Written by Andy Fang
Meditation is making a big comeback among modern city dwellers who see benefits distinct from spirituality. Today’s new high-profile advocates are neither hippies nor monks. They range from lifestyle personality Oprah Winfrey to hedge fund manager Ray Dalio, who praise meditation as transformative for their mental health, allowing them to focus better and to access a deep state of inner peace.
As a stressed-out Stern junior with two jobs and a full course load, these benefits seemed exactly what I needed to bring some order to my increasingly hectic life. I had always admired meditation as a signifier of mental fortitude but never saw myself partaking. It often requires sitting still for at least 20 minutes and emptying the mind of thoughts and distractions (though there are different variations). Immersed in today’s digital and social media age, I have trouble sitting still for even five minutes before needing to distract myself by scrolling through Instagram or checking for nonexistent text messages.
I chose to start with focused attention meditation, which stems from a form of Buddhist meditation called Samatha. This type of meditation revolves around focusing on a single subject during the meditation session, be it breathing in patterns, counting, or even chanting mantras.
Choosing a mantra was out; it seemed a little pretentious and disingenuous for me. The mantras I found on Google derived from sacred and ancient Sanskrit phrases, which immediately conflicted with my pronounced lack of spirituality. I decided instead that I would simply count to 10 and back down again, over and over, until the 20 minutes were up. I assumed that this would be a remarkably easy way to increase my ability to focus. Literally all I had to do was sit cross-legged with my hands on my knees and count. I’m ashamed to say that my first attempt at meditating was an abject failure.
By the time five minutes had passed, I had almost cracked multiple times – wanting to check my phone and see how much time had elapsed. By the 10-minute mark, I was itchy both physically and mentally. Worldly thoughts ranging from dinner plans to homework drifted through my mind distracting me. I desperately wanted to stretch my legs and scratch my face. By the 15-minute mark, I heard my roommates laughing and enjoying themselves outside my room, and my resolve broke.
This first attempt helped me realize how accustomed I was to constantly succumbing to distraction. Determined to gain the ability to focus deeply and intensely, I set a strict routine to meditate twice a day. The first few days were rough. I did get better at tuning thoughts out and at redirecting myself to counting when I was getting distracted. However, I still couldn’t tune out the sounds of my three roommates.
I’m not sure if this is considered cheating (I reiterate that I’m a beginner and no meditation guru) but I resorted to using my noise-cancelling headphones and sitting in my closet for the rest of the week. By then, I was halfway through my first benchmark week and actually realizing improvements in sustaining my focus. I’ll also admit that the sensory deprivation within my dark and quiet closet proved a little too relaxing at times and, more than once, I found myself waking up with my head against the laundry hamper.
Nevertheless, towards the end of the week, I actually felt a tangible difference. I could go longer periods of time without checking my phone. I was sleeping better and feeling more alert. Some who meditate claim that it even helps them have clearer skin; unfortunately, I haven’t seen that yet. I now hope to expand my meditation routine beyond my closet to
access my inner zen anytime, anywhere — and just in time for finals.