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10 lessons from 100 days of meditation

meditating with my daughter on a Saturday morning. Photo by Jess Cigelske.

Yesterday, I meditated for the 100th consecutive day. Much of that has been guided programs through the calm.com app, which has been enormously helpful to explain the process to me. I started with the basic 7 days of calm program, followed by guided meditations for creativity, focus, sleep, kindness, anxiety release, gratitude and more. Here is what I have learned so far.

If you think you can’t meditate, you probably need it more

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone. — Blaise Pascal

People who are new to meditation think they can’t meditate because they can’t sit still and quiet their brain. I was like that too. My job is in social media — so I’m constantly connected and reaching for my phone and multitasking and going down my to-do list and thinking a zillion thoughts. But using that frenzied lifestyle for an excuse is like saying “I can’t eat healthy because I only eat junk food.”

You get better

Meditation is training your brain to slow down, be quiet and be aware. When you start, you’re going to suck at that because that’s not how our days are structured. It’s going to be messy and difficult. But research shows that your brain waves actually change and deepen from meditation. I started with 1 minute of meditation, and it was hard. I now sometimes do 20 or 25 minutes of meditation, and can feel like it passes faster than when I first started with 60 seconds. Like any other skill, you get better with practice.

When you fail you can start over

Do not fear mistakes. There are none. — Miles Davis

Last summer I set a goal for myself to meditate for 30 days straight. I made it to about 23 days before I missed a day. This may seem insignificant, but I was really discouraged. I was so close to my goal, and then had to start from the beginning. More than 3 weeks, down the drain! But there’s this simple phrase in meditation that got me back on track: “Begin again.” When you catch your mind wandering, that’s perfectly normal. It’s to be expected. No one’s perfect. Just… begin again.

Happiness is fleeting

Our nation is founded on “the pursuit of happiness.” But here’s a radical notion — stop trying to pursue happiness. Or at least stop trying so hard that it makes you miserable. You may be happy because it’s Friday or you have a vacation coming up or you get a promotion. But then you quickly return to normalcy. Happiness, like any emotion, is a temporary state. Recognizing this doesn’t make you less happy. Rather, it helps you stay in the moment and enjoy the wave, rather than trying desperately to catch the next wave of happiness.

Sadness, stress and fear are also fleeting

The flip side of knowing that happiness is fleeting is knowing that unpleasant emotions won’t last, either. I’ve been very stressed, busy and anxious at times in the last 100 days. But having a regular practice of meditation has helped me gain perspective that it’s OK not to be OK. That perspective has actually reduced my stress. There’s a saying that helps: “If you let go a little you will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace. ”

You have time to meditate

The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it. — Sydney J. Harris

I get it, you’re busy. We’re all busy. I work full time, take grad school classes, teach a college course, try to be attentive to my wife and two kids, do consulting and freelance writing, and a few other things. But I can find 5 minutes in the morning or 10 minutes before bed or 15 minutes at lunch. I’ve meditated on the living room couch, a chapel, in bed and at my desk. (It doesn’t have to be on a mountaintop.) Some days it may only be 5 minutes or even 3. But the days I feel I’m most productive, creative, present and effective — instead of just spinning my wheels — are the days I can meditate at least 10 minutes twice a day.

Meditation is selfish

Am I being selfish if I take time for myself? Yes, I totally am. I’m OK with that. Meditation is selfish in that way that sleeping, eating or showering is selfish. You simply have to carve out time to take care of yourself. Once you do take some time to meditate, you realize how essential this space is and how you starve yourself if you don’t take regular “non-doing” time.

Meditation is the opposite of selfish

Meditation is also not about you. It’s about gaining perspective, getting outside your head and seeing your place in the universe, in all its significant and insignificant glory. We all have an internal monologue that can control us during the day. Often that monologue is about me, me, me. “I have to do better. I should have done that. I wish that I, I, I….” When you meditate, you can start to let go of that selfish ego. You can start to think about other people’s needs, see things from other perspectives, and hopefully become a bit more compassionate and understanding.

External factors affect your mood more than you realize

One of the mantras I learned through meditation is “You are more than your thoughts.” We let our thoughts pull our emotions throughout the day, and we usually don’t even realize it. Why do you feel the way you do right now? Is it because of a fight you had this morning? Your long to-do list? The weather? Your body language? Tension in your muscles? How you are breathing? Meditation helps put you in touch with what’s causing your thoughts and feelings. And once you can name them, you can do something about them — or just let them go.

I know nothing

Who are you, oh God, and who am I? — Saint Francis of Assisi

But seriously, who am I kidding? I know nothing, and neither do you. If 100 days of meditation has taught me one thing, it’s that I have a lot to learn. We’re all just comparing notes. As the Zen proverb says: To understand nothing takes time. Once you realize that, you can experience, enjoy and learn from the journey a little more deeply.


UPDATE 1/11/18: As of today, I’ve now been meditating more than 500 days. Here are 5 more lessons.
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