Like most people, I had made a few failed attempts to establish a daily meditation routine. Maybe “a few” is an understatement. I experimented with meditation on and off for about 10 years – typically unable to extend a daily streak past one week or at best one month. These shorter streaks weren’t entirely fruitless. I had a few weird mystical experiences, and during periods of my life when I sat more days than not I noticed a deep sense of stillness. I knew that the practice had value but I was undisciplined. It took a catalyzing event for me to establish the discipline that I needed.
In late 2015 and early 2016 my life was full of chaos. For a number of reasons, both consciously recognized, and unconsciously felt I knew that it was the right time to begin a daily practice. On August 12th 2016 I made a commitment to myself – I would meditate every day for the rest of my life.
Walking the Path
My goal was simple. I would sit for 15 minutes a day using a simple breath awareness technique. This technique seemed at the time to have the most-researched mental health benefits. A book called Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana details this technique and its applicability in daily life.
I think the technique isn’t so important, but the important thing is to pick a technique and stick with it for a few months to see how it gels with your practice. Probably stay away from anything that requires you to pay money (Transcendental Meditation for example). These practices aren’t inherently bad, but should be viewed with a skeptical eye.
It’s Dangerous to Go Alone, Take This
It’s probably best to work with a trusted teacher. I knew this and I sought it out but couldn’t find a good one. I was living in coastal Orange County, California at the time – the home of plastic surgery and false appearances. I visited numerous meditation groups in the area but they seemed very concerned with “appearing Buddhist” rather than seriously pursuing a meditation practice. A lot of money changed hands at these gatherings. Of the four groups I visited, all of them gave me an odd gut-feeling.
If you can find a good teacher though, I would recommend you work with them. I had a lot of errors in my practice early on that I would have been able to move past much faster if I had someone guiding me. However, having no guidance is superior to bad guidance.
The Darker Side of Meditation
Establishing a daily practice is like lighting a fire in the wild without lighter fluid. You get your tinder together and try to coax a spark into flame. Eventually the fire starts. You throw more and more logs on it until it’s a raging inferno. It is unstoppable with any quantity of water. As it burns it transforms the logs into something different. They can never be logs again, even long after the fire has burned down.
A daily meditation practice, done properly, and over a long enough time will transform you irreversibly. A lot of meditation proponents will not tell you this. I wouldn’t recommend meditation to everyone. If life is generally going pretty well for you and you feel deeply satisfied with your day-to-day, I would actually caution against it.
I wish I could say that I was just hanging out in bliss states pretty soon after starting my daily practice but it wasn’t like that at all. Here’s a rough breakdown of some practice milestones, summarized from journals written at that time (times are approximate):
- Days 1-50: Boring. Nothing happened. Very aware of my thoughts. Ass keeps getting numb. Back is uncomfortable. I dislike this. Stupid idea.
- 51-150: Dark Night of the Soul. Anxiety which was very bad before beginning daily sits gets much much worse. Insomnia is horrendous. I feel like my internal monologue has a new mean-streak. It is also considerably louder.
- 151-200: Anxiety begins to dissipate in a weird way. It’s still there in my internal monologue but I just care less about it being there. I feel a bit less like I control my thoughts in a conventional way and am feeling pretty okay about this.
- 200-500: More gradual anxiety improvements to the point where my general anxiety level is significantly lower than when I began this practice. Occasional feelings of full body bliss while sitting. Doing my best to not strive for these. Ordinary waking consciousness throughout the day seems to be imperceptibly more vibrant. I am becoming much more patient with myself.
- 501-1000: Decision to change meditation technique. Still practicing awareness but now am using an internally-chanted mantra instead of the breath. As a musician I have an intimate connection with sound and I feel like a sonic-based meditation object comes more naturally to me. Some sessions are incredibly deep. Regular bliss experiences and deep insights into my own life situation. Begin to feel more emotions deeply.
Here is a brief summary of the things I experienced from meditation. YMMV but here are some things that may happen to you if you go on this journey.
Most people lie to themselves constantly and significantly. New diets and exercise plans don’t work because we lie to ourselves when we cheat on them – and who could blame us? It hurts to fail. Most of us place such a large emphasis on success and achievement that failing has become an excruciating prospect. The compassionate short-term solution is to lie to yourself when you fail.
The issue with lying to yourself is that it distorts your reality. All of a sudden, failing to loose weight or keep with the exercise plan isn’t a personal failing, it’s a failing of the culture for promoting an unrealistic body image. This is why there are so many attractive lies in the culture – it hurts less than self-honesty.
This is exactly what I experienced around days 51-150 of my meditation journey. I started to have enough mental clarity to see, for the first time in a long time, the lies that I was telling myself. I had sinned. Missed the mark. The story I told myself about myself wasn’t my self.
Meditation allowed me to take a clean look at myself and I wasn’t ready for it. I realized how often I lied to myself. I realized my relationships with other people weren’t where I wanted them to be, spiritually I felt ungrounded from my family’s traditions, I wasn’t eating healthy despite telling myself that I was. Like so many academics I was using workaholism to cover up these shortcomings.
Although this was an excruciating process to go through, it led to a bunch of incredible developments. Here are a few:
I repaired my relationship with my parents – a long process that was very difficult, and that I never would have been able to endure if I had to big of an ego to admit to myself that I was failing at it.
My romantic relationship with my partner was revolutionized. The honest communication between us became our greatest strength through the process.
My social anxiety largely dissipated. Instead of walking into a room and wanting to portray a certain ego image, I now feel free to walk into any room just as I am – a human being with both gifts and flaws, I have nothing to hide.
I started working regular hours. Emails pour in after 5PM but I do my best to not answer them. I don’t make a habit out of working late. I don’t make the hours I’ve worked a part of my ego, or something to loftily brag about. Ironically, being well rested as a result of this allowed me to work at a higher efficiency during regular work hours and overall increased the quality and quantity of my professional output significantly.
A lot of friendships changed over the course of the 1000 days. Of course some of this is a function of external factors, but some of the shift is a direct outgrowth of my practice. I found myself uninterested in spending time with friends who could only discuss work. I began to gravitate towards existing and new friends that were spiritually focused, and adamant about blunt honesty. Hobbies became less important as a friend-quality. The prerequisites for having a deep friendship had to exist first. Interests are just a manifestation-layer on top of this foundation.
A few friendships withered away and many more grew. Part of the letting go process.
Emotions and Patience
I experienced significant emotional changes as a result of the meditation. I’ve never been very in tune with my emotions. Now I can feel the whole spectrum of them and am no longer afraid to feel them. This probably sounds gooey-touchy-feely but it seems to me a much better way to live life. Emotions are good signposts that can give you some information about what’s going on in your subconscious.
The realizations about myself were mostly about ways in which I was failing. It got me down for a long time. A few months at least. At some deeper experiential level, I learned that those failures didn’t kill me. Ultimately I got good at accepting my failures. This allowed me to learn to be patient with myself. Don’t misunderstand – I did not become lazy and become okay with just scraping by in my life. Instead, I’m able to be honest with myself about my goals, if I fail at achieving them I don’t whip myself for it, I dust my self off, and help strategize about what went wrong and how to proceed. I’m far from perfect at this, but more often than not, there’s no longer extensive self-drama when I fail. Furthermore, decreasing this fear of failure ensures that it can’t be lorded over me by manipulators. This is a great antidote against narcissists and other emotional vampires you may have to deal with on a daily basis.
I’m not sure if meditation is for you. You might find this article useful in making that determination. In my own practice, I plan to keep using this mantra technique. I’m interested in doing a 10-day retreat at some point in the coming year. Maybe I’ll write another one of these at 10,000 days.