Meditation: 30 Days of Zen

A few years ago, I was invited to a game-night hosted by my basketball buddy, Nick. He’s super into fitness as well and had been going to the LA Fitness Expo for the past few days. I thought he was attending for fun, but he and his (then) girlfriend, Nikki, were actually helping friend of theirs with an activation for her product, the Passion Planner. I them about it, they explained what it was and then gave my girlfriend and I planners as well, and I LOVED IT (still do). Fast-forward to October of this year, I’m attending a screening party with the same group of folks and end up chatting with Angel, the founder of Passion Planner. We’d met a while back at a previous game-night, but I wasn’t as social of a person back then. I probably just said hi and not much else.

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There’s an incredible community on social media around Passion Planner (search #pashfam on IG) which is very active, supportive and does a lot of fun activities. Having connected with Angel and Nikki on IG, I saw in their stories that a friend of theirs inspired a challenge for the Passion Planner community:

30 for 30: For the month of November, commit 30 minutes a day to doing something. That something could be as simple as walking for 30 minutes a day or as challenging as, let’s say…meditating for 30 minutes a day…for a month straight. Guess which one I chose.

For the entire month of November, I found the quietest places I could and sat for 30 minutes to meditate. To be honest, I thought I knew all I needed to know about mediation, but doing a 30-day deep dive showed me just how much I had to learn about both the practice and the benefits. A lot of my preconceived ideas about meditation got debunked.

What I thought:

You have to empty your mind: This is probably the most frustrating myth for beginners. Trying not to think will only make you think harder about trying not to think and a million other random things. In reality, it’s just not possible. Thinking is involuntary for living creatures, like breathing or your heart beating. You can’t stop your heartbeat, but you can do things to elevate or lower your pulse. You can control your breathing, but you can’t stop it. Your thoughts are a natural part of being alive. You can guide them, but you can’t completely empty your mind of thoughts.

I’m supposed to experience A, B or C during or after meditation: Through meditation, you will experience many different things, but going into it expecting to experience the same thing as someone else might not be the best move. Let’s use running as an example. Ever heard of the “runner’s high,” that euphoric feeling some people describe feeling after a good run? I’ve never experienced it. Not once. What you experience during meditation will vary on a person-to-person basis. Our lives and experiences form who we are, have an effect on our thought patterns and ultimately cause every individual to experience different types of thoughts. It’s extremely likely that your meditation experience is going to differ from most other people, so trying to predetermine what you’ll experience may disappoint you in the long run.

It’s a spiritual practice: It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. Meditation has heavy roots in spirituality, dating back more than 5000 years, with some of the earliest mentions being in ancient Indian texts. Later being refined with Taoist practices in China and Buddhist practices in India. In the 60’s and 70’s, meditation began to pick up steam in the West. Later in the 80’s and 90’s, the mindfulness aspects of meditation started to become recognized and we began to see an increased focus on the health and wellness aspects of meditation. The evolution of meditation leaves the spirituality aspect of meditation with the preferences of the individual.

It’s an anti-Christian practice: This one’s polarizing. Often cited are verses in the Bible warning against adopting practices from other religions, but as I stated before, the mindfulness practice used in mental/physical health & wellness has evolved and doesn’t have to be centered around the spiritual. I’ve also heard arguments like, “clearing your mind leaves space for evil to move in,” which seems like a bit of a stretch since it’s not really possible to clear/empty one’s mind. Sitting and thinking deeply about what’s on your mind is something that happens naturally in quiet moments, and meditation is being intentional about cultivating those moments. Many Christians tend to use meditation as a form of prayer, while others find a mix of prayer-based meditation and mindfulness meditation effective. Feelings towards meditation and Christianity seem to vary by person.

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I need to be in a quiet/special place: Sure, it helps to be in a quiet place. It’s easier to concentrate on your thoughts as they come when you’re quiet and comfortable, but it’s not required. I live in a busy part of LA, and there’s a produce truck that pulls into the alley behind my place at least once a day, without fail. It has one of those musical horns that plays a snippet of La Cucaracha at an obscene volume. As I got better at managing my thoughts, and did a little research, I started realizing that I could just accept the disturbances as they came, think about how they’re annoying or disruptive, and then just let those thoughts pass. It’s one of the pillars of meditation: don’t fight against your thoughts, that will only make them stronger. Welcome your thoughts, even the disturbing ones. Meditate on them and then let them go.

It’s the same as just relaxing: Relaxation is often a consequence of meditation but is not the core of the practice. The intentionality behind meditation is what sets it apart from simple relaxation. If you’re just relaxing, you may be passively paying attention to your thoughts instead of making an effort to think deeply, internalize and process thoughts or feelings. Meditation is referred to as a “practice,” which means that despite often (not always) being physically inactive during, one must actively set an intent to meditate to see the benefits.

Meditation is supposed to make you feel good/better: Meditation is generally considered safe for healthy individuals. Studies show that practicing meditation for prolonged periods could have beneficial mental and physical effects ranging from decreasing depression to lowering chronic physical pain. For others, meditation may do more harm than good for several reasons. Memories from prior traumas, abuse, stresses, mental health issues etc. could possibly trigger negative emotional responses in certain individuals.

To be completely honest, not every meditation session during my 30-day stint was positive. One particular instance brought up memories of my late cousin, whom I spent most of my childhood with. It’s only just been a year since her passing and during this particular session, I was consumed with thoughts of our childhood, her daughter, her mother and a million other things. While I didn’t end up feeling as polished and chipper as I usually do after meditating, I was able to think deeply about memories and feelings I had been avoiding for almost a year because of the pain they drudge up.

I won’t have time: For the most part, this is an excuse. Meditation is adopted by a countless number of top-performers who likely work harder and longer hours than the normal person. If it’s important enough, you’ll make time for it.

 

What it did for me:

I’m a lot less anxious in general. I’m an introvert, and we’re generally pretty wrapped up in our own thoughts. A lot of the time, that leads to overthinking which can heighten anxiety. I often picture my mind as a whirlwind of thoughts and among all the distractions of daily life, many thoughts and emotions don’t get dealt with. Then, in the quiet moments all those thoughts rush in and you feel like you have to deal with them all at once. The quiet time I slotted out during the day turned out to be the intentional time I needed to preemptively review and address some of these thoughts before they turned into an anxiety issue later. Even if I just meditated on one thing that I wanted to address, that meant there was one less thing I worried about later.

I started to see a change in my memory and recollection. I’m the kind of person that will forget I need to do something 5 minutes after I say I’m going to do it. It’s been the source of many arguments and disciplinary actions in the past. The difference I noticed here was huge, and it makes sense after reading a 2012 study on meditation. A group of 100 individuals were studied, 50 of whom practiced meditation and 50 that did not. Those who meditated often had more folds in the outer layer of the brain which indicates a possible increase in the brain’s ability to process information. Another study showed that meditation could be effective in stopping or slowing the normal age-related changes that happen to the brain over time.

Experienced better, deeper sleep in general and for the first time in a long time, I slept all the way through the night. It was also easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. This didn’t kick in until around week 2, but after that I experienced it for maybe 7 or 8 of the remaining nights. Meditation has also been studied in patients with chronic insomnia and was found to be just as effective as some traditional treatments. I also began to remember much more of what was happening in my dreams, instead of forgetting everything the moment I woke.

Increased confidence, but that may be another of the individual-specific benefits. I made a point to address a lot of negative thoughts I have about myself and my abilities in certain areas. Meditating is the perfect time to take a look at how you view yourself, and it’s largely governed by the subconscious mind. There’s scientific evidence that shows people who practice mindfulness seem to be more aware of their subconscious brain activity. An estimated 90-95% of brain activity happens beyond the conscious mind, which is essential for survival.

Without the subconscious remembering patterns you’ve already consciously learned, things like walking would be a burden because you’d have to consciously think about every step you take. The subconscious mind will also lock in patterns and habits that could negatively affect your confidence. During meditation, it’s possible to find and address negative thinking patterns which could help to lessen them over time. In my experience, the negative thoughts and visions I have of myself began to seem absurd when brought into the light. Over time, with practice your subconscious will lock in the thoughts and patterns whether positive or negative.

"I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times."

-Bruce Lee

I experienced a feeling of more control over my mind and body. This is likely another effect meditation has on the subconscious mind. The more we know about ourselves and why we do what we do, the more control we have over our conscious and physical behavior. This was one of my favorite takeaways over those 30 days, because it reminded me so vividly of a key point in a book I read earlier this year. In the book Grit, by Angela Duckworth, the author describes the key differences in practice and deliberate practice. Essentially, someone who uses repetition as their sole means of practice will fall behind someone who approaches practice with a purposeful and systematic plan of action.

One specific instance personally stands out for me in regards to having more control over my body and subconscious during this challenge. About a week into the challenge, I was playing in one of my league basketball games. We only had 5 players and the other team had 8, which meant that (if they were smart) they’d run us ragged until we were too gassed to make it up and down the floor. We already have plenty of great offensive players and the other team was full of guys that were a few inches taller and 20-30lbs heavier. So before the game I hammered it into my head that I didn’t care whether or not I scored, I would only focus on playing defense and rebounding. I’d made this declaration many times before, but during the heat of the game, I’d forget almost immediately and subconsciously default to my regular style of play. But this time it seemed to stick. Not only that, but I was way more aware of my surroundings and seemed to be able to navigate my body better than usual. I was able to consciously hold on to the declaration I had made during the game and when I wasn’t consciously thinking of it, it seemed that my subconscious was able to pick up the slack and keep me on task. This effect persists even now.

I chose a crash course in meditation by taking on 30 minutes a day, which is incredibly difficult for a beginner. But, I’m happy I did it because I learned a ton about myself. I’ve since cut it down to around 10-15 minutes a day which seems to be sufficient.

Many people tend to get frustrated with meditation because they pay too much attention to the myths around “proper practices.” There are different variations of meditation, which may or may not work for you. Just be intentional about focusing on something, whether it’s a specific thought, a mantra or even just your breathing. You can google “types of meditation” and you’ll find a billion results and possibly something that could work for you.

Go ahead and get your “om” on.