Meditating Sucks, Here’s Why You Should Do It Anyway
“I give up. I suck at this meditation thing.”
- Literally anyone who has ever tried to meditate
Meditation is still near its’ peak in the zeitgeist. A practice once reserved for monks and philosophers has entered the mainstream.
Ray Dalio is the founder of Bridgewater Associates, the largest hedge fund in the world ($160B in Assets Under Management). In a Facebook post, he said, "Transcendental Meditation has probably been the single most important reason for whatever success I've had."
The head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, Pete Carrol has famously said that meditation was a huge part of the process that got the team to win the 2014 Superbowl. He hired a sports psychologist to help the team hone in on mindfulness techniques.
With an array of glowing testimonials from individuals at the top of their respective field, it’s hard to argue the benefits of a meditation practice. So as normal people, we are inclined to try it as well.
The process that follows generally looks like this: First, a simple Google search: “How To Meditate”. This will yield YouTube videos of guided meditations or articles promoting mindfulness. We watch / read through a few and the initial reaction is, “this seems simple enough.”
Then we go straight to the app store on our mobile device. We download one of many meditation apps that play pleasant sounds as we try to focus on our breath. The general feeling is still, “this is going to be great, I’ll be a billionaire celebrity athlete by this time next year!”.
After finding a resource to help guide your practice, you find a comfortable spot on the floor, or your favorite chair, and close your eyes. This is where the trouble begins. What’s the first thing you think of when you close your eyes? For me it’s usually a to-do list, my next meal, or someone I need to get a hold of.
You shake off the initial distracting thoughts. You’re able to focus for 3 deep breaths. “In through the nose and out through the mouth”, like the guide says. You get one normal breath in and again, distraction occurs. This time it’s where you want to go out for dinner Friday night or what gift you need to buy for your niece’s birthday party. It’s frustrating, to say the least.
The cycle continues. Every time you are able to focus on one or two breaths, another distracting thought pops into your head. The experience is ruined. Or is it?
Don’t Be Obsessed With Perfect
Stack the deck in your favor. If the heavy dose of 20 minutes twice per day seems impossible, lower the bar. Try 10 minutes once per day. Or if that’s too much, try sitting down, closing your eyes and taking 10 deep breaths. Count them on your fingers.
You can always reduce the goal to manufacture success. Realize that success, no matter how small, generates the confidence to continue.
Redefine success. Before I began meditating, I learned a different way to quantify a successful session. Many beginners aim for 10-20 minutes of distraction free focus on their breathing. I aim for something much easier. I aim for “one rep” of the following exercise: acknowledge a distracting thought, accept it, refocus on the breath. If I can complete "one rep" of that cycle in a 10 minute sitting, that session is a success.
The skill I exercise through meditation is regaining control of my focus after distraction occurs. Isn’t that one of the biggest challenges most of us face on a daily basis? How often do you have large chunks of distraction free time to do anything? Countless items grab our precious attention: family, phone, coworkers, etc. Training the ability to regain control of our focus in a distraction filled world pays off.
Before I started to meditate, checking a text message could lead to 20 minutes wasted on Facebook. Today, a text message often leads to opening Instagram or Reddit. However, I am now able to notice the distraction and course correct within a few seconds. My mindfulness practice in the morning curbs the mindless scrolling in the afternoon.
I meditate for 10-15 minutes in the morning about 3-5 times per week. It’s a part of my gym-going routine. I hardly ever meditate on a Sunday or Thursday. Those are my two non-negotiable rest days from the gym.
Personal History with Meditation
I started my meditation practice back in the Summer of 2013. I doubted the benefits at first, like most people do. I struggled finding a rhythm. Yet, I got lucky in choosing the right tool from the very beginning. I decided to try the Headspace app. They have a free 10-for-10 program. It’s 10 minutes a day for 10 days. I liked it so much, I decided to buy an annual membership. For me, sunk cost is a great way to commit. I knew if I put the money on the line, I’d perform.
Towards the end of my Headspace plan, I found a meditation device called, Muse Headband. Here’s their sales pitch copied directly from their website. “Muse translates your mental activity into the guiding sounds of weather to help you find focused calm. Busy mind? Stormy weather. Calm mind? Peaceful weather.”
Muse does a great job gamifying meditation. For people that geek out on data, the Muse Headband may be the correct starting point. For me, the data became counterproductive. I became irritated at how poorly I was doing. This instigated my first vacation from meditating. I put my Muse Headband back into its’ box and tucked it under my bed.
A few months later, I learned about an app called, Calm. I heard about it from the founder of Digg, Kevin Rose. Kevin ultimately decided to create his own meditation app called, Oak Meditation. This is the app I use as of this writing.
If you are having trouble understanding the message, find another teacher. The point of telling you the history of my meditation practice is not to impress you. Rather, I want to show you that there is more than one option available. There is no undisputed champion guide or app for meditation. Instead of trying to select the perfect option, just get started. If the message or medium doesn’t resonate, try something else. Don’t quit at the first sign of failure! There are multiple roads that will get you to your destination.
Personal Benefits of Meditation
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
- Viktor E. Frankl: Man’s Search For Meaning
I won’t sit here and act like I’m enlightened. In fact, I get uncomfortable when people talk about meditation in spiritual or celestial terms. It sounds super phony to me.
However, I have noticed a few advantages that I’d like to share with you. Before I do, I just want to say the benefits of meditation are hard to describe. At least in a way that doesn’t sound too good to be true or “woo-woo”. Here I go anyway.
1) The Pause
First and foremost: “the pause”. I have no idea if that’s what it’s called, but that’s how I’ll refer to it. The pause is that space between an input and the reaction it generates. The app I use today prompts me to notice the pause between inhale and exhale. Try it for yourself. It’s subtle, but it’s there. And if I focus on it, I can notice how long that pause actually lasts.
Noticing the pause between breaths during meditation translates well to the real world. That pause allows me to respond instead of react. The tongue-in-cheek term for this benefit is “response-able”.
Let’s say someone says something nasty to me. The knee-jerk reaction is to trade insults with them. However, training “the pause” gives me another option. I’m equipped with the tools necessary to step back, take a breath, and respond in a way that generates a desired outcome.
2) Zooming Out
The second benefit I’d like to share is “zooming out”. The best way I can describe this is by comparing life to a movie in which we are all the protagonists of our own lives. Zooming out helps me see my life as a member of the audience, rather than from the eyes of the role I'm playing. It’s like I can watch what’s happening to me and around me from a distance. I can then better decide what's the best next step my character takes to selfishly move the plot forward.
Ridiculous example: Imagine you’re the main character in your favorite scary movie. As you’re watching from the couch, you yell, “No! Don’t try to hide in the shed with all the power tools. That’s where the killer sleeps!”. Then the person on the screen (you) actually listens to the person on the couch (also you).
That’s kind of what I mean by having the ability to zoom out. You’re not limited by your own perspective. You see more of the playing field. You can take other people’s agenda into consideration when deciding the next best step for you.
I’ll finish with this, the benefits of meditation are far from immediate. This delayed gratification makes the practice much less enjoyable. It’s similar to diet and exercise in this way. It takes weeks, months, and sometimes even years of doing the “hard work” to start seeing results. The improvements begin to happen under the surface. Over time, with consistent practice, the benefits become clear to you and those around you.
I'm not exactly sure how to prove these benefits exist. It's one of those things where you kind of have to take my word for it. Or, you can meditate for 5 years to see if you feel it too. Hit me up in 5 years and let me know!
Freemium - Apps that are free at first, but have a premium version at cost
YouTube Guided Meditations:
I’d start with the Headspace app with their free “10 for 10” program. Then I’d invest in Waking Up with Sam Harris. If cost was a deterrent, I’d shift to Oak. I’m looking forward to learning Transcendental Meditation one day.
I hope that you give meditation a try if you haven’t already. If you have tried and couldn’t stick to it, why not? Let me know!