In Judaism, there is a very famous story from the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) that I will paraphrase:
Just around the first century BCE, there were two tremendous Jewish scholars and teachers in Jerusalem. One was named Hillel and the other Shammai. Despite both being scholars and teachers of note, they often had their disagreements about how to interpret the Torah — the foundational text of Judaism.
One day, a non-Jewish man approached each of these sages with the same challenge: that he would accept Judaism and convert to the faith if a rabbi could teach him the entire Torah while he stood on one foot.
First, he went to Shammai. Shammai definitely wasn’t having this —what he interpreted as tomfoolery. He actually pushed the man away with a ruler and told him to hit the bricks.
Undeterred, the man the approached Hillel. Hillel accepted the man’s request and converted the man, saying:
“That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.”
I’m a big fan of this story’s lesson of the occasional benefit of summarizing headier subjects for the sake of consumption and use. There are a few other subjects that I feel are somewhat needlessly mystified and in need of the Hillel treatment. One of the biggest ones I’ve found in this regard is the practice of meditation.
I have recently started a routine of morning meditation in an effort to strengthen my attention span and focus. As I sought out information about how to start meditating, I encountered many Shammais. I felt lost in the flowery language about consciousness, chakras, esoteric explanations of its benefits, and guided meditations that distracted me more than they guided me. The very practical and non-spiritual benefits of meditation have been frequently hijacked by pseudo-heady wannabe-gurus in beads, draped in linen attire from their ponytail to their Birkenstocks. The ordinary person typically feels that they must attain some higher enlightened state or at least endure hippie spirituality in order to reap the benefits of a meditative process. Meditation advocate Dan Harris summarized this issue in his book Meditation For Fidgety Skeptics by saying that, “meditation has been the victim of the worst marketing campaign for anything ever.”
It’s with this attitude that I feel that meditation is in need of the Hillel treatment. While I’m no expert on meditation, I’ve experienced some of the benefits armed solely with a tremendously basic understanding of the process.
Here is my attempt at explaining meditation on one foot:
Focus on something consistent — such as the sensation of your breath entering and exiting your nostrils. Cool in, warm out. Once you notice yourself being distracted by a thought, return your focus back to the sensation of your breath entering and exiting your nostrils. Rinse and repeat.
I understand that this is almost laughably basic. Despite this, it is really all of the information I needed to begin meditating on a consistent basis. I started doing this for five minutes a day. I’ve recently increased it to ten minutes every morning. Even with this limited time and very basic approach, I’ve perceived a considerable reduction in the time it takes me to realize I’m being distracted and course-correcting my mind.
And in case you’re wondering, I did test whether or not I could deliver my instructions for meditation on one foot. The answer?
Yep, and I felt like an idiot. Happy meditating.
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