Take a minute with me to take a few deeps breaths.
Breathe in slowly through your nose, allowing your belly to expand.
Hold it for just a second or two, and then exhale equally slow, until you’ve pushed all that air out.
Now do it again a couple more times with your eyes closed.
How does it feel? I’d wager you feel calmer, more centered and certainly less anxious.
Congratulations, you’ve just made your first foray into meditation.
Today I’m going to break down meditation for you, the darling of the self-help crowd, which enjoys an even more revered status than green tea, gratitude journals and waking up at 5am. I’ve meditated on and off over the last 20 or so years, so rather than giving you a fluff piece like “5 Reasons You Should Meditate”, or throwing a bunch of science at you that’s not really going to mean much, I’m going to give you the real information you want to know.
So much of the buzz around meditation is that it’s very effective at lowering stress levels. It is indisputably awesome at that. The real question is, if you’re so stressed that you need to meditate daily just to keep yourself calm enough to function, it’s nothing more than a band-aid. It’s clear that you’re living in an unsustainable manner and you’ll probably develop some kind of stress related illness if you don’t start making changes soon.
Meditation is definitely something we should all embrace at this time in history for reasons I’ll go into soon, but it shouldn’t be like gaffer tape holding a house together in place of a strong foundation. If you’re so unhappy and anxious that you look to your meditation time as a reset button for the day, you should look at fixing your problems or lifestyle as a priority.
Meditation should enhance your life, not hold it together by a thread.
Wisdom and clarity
The word meditation often conjures images of monks sitting in Zen temples trying to reach enlightenment — peaceful, calm, serene. We think that if we could just get ourselves some of that, maybe we’d figure our life out a little bit more easily and get ourselves on the path we’re meant to be on. Going back to my own practice, I can tell you that’s a total myth.
Meditation doesn’t inherently bring wisdom any more than marathon running does. I actually don’t even view the mechanics of meditation as spiritual — I think it gets that label because it is a practice at the heart of spiritual traditions. The mechanics of it are very simple, but each tradition adds its own beliefs to it. Zen Buddhism adds the contemplation of koans, other traditions add chanting, and disciplines like yoga add things like chakra breathing.
All of these are like different flavours to an already delicious ice cream.
Now, that’s not to say it can’t be spiritual or bring you wisdom, but on its own meditation won’t do that. I meditated for 45–60 minutes nightly for about a year in my mid twenties. It didn’t bring me any special insight or wisdom. Due to the fact that I was basically a man-child living with my parents at the time, I would’ve been far better off with Jocko Willink telling me to get my act together than spending 60 minutes ruminating in my mind over nothing.
So if you’re in one of those “finding yourself” stages of life or you’re having a rough time, don’t assume meditation is going to help. You may need to do the hard mental work of therapy or asking yourself difficult questions to find the answers you need to your problems. Meditation isn’t going to make that happen.
All famous people meditate
If there is one thing The Tim Ferriss Show is guilty of, it’s pushing the narrative that successful people are successful because of meditation. Ferriss has titans of every industry on his podcast and says 90% of them meditate. What does that actually mean though? We’re never given any details as to when they started meditating, which leads me to believe that most of them began after they became successful as a way to cope with the stress of their work.
I already spoke about stress reduction above.
I want to get away from this thought that just because a successful person does something that us little people should do it as well. Most of the people Ferriss interviews work utterly ridiculous hours and are constantly making important decisions. In this case, meditation is a leveler — a way to remain calmer and not allow stress to overwhelm them.
As usual, doing something because a “successful” person does it has no bearing on whether you’ll become successful. Just like cold showers, meditation isn’t a silver bullet.
So what are the upsides then?
Unplugging from the modern world
Meditation is more useful than ever now, which is saying something considering it’s a practice that’s been around for thousands of years. That’s because at no time in history have we been living more out of sync with our biology than we do now. If you’re reading this, the odds are high that you spend far too much time on your smartphone or in front of a screen. You’re literally addicted to it. That alone is a problem.
If you have multiple social media accounts and scroll the news, however, you’re compounding that problem. You’re being bombarded with negativity and conflict because that’s what the news is about. That’s not to mention the anxiety and depression inducing nature of social media.
Taking just ten minutes out of your day to meditate means the phone is out of your hand. Your feed is silenced. The demands on you and your time stop. All you have to concentrate on is breathing. Your mind now has a chance to calm down because it’s not being bombarded with stimuli.
It will improve your focus
We’re bombarded with distractions today. Everyone wants your attention and they’ll ping, buzz, and use any notification they can to draw your eyes to their app or website. You’ve probably noticed that you find it hard to concentrate, be it at work or even when talking to a friend. The practice of meditation will greatly assist your attention span, because you’re forced to sit for a period of time with no distractions, concentrating on your breathing.
Breathing and calm
How well do you breathe as you go about your life? Have you ever noticed? If you’re a typical busy person juggling all the responsibilities that we’re accustomed to, you probably mouth breathe in a shallow manner through your chest. Hello anxiety. I bet right now having read that, you’ve suddenly began monitoring your breath and have immediately switched to a full, deep breath that fills your belly through your nose.
Keep doing that.
That’s the cornerstone of meditative practice, and one of the reasons it’s so calming. The first thing you learn to concentrate on is taking full, deep breaths that immediately slow your heart rate down. Think about when you’re scared, what do you do? You hyperventilate. Short, shallow breaths that make you more and more anxious, because it’s a fear response.
The beauty of taking 10 minutes out of your day, every day, is that you’re re-learning how to breathe correctly. Those deep breaths lower your heart rate, lower your respiratory rate and calm you down. Like exercise, the effects will linger afterwards as you consciously monitor your breath.
After a while, that breathing will become your new baseline, making you calmer and more in control. If you do start to get panicky or anxious, you’ll be able to come back to that center and calm yourself down.
You won’t react so harshly to things
“After fighting, everything else in life gets the volume turned down.”
You may recognise the above quote. It’s from Chuch Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Meditation does much the same thing. Remember earlier when I said meditation is more necessary now than ever? That’s because at this point in time, everyone is trying to induce extreme emotion in you. The media is trying to make you anxious with their headline so you click it. TV shows try to rile you up so you go and talk about it on social media. Even our friends push their opinions on their social media accounts, daring us to be with them or against them.
After a few weeks of meditation, when you can quiet the conversation in your head and find stillness — even just for brief moments, your whole life relaxes. You’ll find that you don’t react so viscerally to everything all the time. In fact, you’ll almost be confused at how rabid so many people are. Just imagine how much better your life would be right now if you could maintain a semblance of calm as a baseline.
The skill stays with you
Meditation is a lot like riding a bike. I meditated regularly in my twenties, but nowadays not so much. If life starts feeling stressful or I feel like things are out of whack, I can add it back in and find that stillness within a few sessions. Why don’t I practice it all the time? Because I don’t need to. When you prioritise mindfulness and calm as often as possible day to day, meditation becomes less necessary.
You can find that calmness in almost anything you do — whether it’s cleaning the house, during your workout, writing or gardening. The ability to breathe correctly and absorb yourself in what you’re doing is meditative in itself. Sitting meditation is the gateway to that.
So should you meditate? I think everyone should give it a try at least once. Some people will definitely benefit more than others — the typical “Type A” who is always in a hurry will benefit immensely, a yoga teacher not so much. I think you’ll see pretty clearly after reading this piece which camp you fall into.
If you do decide to give it a try, do it for 5 minutes for a month. Meditation gets easier and more effective the more consistent you are, and when you first begin it can take quite some time until your thoughts are able to settle. So if you give it a go, give it a proper go.