Camp Calm and meditation

I’ve been curious about meditation for years, but could never find a way to get started. It seemed both too easy (“I just sit there?”) and too intimidating (“empty my mind? become one with the universe?”). Earlier this year, my therapist recommended meditation to help address a challenge I was facing. I tried the Headspace meditation app this summer, but only made it through 3 sessions before losing interest and giving up.

At the same time, I’ve been following David Cain at Raptitude for years, and really enjoy his perspective. Keen readers may remember me referencing his post on being a “secret ally” in my post on being generous. So when he announced in September that he was running a virtual meditation class called Camp Calm, I signed up. And I’ve now been meditating daily for six weeks, which is not something I could have imagined two months ago.

Camp Calm was pretty simple: David would send a daily email with some things to consider about mindfulness and meditation, give a prompt for meditation and a suggested length of time to meditate, and suggest a few pages of reading from his books. But he emphasized the importance of making it a habit – part of the reason it’s 30 days is that habits take 3 weeks to develop, so he wanted us to meditate every day for 30 days, make it part of our lives, and build it into a habit so that it would keep going after the class.

There were a couple things I really liked about David’s approach in Camp Calm.

First, he focuses on meditation as a useful, practical technique for daily living, with no spirituality or religion mentioned. As somebody with an anti-religious bias, that appealed to me. In particular, I liked his framing of meditation as practicing where I focus my attention, and being mindful of that focus. There is only the now, and there are only three aspects of the now: our environment, our bodies and our thoughts. Meditation, in his framing, is about noticing when our thoughts are taking us away from the now (worrying about the future, thinking about what’s next, getting angry at somebody’s slight), and returning our focus to the now and the body, particularly the act of breathing. It sounds simple, but it’s really hard, which is the other thing I like about David’s approach.

He acknowledges that meditation is really hard. It’s not just sitting on a cushion, and your mind empties, and the universe comes rushing in. It’s getting distracted and realizing a minute later that your thoughts ran away from you. On the Camp Calm message board, somebody posted that they felt like they spent 80% of their time meditating wrapped in their thoughts, and he applauded them saying that meant that 20% of the time was focused on the now and the breath. It didn’t mean they were failing at meditation and were no good at it – part of the reason I kept dismissing meditation was that I felt I sucked at it, and it’s no fun to do things we suck at, so I liked that he addressed that directly. He acknowledged that sometimes meditation will feel like a burden, but the daily practice was what was important, so it was better to sit down for 5 minutes, 1 minute, or even just 1 breath, than to skip the practice entirely.

One thing I learned during the class is that I disliked guided meditations. There were 3 days out of the 30 where he provided an audio guide to talk us through our session, and those were the hardest days for me. I apparently don’t like being told what to do, which explains why the Headspace app didn’t work for me.

A couple weeks into the class, I was really struggling with the longer lengths of time – I actually had sessions where I was physically straining to get to 15 minutes, because I was restless and impatient. I wanted something to happen, and got bored with just focusing on the breath. I consulted with David on the message board, and he suggested that I was holding on too tight, and to just sit and observe. If I noticed myself getting restless or impatient, focus on that, and the manifestations of that – where do I observe those sensations in the body? As he put it, “You are a spectator, noticing the flow of experience. Habitually we sit down with the idea of trying to make something happen, trying to get somewhere, and that can only lead to straining and conflict. We are just sitting to see what happens.” Once I adopted that spectator attitude, meditation became much easier, and I’m now regularly sitting 20 minutes each morning without strain.

The interesting thing is starting to see those skills of observation and noticing start to show up in the rest of my life. I notice when I open up Facebook or Twitter during the day, and then can consider “Do I really want to be doing this, or is this just habit?” I notice when I start to get impatient or distracted in meetings, and have taken to writing notes to myself like “be mindful” and “be present now” which I can check back in with when I notice those feelings of distraction. It’s made me both more productive and more relaxed: more productive because I notice more when I’m getting distracted and re-focus on the work, and more relaxed because when I choose to relax, I allow myself to completely check out from work.

This skill of noticing also helps with me doing a better job of understanding my emotions. I wrote about this previously in this post, but being present in the moment lets me notice when my emotions are running away, and to consider why that is. The first thing is to let the emotions go, and realize they are just manifestations of something else. And then later, once I’ve calmed down, I can try to understand why those emotions were triggered – why did that situation evoke those emotions? And what is the underlying emotional need I have that is unfilled, and how can I address that directly?

Meditation is an ongoing experiment in the vein of my design thinking for the self post, but one that I seem likely to keep around for a while. And even if I don’t, I wanted to publicly acknowledge David’s great work with Camp Calm in introducing me to a meditation practice. If you want to learn more without waiting for the next Camp Calm, David Cain’s book on meditation is called Making Things Clear: A Brief Guide For People Who Think Meditation is Hard – it’s short, and I read most of it over the month of Camp Calm, and really appreciated the perspective.

What have been your experiences with meditation and mindfulness? If you’re an experienced practitioner, does this jibe with how you feel? If you’ve never tried it, does this sound interesting?

11 thoughts on “Camp Calm and meditation

  1. I’ve tried meditation, but I think I’m still at your pre-Calm phase, where I haven’t yet found an approach that illuminates its benefits.

    “Do I really want to be doing this, or is this just habit?” – this, I think, is one of the more valuable things I’ve learned in the last handful of years. We cut cable because we found we were watching things out of habit rather than actual desire, for instance. I’ll often find myself on FB at night, and realize that I’ve spent the last hour doing things out of habit rather than out of any sense of getting any actual benefit. I also find myself when playing videogames, there’s a point where I ask myself if I’m having fun or learning anything, and if not, I’ll often end up going to reorganize or clean part of the house instead.

    1. Been practicing for a couple of years. I started with Headspace only because I needed external stimulus to attempt to focus my brain on. Replace the usual thoughts with those thoughts and the nice man’s voice. I’m doing more quiet sitting these days (about 15 minutes) and focusing on breath.

      Many days, it looks like – breathe in, breathe out, think about what I’m going to make for dinner, dammit I’m SUPPOSED TO BE MEDITATING! FOCUS!!!!, breathe in, breathe out, maybe I should be working on those test scripts, FOCUS!!! breathe in, breathe out, wonder what that noise is in the hallway, you know maybe I should talk to Luis about…..

      After a couple of years, I find myself pausing a little more before reacting. Especially when the feeling is strong. However, I’ve been pretty reliant on the people around me to tell me whether meditation is helping or not. Apparently, there is a significant difference in how nice I am to be around when I let my self-care practices slip 🙂

      1. Wendy, yeah, that’s about what my meditation looks like (I aim to do 15-20 minutes of quiet sitting each morning). I liked the metaphor Headspace uses of sitting by the side of the road and watching thoughts race by. It’s unavoidable to have thoughts, and the practice of meditation is to not hold onto the thoughts, but let them go. One thing I’ve been trying to do is observe what comes up during meditation, and then journal about those topics afterwards – it’s generally a clue as to what’s going on in the deep recesses of my brain. But while meditating, it’s about acknowledging the thought (or the feeling, or the memory) and then letting it go.

    2. re: illuminating benefits, what I keep hearing is that it’s about building the daily practice – it’s not like you’ll suddenly have a flash of insight and everything changes, but that over time behavior changes accumulate. I’m still too early to tell that, but I’m willing to stick with it, as it does seem helpful.

      I suspect it’s like exercise – doing it once or twice or even a week or two does not have any sustaining effects – only by making it a regular habit does exercise start to change your body. I suspect meditation is like that for the mind.

      And, so much yes to the rest of your comment – am I doing something I want to be doing is a question I’ll ask. Part of the reason I posted three times this week was because I felt I’d rather do that than watch Netflix this week. I’m not a paragon by any means – I still procrastinate a ridiculous amount, and looking at my personal to-do list for this weekend makes me anxious. But all I can do in this moment now is choose whether to start on one of those tasks. We’ll see if I do 🙂

  2. This is a great read! I love hearing people’s “start-my-practice” stories…they’re like superhero origin stories 🙂

    I wholeheartedly agree with the habit factor. I started my practice by just doing it, dammit, 30 minutes a day, hell or high water, for 100 days. Many of those sessions were outwardly useless… sitting at 2am, or right after a fight with my girlfriend. But the benefit that comes from the habit outweighs the benefit you get from any single session by multiple orders of magnitude.

    In fact, one of the first, last, and always-hardest lessons of meditation is to relax the self-assessment muscle. How did I do that session? How is it going this month? Is my desire to meditate increasing? It’s a constant renunciation that has tremendous benefit, and you don’t get there without a deep habit.

    Most of us creative people have a real battle with that one. The thing is that meditation is a *subtractive* art, not an additive one. I often teach meditation as the best tool to finding and removing the obstacles to meditation. Your capacities increase not because you build them up, but because you never knew how much those obstacles were holding you back.

    Just do it 🙂

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jeff! The self-assessment and self-doubt is very challenging for me – I still tell people that I don’t know if I’m doing meditation “right”. And there are mornings where I just feel like I’m wasting time. But the good news is that I’m pretty consistently sitting for 20 minutes, and even when I give up early, I’ll still have been there for 10+ minutes sitting.

      And I really like the idea of meditation as a subtractive art – I definitely have found that my own brain and habits are the biggest obstacles I have to face, so using meditation to identify those could be a real boon.

      1. Get used to having self-doubt and self-assessment issues! I mean, I’m 12k hours in, and still have to renounce it regularly. But you can have perspective on it. If I think I know how my meditation is supposed to go in any given moment, then I’ve already fallen down. Every moment is its own unique challenge.

        Which is a long way to say “just do it.”

  3. Thanks for sharing your journey into meditation, Eric! It’s interesting that you mention guided meditations don’t work as well for you. I use a combination of both guided and non-guided. If I’m feeling particularly unbalanced (like confidence has taken a hit or I’m feeling rather frustrated), I use guided meditations to focus on a particular “antidote” like self-love or compassion. I’ve found that Hans’ “systemic approach to emotions” cycle very useful in helping me identify what I need to rebalance myself. If I’m not feeling that stressed, I like to have non-guided meditations to feel more in touch with my current state.

    I started with Headspace (which I think is a great intro for beginners), but soon after the trial was over I started using Insight Timer instead (free!). I like that it shows all the people around the world who are meditating at the same as you. It feels like you’re part of a community. There’s also a variety of guided meditations for every situation (sleep, compassion, mornings, etc), and meditation timers that begin and end with a comforting gong sound effect. I recommend checking it out if you haven’t.

    I meditated regularly for a few months but then I started dropping off. Thanks for the reminder to get back into the routine.

  4. Hi Eric, Thinking about why we might need meditation to strike the right balance, reminded me of something I’ve been intrigued by for a while.

    Culturally, industriousness is regarded as a worthwhile aspirational goal. In a similar vein, a ‘bias for action’ is often prized and rewarded in various contexts. I wonder if meditation is an attempt to undo that influence. Have you experienced any change (increase/decrease) in the desire to always be doing something, correlated with your meditation?

    1. Hi Siva, thanks for your comment!

      I have found that meditation helps with a bias towards action. What I mean by that is that much of what I spend time on is worrying about how I am perceived, or re-arranging to-do lists, or re-reading emails, or checking Facebook for the zillionth time, instead of actually making progress towards my goals. It’s helping to trade out busywork for action. I agree that “industriousness” and a “bias towards action” are rewarded, but too often, what is actually rewarded is the appearance of action and industry – looking busy is as important as doing real work. Being mindful helps me to focus on what concrete next steps I can take right now to make progress, and those steps accumulate.

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