Imagine for a moment I developed a pill that could reduce stress, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, insomnia and fatigue. It could improve hypertension and symptoms of psoriasis, as well as boost your immune function, creativity, focus, empathy and memory. It will improve your relationships and generally make you a more pleasant person to be around. Oh yeah, and as an added bonus it slows age related structural changes in the brain and reduces degeneration of our DNA. The pill has no known negative side effects and cannot be overdosed. There are no known drug interactions and the more you take the stronger some of the benefits become.
This drug would make me the richest person in the world (until the patent ran out). Well, it turns out there is a treatment just like this and it’s free. Anyone can access it without a prescription or pharmacy nearby.
It’s called meditation, and you should be doing it!
I know, meditation is one of those loaded words that often bring up an image of some dude with long hair and robes, chanting while burning incense. Of course this guy meditates for 7 hours a day and is only allowed to own 10 things. He is a strict vegan, smells a little funky, refuses to kill mosquitoes and can never, ever own an iPhone.
If I just described you, hey, keep doing what you are doing if it works, but I am here to tell the soccer mom and the guy that paints his face at football games that they too can benefit from meditation without radically changing your routines.
What probably doesn’t come to mind with the word meditation are elite professional athletes, military Special Forces, CEOs and other high level executives. But these are the people using it to great success. Meditation is one of the closest things to a superpower that I have discovered, and interestingly the time commitment required is minimal to start to see benefits.
What the heck it is and how to start:
There are many different types of meditation and there are hundreds, if not thousands of books on the matter. I hate complexity so I will distill this down to what I see as the essence of what you need to know. Scholars of meditation get ready to cringe.
There are two basic types of meditation. One style cultivates concentration and the other mindfulness. Some combine a little of both.
Most contemporary scientific studies that I’ve seen seem to be directed towards the mindfulness type so this is what I will focus on here. It is also, coincidentally, the type I have the most personal experience with.
So I think we all understand concentration, but what the f*&k is mindfulness?
At first blush mindfulness is another one of those garbage words like synergize or dynamic or spiritual that is so vague and overused almost to the point of meaninglessness, but in fact it is a useful and descriptive term. My favorite definition is:
“Moment to moment non-judgmental awareness cultivated by paying attention”.
In other words paying attention to whatever is happening right now, and simply letting it be. It is not about eliminating or controlling thoughts, simply observing.
Well…maybe. It is a simple concept, but it is not particularly easy to do without practice.
Mindfulness is not a new concept; it was popularized through ancient Buddhist teachings. In fact, it probably originated earlier from older eastern religions and philosophies. There is a rich 2500 year history of meditation and mindfulness that one could do their PhD dissertation on so I will leave that discussion to the experts.
Eventually the concept became more popularized in the west. Jon Kabat-Zinn but the concept of mindfulness in a scientific context with development of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR) and subsequent Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). MBSR is an 8 week program based upon vipassana, or insight meditation techniques, with mindfulness at its core. There is some pretty crazy research showing a diverse array of clinical applications which I alluded to earlier.
History lesson over.
So how does this stuff work in the real world?
Turns out it is fantastic.
Let me tell you about my experience:
First of all, I am terrible at meditation. Yes, that’s right; I’m inconsistent and easily distracted. There are days I forget to do it, often several in a row. The longest I go is about 20 minutes a day (usually closer to 10). I often do it at night because it’s quiet and I can remember (sometimes). Many times I lie down and end up falling asleep, especially when listening to this woman because her voice is just so damn relaxing. I won’t even listen to her while driving because I’m scared of what may happen!
At the time of this writing I’ve only been meditating for a few months. If meditation were a pill I am the equivalent of patient taking it about 30% of the time and completely disregarding the instructions on the side of the bottle…you know the ones that say don’t take with food or stay out of sunlight.
If anyone would have no effect from meditation it should be me, but the crazy thing is I can see profound results.
- I have less anxiety.
- I’m able to deal with negative emotions better.
- I have more empathy.
- My sleep has improved.
- I have more patience.
- I get more done with less stress.
- I’m less of an asshole.*
The only thing I’ve ever done with such a profound short term effect has been kettle bell swings (and I’ll talk about those in another post).
I don’t suggest just jumping into meditation with no further reading (I will provide helpful books, links, etc. at the end of this post) but for those of you that are impatient here are the cliff notes.
- Sit down (optional). Close eyes (optional).
- Focus on breath.
- Get lost in thought.
- Recognize you are lost in thought without judging.
- Go to step 2 and repeat.
Step 5 is the key. Recognize when you are thinking and observe your thoughts. Do not judge them. When we are lost in our thoughts we are not mindful of the present moment. By returning again and again to our present awareness through the breath we train our mind to be in this state, and let me be the one to tell you, this state is badass!
That’s right, there is nothing ‘woo woo’ or ‘hippy free love’ about this. Meditation is like doing dead lifts or 400 meter sprints for your mind. It’s like CrossFit without the sweating and high fives.
Why does this work?
I have no idea, but here are a few cool things it does. In addition to changing the metabolic activity and physiology of the brain, you are actually changing the structure by increasing cortical thickness in certain areas, decreasing activity in parts of the brain that cause stress, and altering expression of your genetic code, something in the not too distant past scientists thought was impossible. This is called neuroplasticity, and its implications are profound. We can re-wire our brains to some degree and strengthen the parts of our brains that are beneficial to us.
One aspect of a meditation practice that is often glossed over is the concept of a formal AND informal practice. The formal component is actually meditating; sitting down for 10-30 minutes without distraction. The informal part is applying the skill of mindfulness to your life.
If you have a regular formal meditation practice it is likely that you will develop some degree of informal practice without trying, but a simple awareness of this concept will help you progress. It is as simple as a pause or a breath multiple times each day to just realize when we are becoming lost in thought and resetting. Each time I find myself irritated, angry or afraid I use this pause. The effect of this is massively empowering and I cannot overstate this. It allows for more purposeful action rather than reaction. You will develop a subtle confidence and sense of control that may have been missing in your life. In some ways the informal practice is more important than the formal. This may be why I’m so bad at meditation, but have seen great results. I focus on the informal practice more than the formal.
Just to be clear
- You don’t need special clothes, meditation beads, incense or any other paraphernalia.
- You don’t need to wear flowers in your hair.
- You don’t need to be vegan.
- You don’t need to be a Buddhist.
- You can still use a smartphone and keep your Twitter account.
- You can still shower and wear deodorant if you want to.
So what if you don’t have a spare 10 minutes in your day? Well, first of all you’re lying. Everyone has 10 spare minutes in their day, but even if you are not lying and are the busiest person in the world do you have 5 minutes? 1 minute? Meditate for as short of amount of time as you have. Do it in a single breath. You have to breathe right?
Just meditate. Do it for a month and see what happens.
The real treasure of meditation is the brief feeling of being completely present and awake, an experience that is hard to describe without feeling it yourself. Once you realize what this is you can learn to recognize it in other areas of your life. I guarantee there are moments of complete presence in your life that you don’t even notice. As you gain more awareness you can also recognize when you are at the exact opposite end of the spectrum, consumed by thoughts. Distracted.
As you practice you will start to feel a calm come over you more and more often. Thoughts and emotions will still be there, but you can respond to them instead of react.
Namaste, you lovable freaks!
PS: Meditation is simple, but not always easy. Sitting alone with your thoughts for 10 minutes can actually be very distressing to some. If you feel like your brain is going to explode you probably need a meditation teacher to guide you.
*I did not do a double blind randomized controlled trial, but my wife confirmed this and that’s good enough for me!
In no particular order, here are a few resources I like to get you started:
Here are a few books I like on meditation and mindfulness: