On an average day I meditate for 10-15 minutes however I skip days fairly often. Sometimes I practice “mindfulness” while doing normal activities like driving.
Even with this modest level of effort, however, the results I’ve seen massively exceeded my expectations. I feel like my brain has been re-wired in a very positive way.
For years I read glowing praise about meditation and its benefits. Yet I never came close to trying it myself. It felt was too foreign or too new age. It wasn’t “my style” and I just couldn’t imagine spending the time sitting there doing nothing.
My aversion to meditation was so strong I once tried it literally for a minute or two and then never attempted again for more than five years.
Last year though I meditated semi-regularly and benefited from it much more than I would have imagined. I will explain exactly how I got started, but first I want to motivate things by explaining the benefits I’ve seen.
For me the key change since starting meditation has been the introduction of “space” between my thoughts and feelings and the decision making portions of my brain. It’s hard to say whether this is space “in time” or space “in distance”. Either is simply an analogy and both describe how it feels.
I still have feelings. I still get mad or sad or angry, I still experience happiness or joy or anxiety or worry. However when these feelings arise they do not generally take over.
It’s clear to me now that these feelings are my reactions to the world. Feelings and thoughts are mental objects. When I’m deciding what action I want to take I can consider these mental objects, because after all they now are part of the world as well, but I no longer artificially inflate their priority just because I generated them.
I try to focus on the objective reality of the situation as much as possible.
I was not an overly emotional person to begin with. I think if anything people might have said I was impassive. So I would never in a million years thought to wish for “more distance” from my feelings. I’m not sure I would have guessed it was even possible. I figured the way I was experiencing the world was simply the way it had to be experienced.
Yet change really was possible and it’s been incredibly liberating. I feel much freer and much calmer almost all the time. And more effective at making decisions and dealing with other people.
For example if I’m feeling mad I will just note, perhaps with a slight smile, that hey I’m mad, how interesting. When deciding how to respond I’ll consider this bit of information, that I’m angry, but it doesn’t dominate my response.
The word that best describes this I believe is equanimity which means “mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation”.
Here is a concrete example. A month or two ago I was having a pleasant conversation with my wife while in the car. She was driving which is unusual if we are travelling together.
Somehow conversation veered onto a “hot button” topic. Something we are prone to arguing about, I cannot even remember what it was, but to me it seemed to come out of nowhere. She made a connection based on something I said and brought the contentious subject up quite heatedly.
Any prior year of my life I would have lashed back. I would have probably been angry at her not because of the topic, but because I felt she was wrong to make the connection, wrong to dare bring up the topic.
This time however I just sat there in silence staring out the front windshield. I had a very neutral expression on my face but my pulse was pounding and my face was flush. I had many possible biting comebacks floating through my brain.
We sat in complete silence for maybe 45 seconds. It seemed like an eternity.
Right when I felt my physical sensations of anger were subsiding she spoke. No words having been said on either side she brought up an unrelated neutral topic. We simply skipped over the whole minefield and proceeded as if nothing happened. Because nothing had happened.
Avoiding an argument is an extreme example, but virtually every conversation I have is different now. In general it just feels like I have more time to think.
I can observe the other person more closely and objectively. I can empathize better. I can watch their eye contact. I’m more aware of my own mannerisms and my posture. I can choose my tone and words more carefully. I can hold their gaze exactly how long I think is appropriate.
Moving away from communication and people to a totally different benefit of meditation: I can now fill small mundane moments of my life with very gratifying mental mini-vacations.
For example while taking out the trash, walking to my car in a store parking lot or climbing stairs. If I choose to I can completely clear my mind and enjoy meditative breaths. This transforms whatever I’m doing into a fairly enjoyable experience, to the point where I’m often disappointed that it ended even if the activity itself was very boring!
The method I used to change my brain is probably the most common type of meditation: focusing on the breath. Consider there are 4 separate phases to breathing: you breathe in, you pause if only for a fraction of a second, you breath out, and you pause again.
You want to pay attention to your breath closely enough that you perceive these four distinct phases. Do not take forced breaths. Try to breathe as naturally as possible. The subtler your breaths are the better.
You want to dive deeper and appreciate that each of these phases can be broken down. For instance the inward breath has a very clear start, which feels different from the middle, which feels different from the end. Enjoy breathing. Be fully present with it.
You “observe the breath” or “follow the breath” by focusing on some physical aspect of breathing. It can be anything but you should try to keep it consistent from breath to breath.
Mostly I used the air as it rushes by the rim of my nostrils. You need to be focusing pretty closely to perceive that. Other other times I use the rising and lowering of my chest or abdomen. These gross movements are especially useful in a noisy or flustered situations.
The key fact here, the absolute essential piece to understand, is there is nothing magical about the breath. What you are doing is training your mind, not your breath. The breath is just something convenient for your purposes. It’s always with you and it’s something that repeats in a nice rhythmic way.
In fact many people "meditate" while doing other repetitive activities like walking, running, biking, swimming, gardening, knitting, fishing, playing golf, taking photographs or watching birds. I'm sure this is one reason people enjoy doing these things.
They don't always seem terribly exciting to an outsider, but the inner mental experience is often very rewarding. Particularly if you've grown to love the activity. Still I suspect "pure meditation" has advantages and if done correctly is probably the king of brain changing activities. However I cannot prove that.
In any case what you are really training is your mind. While trying to focus on your breath there will be distractions. Ideas will pop into your head which demand attention. You will start drafting an email or text in your mind. Things you’ve forgotten will leap to the forefront. And then there are physical sensations. You’ll remember you are hungry, your knee hurts, your back aches, your teeth aren’t as clean as they could be.
A primary distraction for me is why am I wasting my time meditating! Even though I love the benefits of meditation after 10 or 15 minutes the desire to get up and do something else is overpowering.
The thing to realize is all of these distractions are wonderful things! Do not try to force concentration on your breath. Welcome every distraction, consider it briefly and neutrally, then let it go. If you have kids you might already have the perfect song burned in your brain: Let it go...
If you just realized you need to send an important email, make a mental note then let it go. Don’t jump up to write the email, unless it is truly an emergency of course. If you think of a great business idea, don’t panic, if it’s any good you’ll remember it after the session.
This process of focusing on one thing while briefly entertaining a 2nd unrelated thing, then returning to the main thing is your “rep”. If you work out at a gym you generally do “repetitions” or “reps”. For example if you are doing push-ups a single down-up cycle is one rep. Each rep is not particularly impactful, but doing them one after another, day after day, month after month will make you stronger.
This focus/distract/resume cycle is an ingenious process worked out thousands of years ago by brilliant people. It has been re-wiring brains for those same thousands of years. If it is so great why doesn't everyone do it? I can only guess because it does take time and effort. It doesn't produce immediate visible results, you must be patient. Also it is just so simple most people probably figure how could it possibly work?
When I started I found it useful to count breaths. This is kind of a crutch and it was an annoying habit to break later on, but it helped initially.
See if you can get to ten full breath cycles without any major mental interruptions. If your mind does wander that’s completely fine, consider the interruption briefly then start over at one. If you can make it to ten consistently you should stop counting breaths.
Eventually you will be able to follow your breath indefinitely. Distractions will still present themselves but you can consider them and let the go without “losing” the breath.
No one can give you a timetable of how you will progress with meditation because results vary widely. Maybe what I experienced was unusual. Maybe I was primed for this transformation and you will not have the same results. Or maybe you will go much further I really cannot say.
One of my pet theories is a decent percentage of people have, for their whole lives, had exactly the mental characteristics I’ve only now acquired in my 40’s. From their point of view my transformation was to simply to become more normal!
I would go further out on a limb and say there are probably teenagers out there, one-in-a-million types, who have the same Zen-like calm of a meditator with 40 years of training. Just by a fluke of genetics or upbringing. I like to imagine them simply kicking ass without knowing why it’s so difficult for the rest of us.
A small terminology point, some would argue that true meditation only occurs when you are “sitting quietly doing nothing” and that focusing on your breath while doing something else is simply “being mindful”.
I’m fine with that terminology but the very experienced author of the “Plain English” book below explicitly calls both activities “meditation”. I can only conclude a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.
After I had “practiced mindfulness” for several months I tried sitting meditation. I continue to do both types of “mediation” to this day and I feel both have significant value. Whether sitting or not you are doing the same breath cycle and dealing with distractions.
In fact it came as a shock to me that there is no other gross activity going on in your mind during meditation. I have read some very detailed accounts and it is really about doing the same thing to ever finer degrees of grace and subtlety.
I found it helpful when starting sitting meditation to set a timer for 10 minutes or whatever your goal time is. It was just too distracting to keep thinking “am I done yet?” over and over. I used the meditation app Sattva, but really only as a timer. Later I tried the app headspace it might be a useful way to jump start a meditation practice.
I’ve been sticking with 10-15 minutes. That is hard enough to wedge into a busy day with work and kids. Meanwhile the same “Plain English” book below suggests an eventual goal of four hours a day! Some people take meditation retreats where they meditate 12 or more hours a day!
I feel these stories of uber-meditators discourage a lot of people from trying meditation. Surely they will never make it up to those extremes so why bother starting?
However I feel these mega-meditators are like ultra-marathoners. Not even the normal marathoners but the ones who run 100 mile races. I hope a key takeaway of this post is do not let these people dissuade you from running your “mere” 3 miles day. Even a modest regime can massively change your brain over time.
I encourage you to give meditation or mindful breathing a try. Please see the books below for some possible guidance or inspiration. However it might be worth noting I didn’t read any of these books until I had been meditating for a while. Do not try to “read your way into” a meditation habit. You have to just do it.
Excellent books on mindfulness:
Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill
The author has a PhD in molecular biology, but became a Buddhist monk and spent decades practicing mindfulness and meditation. Only has a few small instructional bits about meditation between the chapters, but is a fantastic book on many of the ideas you might run into while practicing meditation.
Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha
Like Happiness this only contains short exercises about meditation. The bulk of the book is dealing with subjects and ideas you might encounter while meditating. A great book however.
Mindfulness in Plain English
This was my bible. I read it three times and I essentially never re-read books. You have to really want to practice mindfulness or meditation to find this book interesting, but it walks you through everything in fantastic detail and contains a lot of motivational thoughts to keep you going.
The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science
This is a much more in depth guide than "Plain English". I was amazed after reading "Plain English" several times to find this author had fresh insights. I would not recommend this until you have been doing sitting meditation for a while. I've only finished half the book so far!
I didn't use this my first year, but I've since gone through the 10 free guided meditations and I can recommend this. Quite well done and an easy way to get started.