This past November 26th marked my one year anniversary of the day I started meditating. I wanted to jot down some miscellaneous thoughts about the journey that I haven’t already covered in my posts about meditation, startups, and leadership or my post about meditation, addiction, and smart phones. Here I go.
Improvement isn’t Perfectly Linear
So it turns out that in spite of my goal to meditate every day this past year, I only actually managed to meditate ~ 273 out of 365 days (almost 75%).
In hindsight, the goal of meditating every day strikes me as naive because I know that improvement, for most of us, isn’t something that’s perfectly linear.1 In my case, I’m trying to improve my ability to regulate emotion and anxiety, so I shouldn’t expect that journey to look like this:
Instead, it I should have expected something more like this:
This ☝️ second graph is a more accurate picture of the improvement I’ve seen this year.
There’s another reason for the non-linearity of the growth I was hoping to achieve through meditation. Even if I managed to meditate every day this past year, the quality of my meditation sessions would have been (and in fact were) uneven.
One reason this is true is simply that meditation is actually a skillful activity. I first realized this when I learned (a la Judson Brewer in The Craving Mind) that there’s actually a difference in fMRI readings of novice vs. experienced meditators while they meditated. Like any skilled activity, our performance at that activity is going to be highly variable at the beginning of learning that skill.2
Because the quality of my meditation sessions were themselves uneven, I shouldn’t be surprised if the improvements associated with mindfulness would also be uneven for me at this stage.
Meditation as “Stress Compass”
Even when my meditation sessions went poorly, however, they were still useful in that they provided me with what Judson Brewer calls a “stress compass.” Brewer explains the metaphor here:
if we have been carrying around a this-isn’t-quite-right feeling of dis-ease, and we lack a compass to help us orient to where it is coming from, the disconnection can lead to quite a bit of stress…what if we used our feeling of stress or dis-ease as our compass?…What does stress actually feel like, and how does it differ from emotions such as excitement? If we can clearly orient ourselves to the needle…we can use that alignment as a compass to help guide our lives.3
For me, when my meditation sessions go poorly, its usually because I can’t focus on really being present. That usually happens because I’m stressed about something going on in my life. When my meditation session goes poorly, I can leave the session knowing I’m stressed out about something in particular. This is helpful for a few reasons:
Its good to know when I’m stressed out because I know that I need to be extra vigilant in looking out for instances where stress is negatively coloring my interactions with others.
Armed with this knowledge, I can also be strategic about when I decide to take on stressful, non-urgent problems/situations. If I think I’m not in a good place to positively contribute because of my anxiety, I can revisit when I’m a little more Zen.
Its good to know what is stressing me out so that I can work through the issue and stop thinking about it.4
Probably the most important benefit I’ve gained as a result of learning to meditate is that it really helps me sleep. Occasionally, I have nights where I’ll wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning because my mind is racing.
(Usually, this happens because there’s something crazy going on at work. I consider this par for the course when working at a startup.)5
Before I learned to meditate, I had a really difficult time getting back to sleep on nights like this. Sometimes, I’d even give up on getting back to sleep, wake up, and start working on whatever I was thinking about.
This is often the opposite of what I need. I’m not completely against pulling all-nighters or being occasionally sleep deprived when it makes sense, but because of the obvious disadvantages of losing sleep, letting my anxiety dictate when I lose sleep is definitely sub-optimal. For this reason, being able to start a meditation session and fall back asleep has been fantastic.
More Smart Phone Enlightenment
I’ve already said quite a bit about how meditation helped me realize how bad my smart phone addiction was, but there a few helpful and interesting changes I’ve made because of this realization that I thought might be worth sharing.
First, my phone has now constantly been on do not disturb mode for a couple months. Its fantastic, and I’m never going back. I only get calls and texts from my “favorites” (10 people). Push notifications from apps are completely gone.
Second, I’ve deleted the last two social media apps from my phone (Twitter and LinkedIn). All these apps really do is enable two disfunctional behaviors:
They allow me to obsess over people’s reactions to stuff that I post online.
They encourage me waste time viewing content that I haven’t explicitly decided is important for advancing my goals.6
If I need to respond to something or check on it, it can wait until I’m at a laptop. Social media has been an important professional tool for me, but now that I’ve seen the downsides, I’ve really started to see it more as an occupational hazard.
This insight was actually a key part of what I learned back when I was a “study strategies and time management consultant” at Tufts, where my job was to help people to improve their study habits. ↩︎
Brewer’s account also suggests that it’s possible for meditation to be done poorly. He found that there are differences in the brains of meditators while they meditate even if those meditators have the same amount of experience meditating. This suggests that differences in technique and in executing those techniques also play a role in explaining how effective someone is at meditation. I actually found this rather comforting when I was still very skeptical about the effectiveness of meditation. If meditating more often had better results and if meditation could actually be done poorly, then it seemed less likely to me that it was some sort of hippie nonsense driven entirely by the placebo effect. ↩︎
Judson Brewer, The Craving Mind, Pg. 12. ↩︎
Earlier this year, I realized (because of meditation) that I tend to obssess about how I’ll respond to uncertain situations. I decided that a better strategy is to write down the 3 most probable outcomes in a situation and what I’d do to respond to those outcomes and then to just wait and see. ↩︎
There’s actually a great quote on this from Bill Walsh, a legendary NFL coach, that gets repeated by Keith Rabois in his lecture on how to operate: “Do you know how to tell if you’re doing the job? If you’re up at 3 AM every night talking into a tape recorder and writing notes on scraps of paper, have a knot in your stomach and a rash on your skin, are losing sleep and losing touch with your wife and kids, have no appetite or sense of humor, and feel that everything might turn out wrong, then you’re probably doing the job.” ↩︎
Case in point: Right now, I need to learn more about statistics, finance, and product management. Yet, as I was about to post this on Twitter, I saw a link about the 10 best books from 2018 and clicked like an idiot. ↩︎