3 August 2013

One Year of Meditation -- Accomplishments and the Road Ahead

It is just about one year now since I started to meditate regularly. My introduction and principal guide to the subject has been the Book Search Inside Yourself and it is also the intro book which I would most recommend to anybody curious about the subject.

I started meditation at a time where I suffered from some burnout and a short depression, so my initial goal was just to improve my mood, be more positive and less worked up about things. So during the first couple of months, I meditated with the mantra "calm and content", just repeating these words, as in "I am calm and content", because that's the state of mind I wanted to achieve. If you also want to try, just sit comfortably, close your eyes and thinking "calm" when breathing in, and "content" when breathing out. (If the phrase "I am calm and content" sounds like a lie to you, because your currently aren't, you can simply replace it with "I want to be calm and content". Whatever makes you not being calm might be truly unnerving, but it's the purpose of meditation to let go of such things for the moment of meditating and find the calm within yourself. Usually, when you open your eyes after that exercise, the outer non-calm will also have subsided a bit.)

After the first couple of months I stopped using my mantra and just meditated by concentrating on my breath or by "observing my thoughts" (a technique I learned from a fellow meditator in Berlin). Observing thoughts is very interesting, but it is also an invitation to get carried away by one's thoughts, so it's very important to notice this and go back to more basic forms of meditation where I just concentrate on breath and practice my focus on this.
Although I didn't use the mantra any more, it was still my motto and my main intention for meditation. That's why now, after one year of progress, I decided to focus on a new intention. But before telling you about it, I want to share some of the good outcomes I enjoyed.

First and foremost, meditation really helped me improve my mood. Depression went away, melancholy and lethargy have become far more seldom guests. And I think this worked for the following reasons:
  • I am doing more things which I enjoy (and do them even if I have to overcome a little getting-off-my-butt resistance)
  • I am doing less things which I don't enjoy
  • if I have to do something which I don't enjoy, I am more conscious about my mood management, such as motivating myself (basically convince myself more deeply that I just have to get over it) and minimizing the pain by techniques such as breaking up bigger tasks, enjoy small successes, time-boxing work, and minimizing work to just what is necessary to get the job done. (for the last point, I 
Now, those are all techniques which I had known about before or they are so banal that you might wonder why it needs meditation to figure those things out? (Like, "do what you enjoy," haha, what else would one do?)

The answer to this is that meditation gives me a better self-awareness which means a much better knowledge of what exactly makes me feel good or feel bad. There's a whole science of "Miswanting" now (term coined by psychologist Daniel Gilbert, here's a paper about it, if you like to read science) and I think that meditation really helps to figure that stuff out. For one example, I don't like grocery shopping a lot and I often procrastinated doing it and tried to compensate by combining it with the pleasant activity of a bicycle tour, buying my groceries on the way back home. But as it turned out, this was a bad strategy: my biorhythm seems to prefer spending most of the day inside (reading, doing housework, cooking, and writing blog articles such as this one) and then go biking rather late in the evening, often coming back in the dark. Combining shopping with biking would mean that I can't bike at my preferred time (because shops will be closed on the way back and I don't want to shop on the way out and carry all my groceries through the summer heat for hours) and it also means that I can't go far away from the city, because I have to plan the route such that a store is on the way back. 
In the past, all those complications just demotivated me to go out at all and I didn't really know why. Now I know and I combine grocery shopping with other activities, such as grabbing a quick lunch outside. And for biking, I now more often invest some time on a train to go a little farther away from the city. Or I head directly towards the shortest and nicest way out of the city.

To conclude, I think that I am now somewhat more calm and definitely more positive and happy! Choosing my next meditation goal was very easy, because there are two other basic skills or attributes mentioned in the book, which seemed to be particularly lacking in my life. Therefore I decided to work during the next six months to improve my concentration and my resilience. But more on that in another post.

(By the way, I am planning this for six months because that's my preferred mid-term planning horizon ever since I read Tim Ferris' "Four-hour work-week". It's not that profound a book, but has some interesting tips nevertheless. So I try to plan almost nothing ahead of those six months, because I think when you do really adventurous and great things, they will change yourself so much that after six months, your priorities will be quite unpredictable from now. I find it quite funny to think that "agile software development" teaches something very similar: after each iteration delivered to the customers, you'll get new problems and desires which you couldn't have planned for at the beginning, that's why you should aim for short delivery cycles. But anyway, that's why just six months!)


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