom and use the shower there. It sounds awkward, but it wasn’t that bad once you got used to it.
The room with the shower happened to be Max’s. So whenever I had to shower, which was every day (mostly), I would encounter Max as he was sitting on his bed, his legs crossed, hands curled in his lap and his eyes closed. He was meditating, although I didn’t know that then.
When I first say Max meditating I believed he was crazy. “Why is he sitting that way?” I would ask. My answer was something like “He must be some religious nut or New Age believer.” I didn’t make much of Max’s meditating, I just took my shower and got on with my life. Max never spoke to me about his meditating, and I never asked. I believed he was wasting his time, there was so much to do in life and he was spending part of it sitting with his eyes closed!
I adhered to this ignorant belief until a year later, when I encountered the book “The Mind Illuminated” by John Yates, a meditation master and neuroscientist. The moment I saw the book I remembered asking myself “Is that what Max was doing when I walked through the bedroom and into the bathroom?” I was curious, so I looked into the book and became captivated by what it said.
I Started Reading About Meditation
“The Mind Illuminated” is a meditation manual based on traditional Buddhist practices informed by modern neuroscience. It gives a step-by-step process for establishing a meditation practice; it also provides scientific references regarding the nature of the mind, attention and its training.
Turns out that Buddhist teachings got a lot of things right about the mind more than 2,500 years ago, and science is beginning to catch up. By systematically training our attention through meditation we can enhance our focus to levels beyond what most of us commonly operate at. This improves the quality of our lives in every way. But, the book makes clear, the end-goal of meditation is liberation from suffering.
At this point, if you read the previous article, you know that I was living a diffused, scattered and unfocused professional life. Anything which could help me improve my focus so I could make changes in my professional life would help me. So I bought the book and read it.
I immediately started a regular meditation practice. I meditated for five minutes a day, following the book’s instructions. As I meditated, every time my mind would wander away from my breath, which was incredibly often, I would gently refocus it. Most days I followed through with my intention to meditate.
Then I left the PhD program and moved to Mexico, where I continued following the book’s instructions as I meditated.
Meditation In Mexico
At some point, I messaged Max to tell him I had begun meditating. I told him he had unknowingly inspired me to start (this is called “planting the seed” in meditation circles). It was because I had seen Max meditating while we lived together that I had an inkling of curiosity when I encountered “The Mind Illuminated”.
Max said he was happy to have had that effect on me. He then sent me a link to an organization dedicated to teaching meditation following the practice established by the Buddha more than 2,500 years ago. The practice was/is called “Vipassana”, which is a Sanskrit word meaning “to see things as they really are.” Max told me that I could look into Vipassana if I was interested in learning more. So I did.
The meditation courses offered by Vipassana last from 3 to 40 days. As a beginner you start with a 10-day course. They take place in a space which is either owned or rented by the Vipassana organization. The course is demanding; students spend every day meditating from four in the morning until nine in the evening, with breaks in between for rest and food. There is no communication allowed while in attendance; not with other students, teachers, staff nor with the outside world. It’s ten days spent in silent training of the mind. You basically live like a monk for ten days.
I learned that there was a meditation center an hour away from Mexico City, in a place called Valle de Bravo. Valle de Bravo is a popular getaway for the rich; it’s surrounded by forest. I signed up for a course at the earliest date I could.
It was (one of) the best decision(s) of my life.
Learning Vipassana Meditation
I was stressed during the weeks leading up to the course. I asked myself questions like “Will I be able to sit in silent contemplation of my mind for ten hours a day for ten days straight?”, “Will I be able to handle being in silence for so long?” and “What if this turns out to be a cult and I leave the course as an indoctrinated cultist?” I had no idea what I was getting into and my questions reflected that. I was afraid of the unknown.
But I didn’t allow my fear to make the decision for me. I went to the course.
I won’t sugar coat it. The course was challenging. Sitting in silence for ten hours a day, facing the wild beast that was my mind was a challenge unlike any other I had ever faced.
All meditation practices have one thing in common: focusing on an object. The object can be anything: a mantra, a bracelet, a deity, among others. In Vipassana, the meditation object is the breath.
The instructions are disarmingly simple. Sit and focus your attention on your breath. Whenever your mind wanders away from the breath, gently refocus it. And repeat. That’s all.
Such a simple set of instructions. Anyone could follow them! Meditation is easy! It really is.
What’s difficult is doing it again and again and again. Patiently. Persistently. That’s where the challenge lies. But, by consciously following the instructions, refocusing the mind time after time after time, success is guaranteed.
Vipassana Is A Universal Cure For Suffering
This is the process, discovered by the Gautama Buddha, 2,600 years ago. It is a universal cure for our suffering. It relies on no chanting, rituals nor gods or goddesses. The process allows you to experience your personal truth as an embodied universal current, in ceaseless fluctuation, always changing, never static or sticking. This is the goal of meditation; liberation from suffering. Everything else that happens is a bonus.
And a lot of other things happen.
Eventually, the mind begins to follow your will. It begins to acquiesce, to calm down, to allow itself to be led, rather than jumping from one thought to the next like a monkey in a cage.
In other words, your mind begins to obey you (your soul) rather than latch on to the endless stream of thoughts which appear and disappear in the theater of your mind.
To practice Vipassana meditation is to purify the mind. And it is only by purifying the mind, by letting go of the conditioning we’ve been implanted with since before we were born, that we can begin to glimpse our true selves. That part of us which is divine, which is one with everything that was, is and will be. By purifying our mind we allow our consciousness to unfold, revealing the jewel within, like a lotus flower.
You Are The Universe Incarnate
That is what you are; the universe having a human experience. But only you can experience it. No one can tell you about it. It’s like the difference between watching someone ice skating and actually ice skating. You can watch ice skating for countless hours, but until you strap on some skates and get out on the ice, you’ll have no experience of ice skating.
The same goes for liberation from suffering. Until you experience it for yourself, everything else is an intellectual exercise. Not the actual experience.
And that’s all the difference.
How All Of This Relates To Discipline
I’m writing about all this to communicate that unless we become clear on who/what we are, we remain ignorant to our deepest selves. Without that awareness, which can only be gained through experience, we remain locked out from the purest and deepest realms of human experience; confined to the surface of things. It’s no surprise that our present culture is so profoundly infatuated with appearances. When people are locked out of their depths, they settle for shallowness across their lives.
This doesn’t mean you have to meditate in order to experience your truth. You can do that by practicing being more present in your life, taking time to periodically focus on your breath throughout your days.
Meditation Is A Tool To Know Ourselves
It is the most powerful tool I have encountered to do so. It allows us to reduce the variables which pull at our awareness by closing our eyes and sitting still, so we can focus on becoming aware of our depths. I find the stillness and silence of meditation essential to my self excavation.
Naturally, my meditation didn’t start with the experience of mental quietude nor the depth of experience. It started in utter disarray. My mind wandered to and fro; it was particularly attracted to reviewing episodes of “Rick and Morty” and “Game of Thrones”.
But over the course of months and years, my meditation practice progressively went from being an encounter with my restless mind to one of open relaxation and peace; wherein I meet my mind not as an adversary, but as a friend who is happy to hang out with me. And I’m happy to hang out with it.
As that happened I became clearer on who I was and what I wanted from life. And, like I mentioned in the introduction, as I became clear on what I wanted, I began developing the discipline to work towards it.
That will come in the next, and final, part.
To our wealth and success.