In June, I traveled to Kathmandu and stayed in a Buddhist monastery for a month. Primarily, I was volunteering as an English teacher for the child monks. But I also had a budding interest in meditation and wanted to learn from the monks about the best way to build a meditation habit. I was curious to see how their traditional Buddhist approach compared to the modern representation of meditation on social media.
Where did it all begin?
The earliest records of meditation are from about 1500 BCE in India, where it was a key part of early schooling. Now, meditation has spread across the world. On TikTok, it’s being heralded as an invaluable part of the self-care and wellness trends sweeping the platform. But is there any crossover between meditation as a modern trend and its roots as an ancient South Asian practice?
A modern resurgence
Recently, meditation has gained popularity alongside habits like journaling in a surge of ‘aesthetic’ self-care TikTok videos. But meditation isn’t thoroughly explored in this type of content. Rather, it’s mentioned as part of a routine alongside comparatively superficial steps. Despite the prevalence of these videos, the process of meditating itself never gets explained.
While I was staying at the monastery, I wanted to gain some insights about how to meditate beyond the superficial advice available on social media. So, I spoke with Lopen Kunsang Monlam, the director of the monastery’s school, about his thoughts on how beginners can start learning about meditation.
Kunsang’s advice on how to meditate was pretty similar to what I found on meditation apps. What really set his guidance apart, however, were his opinions on how anger, compassion, and concentration relate to meditation.
Before you even think about starting to meditate, Kunsang told me, you have to “generate your mind”. Basically, this means trying to think “compassionate thoughts about all sentient beings”. This might seem like an unexpected first step on the surface. But, Kunsang explained that it’s vital because we can’t reach a peaceful state while focused on our own suffering. So, it can be useful to think compassionately about others before you attempt to meditate yourself.
Interestingly, Kunsang explained that Buddhists believe having compassion for others and concern for their troubles is how you alleviate your own suffering. Selfishness is seen as the root of suffering, and you “cannot meditate if you are suffering”.
The beginner meditation Kunsang recommended was a fairly simple one focused on breathing. He suggested that you prepare your posture by crossing your legs with your spine straight, your chin level, and your shoulders slightly forward (so you don’t need to force yourself into a perfectly upright position.) Then, you either place your hands one on top of the other or in the position shown below.
This hand position is known as the ‘gyan mudra’. It helps to maintain concentration by drawing attention to the pulse you can feel between your thumb and forefinger.
Focus on breath
The process of the meditation Kunsang recommended is simple. Essentially, once you’re in the meditative posture, you count your breaths up to 21 and back down to 0 while keeping your concentration solely on your breathing. Every time you get distracted, you restart. This might sound deceptively simple, but the goal of meditation is to “improve concentration at the beginner level”. Kunsang explained that the aim here is not to “force your mind”. Rather, this is an exercise in retraining concentration in a modern world where “we do not have the habit of keeping focused on one thing”.
Once this breathing meditation becomes easy, you can slowly increase the amount of time you focus on counting your breaths to whatever feels comfortable. A higher level of meditation to try once you’ve mastered this one is a meditation where you “focus on an object”. For Buddhists, this might be an item of religious significance. But for everyone else, you can choose any object you want to focus on. Obviously, this is a more difficult exercise. Thinking about all aspects of an object invokes more abstract thoughts, so it’s easier to get distracted. But if you want to give it a try, Kunsang recommended that you view the object “from top to bottom, considering all its features and purposes”.
What’s the point?
But what’s the point of these kinds of exercises, anyway? Well, the main aim is to improve concentration in our increasingly distracted world. As Kunsang told me,
“Nowadays, we are making ourselves unhappy because we have too many things to focus on… we are unhappy because we are not controlling the mind… The mind controls us.”
So, taking a moment to stay focused on breathing is a good step towards learning to control our thoughts more generally.
Finally, I asked Kunsang what he thought the biggest misconception about meditation is. He said that many people fail to understand that “meditation is not about emptying your mind”. Rather, it is about controlling the direction of your thoughts.
Rising popularity in the West
How does the Western adoption of meditation compare to this advice? Well, meditation apps that enable regular practice are increasingly popular. The app Calm has been downloaded over 100 million times, and Headspace is the second most popular platform, with a hefty 65 million users. Together, Headspace and Calm dominate the online meditation market. However, both apps have a paywall that renders their services inaccessible to a lot of Gen Z. This fact is reflected in the figures – the median age for a Calm user is between 30 and 35.
In these circumstances, what are the options for young people who want to meditate without the financial burden? One popular alternative is Balance, a meditation app that has been gaining popularity since they introduced their free year policy. Users have full access to all the meditations on the app for one year after they download it. So, I decided to see how the app’s meditations compared to the advice I received from Kunsang at the monastery.
Buddhism and anger
Something that stuck with me after I spoke to Kunsang was how he told me that “in Buddhism, our biggest enemy is our anger”. When I asked him to expand on this, he told me that:
“If you punish your anger, you will have no more enemies… we do not need to be vengeful. Instead, we should learn to control our anger.”
One cool feature of Balance is that it gives you options to describe your mood and uses your answer to shape the meditation audio it gives you. So, when it asked me how I felt, I chose ‘Angry’ to see how the advice it gave compared to Kunsang’s opinion.
In general, it seemed to have a much more tolerant view of anger than Kunsang. It offered the idea of giving compassion to angry thoughts and viewing their presence in the body neutrally. Balance recommended that you should
“Give yourself permission to be curious about what might happen if you were to step just outside of your anger. To observe the feeling as a neutral sensation in your body. You are not angry, your body is experiencing anger.”
So, maybe meditation apps do have something to offer for people who are just trying to be a bit more mindful rather than cultivating a Buddhist monk’s level of mental discipline.