What happens after 400 days of meditation

Meditation, like Fight Club, is one of those things you’re not supposed to talk about. If you’re doing it to bolster your ego - Look at me! I’m enlightened! - it goes against the entire process. Still, when I noticed on my “Insight Timer” that I had sat down and meditated 400 times, it surprised me. What started as a challenge has become one of my most valuable habits. 

I’m not enlightened by any means, but several things have changed for me. I hope that by sharing it, some of you may consider making meditation a habit too, or may be more confident in developing other habits you care about.

It began with a challenge

A few years ago, I had begun doing small experiments on my own habits and happiness. After one post about “30 days without alcohol” that included a reference to Stoic philosophy, a reader made an interesting comment: 

“There is too much “learning through punishment” with the Stoics – which is why I hold my reservations about their philosophy.
But I am full of admiration for what you are trying to achieve here. I would challenge you to do/add something every day for 31 days that you find challenging.”

Instead of abstaining or subtracting from my life, what could I do or add that would make life better? I instantly thought of meditation, as references to its benefits kept appearing throughout my reading and research. So I started by trying to do it for ten minutes a day for thirty days. That was almost two years ago.

The progress chart I kept for my meditation "challenge"

Simply difficult

Meditation is at the same time ridiculously easy and ridiculously difficult. There are many variations. The kind I practice, based on How to Meditate by Pema Chödrön, is especially simple.

  • Sit down with your back straight, legs crossed on a cushion or sitting on a chair.
  • Keep your eyes open, focused on a spot on the floor about 4 to 6 feet in front of you.
  • Focus on your breath.
  • When your mind wanders from your breath (it will), simply let the thoughts pass, or label them “thinking,” and focus again on your breath.

That’s it. I do this for 15 minutes each day, usually first thing in the morning, before the kids wake up and after I’ve turned the coffeemaker on.

“You’re not as angry.” 

The first thing I noticed, and what seems to be a universal experience, is that it’s impossible to stay focused for more than a few seconds. You think about that thing you need to do later. You shift your position. You become irritated that you’re such a bad meditator. The phrase commonly used to describe this is“monkey mind” and your inability to control it is frustrating. 

It’s why Pema Chödrön says, “Our mental habits are ancient and take a while to unwind. So we need to practice with patience, intelligence, and gentleness.” She teaches you to think of your thoughts as clouds passing by. Instead of clinging to them, notice them as a detached observer, without judgment, without berating yourself. It can help to simply label thoughts as “thinking,” a gentle trigger to focus on your breath again. 

Over the following months, I never experienced a major insight or epiphany. One day though, over dinner, my 9-year-old daughter said to me, “You’re not as angry.” I was a bit stunned. I looked across the table at my wife who said, “It’s true.” I reflected on it later, and felt that I had indeed become calmer and happier.

Calm, Compassion, Clarity, Confidence

With more research, particularly reading the work of Dr. Dan Siegel, I’ve come to think of meditation as a simple process for training your mind, for learning how to make the most of it. What makes a difference for me isn't the idea of a serene experience each morning. It’s the tens of thousands of times I've practiced calmly focusing my attention on the present moment. 

The more you do it, the more you develop a kind of “meta-awareness” - an awareness of what you’re thinking as you’re thinking it. I don’t claim to have perfected such an ability, but I’ve experienced glimpses of how powerful it can be. The benefits include what I think of as “the 4 Cs.”

Calm - I’m more aware of the triggers that cause me to react as they happen, and that awareness allows me to pause and proceed more mindfully.

Compassion - I’m more aware of my judgments about others, including my own inner critic’s voice. Being aware makes me more thoughtful - Is that really true? - and softens my attitude towards myself and others. 

Clarity - The less reactive and judgmental I am, the more purposeful and open I become. It’s like putting on glasses that let me see through the noise and drama.

Confidence - This isn’t about ego or arrogance, but more like walking on solid ground. Instead of doing something unthinkingly, I’m more mindful of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.

Meditation and getting a glimpse of the four Cs is like learning to ride a bike with training wheels. Sometimes you lean heavily left or right, or teeter side to side. But there are those moments when you get it. I’m riding on two wheels! In that moment, you’re fully alive, and you can feel the sun and the wind and the joy. The next thing you know you’re relying on training wheels again, and you’re eager to keep practicing. 

I may never be like Pema Chödrön, but I can be a better me. The more I get a glimpse of calm, compassion, clarity, and confidence, the more motivated I am to practice. 

“The mind is very wild. The human experience is full of unpredictability and paradox, joys and sorrows, successes and failures. We can’t escape and of these experiences in the vast terrain of our existence. It it part of what makes life grand - and it is also why our minds take us on such a crazy ride. If we can train ourselves through meditation to be more open and more accepting onward the wild of our experience, if we can lean into the difficulties of life and the ride of our minds, we can become more settled and relaxed amid whatever life brings us.”
- Pema Chödrön, How to Meditate

“And that would be enough”

Alexander Hamilton and his wife Eliza had just moved from their home on Wall Street in the heart of the city to a quiet section uptown. They’re mourning the loss of their son, Philip, who was killed in a duel. It was Hamilton who had advised him to shoot in the air and had given him the guns. They’re also mourning the loss of their happy marriage, after Alexander’s affair was made public and humiliated the entire family.

Throughout the play, there is a theme of never being satisfied - of Hamilton writing and creating and striving “like he’s running out of time.” He’s always looking ahead and working on the next thing.

But in the song “It’s Quiet Uptown,” they’re faced with the unimaginable things that have happened to them. Despite all of Hamilton’s accomplishments and aspirations, the grief and loss they feel are overwhelming, transformative. He begins to see that he had the elements of happiness all along.

If I could spare his life If I could trade his life for mine He’d be standing here right now And you would smile, and that would be enough

I don’t pretend to know The challenges we’re facing

I know there’s no replacing what we’ve lost And you need time

But I’m not afraid I know who I married Just let me stay here by your side That would be enough

It makes me wonder: What would be enough? Can you have dreams and hopes and still be content with what you have?

I think it’s possible, but that it goes against our nature. We have to work every day to be mindful of what’s right in front of us, before we become so used to it that it’s lost and we only realize it when it’s gone.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrsmUzqweBI[/embed]

“The mindful cultivation of generosity”

Generosity is one of the five elements of working out loud. There’s an entire chapter about it in the book which describes why and how you benefit from making small contributions freely, without strings attached.

“You don’t need to keep score or view networking as a set of transactions. Rather, you contribute to individuals in your network without expectations, knowing that, across the entirety of the network…you will ultimately benefit too.”

This week in Japan, I was reading a very different kind of book with its own chapter on generosity, and it described some other remarkable benefits.

Wherever You Go There You Are

Wherever You Go There You Are

A different kind of chapter on generosity

The book is Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn, an inspiring and yet practical guide on meditation and becoming more mindful.

“Generosity is another quality which, like patience, letting go, non-judging, and trust, provides a solid foundation for mindfulness practice.”

He used the phrase “the mindful cultivation of generosity” to describe the practice of learning how and why to give, beginning with small steps.

“A good place to start is with yourself. See if you can give yourself gifts…such as self-acceptance, or some time each day with no purpose. Practice feeling deserving enough to accept these gifts without obligation - to simply receive from yourself.

Experiment with giving…in little ways at first - directing it toward yourself and toward others with no thought of gain or return.”

The practice of giving

The small gifts can be the universal ones we begin with in Working Out Loud circles. These include recognition and appreciation, showing gratitude, giving credit and positive feedback, letting people know you’re thinking of them. When offering even these seemingly simple gifts, you become more in touch with your motives for giving. As you practice offering gifts freely, you open yourself up to doing and being more, to giving more of yourself.

“Give more than you think you can, trusting that you are richer than you think. Celebrate this richness, Give as if you had inexhaustible wealth. This is called ‘kingly giving.’"

He’s not speaking of money or even your time, but of something more important.

"…practice sharing the fullness of your being, your best self, your enthusiasm, your vitality, your spirit, your trust, your openness, above all, your presence.”

The benefits

While a given individual may not respond to your offering, there will tend to be a response from your network as a whole, particularly as you deepen relationships with people. They’ll be more likely to help you, for example.

The mindful cultivation of generosity, though, does more than help you reach your goals. It expands your sense of who you are, what you’re capable of, and what’s possible.

“Giving…helps us become more mindful of our inner wealth. By practicing mindfulness of generosity, by giving, and by observing its effects on ourselves and others, we are…discovering expanded versions of ourselves.

Initiate giving. Don’t wait for someone to ask. See what happens - especially to you. You may find that, rather than exhausting yourself or your resources, you will replenish them. Such is the power of mindful, selfless generosity.”

A different kind of challenge

A few months ago, I started doing experiments in self-control. 30 days without alcohol. 30 days without dessert. They were inspired by a book on Stoic philosophy titled A Guide to the Good Life as well as The Marshmallow Test by psychologist Walter Mischel. The experiments taught me to appreciate things I enjoy and the conditions under which I indulge (or overindulge) unthinkingly. They were lessons in gratitude and self-awareness.

My friend Marie-Louise was skeptical and, as usual, had a few questions.

“Is self-control and self-discipline the same as “self-denial”?

Does denying one’s self something (pleasure or otherwise) really increase the “chances of living a good life”?

Can it not instead be a disguise for, or deflect , what’s really inner most in our thoughts?

Is it a way instead of avoiding something else one may not want to confront?”

The challenge

Marie-Louise is a smart and intellectually curious woman whose questions always make me think. This time, she followed up her questions by suggesting a different kind of challenge.

“There is too much “learning through punishment” with the Stoics – which is why I hold my reservations about their philosophy.

But I am full of admiration for what you are trying to achieve here. I would certainly challenge you to “do”/”add” something every day for 31 days that you find “challenging” and then I will additionally challenge you to describe the difference between the two approaches and their respective affect on you?”

Challenge accepted. Instead of denying myself something, I decided to try something I had been wanting to do for some time: meditation. Every day, for 30 days, I would meditate for 10 minutes.

Meditation for 30 days

The results

Marie-Louise asked “Would it not be just as good to 'add' to one’s experiences and show self-discipline in that process?”

Yes, it was just as good and in some ways better. Both approaches are empowering. The feeling of autonomy is one of our basic human motivators. Knowing I could control how I eat, drink, or think (or not eat, not drink, and not think) made me feel I could do or not do anything I truly intend.

The meditation experiment was enriching as well as empowering. I now see how in addition to being able to impose limits on myself I can open myself up to new possibilities.

That’s no small thing for me. For example, I’ve wanted to learn how to play piano for decades but I had no signs of talent and never thought I had the discipline. Now I know much of what we call talent is related to effort and that I have developed the required self-control.

I approached a teacher who’s also a family friend and she was surprised. "Are you serious? Will you really practice?" I smiled, armed with a new-found confidence in my ability to take on new challenges.

My lessons start in September. And they won’t just be for 30 days.

Piano with Pride