Mindfulness Update - Approaching The Finish Line?
Around the start of this year, I re-entered the world of mindfulness when I challenged myself to go 100 days straight with consistently meditating.
Today is day 89.
I’m on the home stretch of a journey that never ends.
Rather than this being about braggadocio at almost being through a challenge that has most people stymied, I want to examine the reasons that I can see as to why it worked out better for me this time than my previous attempts at having the meditation habit stick. Previously my best streak had ended at day 74 and it took almost half a year before I was back to working meditation consistently into my routine again.
You would think that it’s the easiest “healthy habit” to work on. In the traditional way that most people practice meditation, you sit still and do nothing for a stretch of time. There are no trainers grunting for you to do one more rep or bland chicken breast and broccoli with your name on it. But it seems to be that somewhat, for this reason, meditation becomes one of the most difficult habits for the vast majority of people to maintain consistently. And consistency is what research shows to be the most important factor for getting any benefit out of meditating. Yet our brains are extremely reluctant to accept stillness when a stimulus overload is merely a glance away behind a shiny black rectangle of glass. Those gaps in our schedule, the absences of filled space, are the ones we are most likely to cram with as much nonsense as possible. To eke out every spare second is the modern-day definition of ‘productivity,’ or better yet, ‘busy-ness’ that we all have come to wear as a badge of honour.
I think I have finally come to appreciate meditation as something deserving of my daily non-judging attention, so what is different this time around that has made it so I want to include 20 minutes of stillness smack dab in the middle of the day?
Be Precise In Your Speech
In 12 Rules For Life, Rule 10 that Jordan Peterson describes is Be Precise In Your Speech. It’s important to know exactly what you want and communicate it with yourself or with other people. When goal setting it is extremely important to act in accordance with your personality and goal setting tendencies so that you are working with and not against yourself. The last time I embarked upon a long meditation journey with the attempt to form it into a habit, I hadn’t put the puzzle together first in a structured way to keep the task going indefinitely.
The reality is that for almost all constructive goals, the ultimate outcome should be that it becomes a new life habit. The classic examples of this are in the cases of diet and exercise plans. Many people set out with a resolution, an end goal in mind. It might be a wedding, or getting ready for beach season and once that goal has been reached and the timeline has passed, they revert back to their old habits and lose any and all progress they’ve made. Any constructive goal should be set out towards with the effort to convert it into a habit long-term because habits are automatic and don’t require the willpower that accomplishing day-to-day tasks when working towards a goal require.
In setting out on the journey this time, I set a specific goal to become more proficient in meditating in 100 days. 100 is a nice, round number for one thing, and it also would best my previous score by almost a month.
You might be wondering how I was going to objectively score something as ambiguous as proficiency in meditation. Well, that’s where the second part of my strategy came into play by ‘gamifying' the experience while also being able to quantify it by using the Muse headband that I’ve got. Muse is a way to track how well you are doing during meditation and provides you with auditory feedback when you are getting distracted and when you’ve hit the mark. I like it in the initial stages of meditation when you’re more than likely not letting thoughts come and go and instead unbeknownst to you holding on to that image of a cat playing the piano. Feedback is important when starting out because our distracted minds are so used to always racing through thoughts that it’s very hard to let it go.
The Creative Benefits
If you study the routines of the most innovative and prolific thinkers throughout history, you’ll come to find that many of them included significant time to rest and digest their day’s work. Charles Darwin would finish up his work in the morning and spend the afternoon going on long walks. One of the most valuable reasons for meditating, and why I now recognize mediation as the closest thing to a human superpower, is the creative brilliance of these empty spaces in the day. Meditation seems to supercharge me to tap into this power that we all have deep down, but it isn’t meditation alone that can accomplish this if you’re too fidgety to sit still. In addition to meditation, long-form cardio, walks outdoors, and even exercise in general all provide you with an opportunity to switch from consciously focusing on work to let your unconscious take over the housekeeping shift in your mind palace to reorganize the papers and arrange the furniture.
When you sit still and let your mind be at ease, your brain can piece together incredible ideas for you. The hardest part is not acting immediately on these lightbulb moments. And from my experience, the more practice you get, the more frequently they come. This is why some world-class performers schedule separate “thinkitating” sessions where they have the notepad at arms reach and allow their thoughts to be transcribed as they come, rather than trying to repeat it for the next fifteen minutes in your head at the cost of the meditation session out of fear of losing the thought.
Midday Reboot vs. Early Morning Struggle
An important aspect of how I have come to better appreciate the value of meditation is that I’ve stopped trying to meditate first thing in the morning, as is generally recommended, to doing it at lunchtime. This works better for me for a number of reasons and goes to show that you should always be willing to question the conventional way of things in order to find what works best for you.
Meditating first thing in the morning didn’t work for me for a couple of reasons. I get my most productive writing sessions done first thing in the morning, often even before the first drip of coffee. With morning meditation, my first option was to delay this most-productive period until meditation was done. This didn’t work ideally because I would anxiously await my Deep Work time. The other problem was that if I didn’t want to cut into my consistently scheduled Deep Work timeframe, I would have to wake up earlier to meditate. This is one of the mains reasons I fell out of the routine of meditating altogether when my streak got cut off last time. Waking up even a half an hour earlier messed up my sleep cycle and left me unable to focus intensely enough or dozing off during that morning meditation. I could tell this was happening with the Muse headband quantifying the meditation sessions. My data showed me that I was getting next to nothing out of the meditation and I wasn’t progressing in any way because I wasn’t in that desired optimal state of focus, I was half-comatose. Eventually, without experiencing any benefits from the sessions of ‘not-quite-meditation’ I decided to only do it at other times of the day when I thought that I had the time to do so. You can probably see the problem with this though: it wasn’t scheduled into those other slots in the day and so it more often than not didn’t get done.
This time around, when I switched to midday I made the decision to schedule it, specifically grouped after my post-workout shower, which meant that it was already in the schedule and connected to something else that was going to be done automatically as a habit. On the days when I wasn’t at the gym, I didn’t want to break the consistent streak I had going, so meditation would be in place of the time I would usually be at the gym.
The Human Superpower
Becoming proficient at meditation is a human superpower. It can help you to unlock creativity you never knew you had, it will train you to be more focused in day-to-day life whether you are performing open-heart surgery, attempting to press more than your own bodyweight over your head, or throwing the game-winning pass in the Super Bowl. It will also allow you to reboot and counteract the stressors we all face that relentlessly eats away at your hippocampus.
Remember that you don’t have to sit still in order to meditate. That is the typical method but only just one option for meditation. People stand in place, pace mindfully back and forth on a short stretch, or just go out into the wild for a long walk. However you want to do it, I think you should give it a try.