On meditation

Andy Puddicombe, former monk and founder of Headspace.com

I’m always on the lookout for tips, tricks or systems that can help me increase my productivity or reduce strains on my willpower. Most of the work I do these days is on a consulting basis, so I don’t have a manager to prioritize my tasks or make sure I’m efficient.

The most frequent piece of advice I used to get/read was to meditate. A friend even signed me up for an automated meditation phone call to guide me through daily sessions. I never used it (a clever use of the Twilio API nonetheless!)

I finally started for an entirely different reason. I was getting feedback on a marketing video and my friend Sebastian sent me an example of branding done right: Headspace.

Of course, a tech nerd like me would need an app before doing something as ancient and disconnected as meditation.

The onboarding in the Headspace app is very linear – users have to complete 20 daily 20-minute sessions where a guide (Andy, the speaker from the TED talk above and founder of Headspace) walks you through the techniques of mindfulness and focus. Each session unlocks the next, so it progresses at a comfortable pace.

I’ve since weaned myself off the app. Although I’ve got tons of respect for his entrepreneurial chops, I wasn’t crazy about Andy’s Bristol accent. But it helped me form a consistent habit and now I’ve been meditating independently 3-5 times a week for ~4 months.

The usual benefit associated with meditation is mindfulness or awareness. People bring all sorts of definitions to those words, but for me they mean having the ability to maintain perspective in the moment. When I find myself in a stressful situation these days, I feel I have greater control over myself simply because I’m examining the situation at hand and can identify the forces at work – sleep deprivation, hunger, projection, emotions or mis-directed frustration.

I’ve read a lot of productivity and “self-improvement” literature, but before meditation I felt like I missed the opportunities to implement tips and tactics – I could only identify mistakes ex post facto (you can ask my MBA classmates – I crashed and burned during mock negotiations directly after 3 days of classes).

With meditation, I give myself the space to be in the moment and apply some of the insights and practices I’ve accumulated.

Along with consistent exercise, I have to say meditation has helped me feel clear-headed and happier. I have my ups and downs as most do, but I have to say that the peaks and troughs are a bit less extreme than before.

I’ve always had trouble with these sorts of claims simply because reality doesn’t have a control group and you can never be certain which variable is really causing the effect.

I also understand why deeply secular people have trouble with meditation. In Eastern traditions, it’s wrapped up with a lot of religious doctrine, spirituality and a whole lot of non-scientific belief. I think that’s simply due to how ancient and cross-cultural meditation is (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and all manner of mono and polytheistic religious have some variation of it).

Even as an agnostic, I think the practice is valid and effective apart from the these doctrines. In my case, the results have been noticeable and I’m comfortable assigning the positive effects to meditation rather than placebo (or some divine effect!).

Where my personal experience might be unconvincing, perhaps these studies performed by Mass General and the National Institutes of Health, or this article in Harvard Business Review might be persuasive.

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My meditation sessions usually go as follows:

I sit down in a chair or couch with decent back support, take a moment to acknowledge my surroundings (sounds, smells, overall setting), rest my hands on my thighs and close my eyes. I then start breathing in sets of ten (breath in = 1, breathe out = 2, breathing in = 3… and then restart at 1 after hitting 10 on the out breath).

The idea is to focus on the moment. Most guides recommend focusing on one’s breathing. Tim Ferriss recommends focusing on the physical sensation of air rushing in and out of your nostrils.

The mind always wanders. I think it takes a great deal of practice to get to the point where you can meditate without thoughts intruding. I imagine my though processes like multi-tasking processes on a smartphone – I can just swipe them out of view to kill the task. [Nerd alert]

Eventually I begin to feel a bit detached. I often get chills where I feel a rush going from my head into the rest of my body. My fingers start to tingle.

Usually, I’ll throw in a visualization. This really helps me focus because visualizing things requires most of the brain’s bandwidth and thus limits its ability to generate random thoughts.

I visualize a miniature sun that emanates rays of energy and light sitting between my feet. I try to physically feel an effect of the rays on my feet – where the rays touch, they bring me warmth and relaxation.

Once I’ve felt the effect, I move the sun to my navel, solar plexus (center of the body, below the heart and above the stomach), chest, neck, brow, and finally crown of my head, trying to feel the effect in each one of these spots.

I then return to breathing in sets of ten for another few minutes and then gradually start paying attention to my surroundings – listening to noises and moving my limbs. Then I open my eyes and return to activity.