If you want to understand your mind, sit down and observe it
For the last 100 days, without missing a day, I’ve meditated for 10 minutes. Here’s what I’ve learnt and why I’m going to keep up the habit.
💯 100 Days of Meditation
For 100 days I have meditated for ten minutes a day, every morning. A total of 1000 minutes or over 16 hours. “Pointless” might spring to your mind at this waste of time perhaps. But for me, I’ve kept at it for a few notable reasons and because, ultimately, I find it to be a net benefit.
The premise of my 100 day challenge was simple: a lot is written or said about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness and I wanted to see for myself.
I’ve dabbled in trying to form a meditation habit in the past but never really made it stick. The chief reason for this is that it was always the case that I would meditate in the evening, and evening habits are always more challenging to keep than morning habits in my experience. So instead, I added 10 minutes of meditation to my morning routine, which I do before the rest of the household awakes, and that simple change was enough to make it stick.
To expand a little further on the basis for this experiment, the key points are:
- It’s a challenge. I like a challenge and this follows similar micro-challenges I’ve done like my press-up challenge summarised in Saturday Blueprint 5 on Press Ups and Stress.
- It’s a habit. And I won’t apologise for saying this again and again and again, but habits are everything. Forming beneficial daily habits is the foundation of your character. I talk at length about habits in Saturday Blueprint 19 on Routines and Habits.
- It’s a self-experiment. This is distinct from the challenge point in an important way - it’s an experiment, so I’m tuned in, hopefully objectively and without bias, to the results. I’m aiming to validate a hypothesis. And I’m doing that through the only lens that really matters - my own experience. “Trust, but verify” comes to mind, and an experiment on myself is the best way I know to verify.
- It’s my spirituality. I am a man of reason and meditation is a practice of spirituality in an otherwise atheistic world. There is no god, but there is consciousness and that is truly and uniquely incredible and fascinating. Perhaps even miraculous.
In terms of a few quick tips; I would recommend meditating in the morning as I mentioned above. It’s also worth noting that meditation is a focused practice and focusing right before bed can make it hard to sleep afterwards. I keep it very simple in terms of equipment - I use a cheap meditation cushion I got from Amazon plus the free InsightTimer app for my phone. For the app I don’t do any unnecessary guided meditations - it’s just a timer with a halfway chime, but it does track my streak which I like too.
Now on to explore what I noticed from this experiment.
🧘♂️ Noticing what we notice
Noticing. An easy word to say but much harder to do. Our minds are endlessly active - that’s clear and evident to all of us. Just try waiting in a long queue without your mind practically forcing you to pull out your phone, heaven forbid that a minute of boredom should go unfilled.
It’s tough not to think. The gateway drug for meditation for me was when I heard of a simple test to expose this noisiness of the mind: simply take 10 deep breaths without thinking of anything. How hard can that be right? Well, I tried and it turns out that I found it very hard. Very hard to go just ten breaths without a thought arising. Maybe it was an itch that appeared, or I remember an email I need to send, or I got annoyed at a noise I’d heard. Something, anything, would interrupt this test. Despite wanting and committing to this test I couldn’t control my mind for those ten breaths. At a fundamental level then: ‘I’ couldn’t control ‘me’. It’s a topic for another Saturday Blueprint, but the implication is the illusion is that there is a ‘me’.
But back to less existentially challenging ground. After this first failed test I wanted to keep exploring the topic of meditation and stillness because it’s simply a practice of noticing what you notice. Noticing what thoughts and feelings and images and desires and discomforts appear in your mind. It’s a good thing to idle this car we’re driving every now and then. To carve out an intentional moment of stillness. We’re often told to ‘stop and think’ but meditation is more like ´stop and listen’, or ‘stop and pay attention’. And when we don’t stop for a moment and pay attention it can feel a bit like we’re on a rollercoaster and can’t get off. We’re either a passenger with little say or we are in such a mode of reacting to everything that comes our way that we forget to engage a bit of awareness and instead carefully respond.
Meditation is simple then:
- Try to focus on something, your breathing is commonly used as an anchor for focus.
- When thoughts arise (which they will) notice them appearing. Don’t judge, just notice.
- Bring your attention back to your breathing. Repeat.
And that’s it. I found it helpful to have an attitude of curiosity with noticing thoughts arising since that helps with being an observer and not judging myself. Every time you lose attention and bring it back it’s a little bicep curl for your mind.
You’ll notice it’s not just thoughts that appear: thoughts like, “Meditation is stupid”, and “Where did I leave my keys?”; but also physical urges appear: urges to shift your weight on the floor, to scratch an itch, to open your eyes to check how much time has passed. You’ll even find that you’ve scratched that itch before you even became aware of it, and when you’ve been sat here expressly trying to focus only on your breath!
What you are training with meditation is an increased ability to focus - great for any situation where you need to concentrate. I’ve found a benefit at work with being able to focus more easily and for longer since doing this experiment. It also trains your ability to notice thoughts - instead of being frustrated, you might notice that the frustrated mind is like this. You are not your thought or emotion. The benefit I saw from this experiment was a reduction in stress, and a greater ability to just experience the present moment. Most stress comes from worrying about the future or fretting over the past. And guess what, just like all the other random things that’ll pop into your head during meditation, stress is just another one that pops into existence, and if we refocus, disappears again.
Meditation then is an exploration of impermanence. Everything comes and goes as it plays itself out on the canvas of your mind. Emotions. Thoughts. Feelings. Experiences. They appear from nowhere and are presented to your conscious mind. We then become aware of them for a time. Then they go again.
We can have a role in this impermanence. We can practice 'letting go' of thoughts, especially negative ones. Instead of holding on to an angry thought, which as we know will pass given time, why not let go of it now? Send the fleeting emotion away. This is the practical application of meditation that doesn't happen while sitting on the meditation cushion but happens in real life when the jerk cuts in front of you in traffic, or when you stub your toe, or fill in your own blank for what winds you up. I've certainly seen this in myself - I feel calmer, less stressed, less reactive, and more balanced with this meditation habit.
“Changing how you respond to the world is often as good as changing the world” — Sam Harris
Meditation is deceptively simple but extraordinarily profound. At its most basic level, the practice trains your ability to notice sights, sounds, sensations, and even thoughts themselves, as they arise in consciousness.
As you develop this ability, you’ll begin to discover what your mind is like when you are no longer perpetually identified with your thoughts. This will allow you to spend more time truly content and focused in the present and connected to the people in your life.
I’ll briefly touch on gratitude because it’s quite remarkable when you think about that we get to think at all. Given the billions of years of the existence of the universe and the many billions to come that we get a tiny fraction of universal time to perceive, experience, and feel is a gift.
In the context of meditation, I like to end each meditation with this simple affirmation:
May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be at peace
I like this because it’s directive; it gives permission to be happy, healthy and at peace. And that’s a great way to start any day that we are fortunate enough to get to live.
For those that want to learn more, there is the Buddhist concept of Metta or loving-kindness which is all about gratitude, kindness, and love.
🌬️ If in doubt, breathe out
I have a few practical tips for keeping your focus on your breath and limiting that mind-wandering. The first is I say in my head “in, in, in” as I breathe in, and “out, out, out” as I breathe out. This helps anchor my focus to my breath.
The second is to consciously extend the exhale. The default is that we focus actively on breathing in. And breathing out (the exhale) is passive and happens without thinking. If we switch that and focus instead on breathing out then this forces our focus onto this and leads us into an introspective mindset and meditative state. This is why “if in doubt, breathe out” is great for stressful situations. It switches to this focus state.
If in doubt, breathe out
If you’ve made it this far, why not join me for the next 100 days? 10 minutes isn’t long, and you can even practice mindfulness and awareness in small moments throughout the day. Like going for a short walk without your phone, like taking three deep breaths before you fire up the computer on a Monday morning, like watching the coffee percolate through the expresso machine.
I’ll be continuing the daily meditation because I genuinely get value from it, maybe you will too? You’ve got to try it to find out though.
It’s a pleasure writing to you. Have a great week. 😊
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