It's 8 am Monday morning.
*You slam on your brakes as the Range Rover in front of you cuts you off*
You immediately bubble over with blind rage, heart racing and blood pressure spiking as you imagine the self-absorbed nitwit in front of you probably tweeting a selfie with an infuriating caption like "Ugh, late for hot yoga because another dumb barista can't make a simple Double Venti Chai Non-fat Soy Mochachino". You lay on the horn like you're administering CPR to a beached manatee on the brink of death. Your clinical-grade deodorant is no match for the waterworks pouring out of your armpits as your dress shirt is now soaked with disgusting pit stains. You're like a conductor magnificently orchestrating a hellish symphony of honking, cursing, and fist-pounding. Right as you're nearing your final crescendo, your phones buzzes with a GroupMe message that snaps your attention to a Crying Jordan meme. You take another bump of your morning Dr. Pepper and allow the rush of sugar to briefly appease your chemical enslavement. Before you know it, the mind-numbing morning radio bit has you zoned out and cooled down.
When you arrive at work you're too distracted by a buzzfeed listicle about celebrity cats to notice your co-worker behind you struggling to open the door, hands full with What-a-Burger taquitos she brought for the team. She makes sure to pass them out right when you walk by to go to the bathroom. "Sorry, none left…[ya douchebag]", she says under her breath upon your return. You can't be sure, but everyone seems to be avoiding you and you think you hear murmurings about someone smelling like an old cheese sandwich. Minutes before the big client presentation, your computer freezes. You've been so absent-minded lately that you forgot to save your work. You begin desperately mashing every button on the keyboard at once to refresh the program…suddenly you receive a strangely candid pop-up that reads, "Oops, looks like your hard-drive has crashed and all data has been lost. 5 weeks of hard work down the drain. Sorry. Please call tech support for hours of further frustration." You snap like a cheap set of chop sticks and hurl your monitor over your cubicle wall and out the 12th story window. The next thing you know, you're kicking and screaming like a complete crazed lunatic as 3 members of security drag you out of the office and toss you to the curb.
You come home hours early to find the pool boy on top of your significant other -- blindfolded by a pair of underwear, hands tied up to the bed posts with your socks, body covered in honey. It's just too much too to handle and something just short of an aneurysm collapses you to the floor.
6 months later you've managed to get back on your feet and are holding down a steady job sweeping the floors at Starbucks. You're quietly minding your own business on your second day on the job…and then you overhear someone order a Double Venti Chai Non-fat Soy Mochachino…minutes later the entire building is engulfed in a blazing inferno…there's a lighter still burning in your hand and a deranged look in your eye as you behold the fiery spectacle before you.
Sometimes late at night, when one of your 300-pound prison bunk mates is having their way with you, you wonder where it all went so terribly wrong.
It's 8 am Monday morning.
*You slam on your brakes as the Range Rover in front of you cuts you off*
You notice your body beginning to tense up as your mind starts to concoct a story about how the world is out to get you. Then you take a deep breath. And you simply go on with your f'n day.
In the third month of 2016, I got out my set of crystals, threw on my favorite Enya soundtrack, and began searching for my inner Zen with a daily meditation practice. Over the past few years, various forms have been making their way out of the New Age Kumbaya circles and Tibetan monasteries and into the daily routines of mainstream people looking to take advantage of the many supposed benefits. Practiced by notable athletes to CEO's, celebrities to political leaders, meditation is like this decade's WWJD bracelet.
And probably for good reason - study after study has been finding that the simple practice of sitting quietly for a short period of time with an attentive focus on something can decrease things like anxiety, depression, and stress, while simultaneously improving things like concentration, empathy, and learning ability.
It kind of makes sense…we are living in a world that is constantly bombarding us with distractions, advertisements, and notifications. In a single day, we take in more outside information than most of our ancestors received in their entire lifetimes. Whether we're aware of it or not, the ever-increasing technology surrounding us takes a toll on our well-being and on our cognitive abilities. One of the things that meditation provides is a pause on the outside world…a warm bath for your exhausted brain.
The other thing meditation seems to be helpful for is training emotional responses. Mindfulness (cliché buzzword alert!), actually has some legitimacy in terms of being something we should be striving for. By recognizing what makes you tick and viewing situations from a more objective perspective, you begin to develop a less reactive and more rational way of thinking and behaving (see the two alternatives at the beginning of this post).
In my opinion, doing something a little weird for 10 minutes a day seems like a small price to pay if it makes you a slightly better human for the other 23 hours and 50 minutes. Thus, I decided this month was going to be about exploring a few of the many alternative methods in order to better understand what it is and what it can provide. Below are a few brief accounts of some things I tried and learned.
This is probably the most common type of meditation today. The premise is to just sit quietly for a period of time while you focus your attention on something (typically the in and out pattern of your breath). As your mind begins to wander off (as it will incessantly do), you are simply supposed to notice your thoughts diverging and come back to your breath. Easy enough...
Pro's - Very straightforward and simple to start, Proven benefits (most well studied), Ability to do it anywhere & at anytime
Con's - It doesn't make any sense how something so simple can be so hard, Frustrating given there's no real point/end goal (this is what makes meditation hard for competitive people), Very slow progress
Want to know more about ways to get started? http://zenhabits.net/meditate/
There are a number of popular apps out there (Calm, Headspace), as well as YouTube videos that can lead you through a meditation session. I tried the free 7-day introductory course on the Calm app and found it to be moderately enjoyable. I think it was a good way to initially establish a routine while I began to understand what the hell I was actually supposed to be doing (in addition to sitting on a pillow in the dark). Overall thoughts:
Pro's - Easy, More Accountability, Provides some reassurance that you're "doing it right"
Con's - Diminishing value due to repetitiveness, Reliance on technology seems like it's sort of missing the whole point
Want to try it? https://www.calm.com/
This is kind of an off-shoot but similar in concept. The point here is to practice some type of breathing routine in order to induce relaxation, stress relief, or alternative states of consciousness. Sounds crazy but apparently people experience some profound things doing this. I had a hard time getting that into it but I could see how these things might be possible. Overall thoughts:
Pro's - Actually feels like you have a mission, Potential to achieve states that meditation alone may not provide
Con's - Requires significantly more effort, Can be dangerous (don't do it in water), Looks really crazy so I'd recommend not doing it in public
Want to know more about ways to get started? http://www.icemanwimhof.com/wim-hof-exercises
This was definitely the highlight of the month and something I've been wanting to try for a few years now. Also known as a sensory deprivation tank, the best way to describe it is that it's basically a jacuzzi that looks like a spaceship-pod filled with 300 gallons of body-temperature water and 1,100 pounds of medical grade Epson salt.
When the lid is closed, the tank becomes completely pitch black and sound proof. As you lay out on your back, the salt water allows your body to float with complete weightlessness. For one hour, you feel nothing, see nothing, and hear nothing (some might call it the Helen Keller experience). There are a number of physical recovery benefits from the Epson salt exposure and body decompression, but the big reason I was interested is because this is like meditation on steroids. Normally our brains are always taking in sensory information from our surroundings (whether we're awake or asleep). So while it's not completely understood what happens when all this stuff gets muted out, it's been shown that the brain begins to function differently. Accounts vary from person to person and experience to experience, but reports range from states of bliss/extreme relaxation to full-blown psychedelic visions.
Interestingly, a number of players on the Golden State Warriors began doing this regularly at the beginning of last season (most notably Steph Curry). In case you live under a rock, Curry and the team also happen to be in the midst of two of the most impressive seasons in NBA history. Coincidence?
There is something really interesting about what this kind of experience may allow your mind to achieve. When you remove all outside distractions, you can see things with an objective sense of clarity and creativity. I wouldn't be surprised to hear about more athletes experimenting with this kind of stuff over the next few years (the benefits of the salt's magnesium on the body alone make this a worthwhile routine).
After 7 sessions over the course of the month, I can say that this was easily the most effective thing I did in terms of relaxation, introspective reflection, and getting into a "meditative state". Plus, if you've ever wondered what George Clooney must have felt like as he was floating away into the abyss in Gravity, this is about as close as you can get (for now). Overall thoughts:
Pro's - Completely unique experience in life, Results are noticeable immediately in terms of relaxation, mood, and clear-headedness
Con's - Pricey, Much less convenient, Salt water in the eyes really sucks
Want to try it? If you live in DFW, check out The Float Spot...it's awesome.
I listen to a great podcast called the Tim Ferriss Show, in which the host (author Tim Ferriss), interviews high achievers in nearly every profession (CEO's, billionaire investors, actors, scientists, creatives, Governators, athletes, etc.). After well over 100 episodes, the one habit that seems to pop up over and over is some form of meditation. Who knows, maybe they're all just drinking the Kool-Aid...but for what it's worth, I've been doing a very basic version of it on and off for a couple years now and I can say that it has had a noticeably positive effect on my life when done on a consistent basis. It's definitely not any sort of panacea, but if nothing else, it's just nice to take a brief pause from the rat race every day...
So that about sums up my Meditative March experience. Sadly I did not find enlightenment (though it's probably my high levels of chi that are allowing me to cruise through April Cold Showers with stoic ease). While I (currently) have no plans to shave my head and join a commune in the desert, I definitely plan on continuing mindfulness meditation into the foreseeable future. Finding 10-20 minutes in my morning routine for something that seems to pay compounding dividends is pretty much a no-brainer for me.
If you think meditation sounds interesting but aren't completely sold, I highly recommend the book 10% Happier by Dan Harriss. Not only is it a funny and entertaining story, it's also a great introduction to meditation with some actionable steps on getting started.
Finally, if you think meditation is just a bunch of hippy woo-woo b.s., this may be for you:
Namaste my children