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?