August 05, 2023
What started as an experiment to break up my work day has now become one of the best parts of my day. In a time where everyone has so much going on, sometimes the thing we need most is nothing.
I was first exposed to the idea of meditation when I read Dan Harris' "10% Happier" about 7 years ago. I picked up the book because I was in a dark phase of my life dealing with anxiety, depression, and frequent panic attacks, much of what Harris himself was going through. The way he improved himself was through implementing meditation. It's an interesting (and quick) read, and I'd recommend checking it out.
Part of the book (if I remember correctly) tries to walk the reader through what a meditation practice "should look like". The steps, the posture, the environment, etc. He then goes on to suggest some additional reading (which I picked up and never read) to really get you invested in meditation.
Unfortunately for me, I hated it. What seemed so easy in the writing - "Just let the thoughts flow in and then let them go" - meant nothing to me. How does one do that? Return my focus to my breath - huh? Why are there so many rules? Why do I have to be sitting? Why is it bad if I fall asleep? Why do I need to do it for an hour?
Recently I've been going through a very difficult time with work. In the past when things had gotten rough, I've gotten up and taken walks at lunch time - this got me away from my desk and also gave me some exercise. Unfortunately, most days here are ~90 degrees by lunch time, so walking around the neighborhood isn't very enjoyable or relaxing. So I looked for alternatives.
I decided to give meditation another try - it was something cheap (free), low effort (none), and I could start doing right away. And unlike most activities I try for the first time, I went for it without doing any research. No videos, no reading. Just go for it.
My goal was simple - sit in a dark quiet room with my eyes closed for 15 minutes and see what happened. To make things easier, I'd do it laying down with a pillow. Arms however they wanted to go, legs doing whatever felt nice. Don't overthink it.
The first attempt was mildly successful. While it was a strange experience for me, sitting still in the quiet not actively working on a problem, it was a nice 15 minute break away from working and screens and noise. While the whole "flow" thing I'd heard about in the past didn't happen, I also didn't care. It was a nice time.
So every day I would make my way to the same spot on the floor, with my pillow, and close out the world for at least 15 minutes. As I neared the end of the first week, I started to gain a better understanding about what I'd read 7 years earlier about "acknowledging thoughts and letting them go". I cam to realize that it's something that you can't really describe to someone that has never experienced before. What sounds like a command or a direction is actually a statement of what will happen.
For me, I would start by focusing on my breath, then realize I'd just spent the last 2 minutes thinking about a work problem, and then focus back on the breath. By switching my focus back to my breath, I discovered that I did have control over my thoughts.
By the end of the week, I realized that this was something I wanted to continue for longer, and decided to aim for a full month. I wanted to see what kind of longer term impact it would half on my mental health.
The rest of the month was very similar to the first week. During this time I was experiencing an incredible number of daily panic attacks, and I often found myself using meditation as a way to combat it - calming my mind and my body. I would meditate anywhere from 15 minutes to close to an hour, depending on how my day was going.
Around the second week or so, I finally had my first real "flow" experience, where I literally felt all the weight and stress from myself release. Almost as if I was viewing myself from the outside, I walked away from the session feeling completely refreshed and ready to take on the rest of the day. It's an experience/state that I really can't put into words.
But not every day was brilliant. In fact I'd say that most days were average - starting to get twitchy around the 10 minute mark, brain wandering to things that were "more important", wondering how much time was left. But I didn't let that get to me as I knew it was part of the practice.
My meditation "style" didn't change much over the course of the month. I still preferred to do it laying down, though I would do it sitting up If I'd just eaten. I played around with "guided" meditation a few times, but I would often find that guided sessions to either be distracting or outright put me to sleep. Not that either of those are bad things when meditating, but it wasn't the reason I was doing it.
As I reflect back on what I've experienced over the past month, two things stand out the most.
Given my anxiety and depression, much of my life has felt as if I had no control over what my mind was doing. If my brain decided to pull me into one direction, that's where we were going and I'd better hold on. I'd worry that one thought would lead to another and I'd end up spiraling for the rest of the day.
Meditation changed my perspective on this. Watching thoughts come in and then seeing that I had the ability to essentially tell them to piss off was liberating. I learned that I have the power to give my attention to thoughts, and that not everything that enters my mind is worth my time. It felt good to actively experience this on a daily basis.
This applies to so many aspects of life to. Work things that I would normally deem "highly important" were brushed away with little to no thought. Crippling thoughts about how "something bad will happen" if I don't get up right now were completely ignored. All of the signals that my mind was using to throw me into a panic attack were assessed, acknowledged, and then disregarded because surprise - I was completely fine.
I don't know if it's been a direct result of meditation, or a combination of other things, but the number of panic attacks I have been having in the later weeks has been drastically reduced. What used to be a 1-8 times a day event, has gone down to 1 a day, maybe 3 times a week. At the very least, the meditation didn't make the situation worse.
Stop listening to other people. They're just trying to sell you things you don't need. What I have shared on this blog post is my experience and journey with meditation so far. Everything I've learned is from doing. And that is what I feel is the most important piece.
Meditating is 100% personal. Literally by definition you are sitting with just yourself in your own thoughts. The idea that someone who doesn't know you and whom you will never meet could tell you how you should do something like meditate is insane. It is something that only the individual can learn for themselves.
Like with so many things in life, the key was getting started. Making time, holding myself accountable, and putting in the work. Stop doing "research", reading, watching, etc. Just start trying it. Don't do it my way, figure out what works for you.
This might be why I don't like guided meditation, as I feel it's far too easy to fall into wondering "am I doing this right?" That is counter-productive to me, but it might really resonate for you!
I will absolutely be continuing with daily meditation. 15 minutes out of the day to essentially "reset" the mind is nothing. It's such a low bar to entry, and requires so little effort, that there's essentially no way to make an excuse not to do it. Too tired? Impossible. Too sore? Good thing you're not moving. Too stressed? All the more reason to do it!
Meditation hasn't been a silver bullet for my problems, but it has been a very nice way to break up a work day and keep me energized. It's also a great tool for combating panic attacks and brain spiraling episodes.
While I'm not sure how to measure happiness, 10% happier seems like a great estimate.
Thanks for reading!