365 Days of Meditation

I meditated on Monday morning. It was my 365th day in a row.

Five years ago, I read a book called 10% Happier. Written by TV anchorman Dan Harris, it tells the story of his life and the discoveries that led to his adoption of a meditation practice. As I’ve described before, I loved the book and was inspired to start a meditation practice of my own.

Since then, I’ve been meditating dailyish. This is a term that Dan Harris uses to describe doing something on most days. What’s nice about using this term instead of daily is that there is no stigma if you skip a day.

That said, in the fall of 2018 I was falling into the habit of skipping more days than usual. Rather than sitting 6-7 days a week, the number had dropped to 3-4. I enjoyed meditating, benefited from it, but couldn’t seem to make the time to do it. One day I got frustrated with myself, and decided to make a change.

I decided to turn dailyish into daily.

I didn’t really set out with a goal in mind, but as the end of the year rolled around with no problems so far, turning it into a New Year’s Resolution seemed like the natural thing to do. (So while Monday was day #365, I have a little bit longer before achieving my goal).

Hitting day #365 seemed like a good excuse to share what this is about.

What exactly is meditation?

There are lots of different schools out there, which isn’t surprising giving the millennia that humans have been following the practice. I practice mindfulness meditation. I sit down, close my eyes, and breath. While I’m breathing in, I focus my attention on the in-breath. While I’m breathing out, I focus my attention on the out-breath. When I find myself thinking about something else, I try to catch myself in the act of thinking and return my focus to the breath. Some days this happens almost continuously, while other times I can’t go a few seconds before day dreaming, ruminating, or planning for the rest of the day. Notice that I’m thinking. Begin again.

That’s it.

“Beginning again and again is the actual practice, not a problem to overcome so that one day we can come to the ‘real’ meditation” — Sharon Salzberg

Wait. What about the candles, the incense, the chanting, the robes, the strange cults?

Nope, sorry, none of that.

OK, so no candles. But you still talk about energy fields and chakras and collect power crystals, right?

No, really, I don’t. And while meditation is often associated with the religion of Buddhism, I’m not a Buddhist and don’t aspire to be one. My meditation practice is completely secular. It’s just sitting with my eyes closed and feeling my breath.

Not even New Age music?

(sigh) OK. Fine. I have a soft spot for Andreas Vollenweider’s classic album Down to the Moon, but I only listen to it once per year and never while meditating.

This sounds boring. What’s the point?

How many times a day do you find your mind wandering? Do you ever ruminate, constantly going over a scenario in your head? Maybe you think about what you could have said. Or maybe you think about all the horrible things that can happen to you if something goes wrong. Do you ever shoot off your mouth without thinking, saying the the thing that, in the words of Dan Harris, will ruin your marriage for the next 48 hours?

The way to stop these problems would be to catch yourself before saying that thing to your spouse. Or catch yourself ruminating and recognize it for what it is (and then catch yourself again, when you resume) This is exactly what you do everyday when you’re sitting on the cushion. There’s a reason they call it a meditation practice; you’re practicing the skill of paying attention to your thoughts.

When you recognize that you are angry (or sad, or jealous, or even happy) you get that extra half-second to think about it rather than getting carried away by the emotion. Recognizing the emotion gives you an opportunity to stop, think, and act, rather than just react to the event unfolding in front of you.

More often, at least.

“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 Frankl

Finally, yes, sometimes it is boring.

How long do you do this for?

I started with 5 minutes and worked up over time. Right now, 10 minutes is the sweet spot for me. On the rare days when I have time, I’ll sit for 15, but this is a struggle. On those especially crazy days, I’ll only sit for 5.

“Everyone should meditate once a day. And if you don’t have time to meditate, then you should do it twice a day.” — Sanjeev Chopra

Is it relaxing? Do you walk around with a blissful smile all the time?

Not really. The actual sitting is often a struggle, constantly pulling yourself back into the moment. It’s about being present, not drifting away into a pleasant haze. But I also find that the simple act of closing my eyes and breathing for ten minutes can be relaxing.

Off the cushion, yes. A little. Spending less time getting carried away in your thoughts is an improvement to be sure.

As far as happiness goes, I think Dan’s book has the most accurate name ever. 10% feels about right.

“Meditation is not about feeling a certain way. It’s about feeling the way you feel.” –Jon Kabat-Zinn

Do you use any meditation apps?

First, let me say that you don’t need an app. Or a cushion. You can sit in a chair or on the floor. Having a timer is nice, but it doesn’t need to be anything fancy. I’m a bit of a gear head in other areas of my life, but try to keep it simple with meditation. I’ve done it on a plane, in a taxi, on a bus, and in line at the grocery store.

I bought a cushion and use this on most days, because it is comfortable.

I also use a few apps on my phone. There are three that I use on a regular basis. Two of these are subscription based, and I really should decide between them, but at this point I still use them both.

Headspace and Ten Percent Happier both offer tons of guided meditations and classes. Usually they start with a quick talk before moving into a meditation session.

Headspace features a single voice, former monk Andy Puddicombe. Many classes are accompanied by short cartoon videos illustrating a concept. Headspace spends more time teaching different visualizations that you can do to maintain focus rather than just concentrating on the breath. My perception is that many of the meditations, especially the Pro series, have less talking, which I often find more restful. The app also contains a good collection of sleep meditations and sounds, as well as meditation for kids.

10% Happier offers a range of meditation teachers. They are all leaders in the field, and the tips they offer are quite useful. I’ve only been using this app for about a year, and I think I have learned more with this app. The talks are all slickly-produced interviews, as befits Dan Harris’s background as a news anchor. Sometimes it gets a bit chatty for my liking, and many of the sessions are fifteen minutes long, which I struggle with.

There are dozens of other apps and timers out there, but these work for me.

How can I get started?

Here’s a good post explaining more of the basics.

The Headspace app described above provides a 10-day program free of charge; and you can follow that program as many times as you want (I went through it multiple times before committing to a subscription).

Ten Percent Happier has a 7-day free trial, and offers a number of videos and sessions to help you establish the habit.

As I mentioned above, you don’t need any of this. Either after or instead of using the freebies above, all you really need is a chair or a pillow or a willingness to sit on the floor.

What’s next?

Meditation is a habit now, and while I won’t obsess over doing it daily after the end of the year, it’s definitely something that I will continue doing. I’ve thought about doing a retreat, but I’m still intimidated by meditating for an hour, let alone a whole day. Or a weekend. We’ll see…

Almost certainly, at some point in the future, I’ll drift away from doing it as a regular habit. Then I’ll notice, and begin again.

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