I really resisted meditation. I thought it was incredibly, incredibly dumb. You sit still and your life gets better? That doesn’t sound scientific. Plus, I’m a pretty calm person. I don’t *need* to meditate. And what if I fall asleep? What if someone interrupts me? What if I do it wrong?
Around this time last year, I had meditated 365 days in a row.
Yep, that’s me. To understand how I ended up here, it helps to go back a bit, to the Abstractions Conference in Pittsburgh, 2016. The conference was fantastic, talks had all wrapped, and I was exploring the city.
I got a ticket for the last entrance of the day. James Turrell’s Pleiades is described as a “Dark Piece.” Only a few people can go inside at one time, and because it was late in the day and not really tourist season, I was the only person for the last viewing.
I had no idea what to expect. As I waited in line, I watched the people ahead of me going in. Some people came back out again quickly, shaking their heads and laughing uncomfortably. What was so weird they couldn’t stay? Some people went in and stayed the entire 15 minutes, coming out looking thoughtful. What was different about their experience?
Finally it was my turn. The attendant led me in part of the way, then started retreating and said he’d be back to get me when the time was up. I continued walking on my own, the room getting darker and darker. I couldn’t see. I felt a chair. I sat down. Out of curiosity, I waved my hand in front of my face. Nothing. I heard nothing, saw nothing, waited. Nothing.
At first I thought about the space. I wanted to know what the room looked like. I knew I had walked up a ramp, and the part that I could see, the walls were close. So maybe it was a long room, like a bowling alley? Where was the far wall? I stretched out my hand- no surprise, I touched nothing.
Then I waited for something to happen. My eyes strained to see a color, a light, any movement- nothing. Sometimes I thought I saw a color or light, but when I focused more, it slipped away. My ears next- was this an audio piece? Something animated? Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
Then, the worst part- I was alone with my thoughts. Nothing to see, nothing to hear, nothing to do- your thoughts become a ROAR. It was amazing- I’ve never before or since experienced a work of art where the work is not something to hear or look at, but instead the work is to turn a floodlight directly into the interior of your own head- amazing- a work of art that’s brutally simple, but infinitely individualistic. It was amazing– it was EXCRUCIATING. Now I understood why people couldn’t stay- they couldn’t sit still with themselves. They left because motion is more comfortable, because non-stimulation is boring, because of something else.
I’m stubborn. I stayed. Partly because I was still wondering if something would happen, and partly again because I’m stubborn. I sat with my thoughts, awake, alert, not doing anything, just breathing. It was not fun. The velvety nothingness of the space changed slightly, from feeling sinister to feeling impartial, which I guess is an improvement.
After an eternity, otherwise known as fifteen minutes alone with yourself with no distractions, no visuals, and no sounds, the attendant came back and I walked out.
A few days later I started meditating in the morning. At first, I’d search on YouTube using something like, “1 minute meditation,” “3 minute meditation,” “short guided meditation,” etc and pick what caught my eye. My searches were always for something short, and I mostly picked new videos, because I liked the variety. I did watch this one a number of times though:
I heard about Headspace and decided to give it a try.
At some point, I noticed that I had a streak going. Streaks are fun. I decided I wanted to keep my streak. So, I looked into habit building. The streak was fun motivation, but I wanted more. So, I tied two habits together- one I already had- making coffee, and the one I wanted to establish- meditating every day. The connection was, I didn’t make coffee until after I had meditated. Since I really like coffee, this was a great tie-in. It didn’t matter how long I meditated, I just had to do it, and then I would make a delicious cup of coffee.
A good way to describe it is here, where it’s described as anchoring- link!
Anchoring is a key point- you already have habits. You just do. Unless your life is spectacularly chaotic. Even then, you’d be falling asleep at some point, so at base-level, your routine that you could build another habit off of is, “At some point in my 100% chaotic life, I sleep. Right before that happens (or right after I wake up), I’ll … “
Another thing to note is that anchor plus reward works pretty well. Reward only, actually doesn’t work too well! Gretchen Rubin has talked about this – don’t use only treats to motivate yourself- it dulls your appreciation of what you’re doing, instead you’re focusing on the treat.
Are there any? Objectively it’s difficult to tell. My life has changed- but when doesn’t it? There are good things- but what really did it? Did my life change permanently when I sat down one late afternoon in 2016 and was completely still, alone in the dark, not trying to sleep, doing nothing but breathing in and out?
When is a life not a changing thing? We make thousands of decisions, each one a fractal of possibility.
With meditation it became apparent how much of my day was spent feeling, thinking quickly, then reacting, instead of feeling, thinking slowly, then reacting. The middle change was a good one. Meditation helped me to get through a frustrating time and come out the other side stronger, happier, and with compassion for myself and the other people involved.
With meditation, there’s an interesting combination of distance and presence. I’m noticing physical reactions and thoughts more distinctly, almost as if I’m observing from a distance, and yet I’m also more present, grounded, and in the moment.
I’ve started meditating at conferences.
And letting people know that I’m going to do that, and asking if they’d like to come along. This is nice, and something I’ll keep doing.
This post is about meditation, and one of the first words I use is “scientific.” So, you might be expecting some arguments in favor of the scientific benefits of meditation. Or at least some links to some scientific journals. The thing is, I didn’t start meditating because I read an article that convinced me meditation had a concrete, measurable, quantifiable benefit.
I started meditating because I wanted to.
If you want to, try it.
It might feel uncomfortable- it was excruciating for me to sit with my thoughts for 15 minutes at the start.
I recommend starting with much shorter lengths- 1 to 3 minutes. Search for “3 minute guided meditation” on Youtube and pick one.
You might feel sleepy or fall asleep- go to sleep then! That doesn’t’ mean you’re bad at meditating, it means you’re tired and sleep is the best thing.
You might feel silly or frustrated- to this I can only say try to keep going. Try to meditate 10 days in a row, and see what you think. It took A WHILE for this habit to build for me. I didn’t hit a year-in-a-row immediately. I think my first streak was 5 days, the next one was 20, and so on. Also, streaks aren’t everything! They can be fun, but missing one day doesn’t mean you failed. A big part of meditation is starting again. When your mind wanders, take a breath in, and start again.
365 days of daily meditation is cool to me and I’m happy about it. But it’s not the main point. There’s more days of my life around that streak- days of trying, days where I broke my streak, days where I started again. The point isn’t perfect attendance. The point is trying again. Starting again. There is so much strength in starting again. The point is being still and breathing, then taking action from a calm place. If you get to 365 that’s awesome! If you meditate for the first time today, that’s awesome! The point is to start, and if you need to, simply begin again.