What I Learned Meditating For 365 Daysposted about 7 years ago in Health :: Mindfulness
367 sessions, 188 hours, 365 consecutive days of the original biohack.
It started as a three month experiment—I remembered reading a Wired article while on a flight in 2006 about The Dalai Lama and a neuroscientist, Richard Davidson, who hooked several Tibetan monks up to an EEG machine and scanned their brain as they meditated. Since then, more studies have shown how the brain changes with consistent meditation, including one that showed an increase in brain matter from 30 minutes of meditation over eight consecutive weeks. I decided to meditate 30 minutes a day for three months to see if I could notice any changes.
I have meditated off-and-on most of my adult life, but never as a consistent practice—the need for one took on a different tone in 2012 when I was diagnosed with Chron’s, an autoimmune disorder affecting the digestive tract. It is well accepted that stress is one of the primary factors for people suffering from autoimmune disorders, though little is known about how and why. For my own exploration of how stress is dealt with in my body, I discovered a variety of genetic mutations in the MTHFR, MAO, COMT and BHMT genes that are all significantly impacted by stress and can create a variety of issues (excessive anxiety being one of them). This along with several years of intimate n=1 research boil down to:
When my anxiety and stress are managed, my autoimmune issues are as well and when they aren’t, my monthly medical infusions or eating the “right” things can’t keep the symptoms and suffering at bay.
After three months I wondered if I could do six and after six I stopped paying much attention until I realized I was only two months away from a whole year. Here I am, day 365, coming to you from nirvana with a report from the other side of enlightenment.
I want to share some of the practical things I learned and hopefully some of the transformations, which seem nuanced and nebulous, but are powerful. A year ago I would have never thought I would be able to manage to meditate for a whole year but with one idea I made it, and you can too.
In this simple concept lies 99.9% of the potency and a powerful motivator that can push you past any hurdle and hiccup you might experience.
For some reason mediation holds a strange, almost anointed, status in the Western mind and for many of us even the thought of sitting quietly creates a feeling of anxiousness. Yet sitting is all that’s required.To clarify, meditation has as many meanings as practitioners, so what I will be describing is perhaps the most simple—sitting meditation—literally translated as zazen in the Japanese (and Chinese) Zen Bhuddist tradition. I didn’t start here for any particular reason, belief system or affiliation, but because it required nothing more than a place to sit and the willingness to be with whatever was happening, inside and out.
Like most things, starting with the smallest expression and creating a consistent practice of it will more reliably lead to a steady habit that can be more freely expressed. Similar to learning a musical instrument, repeating the scales is the framework for every tune from Twinkle, Twinkle to Ode to Joy.
- When you feel like you don’t have time: “I’ll just sit for 15 minutes”.
- When you feel overwhelmed: “I’ll sit for a bit”.
- When you are on the verge of a breakthrough and need the space: “I’ll sit and see what comes”.
- When you feel like people are expecting too much of you: “I’m going to go sit for a bit”.
- When you need a break from your phone, laptop, tablet or tv: “Time to sit”.
- Maybe most importantly, when you are already meditating and your mind wants to take over and it feels like you can’t stand another minute: “I’m just sitting, no big thing”.
Another way to think about it is sitting is the same as the 10–15 minute unscheduled breaks that smokers have enjoyed for decades. Telling yourself to “just sit” is the most bulletproof tool for making a meditation practice, here are a few more:
Consistency is key
Pick the time that most regularly works for you and the place most conducive to silence and privacy, then assemble whatever else you need to make your practice feel like your own—an outfit, pillow, bell, cashmere socks, whatever. Doing the meditation the same every time—especially early on—will set you up for long term success, as will feeling happy about your environment and level of self care, so I’m not kidding about the socks. You don’t need anything to sit, but as creatures of habit, we need keystones to remind us of what we are doing and make it enjoyable.
Rigidity isn’t sustainable but consistency is because it allows for the recognition that things won’t always be what we expect (or want) but we do it anyway.
Posture may actually be the meditation deal-breaker for many who resist the picture of “that” guy or gal sitting cross-legged with their eyes closed and hands in some strange-looking position. But meditation posture may be the oldest and largest crowd-sourced human activity in history, regardless of religion or cultural status. Sitting legs crossed in some way—folded, lotus (both feet crossed on top of opposite legs), half-lotus (one foot resting on opposite leg with the other underneath) or kneeling is practiced by the vast majority of the world’s seven billion people and has been for thousands of years.
Meditation posture, as it was described to me, is sitting cross-legged, shoulders rolled back with an imaginary string pulling from the bottom of your spine upwards through the top of your head, with your head slightly upturned as to create a natural tendency to focus right between the eyes. I have heard many Buddhists describe the posture as “graceful” or “moving toward grace”, or being in a “noble stance”.
A Tibetan monk once described it to me more practically, pointing out that the posture creates the proper tension needed to stay open, alert and keep you from drifting off. This highlights an important misconception about meditation that it is about shutting things out, silencing the mind or exercising control, but meditation is more about becoming the eye in the hurricane of each moment—calm and unaffected by the endless amount of internal and external input.
It’s a matter of time
It would be great to drop into a deep and meaningful meditation at any point in the day, no matter what is going on, but even after a year of meditation, I find that I’m not even close yet. The most optimal times for meditation are shortly after you wake up and right before you go to bed, this is partially because of the demands of a normal day, but also it is when your brain is most receptive to getting into the states created by meditation.
You will likely feel most successful picking a time the morning right after you wake up, before all of the day’s burdens catch up with you and your mind starts trying to talk you out of it (see “just sit”). The added benefit of doing it first thing is that you have already started your day by checking off a positive accomplishment, giving yourself a little shot of dopamine before you even really “start your day”. The longer the day goes on, the more internal critics will start piling on the guilt about “squeezing it in” and that does not bode well for the long-term.
My ideal time is 5:30 or 6:00 a.m., before everyone else in the house wakes up and not so early that I feel like I am nodding off a bit. Over the course of the year all but three sessions were before 10 a.m. and about 95% of the rest were before 7 a.m.. I suggest using the same time no matter the day of the week—just think of weekends as a way to stretch how long you sit for.
My goal is to meditate 30 minutes at a time, but I set my minimum viable meditation (MVM, if you will) at 15 minutes so that I couldn’t talk my way out of it if I woke up a bit late. Most people who meditate regularly would agree that it takes about 20 minutes to really settle in and 30 minutes regularly, is where most of the studies out there show significant changes in brain benefits. Time in meditation is kind of like sifting for gold—almost all of your time is sand sifting through your mind, only finding a nugget every once in a while. In 30 minutes of sitting (or sifting) you may only get a few minutes of gold. Sometimes the gold looks like silence and peace, sometimes it will be inspiration and epiphany. Some days less, some days more, but most would agree that even a few minutes in a session can have dramatic impact on the quality of your day.
What did I meditate on?
Or “how?”, is the most common question. Nearly all of my (exactly) 188 hours of meditation were just sitting. Less than 8% of my sessions were guided (using a spoken or music based audio track) and another 8% were using binaural/brain entrainment tracks (sound designed to create certain brain wave states).
For me, sitting starts with getting into my posture—half-lotus, hands in my lap stacked on each other, on the couch with a firm pillow placed behind my lower back, wearing a mid-weight hoodie so that I am pretty comfortable (again, find what works for you and makes it feel like it’s “meditation time”). I resist the follow-the-breath approach, though many find it useful, but I do get a general awareness of myself, my breathing and my environment—noticing where my physical body is touching the couch and pillow. The rest of the time is spent letting the river of thoughts flow by, occasionally (frequently some days) getting stuck on one for a time (or for lots of my time) as well as acknowledging what is going on in my body (legs get sore, itches, pains) and the environment around me.
There is always plenty of sand to sift in meditations, adding more seems unnecessary most of the time. This concept in Japanese is called shikantaza, or “nothing but precisely sitting”, which I take to mean as sitting intentionally, or “just sit”.
Tools of the trade
In addition to assembling my hoodie and couch pillow, I use a couple of apps to make my practice go. I refuse to wake up to an alarm, so the first app is Sleep Cycle, which uses the microphone to monitor your sleep and wake you up within a defined window of the time you set, allowing you to wake more naturally (plus the added quantified-self analysis of sleep quality). I found that after a while I started waking up before my window even started, though if you get thrown off your rhythm it is handy to know you’ll be woken gently when you need it.
The meditation app I use is Insight Timer. There are bunch out there and people find things like Calm and Headspace to be just-the-ticket for them. The honest explanation I have for picking Insight Timer is simply because it feels the most “legit” and least gimmicky from a UX/startup-y standpoint. It feels like a meditation app made for meditators—if you want to be an athlete, get the app athletes use, not the one for people who are out because they are wearing yoga pants. This really is not a judgement on any of the other apps, merely how the app makes me feel about my own practice, which is the point.
There is no shortage of methods of meditation, or people who will claim they can make help you meditate like a Zen master in a fraction of the time—mindfulness meditation, loving kindness, following the breath, HRV training (heart rate variability). Transcendental Meditation (mantra based) is very popular amongst startup folks and artists (though a bit culty and expensive for my taste). All are forms of a simple art.
Meditation is the simplest and perhaps most powerful gift you can give yourself but far from the easiest.
At about 10 months into my year of meditation I decided to experiment intentionally with listening to something while I meditated for the remaining time. I had some profound meditation sessions, but ended up going back to just sitting after about six weeks because I missed being with just myself.
Nearly all of our time is given away to others or to our endeavors, meditation is one of the few ways to give time back to ourselves.
Guided meditation tracks
I tried out a number of tracks from the Insight Timer app—from Moby’s music to gurus giving talks. Two meditations consistently created nice sessions, the Tonglen practice by Ruth King and Isha Kriya by Sadhguru. Tonglen is a practice in Tibetan Buddhism that focuses on sending out and receiving love and compassion. Ruth’s guided meditation was not only easy to listen to, but I found it to be incredibly comforting and it has become my go-to for when I’m feeling overwhelmed.
Isha Kriya by the Indian spiritual leader, Sadhguru, is more of a talk followed by 20 minutes of a guided meditation based on his own teachings of meditation and yoga. Despite not being familiar with Sadhguru or his teachings, I found it valuable to listen to the whole track, even on repeated listens (the meditation on its own is available from Sadhguru’s website). The practice walks through recognizing that the body and mind are separate from the you that is you. I have listened to this meditation 15 times and found this concept of separation to be valuable and amplifying of the feelings I was already experiencing in my meditation. In some ways, it seems to embody most of what people believe the benefits of meditation to be—a deep sense of calm even when difficult physical or emotional things would come up in my daily life. I have also used the base mantra, “I am not the body, I am not even the mind” at various times throughout the day.
Brainwave entrainment tracks
Brainwave Entrainment (often referred to as binaural beats) uses sound modulation to tune the brain to desired frequencies. There is already a bunch of information about this (the science and the detractors) on the Internet, but the idea is that you can use these sounds/tracks to induce states in your brain for a variety of things—focus, deep meditation, memory enhancement and more. I experimented with a few different programs from three different companies.
As a side note: Giving these companies your email will be followed by very well-crafted funnel marketing messages to get you to buy into programs that can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
While BrainEv appears to have a decent reputation on the Internet, it was the only set of tracks I tried that didn’t make me feel good. Every time I listened to any of the tracks I had I would feel sluggish and slow after. I also found their web site and company structure to feel a bit spammy.
Holosync by Centerpointe
Perhaps the most established program (with no apparent end to the amount of dollars you can spend), the founder, Bill Harris, claims to have pioneered the binaural, meditation brainwave market with his Holosync product. I even got a copy of his free book, The New Science of Super Awareness, which may be the most effective and committed long-form content marketing play ever.
Despite the heavy handed marketing approach, I found the introductory Holosync package to leave me feeling alert and alive, always feeling better after than when I sat down to start.
iAwake appears to be the most modern and innovative of the group, interested in exploring the technologies they use. While they have a core product, they also offer things like tracks based on fractal soundscapes—think Fibonacci for your brain. I have used one of these, The Spark, for over a year as a way to help create focus and flow states by playing the staticky soundscape on low volume in over-the-ear headphones.
For meditation I used the Profound Meditation 3.0 program and like with the Holosync, I always feel better, more alert and focused after a session. iAwake leans into my vibe a bit more and can be had for less money and “buy in” to the rest of the culture created by Centerpointe.
The best way to break these three down is to look at who they have solicited for testimonials—BrainEv uses “successful experts” that I hadn’t heard of, Centerpointe uses authors, like Jack Canfield (who wrote Chicken Soup for the Soul) and iAwake has Ken Wilber one of the most modern, cutting-edge spiritual philosophers of our time.
I like brainwave entrainment tracks, binaural beats, however you want to describe them, and use them for specific needs around focus and productivity, especially if I miss my start-of-day meditation window and need to get my session mid-day (between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.), but they won’t replace my regular practice.
The last 365 days
I have gone from nearly house-bound to riding a 50 mile Gran Fondo, riding 82 miles with wounded vets, gaining weight (specifically muscle) for the first time in over four years after losing 90 pounds, I started getting monthly chemo infusions to control my extreme Chron’s, I flew to Alaska to take care of my father after surgery, had my dearest friend pass away unexpectedly, went to Universal Studios, saw the Space Shuttle and rocked at the Warped Tour with my teenage daughters, sent my stepdaughter to college, worked with several entrepreneurs on building their dreams and most recently, learned that I am headed toward life-changing surgery in the next month.
Do I feel different?
It is hard to quantify exactly what has changed, but for the first time in over four years I feel some resiliency and I don’t wake up every day feeling anxious right when I open my eyes. I feel less reactionary and responsive and instead more aware and available. Even before doing the Isha Kriya meditation I was feeling a gap between what was happening with my body or what was stirring in my mind and Me—I feel myself, the best version of me, more often than not and when I don’t, it is easy to spot and adjust.
Mostly I am grateful I gave myself this gift.
My favorite books for meditation and mindfulness
- Don’t Bite the Hook (audio), Wisdom of No Escape or anything by Pema Chodron
- Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Zen Mind, Beginners Mind by Shunryu Suzuki
- Code of the Extraordinary Mind by Mindvalley founder Vishan Lakhiani