The one with the meditation

Ceci est la traduction d’un billet écrit en français.

Okay, so I want to write a blog post about meditation, but I don’t know where to start, so I’ll try writing and we’ll see what happens. I’m going to build this post by asking a few questions to myself (and answering them); with a bit of luck it’ll be structured enough and won’t end up going all over the place.

Why this post?

The primary observation is that I’ve been meditating for around 10 minutes every day (or almost every day), that it seems to have a positive effect on me, and that I think it may be interesting for others if I share my experience. I’m obviously not trying to proselytize, only to talk about something that I find interesting, and to signal that I’m open to discussion on the topic… from my whole 30 or 40 hours of practice 😉 (Also, I’ve been told I’m only posting about books here these days, and not even that often… so let’s add a little bit of variety, even though I’m probably going to talk about a couple of books.)

And so you woke up one day five months ago and started meditating for the hell of it?

Eh, it’s a bit more complicated (and longer) than that. I had been intrigued by the whole concept of meditation for quite some time, without knowing exactly where to start – I was somewhat interested, and then I read stuff like « just sit for 10 minutes » and I was like « yeah but how do I know the ten minutes are up and I can’t put a timer it’s going to be weird and aaaaah » and it stayed at that stage for a long time.

Then, a year and a half ago, I read a book called 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works (now that’s a mouthful), from Dan Harris. I must admit I have no memory of how I actually found that book in the first place. It’s a memoir in which Dan Harris, TV anchor, starts by having a panic attack on live TV, and ends up digging around the theme of meditation. Anyway, this book had the appeal of being pretty low on the « spirituality » side of things and much more on the « okay I’m not really convinced but I’m still going to try because I don’t have much to lose and I’m actually a bit at a loss about how to handle that anxiety. » To give a bit of context: I have my own issues with anxiety in general (and related unpleasantness), so that’s probably also one of the reasons why that book interested me.

Around the same time, a good friend of mine told me about Headspace, a guided meditation app. Guided meditation is basically a soundtrack that talks from time to time (more or less often depending on the practice) to explain the exercise to you and to guide you during meditation. It has the advantage of helping to understand how things are supposed to work, and to provide the aforementioned timer without having a random beep beeping at a random time.

I think at that time I followed it for a bit less than the first 30 days (there’s a « basic set » of 30 meditation days in  the app), probably over a little bit more than 30 days, and then… it faded away. Eh. It didn’t stick then.

Fast-forward a year later. My therapist (whom I see for that anxiety-and-associated thing) talks to me about a book he’s reading, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions, by Christopher K. Germer. Past the first cringe at the title, I must say that the book is pretty good. In particular, a couple of paragraphs really struck a chord and had some miraculous effect on my sleep/falling-asleep patterns (which tend to be problematic as well). The book talks a lot about mindfulness (hence the title), and I guess it gave me the impulse of trying Headspace again.

This was a bit more than 5 months ago – the Headspace app tells me I have a 149-day streak, and I think I failed at starting a long streak a few times before that, so it must have been a bit more than that. And apparently, since then, it stuck.

Soooo what, you’re burning incense and chant « ooooommm » with a beatific smile, or what?

Nah 🙂 I’m assuming that, from the outside point of view, I’m sitting somewhat motionless with my eyes closed during ten minutes or so. In practice, I grab my phone and earbuds, I find a reasonably quiet place (easy at home, feasible outside – I have already meditated on the train, for instance (which is way easier than in the office, by the way)), I check that my phone is not going to interrupt me with a random notification during my meditation time, I open my browser on https://my.headspace.com (there’s an app, but it’s currently buggy on my phone >_<), I start the meditation of the day, and here we go.

The « meditation of the day » thing comes from the fact that Headspace is mostly organized in 10- or 3×10-meditation packs on a given theme, and the idea is that you practice with one of these each day. They also have single, one-shot meditations on more or less general theme, and they recently introduced « daily meditations » with a new meditation every day, available for 24 hours. I usually have a pack in progress (there’s a fair amount of content), so I just practice with that without asking myself too many questions (except when it’s time to start a new pack 😉 ), but I sometimes explore in the rest of the app too, depending on the mood or the amount of time I want to give it (in particular, the daily meditations can be set to 3 or 5 minutes).

The Headspace meditations (or, at least, all the one I saw until now) are somewhat similarly formatted. They start with a few words of intro, then a bit of time to settle (physically and mentally), then you bring your attention to the body by mentally scanning it from top to bottom, and then you bring the attention to the breath. The core of the meditation is the main thing that varies between meditations and between packs. The base practice is to try to keep focused on the breathing, and to come back to it over and over again when you realize you lost your focus. There are some variations that ask to explicitly take note of what made you lose your focus, or that suggest you visualize stuff (like a ball of light) (it sounds weird but it’s actually pretty fun). To end the session, you come back to the physical senses, you open your eyes, Andy (as in Andy Puddicombe, the guy from Headspace) says a few concluding words, and that’s it.

Now I also started testing the 10% Happier app, which goes with the aforementioned book and its follow up, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to Book. The approach (and the app) feel a bit more messy, less « academic » than Headspace, more fun too. I’m only just starting with this app, but I think I might like it better. There’s more diversity of people recording the meditations too, but I didn’t test that yet. (A common issue with Headspace seems to be « the voice is getting on my nerves », so I guess more options is a good thing.) But then, since I do have a 149-day streak on Headspace, well, I’m keeping that streak, and when I feel like I want a bit more meditation in my day, I get a 10% Happier session as well. (Which may or may not be a good idea; I think it’s advised to keep at one thing at a time. Eh.) Anyway, these days it feels like I’m transitioning from 10 to 20 minutes a day. No idea if it’s going to stay that way – taking it as it comes.

I try to keep a daily practice; I also try to not obsess too much about keeping the streak. I gave a number: I did cheat a few times on the app to keep said streak going. I’m keeping the counter as « time for which I kept a mostly daily practice »; I think in the current 149 days there’s less than 5 « fake » ones (less than 10 for sure).

And what do you get out of it?

It’s obviously hard to quantify. The first and most direct benefit is that it’s a good way to take a break, both from outside and inside – to « reboot » to a quieter/less chatty state. My brain tends to talk to me A Lot (and not always in a very nice way) – it’s usually a good way to get a bit of peace and quiet on the spot. Typically, I feel better after meditating than before.

Moreover, and it’s something on which both programmes insist, « formal » meditation sitting is also (and maybe above all) a training for the mind. It teaches me to be more aware of going into an internal monologue loop, and it so happens that noticing it and get a bit of distance helps not engaging thoughts if I don’t want to. It’s obviously not always working, but it helps, a bit. I also mentioned the positive effects on sleep – which is quite valuable too. Interestingly, I did have a tendency to accidentally have a drink too much (nothing problematic, but it did happen), and that doesn’t seem to be a thing anymore. Hard to tell on such a short period, but I do believe it helps me notice that it’s time to switch to water 😉

Third, as far as I’m concerned, learning to focus on my breath provides me with a very useful anchor in difficult situations (too much noise, too many people, too much emotion, too much.)

And do you see anything negative about it?

Not really. Sometimes a session doesn’t go that well and brings a few tough things to the surface. Usually, the following time it gets better; it probably serves as a catharsis too. These days, I’m getting somewhat annoyed by the fact that I feel like I’m losing my focus much more than I used to during meditation; I’m not sure if I’m noticing it more or if I’m loosening a focus that may have been too tight. It’s probably going to get better (either it will get better, or I’ll accept it better 😉 ).

Other than that, it takes a bit of time, and it’s not an easy routine to start, even for 10 minutes ; personally it became quite quickly (well, on the second attempt 😉 ) something that I choose to do, that I enjoy doing, and not something I’m « doing because I decided I wanted to do it every day ».

Oh, and there’s also probably contraindications with some health issues (be it mental or physical), but they don’t seem to apply to me 😉

So, can you give a few links about what you’re talking about?

So, for the things I talked about in this post:

  • Books:
    • 10% Happier, by Dan Harris – a memoir about meditation, written by a guy who was quite skeptical at the beginning. Pretty accessible, sometimes funny, but not that practical.
    • Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, also by Dan Harris – that’s actually the practical part of the previous book. The approach is basically « folks, y’all should meditate, and let me explain to you how to overcome your obstacles ». A fair amount of funny anecdotes, practical advice, and pretty funny too.
    • The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, by Christopher K. Germer – that one is more on the self-help side, but for a more common approach it’s probably not a bad book. In any case, there was interesting stuff in it.
  • Apps:
    • Headspace – probably one of the most used apps, it seems like it’s the big thing on the topic. There’s a free trial containing the base pack (the first 10 sessions); to access the rest of the content you’ll need to subscribe (the yearly plan is around $8/month).
    • 10% Happier – that’s the other app I started using. There’s more free content; in particular, the content that goes with the book is a « course » (in the app terminology) and has more content than the free content in Headspace. (The yearly plan is displayed for 6.67CHF on my app, I don’t know what’s the currency rate). I didn’t pay for 10% Happier yet, but I’ll probably do that soon.
  • A couple of videos for good measure:
    • Get some Headspace – a talk from Andy Puddicombe at Google, where he presents several meditation approaches, I found it interesting (but it does last an hour and a half) – there’s several bits of short meditations in it, it’s like a mini-workshop to test a few things.
    • All it takes is 10 mindful minutes – same Andy Puddicombe does a 10-minute TED talk.

And apart from that?

Well, I think I said everything I wanted to say. But I can answer questions, if any 🙂

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