The 6 Life Skills Meditation Teaches Best: Part 1– Gaining Perspective
Beyond relaxation or stress relief, why do so many people make meditation a part of their day? It’s not to become good at meditation, sitting on a cushion 20 minutes a day! Meditation is a way to become more self-aware, caring and wise, and to bring those strengths into your relationships, your work and your way of being in the world. In this six-part series, Meditation Teacher Ann Vrlak looks at the core life skills you can develop or strengthen through a meditation practice.
Have you ever been caught in the grip of anxiety or in a runaway train of thought you can’t seem to stop?
I think we all have. One prominent neuropsychologist said that, “Our human brains are Velcro for the bad and Teflon for the good.” Being alert to “danger” is a survival mechanism in our circuitry, so it’s not our fault that we sometimes get stuck in negativity or discomfort.
So, having a way to unplug, to see our hardships and challenges differently is a life skill we can all use to ease our minds and hearts. Meditation can help you to do this by gaining perspective.
WHAT CAN PERSPECTIVE DO?
Imagine looking out a window on a busy city street. You might see people, traffic, buildings, kids walking to school or people playing football in the park. There might be a wide tableau of people and things that could pull your attention and interest.
Now, imagine taking off in an airplane, looking down on the same street. As the plane climbs, your perspective changes. You see less detail and more of the bigger picture: objects become smaller, and you see how the streets join into a pattern and how the city blends into the surrounding countryside.
None of the people or things have disappeared, they’re still there. You are just seeing them from a different perspective.
Meditation teaches you how to establish yourself in a different position, a different perspective on your own experiences–internal and external. You learn how to take a step back, to create space between you and troubling thoughts, emotions or situations. You discover that you don’t need to eliminate them to feel more peace or happiness, you just need to gain perspective on them.
@HOW DOES MEDITATION DO THIS?
This ability to gain perspective is quite rare. People who can do this stay calm and steady in the face of challenge, difficulty or stress. And this is a skill you can learn.
You can build your perspective with this basic, but powerful, meditation practice:
- Learning to notice and name your experiences.
- Treating all thoughts and emotions, big and small, the same–as just thoughts and emotions.
- Recognizing the part of you that observes your experiences, rather than being consumed by them.
This three-part practice is designed to loosen up the way we usually treat our thoughts and emotions: we assume they’re true. They may be, but then again they may not!
I’ve had my share of humbling experiences. Thoughts that seemed so right were shown to be wrong or at least inaccurate and some emotions were an even less trustworthy measure of a situation.
I’ve found that developing a wise and caring understanding of your own experiences, and your interpretations of them, is the foundation of perspective and all the wisdom and peace it can bring to your daily life.
STEP 1 • NOTICING AND NAMING
So, you can take a step toward gaining perspective by noticing and naming your experience.
In a session of meditation practice, this step would look like this:
- You have a thought about a meeting tomorrow and, rather than following the thought, by planning or worrying, you learn to say, “Ah, I’m thinking about the meeting tomorrow” (noticing) and naming it “Thinking.” Then you watch what comes up next and do the same process with it.
This deceptively simple step creates that bit of space between you and your experiences. You begin to notice that thoughts and emotions begin and, if you let them be, they end. And you create a place where you can choose to engage with them or not.
STEP 2 • TREAT ALL THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS THE SAME
It may sound strange to begin with, but the next part of the practice is to see all thoughts as just thoughts, and all emotions as just emotions. A thought about adding “Pick up bread” to your to do list and a thought about impending climate change are treated the same. They’re both. Just. Thoughts.
Or the feeling of irritation at someone cutting you off in the supermarket line is treated the same as a fear about losing your job. They’re both. Just. Emotions.
Now why on earth would you do that? It’s to help you notice the processes of thinking and feeling themselves, instead of the content of individual thoughts and feelings. Thoughts and feelings, of all sizes and shapes, from simple to complex, from mild to overwhelming, come and go.
When I first tried this practice, I felt a huge relief. I saw the hundred thoughts I have in a day, all the arbitrary and often contradictory thoughts, as just thought. Not a hundred things, just one thing. Thinking.
And I felt the beginning of gaining perspective.
STEP 3 • RECOGNIZING THE OBSERVER
This step is implicit in the first two steps and it’s a core discovery of meditation. By noticing and naming, and by treating all your thoughts and emotions the same, you begin to sense a part of you that is not in the thought. Part of you is aware of your experiences, able to witness them, but not caught in them.
If you’re someone who is sometimes overcome by troubling thoughts and emotions this really is a relief. This quiet, aware space is the doorway into the traditional meditative practice of self-inquiry, an exploration of this witness of your experience. Who is it that’s aware of my thoughts and feelings, but isn’t part of them?
However, there is something to be aware of. A momentary freedom from a lifelong, painful pattern can lead some of us to believe we just need to leave behind our messy human stuff to be happy.
This is a misunderstanding that I and many people I teach have shared. You use this new perspective, not to abandon parts of yourself, but to stand on firm ground while you explore, care about and integrate them. I talk about this more in another article in this series, The 6 Life Skills You’ll Learn From Meditation: Part 2 – Self-Compassion.
TRY THIS PRACTICE
You can try this practice any time. Sit with your eyes closed for a few minutes, and let your attention move between the three steps:
- Noticing and naming.
- Treating all thoughts and feelings the same.
- Recognizing the witness.
This is a full, powerful meditation practice. If you do this practice for a few minutes every day, you’ll discover just a bit more perspective, peace and compassion in your inner world.
You may have difficult situations in your life right now that are not going to change or go away any time soon. Gaining perspective is a very powerful practice because you find that you don’t need to change anything or make anything go away to feel more well-being.