Oh no, I hear you cry. I picked up meditation as my skill in May, and as my acquired habit in February!
Or not. In any case, this month’s challenge is to work on your ability to choose where to place your attention, and to control your level of arousal. The primary training method for that is meditation, but that does not necessarily mean sitting still for ages.
For instance, if you are one of those people who focus on a project to the exclusion of food, drink, and the people around you, to the point where your health and/or relationships are suffering, then you may want to expand your field of focus. You can do this by deliberately paying attention to what’s happening in your peripheral vision, or by noticing the feeling of your weight on your feet (or arse, if you’re in a chair), while you work on your project. Laser focus is a useful skill to be sure, but over-use is not good for you.
Most people in this day and age are stressed out by work, social media, global pandemics, or other things, and benefit from lowering their state of arousal; bringing down their heart rate, relaxing, and letting go of some deeply held tensions. But others have a low affect, and would be better served by bringing a bit more excitement into their lives (swordsmanship training can be great for that).
Before you get started with meditation, have a think about what exactly you are trying to accomplish with it. You should also consider the potential risks.
It is true that for many people, very extreme dosages such as a 10 day retreat in which you’re meditating 12 hours a day, can produce blissful results. But it is also true that it can trigger psychoses, and lead to the most extreme negative outcomes. The jury is out as to whether the meditation triggers pre-existing conditions, or can create the conditions in healthy people, but my point is simply this- even sitting and meditating can be dangerous. Of course it is! It changes your brain!
At less extreme dosages, we can still see some negative effects. For example, a study done by Willoughby Britton at the University of Arizona on the effects of meditation on sleep quality concluded that meditating for up to 30 minutes improved the subjects’ sleep, but meditating for longer than that interfered with sleep. The journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica published a review paper in August 2020 which found that 65% of studies looking into adverse effects of meditation found them, including anxiety, depression, and cognitive impairment. For a fair-minded overview of the risks and benefits of meditation, see Miguel Farias’ book The Buddha Pill.
Does this mean you shouldn’t meditate? No. It just means you shouldn’t assume that it’s safe. If you already have a meditation practice, then you could meet this month’s challenge by trying a different form of meditation, or making your sessions more frequent. I wouldn’t recommend meditating for more than 30 minutes per session, because it has been shown to interfere with sleep, but how much of any given day do you spend mindlessly?
How to start
There are lots of different ways to meditate, with lots of different effects, and of course every system claims wonders for its own special style. But really, meditation is about two things: focus and awareness. The easiest place to start, I think, is with “mindfulness of breathing”. It goes like this:
Set a timer. I recommend perhaps 3 minutes if this is your first ever go.
Sit comfortably, or lie down. I like sitting cross-legged on a kicking pad, at the salle, or on my pillows in bed if I've just woken up, or on the floor in my study if I don't want to wake my wife.
Close your eyes, and notice your breathing. Don't interfere with it, just pay attention. if that's a bit vague, try noticing the feeling of the breath coming in through your nostrils, and out of your mouth.
Start counting your breaths, one in, out, two in out, three in out, etc.
When (not if) your mind wanders, just notice that it has wandered, and bring it gently back, starting the count at one.
If you get to ten without distraction, go back to one anyway.
Keep doing this until the timer goes off.
Repeat this every day. First thing in the morning is probably best, but any time will do. I do it on waking.
I usually set my timer for about 10 minutes, or 20. No more, because I'm not a Buddhist monk. On a good day, I get up to about six breaths, sometimes even 10 without distraction, but quite often it goes one, one, one, one, one, one, one two Yay I got past one! oops, now I'm distracted again one, one, one. That's ok. The practice is the process of gently returning your attention to the breath. Nobody cares that you did 10 rounds of 10 breaths without your mind wandering even once. Any computer will do that for you, and better. This meditation teaches you a relaxed, gentle focus. If the timer going off feels like a surprise, that's great. Try adding a minute or two to the time on your next session. Or not. If you can't wait for the damn thing to beep already, that's ok too. Be gentle. And set your morning alarm three minutes earlier. You can manage that, right?
Give it a few minutes a day, every day. After 10 days, if it's doing nothing for you, stop. But I'm confident you'll already be giving it 7 minutes. Or 10. Because it's wonderful.
If you prefer to learn from videos, then I have a free meditation class in my Fundamental Human Maintenance course, which is part of a bundle of free courses I have here: guywindsor.net/freecourses
In May my skill of the month was toe yoga. I added it in to my thrice-weekly trainalongs, and did a bit of practice outside that. I’m happy to report that my toes are more obedient to my will now than hithertofore (that’s a great word, I’m delighted I managed to sneak it in, along with thrice), and it provided plenty of practice in handling frustration. It’s my toe, dammit, why the hell won’t it do as it’s told? And, it did it fine yesterday, why not today?
It is completely normal for your brain to pick up a new skill in intervals, with periods of ‘forgetting’ in between. The days when it works less well than before are just as useful and important as the days when the improvement is obvious. It is far better to measure improvement from week to week or month to month, than day to day. So if meditation is a new skill for you, then assume that some days will be easier than others, and as always, go gently.