One interesting and welcome consequence of the new-age yoga obsession is the increasing popularity of meditation. Like several other current trends, meditation is the product of a need to remedy a deficiency in modern life. In this case, we might attribute the rise of yoga and meditation to the increased “need” to stay connected to and on top of each new technology or social movement and the stress this can produce.
If more people are turning towards mindfulness or meditation each day as a result of this shift, I’m all for it.
Even before this wave of yogi-zen-Buddhism took root in Western society, I’d find it easy to mock the fake hippies who’d try to convince me meditation was changing their lives. I tried it once, felt nothing and ended up frustrated that I’d wasted an hour of my life.
But I owe everyone who tried to change my mind an apology. What I’ve learnt since has amounted to what I believe is the single greatest life hack I’ve encountered to date.
To many, the idea of meditation is a waste of time: 20 minutes of one’s day that could be spent having a drink with friends or reading a book. In an age in which our attention span has shrivelled to that of a 1 year old monkey, anything that takes us away from the distraction of our phones, worrying about deadlines, or the need to constantly be socialising is all the more valuable. I was averse to it at the beginning, but once I saw the remarkable benefits even 10–15 minutes of meditation a day could bring, I was hooked.
Why you choose to meditate is entirely personal, and differs between individuals. But what you’re looking to do is the same: pay exquisitely close and non-judgemental attention to thoughts, sensations, breathing. As Sam Harris puts it, you are learning to condition yourself to being open to the next sensory experience. It will feel like practice in the beginning, but it can become second nature after several repetitions.
Here I’ll outline a few of the benefits of meditative practice that myself and my friends experienced in just the first few weeks, followed by a quick guide to getting started using two simple exercises.
Studies have shown that during periods of intense concentration, a distraction, such as stopping to reply to a message, browse social media or answer a phone call, will take us on average 20 minutes to regain the level of focus we had before the distraction. After just two weeks of meditating, this catch-up time disappeared. If I lost my focus while working, I now regain it almost immediately.
Meditation teaches you not only to focus, but to control your focus and orient it towards the task at hand. The result is that you save a ton of time that would otherwise be spent trying to compensate for the original loss of focus. Today I’m more productive than I’ve ever been, and meditation plays a major role in this shift.
I have a monkey mind. It’s always racing to the next thing. Often when we lie down in bed at the end of the day it’s the first time our mind has been given the freedom to think without the onslaught of screens and notifications. If bedtime is the only time of day your mind is given the freedom to think without distraction then you’ll likely end up staring at the ceiling for hours. By dedicating just 10–15 minutes of your day to meditation, you’re opening up a space in which thoughts can be collected, controlled, and guided by the mind so that by the time it comes around to getting into bed, your mind has had its playtime.
For the past few years it’s taken me on average an hour to fall asleep. This has been the source of great frustration for me, as I see it as time wasted. Since I started meditating, I’ve been able to fall asleep within 10 minutes of getting into bed. I no longer experience the cruel cycles of thought that end up depriving me of precious sleep. A byproduct of meditation is therefore not only more sleep but restful sleep. Try it, and see how good you feel in the morning.
It goes without saying that being able to retain a clarity of thought and focus while also increasing the length and quality of sleep is a recipe for greater well-being. By making yourself more productive during periods of both consciousness and unconsciousness, we free up space in the mind to ponder what really matters. People dismiss work/life balance as a myth nowadays, but it exists and meditation can help you get there.
Two Simple Exercises
There’s no one-size-fits-all to meditation. Different exercises will work for different people, so you’ve got to try a few to see which fits you best. Here I’ll outline two simple techniques that got me started. As Tim Ferriss notes in his book Tools of Titans, these methods have been used far and wide and are seen as some of the most important in meditative practice. I still use them today.
Try doing the following while sitting down, eyes shut, phone in another room.
1. Just Note Gone
This one comes from the master of meditation, Shinzen Young. It’s super simple. For every passing thought or memory, note that it has passed. When you hear a sound come and go, acknowledge that it has ended. Everything happening both inside and outside your head is ephemeral. At the end of every emotion — joy, sorrow or anger — just note that it is gone. After a few iterations of this technique, you might notice that by acknowledging the brevity of a thought, feeling or sound you regain a sense of the present. In one respect, the past is merely a sequence of ‘gones:’ experiences that have have greeted us and passed us by. By understanding the power of gone, we find ourselves placing greater weight on the power of the present.
2. Loving-Kindness technique
Several meditation leaders I’ve spoken to say that if they could only teach two methods, it would be Just Note Gone and the Loving-Kindness technique. A meditation pioneer called Meng Tan, whose teachings have been backed by the Dalai Lama and President Carter, once gave a public talk in California in which he asked the audience to look around them, pick two people, and then think to themselves, ‘I wish for this person to be happy,’ and, ‘I wish for that person to be happy.’ He repeated this several times. As Meng says, it was just 10 seconds worth of thinking and yet everybody emerged from the exercise smiling. One woman who had attended the talk wrote to him the next day saying that she hated her job, that coming to work each day was a struggle. She had been unhappy for 7 years. After practising the technique at home after the talk and then again the following day, she’d had her happiest day in 7 years.
The trick here is to not overthink it. While at home, bring to mind several people — they could be an old friend, your gym trainer, or someone you passed at the supermarket. Just wish for them to be happy, one by one. It takes almost no time. I found myself feeling more upbeat after only a few days of doing this at the end of my meditation. So can you.
Lastly, and most importantly, meditate for as long as you like. If you can’t do 15 minutes, try 10. Start with whatever is most comfortable, and the second you get bored just bring your focus back to its center and move on. Meditation should be a joy, not a chore.
Do these every day for a week. By the end you’ll wonder why you haven’t been doing it your whole life.