According to research done in Harvard, I have a new brain now. Well, perhaps not quite, since the participants in the study clocked an average of 27 minutes a day over two months, whereas I’m averaging 20 minutes a day, six days a week. So I’ll give my new brain a little more time to develop.
Nevertheless, It’s been around two months since I started a (almost) daily meditation practice. This has not been my first attempt at meditating regularly, but I find it easier now than couple years ago, when I last tried to get into the habit. There are a few reasons why that is, which I will get to later in this article.
The approach I use is called vipassana, or mindfulness/insight meditation. It is simply the practice of being fully present in the moment, becoming aware of your breathing, other sensations, sounds, and even thoughts as they appear in the awareness. Too often we get carried away by our thinking. This practice helps you recognise when that happens, and return your attention to the present moment.
Meditation also makes you more aware of the fact that your self is not the same as your thinking. Thoughts arise spontaneously to the awareness, but since there is also a part of you that can observe those thoughts, the thoughts themselves cannot be what you truly are. If that were the case, then who or what is doing the observing?
But why meditate in the first place? I have known for quite a few years already about the research and positive outcomes associated with meditation, but that knowledge alone has not been enough to start doing it regularly. How many people smoke even though they are fully aware of the consequences? Behaviour change takes more than knowing something intellectually.
As you might know, I’m a huge advocate of podcasts and audio books. They are a wonderful way to learn new things utilising time–such as commuting, cleaning up the apartment, and long walks–that would otherwise go to waste. I have two new favourites: Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, which is so well thought out and narrated that even though I’m not a history buff, I am completely drawn into the stories, which range from protestant reformation to Genghis Khan, and to the morality and ethics behind the atomic bomb. My other new favourite is The Tim Ferriss Show.
Tim does mostly interviews of people who can easily be counted as the top 1% in their field, whether it’s venture capital, entrepreneurship, human performance, writing, coaching, arts or innovation. For example, most recently he did an hour+ long interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger. To listen to Arnold speak in Nordic Business Forum would have cost you several hundred euros. The podcast you can download for free.
After listening to a few episodes of The Tim Ferriss Show, it is impossible not to notice how many of these world-class people mention their meditation habit. Josh Waitzkin, who coaches top-level athletes, finance managers, and other business people, even claims that meditation is one of the key practices for high-level performance improvement. Chase Jarvis meditates, so does Pixar’s president Ed Catmull, and most recently The Governator mentioned that a year of Transcendental Meditation changed his life.
I thought, with this many people vouching for meditation, maybe I should give it another chance.
Now that I have two months of regular practice under my belt, I feel confident in sharing some of the lessons learned.
1. It’s ok to be comfortable
The last time I tried meditating, sitting cross-legged on the floor or on a sofa, my back started aching real bad after a few minutes. Soon the pain made it almost impossible to concentrate.
You don’t need to be in a lotus position to meditate. There’s even a thing called walking meditation. If you experience pain like me, try sitting on a chair. An upright position is preferable, though, in order to not get drowsy and fall asleep.
Nowadays I sit on a hefty cushion on the floor, cross-legged, with a pillow between my back and a wall, so I can lean a little bit and thus avoid back pain.
2. It helps to get some help, especially when getting started
I don’t think I would have gotten where I am without this How to Meditate -introductory article by Sam Harris (who was also interviewed in The Tim Ferriss Show), and his guided meditations. For the first two or three weeks half my sessions were done while listening to them. During the other sessions I listened to ambient ocean or rain sounds, which I found on Spotify.
Yes, it’s ok to listen to music, ambient sounds, or whatever else you find helpful–especially if the environment is a bit noisy. I avoid music with lyrics, though, as that seems to make it more difficult to keep from getting lost in thought.
Now I mostly use Sattva (available for iOS and Android) for ambient soundtrack and to track how much time I spend meditating.
3. Meditation is exercise for the mind
If you want to get in a better shape physically, you wouldn’t go to the gym and quit after the first day, when you realise that you can’t do a 2.5 times bodyweight deadlift. You start with the weight you can manage and build strength gradually. The key is to keep practicing, not to reach an arbitrary goal.
I find it useful to approach meditation with the same mindset. It is a form of exercise, but instead of targeting a muscle, it’s targeting the brain. Don’t get frustrated if you seem unable to quiet your mind and constantly lose yourself in thoughts. Each time you notice having been lost in thought, and return again to the sensation of breathing, is like doing another repetition in the gym.
Gradually it becomes easier to quiet the mind, and you might also start noticing some rather exciting new sensations, one of which could be described as being hyperaware of everything within your sphere of experience. At least for me this is something that has started to happen of late during my practice.
4. Know your whys
It’s easier to get motivation for doing something when you are well aware of why you are doing it. When it comes to meditation, there are multiple studied benefits. For me the main goal was to better cope with an uncertain time in my life (no income since January, trying to develop my own business and find new opportunities), without succumbing to anxiety or depression. So far the results have been pretty amazing. Although it would of course be impossible to draw a causal link from meditation to staying positive, as I can’t say for sure what would have happened if I hadn’t started meditating.
Secondary goal was to see if I can increase the ability of my unconscious mind to generate creative insights. I have realised, especially after I started teaching myself programming, that many of the more difficult problems do not get solved by using force. Instead, detaching yourself from the task at hand, and giving time for the unconscious mind to come up with an answer is a better and more effortless method. Also, according to Josh Waitzkin, learning how to effectively use the unconscious mind is another key skill of the high-performing people.
5. Find your time and stick to it
Figure out when is the best time for you to meditate. I have found there to be a significant difference between mornings, afternoons and evenings. It is a lot easier to concentrate in the morning, after breakfast and a cup of coffee. The quality of the practice is better, and it also gives a great start and clarity of thought for the rest of the day.
Being consistent with the timing and meditating every day–even if it’s just for ten minutes or less–will also help in turning it into a habit.
Did I pique your interest? If you decide to try meditation, let me know how it goes in the comments. Also, if you know any good resources on the topic I’d be happy to hear about them.