How many times have you become overwhelmed by emotions – so completely ruled by them – that in anger or desperation, you make a terrible decision that you later end up regretting?
Or how many times has something as simple as “waking up on the wrong side of the bed” completely ruined what could have been an otherwise pleasant day?
This book summary will show you how you can manage your life and emotions through meditation. In them, the author shares his own compelling personal anecdotes so you can better understand that the ancient art of meditation is far more than a new-age fad – it can truly change your life.
In fact, recent scientific studies have shown that mindfulness and meditation can have profound effects on your mental and physical health, and thus your well-being.
Meditating can even make you more productive – regardless of how you live your life – by helping you conquer your ego and manage your emotions.
The ego is your inner narrator, or your sense of “I.” It’s the voice that tells you what to do.
In our everyday interactions, we often refer to the ego as the source of pride, or self-love.
To most, the ego is the source of behavior that is self-serving or unconcerned with the well-being of others.
A better way to think of your ego – and certainly one that offers you the most insight into your behavior – is as the voice in your head.
Your ego comments on your actions and behavior from the moment you open your eyes in the morning until you drift off to sleep at night, telling you what to do and what not to do.
This isn’t the kind of “voice in your head” that is attributed to psychosis. Rather, you can think of it as a voice that manifests through your thoughts.
For example, your ego is the voice that tells you “I’m way too tired for the gym” even when you know that you could really stand to break a sweat. It’s what makes you obsessively check your emails a thousand times per day, or gaze into the refrigerator even when you aren’t hungry.
As you’ll see, the ego is responsible for a great deal of what you do. Luckily, taking steps to rein your ego in can make us happier and healthier.
Your ego’s ravenous hunger for more can never be satiated. It will always push you further.
The ego is never satisfied. It will always want, it will never be content and it will never be perfectly happy.
By design, the ego will always want more than it already has. When the ego is “fed” a new thing, this simply resets the baseline for desire; and immediately, the ego begins reaching for something more.
It doesn’t matter how many material possessions you have, nor does it matter how much money you’ve spent acquiring them – even if you don’t need it, you still yearn for the newest sports car or that hot new gadget.
The best meals are not satisfying, even when prepared by the best chefs. Soon you’ll become hungry and yearn for a meal that is even tastier than the last. In essence, no matter how many times you try to satiate your ego’s desires, your ego will only want more.
The ego is obsessed with the past and the future, and in its obsession, neglects the present, thus keeping you from fully living in the now.
Your ego constantly assesses your worth against the appearance, wealth and social status of others, but will always find you failing. No matter how smart, beautiful or wealthy you may be, according to your ego, there’s always someone smarter, more beautiful or wealthier.
Thus, your ego will spur you to continually strive to become that “better” person.
But after achieving what your ego wants, will you be happy?
No. The ego is never happy. Just think of all the rich, famous or fortunate people who have committed suicide, become addicted to drugs or otherwise ruined their lives.
I will now show you how you can use meditation to calm your ego and improve your life.
Control your ego by practicing mindfulness and becoming more compassionate toward others.
When we practice meditation, we learn a valuable skill called mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the ability to respond – and not react – to our surroundings as well as our impulses.
Meditation increases our mindfulness by instructing us to immerse ourselves fully in the present moment, and not to be overwhelmed with life’s stressors.
Mindfulness doesn’t just improve our decision making; it also changes our biology. A Harvard MRI study observed that people who had taken an eight-week mindfulness course through meditation had developed thicker gray matter in the areas of the brain associated with self-awareness and compassion. Likewise, mindfulness training appeared to shrink the regions in the brain associated with stress.
This increase in compassionate behavior, that is, practicing concern for your own well-being and the well-being of others, is not something to be overlooked.
Demonstrating compassion toward yourself improves your decision making by allowing you to forgive yourself for mistakes and accept your flaws. In fact, studies have demonstrated that people trained in self-compassion meditation are more likely to demonstrate healthy behavior, such as quitting smoking or eating healthier.
Likewise, being compassionate toward others actually helps you to become a more fulfilled person.
Indeed, we can use compassion for others to our own advantage. As the Dalai Lama put it: “Be wise selfish rather than foolish selfish.”
You don’t need to lose your edge or become a pushover when you tame your ego.
Some people dread the Buddhist concept of “letting go,” as they see it as going soft or becoming ineffective – an act of capitulation.
For example, the American author and psychotherapist Marc Epstein often recounts the story of his Buddhist patients who denied themselves orgasms during sex or refused to place an order themselves at restaurants as a means of not expressing personal preference.
Obviously, this sort of behavior did not make them happier people!
Controlling your ego does not mean forgetting about your own needs and becoming a pushover.
Controlling your ego does not mean that you have to lose your edge or stop being a productive member of society.
In fact, according to professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, practicing mindfulness actually makes you more creative and more productive, as it clears your mind of unhelpful assumptions and routines, thus making space for new ideas and thoughts.
During a ten-day meditation retreat, the author was flooded with ideas with which he filled entire notebooks. He was more productive in this time of peace and mindfulness than normally, when his mind is cluttered and chaotic.
Interestingly, one of the most important discoveries that the author made on his journey to tame his ego was that high levels of stress or the need for competition weren’t necessary to fuel his drive.
Quite the contrary: he found that it was a much more satisfying exercise to control these urges than to indulge in them.
Meditation is a simple way to increase mindfulness and compassion in everyday life.
At this point, we’ve talked quite a lot about meditation. But what is it exactly?
In essence, when you meditate, you sit comfortably and focus on your own breath.
During this time, your mind will inevitably wander off to other things. That’s okay! When this happens, simply refocus your mind on your breathing without judgment.
The nice thing about meditation is that you don’t need anything to get started – anyone can meditate anywhere.
So, meditation is easy. But what’s in it for you? Why should you bother?
For starters, meditation increases mindfulness by teaching us to view the contents of our mind with nonjudgmental distance. According to Buddhist teachings, we have three habitual responses to everything we experience:
- We want it. Think about that gut-level desire to eat a delicious cookie.
- We reject it. Imagine swatting at annoying mosquitos.
- We zone out. Have you ever listened to a flight attendant’s safety instructions all the way through? Yeah, right.
Mindfulness gives us a fourth option: we observe without judgment.
Your first experience with mindfulness during meditation often happens when you experience some sort of uncomfortable situation, like an itchy nose or sore legs. In these cases, you simply observe the pain with impartiality and without reacting or moving.
Eventually, you’ll be able to apply mindfulness to more complex discomforts: your thoughts and emotions.
In addition, meditation increases your compassion. In the month after the author added conscious compassion to his meditation practice, he began seeing changes in his life: he found that he was not only kinder to others, but also to himself.
Meditation does a body good, helping curb the effects of stress and even disease.
Meditation is not only good for the mind; it also can have profound positive effects on the body.
Studies have shown that meditation can actually reverse the effects of the stress chemicals, by lowering blood pressure and thus reducing the risk of heart disease.
Research also suggests that the mindfulness practiced during meditation can spill into everyday life, leading to increased patience, empathy and compassion.
Imagine that you are stuck in a traffic jam on your way to work. Normally, you might react angrily and impatiently, punching your steering wheel and thinking: “Why is this happening to me?!”
However, once you have practiced mindfulness, you will simply observe these thoughts and let them pass without becoming consumed by them. You will not react, but respond with sober calmness.
Meditation can also be beneficial in battling major depression, drug addiction, binge eating and smoking. It can help cancer patients better handle stress and senior citizens avoid loneliness. Meditation can also stem the effects of ADHD, asthma, psoriasis and even irritable bowel syndrome.
Finally, meditation allows you to sculpt the one tool you have for perceiving and experiencing the world: your brain. Indeed, studies have shown that training your brain through meditation can improve your resilience, impulse control and your overall level of well-being.
Accept your negative emotions, then separate yourself from them through non-identification.
Meditation, however, is not a cure-all. So what should you do to help stem the influence of negative emotions?
Psychotherapist and Buddhist teacher Tara Brach suggests that you simply acknowledge your negative feelings – that is, admit that you’re experiencing them, rather than deny them.
The Buddhists teach that we should “let go,” but what they really mean, is “let it be.” Instead of denying “ugly” characteristics or negative feelings, just let them be without judging yourself for having them.
Another Buddhist saying is that “the only way out is through.” Imagine those negative feelings as a immense wave coming right toward you. The best way not to drown is to dive into the wave, thus causing it to lose its power.
There are more proactive ways of dealing with negative emotions. According to Brach’s teachings, there are four stages to accepting these feelings.
First, you must recognize the emotion, then allow it to exist, investigate its effects and finally separate yourself from it through the practice of non-identification.
The author practiced this when he was concerned about a promotion. First, he recognized that he was worried. Next, he convinced himself that it was okay to be worried. Then he investigated how his body was handling the worry; he felt a buzzing in his chest.
And finally, he practiced non-identification, telling himself that he is bigger than his momentary concerns and that the moment would pass.
Our modern lives push us into a constant state of stress and panic, and this has major consequences on our mental and physical health. We can combat this stress through the practice of meditation, which can ultimately lead to a more compassionate, fulfilling and productive lifestyle.
Increase your compassion through “metta meditation.”
Picture yourself clearly in your mind and repeat the following phrases: May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be safe, may you live with ease. Then repeat the same sentences or mantra, this time imagining a benefactor, a dear friend, a neutral person, a person with whom you have difficulties and finally, all living beings.
What to read next: The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin
Now that you’ve learned how meditation can improve your physical and mental well-being in an increasingly hectic world, it’s time to ask yourself a daunting question: Am I happy?
When author Gretchen Rubin asked herself this question she found that, although she had a good job, a loving family and some savings in the bank, she often felt far from happy. So she decided to go on a yearlong journey to figure out what happiness really is and how to get more of it in her life. The Happiness Project is the result of that journey.
To learn what she discovered – including why she started collecting bluebird figurines – read the book summary for the The Happiness Project.