Several months ago, a friend from work started practicing transcendental meditation. He told me he was relaxed, less stressed, more in tune with his thoughts and even cursed less.
I thought to myself, “fuck that.”
To be honest, I thought the idea of meditation was a bit of a quack. Who needs to sit quietly, focusing on their breath or a sound to relax? I kept thinking about the scenes in Bad Boys II where Martin Lawrence and Joe Pantoliano rub their ear lobes and say “woo-sah” when they begin to lose their temper.
This summer, I began listening to “The Tim Ferriss Show” podcast. Tim Ferriss, author of “The Four Hour Workweek (Chef & Body),” does long form interviews with world-class performers in various fields: acting, music, investing, athletics, writing, medicine, start-ups, technology, academia, military, and more. Besides finding these interviews very inspirational and educational, I realized almost every one of these “world-class” performers had some kind of meditative practice.
I finally heard enough about meditation and decided I would give it a try while I am in Japan. Now, there are many different types of meditation, and if any of this interests you, there are lots of resources online for beginners. I tried two apps that provide guided meditation to get started. I have done the free trials for Headspace and Calm, I will give my opinion of the different approaches at the end of the blog if you want to get into the weeds.
When I began, I really didn’t know squat about meditation. I envisioned sitting with my legs crossed on the floor and like Peter Gibbons in Office Space, “just you know, space out for a while.”
I quickly realized that meditation is just the opposite of spacing out. It is much more about finding space for clarity while your mind has the urge to jump around and worry about anything and everything.
Both apps walk you through 10 minute sessions, you focus on breathing, noises around you and how your body feels. It was quite shocking to realize how infrequently I ever just sat still and focused on such simple things. My “unwind time” usually involved tv, music, movies, Facebook, surfing the internet, and beer. While relaxing, those activities made me feel mindless, not mindful.
Quite often in these 10 minute sessions, my mind wandered all over the place, from memories of the past to worries or excitement about the future.
Luckily, these guided meditation apps know this whole “mindfulness” business is not easy at first. Both apps frequently reminded me to bring my focus back to my breathing or body or whatever part of the session I was on. It is amazing how much my mind gravitates towards “autopilot.” It reminded me of how many things I do on “autopilot” in my daily life.
I don’t know about you, but when I learn something new, I get immersed in the task or topic and think about every aspect. However, once I get comfortable, it becomes easy to go through that same task without thinking about all the details I focused on when I was a novice.
Remember when you learned to drive? You had to think about how much to press on the gas, how much to turn the steering wheel and how hard to hit the breaks. After you got the hang of it, how often do you really think about the finer details when you get behind the wheel? It comes naturally, you just drive, right?
Life is complicated, and it is normal to learn to automate tasks so we can focus on all the complexities the world throws at us as we grow. This ability to drive and do various mechanical tasks without thinking too hard is a good thing for the most part. But, how many times have you been in a meeting or a conversation and realize that you completely zoned out and have no idea what was just said to you?
The mind likes to wander and jump around. If we never practice being mindful and being present, we often miss out on the beauty of what is around us.
This is where I have found meditation to be the most helpful. I have learned that the idea is not so much to control my thoughts, but to feel comfortable letting thoughts come and go, not allowing them to control me and create undue stress in my life. We don’t need to judge what we are thinking. How often do you look back on something you did and think, “seemed like a good idea at the time.” Sometimes ideas and thoughts come to us when we least expect them.
It is important to be aware of how we feel and not be afraid to ask why. The key is awareness. Awareness of what makes me feel good. Awareness of why I feel good. If I am in touch with that awareness, I can try and create more of that good in my life. On the flip side, if I allow myself to obsess over negative thoughts, or to let them stress me out, not only am I dealing with the negative thoughts, but the added stress of worrying about those thoughts. It can feel like an endless cycle, a cycle that inhibits the action I need to take to deal with those negative thoughts.
The more I dig, the more I realize these negative thoughts are a product of what I am afraid of. I am not pretending dealing with my fears is easy, but wallowing in the quicksand of negative thoughts won’t get me anywhere either. Tim Ferriss writes, “what we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do.”
Now, with a bunch of meditation sessions under my belt, I am not going to shave my head, sport a robe, and move into a monastery with some monks. We usually feel like we need to make BIG changes in our lives to improve ourselves. Sometimes, all we need is a small change to produce large and impactful results. Merely taking 10 minutes in the morning has really helped me focus on how I am feeling that day and not let the stress of having quit my job and other stresses we all face control my thoughts and life.
They use this metaphor in Headspace about a clear, blue sky. That blue sky represents the clarity of mind I have been talking about. It is often easy to forget that the blue sky is present when the clouds, storms and distractions of life get in the way. The goal of meditation is not to create clarity, but remember that the blue sky is always there above the clouds. We should not aim to have everyday be beautiful and sunny because we have as little control of the weather as we do our thoughts. We should practice cutting through the clouds in our lives and remember that clarity is always there for us, no matter how hard it is to remember when times are gloomy and tough.
If you have read this far and still think meditating is not for you, I get it. It took me a long time and I had to hear about it from a lot of sources before giving it a shot myself. Even if you don’t want to just sit down and meditate, I would encourage you to try and create some space in your day to get in touch with your thoughts.
Next time you go for a walk, take off the headphones and just appreciate the world around you. Instead of ordering pizza, go to the grocery store and cook yourself a meal. I never realized before, but cooking puts me in a similar mental space as meditation. You have to focus on what you are doing since there are sharp objects and repetitive tasks. Try and find something that lets you get in that zone, I am sure it is different for everyone. If you have a tactic or activity for creating mindful moments in your life, I would love to hear about them in the comments section below.
If you have read this far and think you want to give this a try, you may feel that you don’t have the time. But, as Russell Simmons says, “if you don’t have 20 minutes to delve into your self through meditation, then that really means you need 2 hours.”
Headspace VS Calm: Both apps cover a lot of the same practices. They are both focused on mindfulness and do emphasize focus on your breath and body. This is different from transcendental meditation, which focuses on a sound or repeated mantra.
Headspace has a free 10 day program to teach you the basics. The sessions are led by the founder, Andy. Andy does a great job of going through a similar routine everyday (focus on breathing, scan of the body, let the mind be free and back to the breathing), but gets you to focus deeper each day. I liked Headspace because Andy really does not let you stray too much, and for a beginner like me, I needed a lot of reminding to stay present.
Calm has a 7 day free trial that takes a stepby step approach to the the same style of meditation. The lady who leads the meditation starts day 1 by only focusing on the breath and adds steps as the days go on. I did Headspace first, so I found this style to be refreshing since each day focused on one task at a time and put the pieces together into a seamless routine by the end. If I could go back in time, I would have done Calm first. The only thing I did not like about Calm was that they would go longer periods of time without refocusing your attention on the task at hand. As I mentioned, as a beginner, I really appreciated the reminders Headspace provided in these early stages.
I recommend committing to the trial program and really try to practice every day, around the same time. The first couple days might not feel like much, but after doing it almost everyday for a week or so, I really began to feel a level of natural relaxation and calmness I had not felt in a while.