Balancing the "What if" and "What is": A Guide to Meditation

Mina Fu (text)

Yukyung Kim (graphics)

As a child, I was always asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I always answered, while picturing myself on a huge stage with glimmering spotlights and thousands of people singing along with me. Of course, this was only a “what if” and a child’s big dream.

For as long as I can remember, almost every adult in my life has asked me that question and now, I, as an adult continue to ask the younger generations. This type of fast forward, futuristic thinking has been around for decades. Evolutionarily, humans tend to focus on what is about to happen in order to predict any type of danger that may threaten our offspring’s survival, to ensure the passing of our genes. However, in the modern day, this type of mentality has developed in a way that it poses more stress than benefit on our mental state.

We focus on the future and dwell on the past. In our default state of mind, we think “what if?” instead of “what is?” Our mind is always wandering, in a state of judgment and self-criticism. We constantly find activities to look forward to, by setting goals and by making plans weeks ahead. In most cases, by doing so, we feel as if we are accomplishing tasks, whereas if we stop making plans, we begin to feel as if our life has come to a full stop, with boredom and depression often settling in. Perhaps, it is because we grew up being asked about what we wanted to be and to look forward to being older year after year, or the notion of thinking that our past is always somehow better than our present, all the while being pushed by the intensity of social media presence, which continued to enforce this unhealthy way of thinking.

The presence of social media in our lives is more prominent than ever, and this new epidemic has unfortunately led to an abundance of mental health issues. The constant notification pop-ups and the infinite amount of content to scroll through has caused anxiety and further hindered our ability to notice our present moment. Our mind is always focused on more than one thing: we start our assignment and a snapchat notification pops up, we switch to snapchat, then quickly check Instagram, while hesitantly glancing at our unfinished assignment.

Most of us are living in a so called a “hyper kinetic environment” (Bailey 2018), where life is moving at a faster pace and where we are expected to do more with less time. It causes the amygdala (part of our brain that controls emotions and emotional behavior) to be activated at a constant, as a result, activating our fight or flight response causing immense anxiety in our daily routines. Looking at Facebook or Instagram as an example, where we only practice scrolling through feeds, reinforces the habit of never concentrating on one image or video. We give social media the ability to control the content of our consciousness and by doing so we start to approach reality in a superficial way. In turn, our perceptions of reality along with our sped-up lives both on social media and in real life have caused more cases of anxiety, depression and panic disorders in populations worldwide than ever before.

You may think that the situation is bleak and sounds completely helpless in a world dependent on technology. However, the recent bloom in meditation has shown that practicing mindfulness helps increase happiness and allows for a deeper approach to reality.

A simple introduction to mindfulness meditation: it is a way of meditating on being in the present moment. We practice by noticing our fleeting thoughts and slowly observe how we become lost in it without judgement on those thoughts or ourselves, and easing back into the present moment by focusing on our breath or surrounding sounds and sights. I personally have struggled with practicing meditation and I know many young people do too. It is a mental practice that requires immense attention and sometimes an exploration of your deepest thoughts and emotional processes. In my personal experience, I knew that it would deem as helpful for my anxiety and general mood maintenance in my daily life. However, I would always put aside time for meditation when I am scheduled to do it. I simply thought I never had the time or I was just too tired to put myself through the mental strain of practicing existing in the present moment. It was always easier to just spend hours on social media then to take five minutes of my day to focus on my guided meditation.

Nonetheless, I am here today to present a few ways to start a routine with meditation in improving your mental state in this information-filled world. For the past month, I have started to be more consistent with meditation by doing an online course, along with keeping up with my guided meditation app.

Here are a few things to keep in mind before starting the practice:

  1. Proceed slowly and practice correctly.
  2. It can be an uncomfortable process when we learn about emotions we have not experienced.
  3. It is a guide to a type of non-judgmental awareness of your thought and emotions.
  4. It is not the complete stop of all your thoughts. It is an observation of our thoughts.
  5. It needs to be a sustained practice in order to strengthen our attentional habits and change the way we think and behave.
  6. If you do not have the motivation or interest in it, it will not benefit you.
  7. People who have extreme mental illnesses need to get proper advice from mental health practitioners before moving forward.

The ways in which meditation can help:

  1. It can increase our happiness and our focus.
  2. We strengthen our pre-frontal cortex (CEO of the brain: decision-making abilities) in a way that we can control our emotions in a more meaningful and calmer manner.
  3. It can help overcome procrastination as it helps people learn how to engage with a task.
  4. It is a brilliant method of relaxation.

Tools that you can use to help guide you through the process:

  1. Insight Timer App (available on iPhones and Android phones) – they provide a free 7-day course on beginners: how to meditate, along with 12,000 free guided meditations of ones’ choice. These are all led by professionals, while providing a huge platform to interact with people all over the globe who are meditating. This app has been an extraordinary support towards my journey in meditating.
  2. Mindfulness meditation course offered by Monash University on the Future-learn platform. It is a guide on how mindfulness meditation can improve well-being and help peak performance in your job, school or social life. It gives great insight on how meditation functions along with tips and exercises along the way. Taught by PHD psychologists.
  3. Breathing. The simplest tool of existence. Remember to breathe. Focusing on your in-take of breath and exhale of breath can also quickly recover you from intense thoughts/emotions and allow you to be in the present moment. You can do this at any time and any place and allows your body and mind to focus on the present moment.
  4. Surrounding awareness. A way of meditating is to listen to sounds in the background and look into the colors in the foreground and focus on the sounds/visuals happening in that precise moment.

The process can be long and grueling, but it can also be relaxing and comforting with more and more practice. The guided meditations will help you start off the meditating process along with the course and new breathing techniques. It is important to remember that the only way to live a rich and fulfilling life is to live in the moment. We do not live in the past or in the future, we are always here. When we learn this ability to exist in the present, we can focus on all our important tasks, sleep better, and communicate better. We do not live until we have started to live in the now. It is a lesson worth learning sooner than later.

“What day is it?” asked Pooh.

“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.

“My favorite day,” said Pooh.”

― A.A. Milne

Sources: Bailey, Neil. 2018. Technology and sustained attention. Directed by Neil Bailey. Produced by Neil Bailey.

Haru Sukegawa

a thing about Lisa