Updated: Mar 25, 2021
There are many benefits to meditation:
Enhanced cognitive functioning
Reduced stress and anxiety
Helps manage pain
Helps manage strong emotions
These benefits are incremental and occur gradually over time. Those who come to meditation with unrealistic expectations and the kind of magical thinking prevalent in New Age circles are often disappointed and disillusioned with my no-hype, clinical approach to meditation. I have no secrets; I cannot teach you how to cleanse your chakras, manifest abundance, align your vibration with Spirit, heal your inner child, or astral plane. What I teach is far more mundane. What gains we make are far from enlightenment and hardly instant.
Violence was imprinted in me very early. When I was a baby, I cried as babies do. One day, my father lost his temper and punched me in the face. That was my baseline. Violence was my father's default setting when triggered. I inherited that.
I was raised in the ghetto, the gang capital of the nation, a gun half-cocked neighborhood where violence was normalized.
When I was a teenager, one of my boxing coaches asked, “Were you spanked as a child?”
“Did your father ever beat you?”
“Sometimes. He was tough on me, but I needed it,” I said with respect.
“Hmmm. All of my fighters were beaten as children. I have a theory that you young men are working out the violence you experienced as kids.”
“Maybe,” I shrugged before going back to shadowboxing my demons.
I went from suppressing anger, to expressing anger. At nineteen, I joined the military, an institution that weaponized anger. I saw drill sergeants hammer young men of different races, religions, and classes into disciplined soldiers. They were forceful, strict, demanding, impeccable in dress, physically fit, exacting in the application of military discipline and protocol. The best instructors demanded and commanded respect. They expected obedience and didn’t tolerate the bullshit of mostly seventeen and eighteen year olds.
I began my teaching career in South Central, Los Angeles- then the gang capital of the United States. In the beginning of my career, I modeled myself after the drill sergeant and used my military experience in the classroom. My classroom was as orderly as any barrack: floors swept and clean, desks straightened and organized, books categorized on library shelves; everything had its place. The school day began much as the day began for the soldier, with a run and calisthenics. And the year began much as the year began for the soldier with high expectations, no quarter for excuses, strict adherence to protocol and attention to detail.
Parents and caregivers gave me permission to be as strict as I needed to be. Where there was discipline, there was order; where there was order, there was harmony; where there was harmony, there was learning. Protocols and rules were followed and respected even in my absence.
But whenever I lost my temper, I’d feel defeated and physically spent, pockets of anger and tension nesting in my body. I was disappointed with myself as I had worked at being a model of discipline physically, intellectually, and spiritually. But, I had no discipline over my anger, no mastery over the thoughts which agitated them. My shortcomings gave me the compassion and empathy I needed to understand many of the children who came to me- all fang and claw. But I didn’t have effective strategies to pass along. When I erupted, I’d yell and brow-beat or pound the desktop with my fists. I’d kick or upend desks or trash cans, pacing the room until I had settled down.
Behind the anger was a need to protect the children. Once I figured this out, I could move from suppression to expression to transformation. When calm, I could alchemize the energy of anger into resolve, iron discipline and hard work. My anger railed against inequality and injustice. It gave me the strength and courage to reach the unreachable. But this same fire consumed me and harmed them.
On teaching, the venerable Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, told an interviewer, “We should teach our children how to be calm, and how to be able to be in the present moment, how to come back when they have strong emotions, how to be able to handle their strong emotions… You need to be a model yourself for your children so they have something to learn from, something to look up to, something to be inspired by... Look deeply before acting fearfully, or angrily.”
But, early in my career, I had no techniques for managing my own emotions. I wanted self-mastery, not to be undone by my lack of self-discipline. In all my years of schooling, I was never offered a class on managing strong emotions. Yet, I was ultimately responsible for my thoughts and actions. Radical responsibility demanded this. The drill instructors taught us that there was no quarter for excuses. As a leader, I owned my actions and my behavior. I lived a seemingly disciplined life, but my students defrocked me: I was not yet my own master. I respected my anger, but my mind and emotions were not under my dominion. I wanted to be like him of whom it is written: “He that is slow to Wrath is better than the Mighty; and he that ruleth his Spirit, than he that conquereth a City” as my father would teach. But, like me, my father struggled with his anger and did not always practice what he preached.
From suppression to expression to transformation, I then moved to responsibility, acceptance, and integration. While I had managed to alchemize the energy of anger into action, it was still exacting a toll on me physically and psychologically. I was at war with myself.
With meditation, I learned to recognize anger as it arose, embrace it with compassion, and accept responsibility for my perceptions and the words and actions which issued from them. Radical responsibility called on me to examine the many cognitive distortions I had adopted, assuming them to be true, provoking me to anger and acting on these distorted misperceptions, co-creating a reality of unnecessary suffering for myself and others.
I learned different techniques; I learned to communicate more effectively, and manage strong emotions. But after 30 years of practice, I still get angry and hold on to resentments longer than is wise. Meditation helps manage strong emotions. It does not eliminate them. Under stress, I regress. I yell at my children when triggered. But the anger is very short lived. In those instances, I apologize and seek solutions.
One of my teachers expressed progress this way: imagine a man who gets angry and holds on to his anger for a week. For a week, he stews in his anger. After several weeks of meditation practice, he goes from being angry 100% of the time to 80% of the time. After several months of practice, he goes from being angry 80% of the time to the 70% of the time. Is this not progress? He is 30% happier. He enjoys more moments of peace and clarity.
After 30 years of practice, I experience anger about 15% of the time. It is short-lived and often mild. I can dial it down when the intensity is mild to moderate. When it is strong, I have a few stop gap measures that are 95% effective. Working on the 5%.
Meditation enhances cognitive functioning and improves learning. That I am less stupid is good enough for me. Incremental gains.