This is an excerpt from my latest book Dear Hannah: A Geek’s Life in Self-Improvement.
8 Changes to My Life After Just 4 Weeks of Meditation
Last month, I read a study showing that just eight weeks of daily meditation leads to increased grey matter densities in areas of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress-regulation. I shared this with some friends, and we immediately formed a meditation group, committed to meditating for eight weeks straight in order to duplicate the results.
In just one day of meditation I saw improvements, but I feared writing about them due to possible placebo effects. But now, I’m becoming more and more confident in the power of meditation. I’m four weeks into the program, and here’s what I’ve noticed:
1. I’ve obliterated arbitrary rules from my life. I used to fall into routines, such as needing to sleep at a certain hour or eating meals at a certain time. Meditation has made me appreciate the pacing and natural flow of my emotions and thoughts, and I’ve come to believe that we go through multi-day cycles of needing attention to one dimension of our life more than others. My new state of mind reminds me of a talk at Stanford, where a businesswoman said, “Forget trying to achieve balance. Living life is more of a real-time readiness to pivot as your life demands. If you haven’t been spending enough time with your kids, go home. If you haven’t been spending enough time at work, stay longer. There is no perfect set amount or schedule that will keep you happy all the time.”
2. The time I spend worrying about small personal problems has shrunk from one week to one day. Minor negative events, like seeing my bank account lower than expected or noticing that a relationship hasn’t progressed like I’ve wanted it to, used to bog me down for whole weeks. I’d see my Mint.com account balance summary on Sunday, then fret about my financial situation Monday through Wednesday, then Thursday through Friday analyze the heck out of my responses, and on Saturday, maybe come up with a plan to remedy the situation or realize I got over-worked for no reason. Now, with daily meditation, I have an opportunity every day to reset. Meditation separates you so far from your present struggles that you are hit with a reminder of Life Before The Worry, which then reminds you that your life goes on just fine without you being so focused on a singular issue.
3. As a consequence of having only daylong issues, I feel like I’m better equipped to live out the motto “Carpe Diem.” Having the security that comes from believing that all the crap that’s bothering you today, won’t bother you tomorrow, is liberating, and frees you up to smell the roses. The past four weeks have been some of the most fun times of my life. I’ve been going out a lot more, but oddly enough, also working harder and more passionately.
4. Larger personal problems, while not instantly solved by mindfulness, have been transformed into more manageable games and projects. For example, I’ve had some long-standing personal problems when it comes to relationships, and while I don’t think these have been solved, I feel more centered in my approach to them. I feel like meditation puts me at the top of a mountain so I can see all my thoughts below, rather than being consumed by the pedestrian hubbub at ground level. Whereas before, I approached my relationship issues from only a couple discrete perspectives (i.e. “I need to work on commitment issues” or “I need to work on self-confidence”), I approach them now from a continuous synthesis of maybe hundreds of perspectives, like little dots forming a Pointillist painting.
5. The new pictures formed of my personal problems include newfound, significant amounts of self-acceptance. You know the old adage, “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Well, I’m a problem-solver, and so everything tends to look like a problem that I can solve with just the sheer will of my introspection. Meditation, by distancing me from my problems, has turned everything from nails into more unique and nuanced objects. I now see many alternatives to problem solving, including letting go, coping, seeking support, relaxing, or simply embracing my flaws.
6. I waste less time on mind-rotting activities, like surfing reddit or junky news sites. Meditation reminds me every day of what a sane, mindful mind feels like. By having that as a daily reference, I can more clearly see how “insane” a lot of my former activities were. I noticed this right after my first meditation session. I was about to go to reddit, and then I cringed at the thought of flooding my mind with random information highs and funny pictures. After abandoning reddit, I was about to check out news sites, including the Drudge Report and the Huffington Post, and again, I cringed. The thought of those large, bold headlines hitting me with inflammatory content seemed insane. I’ve now come to believe that meditation is one of the best responses to modern information overload. I keep reminding myself of this quote from David Foster Wallace, “There are four trillion bits coming at you, 99% of them are shit, and it’s too much work to do triage to decide. So it’s very clear, very soon there’s gonna be an economic niche opening up for gatekeepers… Because otherwise we’re gonna spend 95% of our time body-surfing through shit.” Why can’t that gatekeeper be you?
7. I feel more emotionally intelligent, and I’m able to catch myself more quickly in social situations. Meditation sort of puts your ear to the ground, and lets you hear the low-volume murmurs that are going on inside you. Once you have a daily reminder of their existence, it’s hard not to hear them during the rest of the day. For example, I listen better to others now, because when I’m going off on some rant, I can hear a little voice inside warning me about my ego, and I’m able to dial myself down. Whereas before, I’d usually be consumed by the volume of my own speech or the emotional bursts that come from self-expression.
8. I feel mentally and physically sharper. Reducing anxiety and stress removes a major energy drain from your life. I feel like there are all these endorphins swirling around me that I didn’t have before, and as a result I feel healthier and more alert. I also feel like I’ve learned how to snap out of hangovers, by simply removing all the noise that’s pounding my head the morning after.
Will these sentiments last? I believe so, so long as I stay committed to daily practice. I may not be as excited later about these changes to my life as I am now, since this is all new to me, but I believe it’s worth capturing and sharing my state of mind so as to get more people meditating. Even if for whatever reason I stop meditating, there is so much scientific evidence backing the benefits of meditation — not to mention thousands of years of tradition — that it’s worth the risk of possibly hyping it up.
If you’re interested in getting into meditation, I recommend reading Mindfulness in Plain English. It’s often recommended on AskMetaFilter for people who are depressed or anxious, and are looking for an alternative to therapy. I like the book because it cuts through a lot of the frills and stereotypes associated with meditation, and reduces it to a very simple exercise.
Cognitive therapy had really worked for me by that point. I had dropped a lot of the big hang-ups about myself, such as thinking of myself as a failure or as someone who is constantly fumbling with faux pas.
However, as we saw in my vain attempt to quiet myself around my cousin, cognitive therapy couldn’t stop me from being a neurotic over-thinker. Eventually I realized that simply changing my attitude or beliefs about thinking (which is what cognitive therapy was urging), wasn’t going to be enough, and that’s why I reached for meditation.
I still meditate for 30 minutes every day, and most of the changes I blogged about have lasted.
This is an excerpt from my latest book Dear Hannah: A Geek’s Life in Self-Improvement.
For Philip’s 14th birthday, Hannah gave him Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, which kicked off a life-long obsession with self-improvement. Over 16 years, Philip wrote 82 letters to Hannah describing every book, pop psych article, and method that he used — or abused. Dear Hannah is either a cautionary tale about self-improvement, or it is a filter for the 10% of self-help that may actually change your life.
PHILIP DHINGRA is a President’s Scholar from Stanford University, where he received his B.A. in Mathematical and Computational Sciences. In addition to authoring books on life change, he develops best-selling iOS apps including Nebulous Notes and The Creative Whack Pack (a collaboration with creativity pioneer Roger von Oech). Philip divides his time between Austin, Texas, and San Francisco, California.