"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
This is the fourth installment in the Meaningfulness Project series, an essay project devoted to exploring a sense of purpose through long-term commitment to core values.
I’ve struggled a lot with meditation. For one, the typical seated, cross-legged posture is uncomfortable for my upper back. I have a slight misalignment of the spine behind my sternum, and no activity makes this more apparent than meditation. Even sitting upright and still in a chair causes intense discomfort.
What’s more, the benefits of mindfulness meditation are so intangible and subjective, it’s difficult to sacrifice time for it when the day’s to-do list is calling. Tim Ferriss, in his 2016 book Tools of Titans, points out that most of the brilliant and highly successful people he interviews meditate to start their day. Still, there are notable exceptions.
Tony Robbins, perhaps America’s foremost expert on productivity, self-mastery and personal success, seems to abhor the idea of seated morning meditation. Robbins wants to wake up and create an emotional state for grabbing the world by the balls. He wants to feed the fire within, not reduce it to the embers of peaceful contentment.
Robbins’ position makes instinctive sense to me, but does my physical discomfort bias me against meditation? Could there be a good enough argument to throw a wrench in thousands of years of manifest human wisdom? … Not to mention recent scientific studies that show positive brain development at any age, stimulated by the practice of meditation?
Today we’ll discuss the benefits of mindfulness meditation and two approaches to the practice: Mindfulness as an end in itself, and mindfulness as a means to other ends.
First, my take on mindfulness training comes from Charles Francis and his book Mindfulness Made Simple (read a short review of the book here). I attended a four-day meditation retreat with Francis in the spring of 2017, and despite my spine issues, the experience was transformative. I left the retreat feeling more calm, wise, and self-aware than ever before. I really can’t stress that enough. I felt more in-tune with my body, more detached from and observant of my thoughts and feelings, and more aligned with my values than at any other time in my life.
With these results, you’d think I would be motivated to carry on the practice outside the retreat. I’ll explain why not later. For now, it’s important to describe the mindfulness training method I learned from Francis. Thankfully, I spent a big portion of my free time during the retreat distilling every main point from his lectures and book into a concise summary that fits on a single page of my journal. Here it is:
My summary of Francis’ work takes some liberties; for instance, I de-emphasized his strong focus on the importance of community and I put no stock in the health and nutrition advice from his book. I wrote the summary for me, so it reflects the ideas I find most informative and inspirational.
Still, the summary gives you a good idea of the two most important stages of a meditation session (concentration and mindful observation), and you see that these stages are skills that can infuse all aspects of your life to bring you greater wisdom, clarity, peace and direction. Brain scans of serious meditators confirm that sufficient practice re-wires the brain to maximize your powers of focus and abstraction. But of course, I found that even short-term obsession with the practice (multiple hours a day) had startling results that lasted weeks.
Again, this begs the question: If the benefits are so great, why not devote yourself to the practice? My physical issues aside, I’ve come to identify two different approaches to mindfulness training. The first approach is embodied in the retreat or the monastery: You spend your days trying to achieve enlightenment, that is, lessening the ignorance and attachment of your ego and communing with the wisdom and peace that exist beyond it. For this approach, mindfulness is an end in itself, and all your daily activities are undertaken to develop your powers of concentration and mindful observation.
Now, unless you want to move to a monastery and devote your life to mindfulness, I have strong doubts that you’ll experience the transformative results I felt post-retreat on a permanent or semi-permanent basis. The closest you can come outside the monastery is probably the method of Yuval Noah Harari, Israeli scholar and author of the seminal book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harari meditates 2-3 hours a day on average, and every year he travels to India for a 60-day silent retreat. He says his mindfulness training is an integral part of his intellectual ability to analyze human history and distill its grand narratives … but, my goodness. That’s an intense regimen.
The second approach is more realistic: Mindfulness as a means to some other end. This approach will seem familiar to Tim Ferriss’ collection of athletes, investors and elite professionals who start their day with 15-45 minutes of meditation. This approach will also seem more reasonable to folks who insist on putting family, community or creativity ahead of personal enlightenment on their list of priorities. Crucially, this approach sees that concentration and mindful observation are transferable skills that can be harnessed outside the ashram to do good in the world.
Now, when you decide on your priorities and goals in your journey to a meaningful life, you can see mindfulness training as a tool you wield when you need it. For me, seated meditation doesn’t seem very helpful as a morning routine or as something to do before bed. Like Tony Robbins, I want to pump myself up each morning to fight dragons all day, until the exhaustion of my living so fully knocks me out each night. For me, my summary of Francis’ method has the answer: When I’m agitated, it helps to concentrate; When I’m lethargic, it helps to mindfully observe.
You are not necessarily agitated or lethargic at a set time each day, and if mindfulness aims to label your hindrances and move past them, it makes sense to use meditation techniques as a kind of triage response to deal with discomfort as it arises. You don’t necessarily have to sit still in silence. You just need to pause and either concentrate on your breathing (or any one thing) or mindfully observe yourself and your surroundings.
Frustrated at work? I count my breaths. Tired and unable to be productive, but not ready to sleep? I’ll start recognizing the thoughts that pass through my head like an outside observer:
At home, when I feel overwhelmed by the day’s events, future plans and the noise of urban living, I turn off my phone, dim the lights, put in some earplugs and stare at the ceiling. It works.
In conclusion, I’m on board with the general consensus developing in the West: Mindfulness training is good for everybody. I would also encourage anyone to seek a retreat experience — take at least a few days to organize everything you do around the pursuit of enlightenment. Consider doing it annually. It could change your life.
What I don’t agree with is the idea that meditation should always be a set posture at a set time of day for a set period of time. I believe that mindfulness, better understood, is a set of mental skills that can and should be cultivated to suit the individual. And surely, the traditional method of daily, timed and seated meditation works for thousands (if not the majority) of practitioners of mindfulness training. I just don’t think it works for me. In fact, my morning ritual of writing my values and my pursuit of deep work fall much closer to the mark, and the fact that they both rely on concentration and mindful observation suggests they are forms of meditation in their own right.
Whatever your purpose in life, I encourage you to explore what mindfulness means to you, and how you can train your mind to help you the most on your journey.