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10 August, 2013

My 40 Day meditation challenge - what I learned, why I'll keep doing it, and why you should too

As someone who has recovered from a mental illness, I know that keeping vigilant about my mental health is important.

And for the most part, I have. I've been incredibly fortunate, and have an amazing support network around me that I owe a hell of a lot too.

One thing that always nagged at me, I never quite got hold of, and knew was probably important, was meditation. Its benefits for a 'normal' person are tremendous. It rejuvenates, increases calmness and focus, and can make you feel more alive.

For someone like me, having an extra bullet in the chamber in the fight against triggers is a boon and a godsend. So just over 40 days ago, after hearing about an easy way to get into it from Zen Habits, I started meditating every morning, and almost all nights when I got home (there were a couple of tricky times when I got home too drunk).

The technique suggests committing to just two minutes a day. In the morning, and by watching your breath.

Sounds pretty simple right?
Well it's both harder and easier than you think.

Some tips

I'd tried this on other occasions and couldn't quite get the hang of it. Here's a few resources I used that I found helpful:
I got the Pro edition because I liked the app so much and wanted to support it
  • a habit-reminder app called Habit Streak - I'm sure there are others out there, but this is what helped me keep a bit more motivated, I cross off my 'chore' in the morning to acknowledge that I did it the day before, and it builds a chain. It becomes a bit of a morning ritual
  • read the book The Power of Habit - this book was amazing, explaining with intelligence on how tricky it is to form a positive habit (the 21 days thing is a myth), and how you can combat your internal resistance (environmental factors play a huge part)
  • a trickier book, but one I found quite enlightening, was The Power of Now (there's a lot of power here!) which was what ultimately helped me decide that meditation was something I wanted to stick to - it's a very challenging read with its somewhat flowery language - but its argument is sound: you are not the voice in your head, quit being beholden to it, and focus on the present moment - BOOM!
  • I even went to a couple of meditation classes via Meetup - you can simply search for them and I had no trouble finding some free ones in Sydney. It was a bit daunting going to something that I have a predisposition to thinking 'new fandangled crap' - but I'm glad I challenged myself to as it was very rewarding
There are a tonne of other resources out there and half the fun is going out and discovering what materials are out there and online. For me, I've steered clear of the religious stuff and have really enjoyed virtually everything I've read about mindfulness

The Benefits

So does it 'work'?
Well, the short answer is it depends.

In fact, I'm pretty sure that's the wrong question to begin with. If you've done some reading on meditation and all you want is up-side and immediate gain you're in it for the wrong reasons and won't get much out of it. I think that was my problem in the past. 

I'm incredibly glad I have persevered. I hinted in my blog that I've had some challenges in my career lately, and having meditation as an extra shield has really helped keep things in perspective.

My focus has increased. I'm doing things more efficiently, and the whole concept of mindfulness empowers me to take half a step back before acting, and while I'm in my relative infancy, I quite enjoy having extra pause for consideration.

I want to know more. I'm 30 years of age now, I pretty much have my interests and what I enjoy doing locked down. This new endeavour is very rich and diverse and its exciting. I had a mind-blowing moment this morning after my run. Experimenting with a body-scan meditation, I was fascinated to be able to feel the difference between my torso, my arms, and my feet - there was a lot of energy coming from my feet.

What's next?

Well now that I've accumulated 40 days of self-knowledge I'm keen to pursue more. There's some interesting courses out there and there's a lot of literature, so I'm going to keep at it.

One thing that struck me as odd when I was first exposed to meditation, was the warnings I saw for those suffering from mental health issues. I spoke to my doctor about it and the watch-outs are the religious overtones and certain group environments that are pushing a particular dogma.

I boiled it down for Mum in much plainer language: if you thought you had the power of a higher-being at one stage in your life, it's probably not a good idea to embrace the powers of higher-beings via group meditation. And that's fine.

The mind's a powerful thing, and recognising that power has been a humbling and awesome experience.