Live longer and happier

The most effective thing you can do to live longer, happier, and healthier is to meditate regularly. Not only has meditation been proven to reduce stress, which is one of the biggest causes of disease, but it also promotes telomerase activity, which increases longevity by delaying the unraveling of your DNA.

As well as the physical benefits of meditation, there are psychological benefits: spending time developing focus and awareness leads to greater clarity and perspective about your life. This results in choices that are more in alignment with your higher self, that meet your needs more effectively, and that enable you to live a more fulfilled life. My meditation has saved enormous amounts of time by making me more focused and clear when I am not meditating. In meditation I have discovered solutions to difficult problems, and simplifications that have saved a lot of time and effort.

You don’t need to meditate that much. Just get started and meditate a bit every day. When I first started meditating, I did twenty to thirty minutes per day: ten to fifteen minutes in the morning and ten to fifteen minutes in the evening. After only four months, my focus and awareness had increased to the point where I experienced the underlying nature of reality, known as the Tao. That’s how powerful and effective meditation is. However, the goal of meditation can never be to achieve anything, even to know God, or non-duality. For meditation to be effective, the objective of meditation must be only to practice. Practice is leaning into clear, focused awareness. Practice has inherent meaning and satisfaction, which you will discover from experience. In time, all of life becomes practice.

To start meditating, you need to be able to sit upright and still, with a straight spine, for a reasonable amount of time. You might want to sit on a chair with your back away from the back of the chair. Another option is to sit cross-legged on relatively thick cushion that raises your hips above your knees. I sit like this, with my legs in a tailor pose, one closer to my body than the other.

Tailor sitting pose

How I sit to meditate

Meditation cushion

Meditation cushion

There are many different kinds of meditation. One of the most basic, and most powerful, is to pay attention to your breath. This is the technique that led to my experience of the fundamental nature of reality. To do this, you just close your eyes and pay attention to the sensations created by breathing.

You need to to allow your mind to watch the sensations, in the body, that the breathing creates. Notice if you find yourself wanting to control the breath and notice if you are controlling the breath. The process is to relax your mind and allow it to simply watch. Any time you notice that your mind has wandered to some thought about the past or the future, or even a thought about the present, then gently bring it back to the experience of the breath. You may catch yourself paying attention to a present-moment sensation or experience that is not related to your breath. As with thinking, bring your attention gently back to the experience of your breath.

The process is all about watching and witnessing without judgement. If you find yourself judging, then witness that without judging. Sometimes people will say, “I can’t meditate because my mind keeps wandering.” This is a sign that they are meditating. Don’t give up meditating because when you try to meditate your mind wanders. Your mind wanders because you are meditating. The fact that you notice your mind wandering tells you that you are in fact meditating.

In this video, I guide you in watching the breath:

If you want to learn to meditate really intensely and deeply, I recommend learning vipassana, which Buddha discovered and used to free himself from suffering. The best way to do this is at a free 10-day vipassana retreat.

Buddha kept it simple

Buddha was not a Buddhist. He was someone who realized how much he, and the rest of humanity, suffered; and he decided to figure out a solution. Buddha discovered, or perhaps rediscovered, insight meditation, and used it to free himself permanently from suffering. Insight meditation, also called Vipassanā, meaning insight into reality, is a very simple form of meditation in which you pay attention to the sensations on and inside your body, from moment to moment and with equanimity. Equanimity is when you don’t push something away or crave more of it; you just let it be as it is.

Everything that you perceive through your senses causes some kind of sensation to occur in your body. Some perceptions result in pleasant sensations and other perceptions result in unpleasant sensations. At the deepest level of your unconscious mind, you are continually paying attention to the sensations, grasping at the pleasant ones, and their associated experiences, and resisting the unpleasant ones, and their associated experiences. This is suffering: unconsciously reacting with craving and aversion to stimulii. When you start practicing Vipassanā, you start to realize the extent and depth of this suffering. It is continual and all-pervading.

By consciously scanning your body for subtler and subtler sensations, and consciously being equanimous with them, you can retrain your unconscious mind at the deepest level to not react with craving or aversion, to stop suffering. When equanimity is fully habitual, there is no more reactivity, and no more suffering.

The sensations that arise in reaction to perceptions are energetic echoes from the past, from when a past situation was reacted to; they are impurities in the mind that cloud perception of reality. When these sensations are allowed to arise, and are not reacted to, they can pass away naturally. When you unconsciously react, you maintain these impurities, and lay down more of them.

With regular practice of Vipassanā, not only do you get increasingly skilled at being equanimous and non-reactive, which becomes unconscious and automatic, but you also purify your mind so there is less to react to. External situations still arise, but the perception of them results in increasingly less intense internal sensations. You become less disturbed by life, less reactive, and your suffering begins to end.

While there are now so many complex forms of Buddhism, with intricate rituals and practices, Buddha wanted to keep it simple, to teach this simple technique to end suffering. It’s best to learn Vipassanā in an intensive retreat, where you can really see the benefits and establish your practice. I highly recommend the ten-day meditation retreats taught around the world by S. N. Goenka, where food and lodging is free to you, paid for by past students. These retreats are one of the best ways you could use your time, and will significantly change your life for the better.

Calm down with measured breathing

What can you do if you’ve been severely traumatized? What can you do if you’re having a panic attack? What can you do if you’re so angry you want to break things? A first step is measured breathing.

While working with young people in East Palo Alto, California, one of the most most violent cities in America, I learned how to use measured breathing to provide a first line of support for children who had been in violent and abusive situations. An example was one young man who had been woken in the night by gunfire outside his house. He dived onto the floor and lay still while bullets tore through the walls and whistled over his head.

When terrifying things happen, our bodies switch into fight, flight, freeze mode, shutting down all unnecessary functionality, such as digestion and cell repair. This mode is enabled by the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that works automatically. Breathing becomes shallow and fast, blood flows to muscles, and heart rate increases. The brain operates in a mode where it is far more reactive, with the emotional areas taking control.

When we are relaxed, our bodies switch into recovery mode, enabling functions that work more slowly, such as digestion and cell repair, which are needed to prepare the body for the rare crises. This mode is enabled by the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. Breathing becomes deep and slow, blood flows to the internal organs, and heart rate decreases.

Humans are animals that have learned how to consciously regulate our actions. We override our autonomic nervous systems with beliefs and habits, and we create imaginary dangers and crises with our imagination and our ability to think about things in the future and the past. Because of this, most of us suffer from an over-activation of the sympathetic branch, resulting in tension, poor digestion, anxiety, high blood pressure, poor cell repair, and even explosive anger and panic attacks that are terrifying in themselves.

Just as you can enable your sympathetic branch by taking fast, shallow breaths, you can activate your parasympathetic branch by taking slow, deep breaths. This is measured breathing, which I show you how to do in this video. Most people, most of the time, will find that doing a few rounds of measured breathing will result in a significant reduction in anxiety, anger, and general activation, leading to a pleasant calmness.

Every time you practice measured breathing, you are creating an oasis of calm in which your body-mind can heal and grow. You will experience physical healing and also psychological healing through this practice.