A Novice’s Guide to Meditation
Improving decision-making, health and communication by being quiet
I remember thinking I was going to die. Of a heart attack. At 32 years old.
The year was 2010 and I was stressed out—working 10-12 hours/day in a highly competitive environment, only to come home and study for the CFA exam for 3 to 4 hours every night.
And then of course studying 8 hours/day on Saturdays and Sundays.
Social life? Forget about it. Exercise? Hard to come by. Relaxation? Almost none of it.
The pace was relentless. Ridiculous, actually. And it lasted six months. Well, it lasted much longer than that, actually. I kept up this insane pace from January til June, every year, for six years (2007 - 2012)—until I finally passed those wretched exams.
I learned many things during that time. The least important was the financial material covered on those exams.
I learned how to do hard things. Seemingly insurmountable things. Things that take years of effort. I learned skills that would make gargantuan tasks like writing books seem perfectly achievable.
Something’s got to give
But I also learned that we are not physically or mentally equipped to handle such extreme and relentless pressure without breakdowns.
And breakdown I did. My breakdowns manifested themselves physically. I developed migraine headaches for the first time in my life. I started having back issues—flaring sciatica. And perhaps most concerning, I starting having high blood pressure and even chest pain.
Not surprisingly, I found myself in doctors’ offices quite a bit at this time. I had EKGs and MRIs, was prescribed migraine medicine, and at one point even found myself on a treadmill hooked up to 20 machines all trying to assess what was wrong with me. I couldn’t believe this was happening at 32.
But in retrospect, it makes all the sense in the world. If you only add pressure, on top of pressure, on top of pressure, with no release valve, something has to give. For me, it was my body that began to fail me.
In an effort to avoid long-term dependence on medication, I purchased the book The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson, MD. Originally published in 1975, it wasn’t exactly cutting-edge material, but it was a book that had stood the test of time and was my first foray into the subject of meditation or mindfulness.
I was struck by the evidence presented in the book that real-world ailments from high blood pressure to anxiety to skin conditions could be measurably improved, if not eradicated, by the simple practice of sitting with one’s own thoughts in a deliberate way.
I attempted to establish a practice of my own at the time, and I wish I could tell you that it solved all that ailed me. But in reality, I think what did end up solving all of the issues mentioned above was a lifestyle change. And truthfully, I didn’t fully accomplish that until those exams were in the rear-view mirror.
But the idea of meditation as an elixir stuck with me. And over the last decade, with multiple stops and starts, I’ve tried to cultivate a meditation habit, reading more books like Dan Harris’ 10% Happier along the way.
The impact of deliberately quieting the mind
While I’ve struggled to establish meditation as an unbreakable habit, I continue to strive for this as I know the benefits can be immense. When I am actively practicing meditation, I’ve noticed that I handle stress and stressful situations much better. Parenting is as good an example as any. Rather than going from zero to screaming at my kids after they’ve done something to stoke my ire, I’m more likely to have the wherewithal to say something like “just so you know, I am about to angry,” rather than actually getting angry. “What’s the difference?” you might wonder. The difference is that I am controlling my emotions and deciding if I am going to get heated rather than allowing my emotions to completely dictate my actions.
Not only is this helpful in parenting, but it can be incredibly beneficial at work. Receiving some negative feedback on a project? Dealing with an unexpected bump in the road? Interacting with a stakeholder who seems irrational? At the times when I’ve actively practiced meditation, I’ve noticed that it’s easier to separate myself from the emotions (anger, frustration, disappointment, etc.) that may arise as a result of situations like these, and to think and react in a clear-headed manner. What a superpower it can be, to be able to think and act rationally, when others might be consumed by emotion. I’m not saying I get this right even half the time, but when I do, it’s often related to a sense of control of my own mind that stems from a regular meditation practice.
Deep thoughts, by Jack Handey*
The main concept in meditation is that you are not your thoughts. You are merely observing your thoughts.
This one concept, as simple as it sounds, is incredibly easy to forget. It’s also something that I would guess most people never fully grasp, and as a result, they spend their waking hours bouncing from one emotion to the next without even realizing it. I should know. I’ve spent the majority of my life in that state.
What meditation does is prompt you to step back. To observe. To watch your thoughts or moods as if they are clouds passing in the sky. “There’s anger, or there’s anxiety,” you might think while meditating. “Or there is the thought about the work call I have later today.”
Admittedly, this all sounds a bit squishy, a bit new-agey. That’s why it was surprising to me to discover that it actually works. Just this week, I woke up in a bad mood—angry for some reason—maybe work-related or maybe just a poor night’s sleep. And while meditating, I focused on the emotion. I “looked” at the anger, almost like it took a physical form, and then watched it dissipate. I don’t claim to understand why emotions lose their power when you identify them and observe them, but they do. It’s strange and also empowering to watch this happen in your own mind.
Thoughts are similar. When you quiet your mind, you can sit back and watch the thoughts come and go. Often, you realize that you’ve been lost in a thought for 5 or 10 seconds, and then you need to zoom back out to observe the “clear sky” before the next thought comes floating in. In doing so, you start to recognize how the exact same thing is happening in your day-to-day life. And rather than being hostage to this constant stream of thoughts, you can step back and observe them, even if for just 30 seconds.
(Am I weirding you out yet? Stay with me.)
There’s an app for that
Some might not know where to start with meditation. Some might be worried about their ability to sit with their own thoughts for 10 minutes or so.
Along with Calm (which I haven’t tried), these apps are among the most popular and really do help you to form a meditation habit by providing guidance and even gamifying the experience which is great, if you’re like me and love keeping a streak.
There is a cost associated with these apps, however. Headspace ($12.99/mo or $69.99/year), Waking Up ($100/year), and Calm ($14.99/mo or $69.99/year) all represent investments. Like an unused gym membership, they’re also easy to sign up for and then feel guilty about when you don’t actually use them. I know—I’ve done it quite a bit.
You might also be skeptical about essentially paying for the right to sit and be quiet. But I can rationalize with the best of them. And the way I’ve rationalized my current Waking Up subscription is like this: My mind is my most valuable asset. Closely followed by my body. If there is something that I can do that will improve my mind—even if it’s by 1%, 2%, 5%, then it is worth doing. If I make one really important decision in my life because my mind is better equipped to handle it, then the investment pays for itself many times over. And how many other things in my life do I spend $50 or $100/year on that provide way less value? (These guys should be giving me a commission).
So if you’re intrigued by meditation at this point, and wondering which app might be right for you, I’ve provided my thoughts below. I can obviously only comment on the ones I’ve used, but here we go:
Headspace — Headspace is a really nice app. I used it for several years—somewhat off and on but I probably logged hundreds of meditations in this app cumulatively. The most memorable things for me were the animations. They are really good at helping you to visualize the concepts in meditation. Earlier, I described observing thoughts and emotions as if they are clouds passing by in the sky. Headspace literally has a 1-minute cartoon video showing you what this looks like. These visualizations help you to apply the concepts in your own mind. Also, Andy Puddicombe—the main Headspace instructor, is great.** The app allows you to pick various meditation “tracks” to go down depending on what challenges you’re facing in your life—30 days meditation for anxiety, 30 days for performance, etc. or even quick hits like 1 or 5-min sleep or “SOS” meditations. If there’s a downside, I’d say that the app may not go deep enough on the theory of meditation or really advanced concepts like what consciousness actually means. Basically, it doesn’t get into the “super deep” meaning-of-life type stuff. So, net/net, it’s a great app for building a meditation habit, but the knock is that it may be too surface level.
Peloton — I’ve only used the Peloton meditations a few times so take this with a grain of salt. If you are already a Peloton subscriber, the content is free—which is a huge plus, of course. The selection of meditations is limited, so if this was to be your main app for meditation, you’d probably need to keep going back to the same meditations. Maybe that’s okay but that would annoy me, I think. I like the idea of progressing down a road—of making some type of measurable progress—which other apps offer. Similar to the fitness classes Peloton offers, there are several meditation instructors, so in theory you could find one you gelled with. And there are different choices like 20-min gratitude meditations or 5-min sleep meditations. Overall, I’d say, it’s a good choice if you: a) already subscribe to Peloton, and b) want to get at least some exposure to meditation. On the downside, the content is limited (for now) and there’s really not much of a “journey” or really anything on theory.
Waking Up — This is an admittedly early review as I’m only about 2 weeks into the introductory course (which is 28 days of 10-min meditations). So far, I am enjoying the guidance provided by the instructor, Sam Harris. It’s definitely not surface-level and airy. Harris has been trained for decades in meditation and clearly wants you to not only benefit from the practice itself, but to understand exactly what is going on in your brain and how you can ultimately gain control over this thing we call our mind. The app itself seems incredibly rich with content. In addition to the introductory course, there is a new meditation posted daily. And there are other tracks you can go down as well. There is also a ton of content in the form of podcasts and courses on the theory of meditation. I’m not sure how far I’ll go down this path, but after the first 14 days, I’m not even sure it’s necessary. It seems like each meditation is part meditating and part learning, so I think to an extent, the theory is embedded within the meditations themselves. This may not appeal to you but it appeals to the intellectual in me. I not only want to do the practice and benefit from it, but I want to understand exactly what I’m doing, why it’s working (or not working) and where I am going or trying to get to.
So there are some great choices out there—and I’m sure I’m missing many others. If you’ve got experience with Calm or others, I’d love to hear about it.
In summary, if you’re thinking about meditation, I think it’s worth a try. If for nothing else, I think it is massively eye-opening to understand this concept that we are not our thoughts. Beyond that, as I’ve mentioned, I think there are real, tangible benefits when it comes to stress reduction, improved communication and better decision-making. The hard thing, like any habit, is establishing it, sticking with it, and not feeling too guilty for missing it.
I’m still working on that. I’ll let you know how it goes.
*Deep Thoughts, by Jack Handey. C’mon, SNL! Am I really that old? Watch this if you don’t know what I’m talking about.
** Andy Puddicombe is great, although after letting him into my brain every morning, I developed a complex about not wanting to see him anywhere else. I didn’t want to know his political views or anything that might conflict with the idea that he was nothing more than this calm, helpful voice in my head. Meditation is strange like that in that it’s so personal.
Image credit: Csaba J. Szabo