Observations from 100 days of meditation

Having dabbled in a bit of mindfulness here and there over the past few years, I recently made a commitment to daily meditation. This is my personal account of how it has changed my life. My goal here isn’t to boast to you about the glow of my aura, but a rational description of my experience.

Me practicing at 10,000ft. Photo by me from the French Alps.

Me practicing at 10,000ft. Photo by me from the French Alps.

What I was looking for.

The closest thing to actual meditation I had done up to this point was breathing exercises. I really got into the Wim Hof Method a few years ago, and found great relief from stress and work exhaustion by doing a 15-minute session each morning. However, I sort of grew out of it after a year or so, whereby I didn’t feel the urge each morning. Like I got out of the hole and didn’t need this tool any longer.

Meditation to me seemed it might be able to go a little deeper than breathing. I didn’t have anything specific to fix per se, except the ongoing stresses of work-life running my startups. More than anything, I was interested to find out if there was something I was missing out on. Sam Harris, one of my favorite podcasters, was definitely an influence, as he seems like such an intelligent and rational person, with zero tolerance for B.S. or “woo woo”, so I thought there must be something to it if he’s so convinced.

What I did to find “it”.

As a techie, I never really considered the considerable commitment steps of doing any formal training or retreat. I know Tim Ferriss, Ray Dalio, and Jack Dorsey speak very highly of their experience with Transcendental Meditation, but I wasn’t that sold on the approach incl. choosing a mantra and all that jazz, so felt easier to dip my toes in with meditation apps.

Based on recommendations from some of those same sources, I knew of Headspace and Oak. Headspace kind of made mindfulness famous, and I had done their free 10-day 10-minute course. It just didn’t quite stick beyond that, although I liked it. I wasn’t compelled to continue deeper and pay for it. So I switched to Oak, which is free, but you pretty much listen to the same 10-minute recording every time. You can also use the unguided version which is just a fancy timer with cool-sounding gongs as audio cues. After doing that for maybe two months, Sam Harris had conveniently just launched his own Waking Up app, which I’ve since used as my daily source. He has a 50-day introductory course to cover the basic skills and get you oriented, and then a daily rotating guided meditation. Yep, it’s also paid, like most good things in life.

NOTE: Guided vs. unguided? I don’t believe you will make any meaningful progress alone, by just sitting. That’s one of the revelations for me, is that there’s actually a lot of technique and concepts involved in gaining some control over your mind and what it does. These need to be explained to you. Either you have to do some kind of course, or then just use guided audio.

I’ve stuck to the 10-minute sessions across the board, which seems to be some kind of magic number. I’ve tried a few longer ones out of curiosity, but I feel 10-minutes is long enough that you can’t fake it, i.e. you will be forced to face the weaknesses of your uncontrolled mind. It’s also short enough to integrate into a daily routine without room for excuses.

From all that I’ve read and listened, there are two general use-cases for meditation. You meditate in the morning and/or before bed. Running my own company, I felt the best way would be to do it at work first thing and thus spread any benefits to my team as a side effect. So here’s what resulted.

Skills I started to develop.

Initially, I would say, you’re unlikely to notice anything at all for the first few weeks. For people integrated into modern society, the mere act of sitting quietly for 10 minutes without moving is near impossible. Not only are you fidgeting about, but you’re also ruminating, and mentally grasping at the constant stream of interactions we’re used to being bombarded with online. It’s almost like the first habit you have to retrain, is just to sit and not freak out.

NOTE: I think to get anything out of meditation, you do have to make it a genuinely daily practice. Not necessarily 7 days a week, I often skip weekends, but as something that’s integrated into your routine. I’ve felt a distinct compounding effect, that gains momentum from doing it every day, more than just from a pure habit building perspective. Like you’re building up towards some critical mass of being able to both let go and focus at the same time.

I’ll also mention that it’s unlikely any other person will have this exact same journey. It might depend on my specific choice of guided meditation, my life circumstances, stress levels, personality, or even DNA for all we know. But I would almost guarantee, that if you do 100 days of meditation, you will find all of these at some stage!

The skills you develop pile on each other like rocks to build a rudimentary level of control over your own mind. Photo by me from Margaret River, Australia.

The skills you develop pile on each other like rocks to build a rudimentary level of control over your own mind. Photo by me from Margaret River, Australia.

Day 30: Be comfortable being alone with your thoughts.

There’s something very humbling about meditation because it reveals to us how little control we actually have over our own thoughts. Grown adults who are supposedly so much in control of their lives and finances, find themselves struggling to simply sit quietly. This is noticeable in the physical and mental attachment we have with technology. Not being connected is not being at all. So it will take you considerable effort and even anguish to “detox” and detach from that umbilical connection to reality. A powerful point Sam Harris makes is that the worst punishment in prison is solitary confinement. Being alone with your thoughts. That’s how bad we are at it. That’s why you need training!

Day 50: Some control of your thoughts and emotions.

In terms of practical goals, this seems to be the purpose of the techniques that guided mediations introduce to you. Things like focusing on your breathing, the physical sensations of your still body, hearing sound as they arrive, and so on. By focusing on those sensations, you are forcing the mind into the here and now, and not allowing it to roam around freely between the past and future. Just now. 

Once you can steadily stay in this state during the sessions, thoughts and emotions will still enter the mind. The key question being asked is: what do you do when that happens? You return to focusing on the breath. Many sessions I’ve done specifically play with this mechanism, to introduce disruptions to overcome or explore underlying emotions and how they manifest as specific physical sensations. What you find is that you can actually identify and pinpoint these in your conscious experience, when you remove all distractions. By focusing on nothing but the thought itself, it will almost magically fade away, leaving you with nothing but bare physical sensations of your body and breath in its wake.

“That which is aware of being restless, is not itself restless.” — Sam Harris

The whole thing is like a meta-level up from your first-person experience. Trying to pry a wedge between your reality and the emotions and thoughts that pollute it. They are not the same thing. Yes, you think they are because you have no control or training. But they don’t have to be. You can practice this separation, and you’ll find this especially valuable when you have bad experiences. Shitty day at the office? An argument with your spouse? Snarky emails from clients or coworkers? Even physical pain like injuries or illness. 

None of these has to define your inner experience. You can explore the tightness in your stomach, throat, neck, or chest that is associated with these negative states. When you pinpoint the source, it gives you a sense of detachment from it. It’s in your body, yes, but everything you can sense is just part of your conscious experience. It may be hard to digest, but it can be such a burden off your chest to find this little crease of hope, that whatever is hurting you isn’t a permanent feature but simply a transient appearance in your experience that is now increasingly under your control.

Day 70: Pause button for the internal movie.

Once you start building momentum in not being a passenger and victim of your exposure to the world and it’s contents, you can sense the power that gives you. Your toolbox now contains a pause button. You can choose to step out of the swell of emotional rapids that tosses you around. You can opt-out of the rollercoaster. You have the remote, and a finger on the pause button of the internal movie of your experience.

One of the great scourges of our times is stress. The World Health Organization has named it the global health epidemic of the 21st century. We all suffer from it in our own way, silently. We cope in our own ways, in silence. Some learn to control it through exercise or other distractions. Stress isn’t a one-time occurrence. You can have a stressful meeting, stressful week, stressful month, or stressful year. What kills you is having no end in sight. You don’t know when the pain will end. It accumulates. It gets worse. You stop sleeping. You can hardly get out of bed. Life just feels less like living each day.

Mediation is a real tool for managing stress. Here’s how. It’s not instant rewind. You can’t undo the damage. But you can pause. You can resist. Each day you meditate you put some money in the bank. Stress may rob you each day, but over time you also have good days. That tiny deposit each day from your meditation can swing the tide, change the trend from down to even, or eventually up.

Day 90: Punctuate phases of the day.

Even now, I certainly can’t claim to feel the effects of meditation throughout the day. I can switch on when I sit down for a session, and I can lock on for the whole 10-minutes consistently. I have off days once or twice a week, where I struggle for the whole 10-minutes, but it doesn’t phase me. Even the struggle has value. Without the meditation, I know I would’ve been worse off. At least I resisted.

What I’ve slowly started to practice is taking a few seconds here an there through the day to tap the pause button. Not for 10 minutes, maybe just 10 seconds. Sitting in my office chair. Standing in the lift. Walking on the street. Whatever moments award me the opportunity to step out of the movie of self-experience. It’s hard to remember. Once the movie plays, it was an amazing power to self-sustain the illusion of control. Even after learning all these skills, the movie is ever automatic and fills in any and all gaps left unattended by your awareness.

Do you know that feeling where the days, weeks, months, seasons, and even years seem to fly by? This is a side effect of settling to watch your internal movie as a passenger. It’s not because you’re not “living life”. It’s because you’re on the default mode, and don’t know about the red pill yet. That’s an awesome The Matrix reference by the way, not a plug for big pharma. There is another way. I’m practicing this as often as I can throughout the day, and am discovering a newly found sense of anchoring my intentions and oversight of emotion in my day. 

This especially relates to stress. If I feel a certain type of energy building up, anxiety or restlessness, I know what to do immediately. Even with eyes open, I can now switch instantly to pinpoint the physical pattern of that state and observe it’s existence in my conscious experience. This is enough to detach from the onslaught, and often effective at reverting back to a more peaceful state of being.

Day 100: Switching on is awakening.

As you can deduce from the name of Sam Harris’ course Waking Up, and of course the ultimate goal of enlightenment of the Buddhist tradition, there is some way in which you are trying to turn on, or turn off, something fundamental in your mind. 0 to 1.

Trying to keep this from getting too abstract, what you’re ultimately building towards is an increased awareness of your reality. The fact that the only access you have to reality itself is through your mind and the conscious experience it grants you. What you probably aren’t aware of, at all, is how disconnected you are from that reality day-to-day.

The default state of a human is where thoughts control you, not the other way around. Through building resistance and patience towards “just being”, focusing on your immediate physical sensations such as hearing and breathing give you access to the raw data feed of reality. The real reality. Not the virtual reality of the inner movie that plays out in your mind at the whim of your emotions and environment.

“I realized, at the time, what must be the first time in my life that I was present.” – Dr. Peter Attia at age 45

For me, again having listened to Sam Harris talk about his experiences extensively on his podcast, as well as specific guests such as Dr. Peter Attia, I knew of the goal. I didn’t know how to attain it but assumed the perk would come along for the ride at some part of the journey.

I’m not enlightened. I wouldn’t say I’m woke, either. But I can recognize how most of my waking life isn’t exactly awake, and I feel more awake during and after meditating. That there is another state of being I can access at will now, and it doesn’t feel hard or unpleasant at all. In fact, if anything, I feel drawn to it more and more. I plan to continue punctuating my day with micro-mediations of a few seconds here and there, and making a consistent habit of another 10-minute unguided meditation before bed. Through that, I hope to fuse together these moments of being awake, to carry that sense of a heightened control and connection to reality through each day.

Observations about the impact on my life.

You must be so happy for me by now, that I’ve achieved these zen skills on my way to some Yoda-like state. So frickin’ what? What’s the ROI here? Is this all just a bunch of mumbo jumbo that hipsters use to justify slacking off at work?

Here’s the list of tangible benefits that I’ve seen. Mileage may vary.

This is the happy Zen place in my mind. Be still, like a lake at sunset. Photo by me from Näsijärvi, Finland.

This is the happy Zen place in my mind. Be still, like a lake at sunset. Photo by me from Näsijärvi, Finland.

Nip stress accumulation in the bud: As mentioned above, this is enough. Stress is reaching epidemic levels and is going largely unchecked. If you’ve ever seen down the dark tunnel heading towards a burnout, you need to start meditating. It can be free and takes 10-minutes of your day. Seems like a good deal to me. I track my stress using my own app Healthzilla, but there are many other options out there to measure heart rate variability as an analog for your nervous system’s state between fight or flight and rest and digest modes.

Better sleep: I track my duration, consistency, and quality of sleep with a wearable device. Besides the hard numbers, I can also gauge my alertness in the morning, and my restlessness going to bed. I’ve never had serious challenges with sleep, but I do suffer from late-night rumination as do most of us. Somehow it seems like the perfect opportunity to start the internal debate of addressing old wounds and solving tomorrow’s problems. Mediation, if nothing else, has given me some freedom from this cycle. The skills acquired in morning mediation help, but you can also directly tackle this by simply meditating while in-bed, soothing yourself to sleep with the calming voice of Sam Harris or the simple brass gongs of a Buddhist monastery.

Daily reset for your internal CPU: I’ve heard Ellen Degeneres say something to this effect, and have come to the same conclusion independently. Like your Windows machines of yesteryear that needed a daily reboot to function at all, meditation gives you this option. Instead of carrying the emotional baggage of yesterday, and building the pile up further, you can reset to baseline in a profound way that you have to experience to believe.

Better performance: My morning routine usually starts with a workout of some sort. I’m quite goal-oriented with my life in general, and that certainly applies to my cardio or strength routines in the gym. I want to see my VO2max improving, along with my one-rep-max for squats and deadlifts. So where does meditation fit in with bicep curls? Recovery. No, it’s not going to replace food or sleep, but all other things being equal, missing out on meditation seems to hurt my ability to perform at a high level through 6 or 7 workouts through the week. Being a huge nerd, I’ve obviously built my own algorithm to monitor this in the app. Do I feel this translates to mental performance at work? 100%. I’ve designed my routine with the philosophy of arriving at the office with a mental karate kick through the wall. Optimizing for peak mental capacity while keeping emotions in check.

Is the next step from here to go on a 10-day silent retreat? Well, not for me yet. I don’t feel a competitive relationship to meditation. I’m in no hurry to win, I’m content to just play for now.

References


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