Arguably it was the only skill to be pulled out of the hat that morning that involved not doing anything, or so I thought. I’d secretly been hoping for ‘drawing’ or ‘juggling’ as the first 20 a Day challenge, mostly because spending twenty minutes each day for a month on those would surely lead to some tangible progress.
And I naively thought that wasn’t possible with meditation. Well, one month later I’m very happy to have been wrong and in many ways, as I mentioned in my last blog, perhaps the Universe was telling me something by kicking off an example of growth, with a skill that at best would develop me from within.
At the heart of 20 a Day is learning in a way that I can share. Just as finding twenty minutes each day to work on a new practice isn’t too much to ask, I hoped my month of learning something new would make the same process even more achievable for others.
So, of course, I turned to my phone, that brilliant and evil pocket dweller that undoubtedly shares some of the blame in today’s mental health epidemic. Our attention spans are short, access to bursts of Dopamine higher than ever, and the stress and anxiety of keeping up our social media appearance and shrinking the inbox down to zero - well, it’s frankly ridiculous.
But, it is real. I’m a fairly rounded bloke and I’m not afraid to share that these last two years I’ve slowly become more anxious and less able to stay on an even keel. This might have some correlation with moving to London after a decade as a nomad and all of the expense, work and change of lifestyle that entailed. Still, although life isn’t exactly shabby I’ve felt a real decline in my own mental health, so with that in mind meditation felt like a godsend.
What I didn’t know was how I’d take to practicing mindfulness each day. I don’t have much time for hippy, hypothetical, la de da thinking and was a little concerned that my patience would wane fast. I’ve got a hyperactive mind that makes pausing, reading books or general concentration fairly tricky, and the closest I’ve come to a form of meditation has been on my endurance trips, when endless repetitive paddling, pedalling or pushing eventually became zen like.
We’ve probably all been aware of a handful of products or apps that bring meditative healing to our lives, so that’s where I started. I downloaded a handful of apps, including Headspace, Buddhify, Insight Timer and Breathe.
I started with one called Calm, purely because I’d downloaded it months ago and didn’t even open the thing. Its time had come. Calm kicks off newcomers with a 7-day free trial before paid options unlock hundreds of guided meditations. £9.99 a month, £35.99 for the year or a flat £299 lifetime payment.
Although the lady’s voice was just on the edge of the grating Californian accent you might expect from a meditation guide, Calm’s 7-day Trial turned out to be the perfect access point to meditation for me. I enjoyed the motivation points and saveable quotes of the day, and a reassuring message that I was doing ok, “You’re on a 3 day streak, keep it up!’ But by the end of that first week I was ready to try something else. Next up: Headspace.
Headspace has a free 10-day introductory course, and it was about halfway through this, almost two weeks into my new meditating habit, that something clicked. Headspace’s basic sessions are narrated by an English chap, and there was something about his slightly more personal approach that clicked with me. The trial sessions are only ten minutes long a piece, but there are other free sessions between one and five minutes long that target emotions like anxiety, stress and healing.
Once Headspace’s trial period was over my mind was made up, I knew then that I’d continue daily meditation long after this July commitment, but I fought the urge to continue Headspace’s enticing reminders that I’d completed a 10-day run streak. For the sake of offering up a balanced view of the world of introductory meditation, I looked elsewhere.
From individual sessions on Insight Timer (which I really enjoyed) to Breathe, another app called Simple Habit and even the top results on YouTube after a search for ‘Meditation’, I took some time each day to be still with myself, and soak up the chance to not think about anything.
I did mean to try the popular Buddhify, which is aimed at the market for busy people who would still like to meditate and offers sessions that be conducted on walks, during the commute to work or at other periods of the day when totally stopping doesn't feel possible. It is only £4.99 off the bat with no further in-app charges (which probably makes it the cheapest top-end app out there), but as I write this on 31st July I haven’t yet tried it because the free trial didn’t work. I’ll get around to parting with £4.99 soon and will update this blog then.
What I've learned
Making time in a busy schedule is difficult, and I wasn’t so sure I’d feel enough benefit from meditating to warrant spending even twenty minutes a day not cracking on with all the other stuff I fill my plate with.
But, with a commitment to 20 a Day made I stuck at it through the first few days and by the end of week one I found it much easier to focus. During the earlier sessions I honestly looked forward to those hallowed words, “open your eyes,” so I could just get back to work, but by contrast I spent the second half of the month actually looking forward to my meditation time, the guided sessions came and went without a mental checking of the watch and I felt so much calmer after each meditation than before.
I already have a series of habits that get my day off to a good start, so I almost always meditated in the evening, just before dinner. I’d pop something in the oven for half an hour and head outside. My usual meditation spot was at the front of my boat, finally in the shade and cool breeze after one of those roasting hot July days we were lucky enough to endure this year.
When I wasn't at home I tried meditating on trains, in fields, friend's gardens and even in the party yurt at a wedding (before the party had started). Finding a spot where I wouldn't be disturbed was key, and I quite enjoyed closing my eyes on the tube and letting the journey slip away into oblivion.
I’d always thought meditation was about switching off, drifting into the mental ether and losing awareness, but it isn’t at all. At the heart of the practice is becoming more aware of the little things; breath, the feeling of your butt on the chair or feet on the ground, of the surrounding noises and the thoughts that naturally drift in and out of the mind. Bit by bit as the month went on those thoughts would become less distracting - when you’re sitting still with your eyes closed there is barely anything to do but think, so it felt like a breakthrough when I didn’t dive into my thoughts and go on a journey. Instead, I watched them like I would a movie, and when I realised I was thinking about something random I was able to bring my attention back, as the guides would tell me, to the breath. I suppose it’s a bit like counting sheep when you can’t sleep - focus on one easy repetitive act and that’s the safe space. Everything else switches off.
Although we’re still in the early days I’ve felt the benefits from meditation in everything I do. I calm much faster when my more stressful projects throw up unexpected problems or bad news. I’ve been taking my time rather than rushing, in everything. I’m sleeping more. Just stopping for twenty minutes a day shot off a siren for me - REST IS GOOD! SLEEP MORE! and no longer do I lie awake pondering what I need to do when I wake up, somehow I'm now able to flick a mental switch and sleep almost instantly.
I’m enjoying this project for an entirely different reason, too. While considering how to best translate my feelings and learning process for each monthly skill, I’m writing more, thinking clearer and am able to gently bend my view around a topic, giving a really healthy alternate perspective.
I’ve made peace with a few things this month as a result of meditation, stuff that has bugged and even brought up anger inside me. The ex girlfriend who didn’t ever pay back the thousands of pounds I loaned her - for so long that has really hurt me, not to mention how helpful that money could still be. I guess I’ve held out hope for a few years that one day she’d repay that debt, but as long as I held that hope I held the bad stuff too. Anger and resentment can be debilitating. But now, I’ve decided to draw a line under the way I feel about it, at least.
Gratefulness, too, can be exercised. I don’t spend enough time appreciating how lucky I am to live on a boat, with the birdlife tweeting around, water lapping against our hull, the rush of the mini waterfall from the nearby lock. I’ve loved spending time at the bow, taking all of this in.
The language used by the meditation guides I’ve become familiar with has stuck with me, too. They speak in a way that removes anything personal; “Turn your attention to THE breath, when you’re ready, slowly open THE eyes.” They don’t say “your breath” or “your eyes” and therefore you can’t feel like a demand has been placed on you. It’s a tiny detail but a freeing one, too.
So, if I could sum up what meditation is, for me, in one sentence. Imagine that stress is a weight, and joy, patience, focus, contentment and gratefulness are muscles. With a bit of work those positive assets can be toned, and the stress becomes less of a burden - even if it’s still there, the rest of you is able to carry it better. Meditation, simply, is a power nap for the soul. A reminder that we are not our thoughts, they just pass to and fro before disappearing, like clouds.
I also think there’s considerable merit to guiding meditations, as I write I feel like I’d like to train up to help people discover what I’ve discovered this month. The whole process was ever so simple but the results have very much been worth it.
Hints and Tips
To summarise, here are a few thoughts that might help if you’re considering taking up meditation for the first time.
- Find a time of day that works for you, that can easily fit into your schedule. Then try to stick to the same time each day. Build meditation into your lifestyle. (Most apps offer a reminder alarm, if that helps.)
- Don’t lie down while meditating, you’ll likely fall asleep!
- Commit to it for at least the first two weeks and don’t slip up and miss a day. After a fortnight you’ll know whether or not it’s something you’d like to continue with.
- Try a couple of different apps so you know what’s out there. There is a huge variety and it might take a while to find the style and meditation guide that's right for you. Once you do, there's potential for this to be life changing.
Good luck, and may the zen be with you.