First a very important update: I've been wearing the same sweatpants and hoodie for several days now, and it's glorious. Merry Christmas.
I was fortunate to recently participate in some training at Ronin Athletics and in between getting strangled the head coach, Christian Montes, told me about how the Gracies used to sell laypeople on Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is back in the eighties, before the emergence of modern MMA and when there were still karate schools practicing death touch and breaking boards. To prove Brazilian Jiu Jitsu's effectiveness as a self defense discipline they would have a prospective student lay down on the ground and put them in full mount:
From there the black belt would just tell the neophyte on bottom to try and get out, like their life depended on it, there was someone taking away your loved ones right over there, you have to get to them, etc. etc.
Anyone who has trained modern martial arts can probably guess what happens - the person on bottom will not be able to escape, inevitably and quickly become exhausted, and a realization sets in. That you had an perception of reality that was at odds with the way things actually are. I would bet a lot of us who train in BJJ had an experience similar to this the first time we stepped onto the mat.
How you take that new understanding and move forward is up to you. In my case the absolute decisiveness of the practice (you are in essence fighting for your life every time) and the depth of knowledge required to get good led to it becoming a borderline obsession.
Now I can give you this same experience, but for meditation or contemplative practices.
Just do this: Try not to have a thought. I'll wait.
Probably didn't take long. Meditation, like martial arts, is many things but awareness of thoughts and how mind operates is one major benefit of the practice. This is important because, arguably, identifying with thoughts and as thoughts causes roughly all of our problems as human beings on a day-to-day basis.
You can take this realization and cognize it, process it and think about it and that's fine. But in my opinion until you practice meditation regularly this won't become apparent in daily life.
Just like I can learn the escape from full mount, and that there are actually a couple of very easy ways to get out most of the time in the space of five minutes, but without practicing the technique over and over my mind won't fully realize it. Eventually you want it to become muscle memory (which is a flow state of mind and body unified) where it feels like you don't even cognize what to do next, you just do the technique and get out.
The same principles apply for contemplative practice - without taking the time out of your day to sit, pay attention to the breath or the body, and work with the ceaseless stream of thoughts that we think are "us", then we will not be able to have this awareness become muscle memory. In daily life, when we are upset, we will not be able to recognize (what a wonderful word by the way, re-cognizing) that upset is just a thought and pull ourselves back into a better frame of mind to deal with the situation. This can be done more and more effortlessly and quickly the more you practice paying attention and bringing mind back to a focal point.
From there it opens up. How far you choose to pursue it and integrate that into your life is entirely up to you. In my case the style of practice sort of found me, and I currently subscribe to the Tibetan Buddhist practices and general perspective on the practice. There are more secular alternatives if the very concept of religion freaks you out, but I would also argue that religion is just that- a concept, and of the spiritual practices available (that aren't a cult) Tibetan Buddhism has almost 3,000 years of creating contemplative masters.
You can completely ignore any magical elements and still receive extraordinary benefits by learning more about it. I'll plug a different book this time, I recently read Sam Harris' book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion and would recommend that if you'd like a logical presentation of contemplative practice and Buddhism in particular.
We are being driven around by thoughts and emotions for most of our day. You don't need any sort of spiritual practice to see this is the case. Just try and not have one. Sam Harris used a great example in the above book - imagine you're in a room of strangers and you find your glasses. You might say out loud "There are my glasses" when you found them and no one would really react. Now imagine if you kept talking, "Oh, there are my glasses. I am always forgetting things. This is probably why Cheryl stopped talking to me. I'm such an idiot!" The people around you would probably be freaked out. But we do this in our own heads all day, without even realizing it most of the time.
I am much better off now because I am able to more fully understand the depth of this simple fact, by taking a little time out of my day and paying attention. Compared to when I began earnest meditation practice, I generally get 'hooked' less by thoughts and am able to better recognize patterns of behavior that seem integral to my being but aren't at all. I'm not great at it by any means, but any advancement is improvement and I try to acknowledge it as such.
So big thanks to Christian for bringing that to my attention recently, as I love to draw parallels between the different obsessions that I have and gradually become an even bigger nerd. If you want to learn more about any of that, whether related to strangling people or becoming more mindful just leave a question in the comments and I'll try to respond!
OmAhHum and Osssss