How Edward Snowden helped me with my meditation practice

I am writing this post a day after hearing an interview with Edward Snowden. He spoke from Moscow, where he is in exile, after making public top-secret NSA documents, which revealed the extensive nature of US surveillance on phone and internet communications of Americans.

I’d seen Citizenfour, the documentary about his story, and I remember being surprised by an apparent lack of doubt he felt about doing what he did. He knew what would likely happen after the documents went public — that he would have to leave everything and everyone he knew, that he could go to jail or into exile, and chance never seeing his family or his girlfriend again. And yet, he seemed almost calm about his decision.

Maybe he didn’t actually feel any doubt?

As I listened to the interview with him, this was my question. I got my answer:

He felt a ton of worry and doubt. He thought about what to do with the documents he encountered for a long time, consulting with others he worked with, going over scenarios in his mind. He worried about what would happen to his family and his girlfriend and he was sad at the prospect of never seeing them again.

And yet, his decision appears easy because amidst all the doubt and worry he had something else, something that was ultimately more powerful than anything else he felt:

Commitment.

More specifically, commitment to protect the Constitution of the United States, which he felt the government was violating by spying on its citizens without legal authority. His commitment was unwavering and had absolute clarity to him. As he talked about it in the interview I was struck by just how palpable and real it was. It wasn’t theoretical. It wasn’t intellectual. It was in the if-then format: If I believe that it is the responsibility of the United States citizens to uphold the Constitution, then since I came across evidence that the government is violating it, I don’t have a choice but to expose it.

As I listened to this interview I was thinking about my meditation practice. It’s something I’ve been trying to make a regular part of my life because when I meditate regularly I am a much lighter, kinder, better human. But I keep falling off the wagon — I skip my night meditation because I am too tired or I don’t meditate while I am traveling for work and then it’s hard to come back to.

I have a lot of willpower, so my inability to get into a regular meditation rhythm and maintain it for more than a few months has been frustrating. I’d give myself regular pep-talks about how this is good for me and I should do it regularly or I’d resort to the uglier cousin of the pep-talk — the self-beating-up talk of the “how pathetic are you that you can’t stick to meditating!” variety.

But hearing Edward Snowden I realized it’s not more self-beating that I needed or even more nice pep-talks. I hadn’t made a serious commitment to meditation. This was the missing ingredient.

It feels a bit odd to be writing about meditation in the context of someone risking their life for their commitment, but not really. Most of us feel either slightly or tremendously overwhelmed by our busy, stressful lives and it’s almost too easy to forget that we have a choice about where to focus our attention and energy. It can feel like life is happening to us vs. we are choosing what to include in the days that fill our lives.

And the key ingredient to making that choice is making a serious commitment. There is incredible power to committing to something that is important to you — whether huge, protecting the Constitution of the United States, or small, like sticking to a daily meditation habit.

What I think is so powerful about making a strong commitment is that it makes decisions and choices super easy. If I’m just meh about my commitment to meditation, then when I am tired it’s easy to say “I’ll just chill out with some TV now, and meditate tomorrow when I’m not so tired.” But if I make a serious commitment to myself to stick to it, then I don’t have to worry about choosing between TV and meditation — there isn’t a choice.

Part of what makes our lives feel so overwhelming is the increasing amount of choices about what to do at any given moment. There is just a lot more of everything. Making choices and decisions is draining; there is research that shows how our capacity to make decisions is limited and weakens throughout the day. If we’re not clear about our priorities, our commitments, then it’s easy to make decisions based on our feelings at the moment — “I’m tired so I’ll just watch TV” or “I’m tired and I’ll just eat these cookies that I know aren’t good for me but I’ll just eat healthy tomorrow.”

But do we really want to live in this reactive way? No. Letting our ever-changing emotions guide our actions won’t help us live in a way that feels meaningful and fulfilling. Or frankly, good. Making a commitment to something — and I mean a real, strong, specific commitment — is like creating a checks-and-balances system for our emotions.

Commitments aren’t wire fences that restrict us.  They are safety guardrails that prevent us from wavering off course and ending up in the pit of “woulda, coulda, shoulda.”

The conference was super busy and I felt exhausted when I got to my room the night after the Edward Snowden interview. After brushing my teeth I’d climbed into bed and was about to turn the lights off when I realized I hadn’t done my evening meditation. The voice in my head started to come up with a series of seemingly valid reasons for why I should get some sleep and worry about it tomorrow.

But it didn’t stand a chance. I actually smiled as I got out of bed and sat down cross-legged on the floor, getting ready for my meditation. “Commitment, baby,” I thought as I closed my eyes and started to breathe deeply.

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