Meditation: The First 1000 Hours

What to expect? Where to start? Where to go?

Tim Schneider
Wholistique

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Photo by Ethan Hoover on Unsplash

Slowly breath in
Ok, I can do that.

And exale
well, that was easy too.

slowly breath in
My nose is pretty congested though, I should probably clean it.

Why is my nose always blocked? Did I eat something wrong? I heard mold can be bad too.

YES, that is it! There has to be mold in my sleeping room!

and exhale
I sound like Darth Vader if I am not doing it, but I should just observe that I think?

Am I already meditating? I don’t feel any different. I must be doing it wrong.

I’ll stop now and try a different app tomorrow.

If you are anything like me and you have tried to meditate, you know exactly what this feels like.

Meditation is all the hype right now. It is supposed to reduce stress, train attention, and awareness and make you more happy, healthy, and superhuman in the process.

There are thousands of apps & promises on how you can change your life with just 7 minutes a day of meditation.

Well Is that really true?

I have meditated on average about an hour a day for the last 4 years. I have also visited some meditation retreats and I’ve written my master’s thesis about the effects of meditation on behavior, interviewing a bunch of experienced meditators during the process.

Even though I am nowhere near to calling myself an “advanced” meditator, I feel like I can give a unique perspective on the road between beginner and advanced.

In this article, I wanted to give a realistic evaluation of what to expect from the first 1000h hours of meditation.

My Road to Meditation

Back in 2016, I was at a pretty low point in my life. Even though I did not talk about that to anyone back then, I was pretty unhappy, inflamed, and depressed. It took me hours to fall asleep every night because I was chasing thoughts so sleep deprivation was a chronic companion too.

During my journey of writing a thesis about happiness, I stumbled upon an Interview between the emotion researcher Paul Ekman and The Dalai Lama

And Something in there piqued my curiosity.

That was the idea of a “refractory period”. A small-cap of time in between thoughts and the emotional response of the body. A space between thinking something depressing and feeling depressed.

When I was lying awake at night trying to shut off my racing mind. I could not do it. because there was no space in between for me. I was just helplessly following along the conversations in my head, reacting & identifying with whatever came to mind.

The Dalai Lama presented a simple solution for this. increase the perceived space between a thought and the emotion and simply don’t react to it.

He called this “ to see the spark before the flame”

The spark being the thought, the flame being the emotional response.

And the tool he mentioned is “Meditation”.

Somehow this was very compelling to me and I decided to give it a try.

First Experiences

I have to be brutally honest with you here. My first attempts at meditation were horrible. It looked a lot like that intro you have just watched. I could barely sit still for more than a minute. My entire body was hurting and the amount of time I was not following my thoughts could have been measured in seconds.

I’ve tried different apps and guided meditations, different techniques, and duration but all in all it felt a lot more like stress, something I was not looking forward to. And I was not getting closer to seeing “a spark before the flame.”

I also had no one to talk to about these problems because I knew of no-one who even considered meditation back then.

but that was about to change as a good friend of mine got back from a trip to India. Where he had just recently sat in a ten-day “vipassana” retreat. A Buddhist meditation technique that was taught in a grueling 10h a day of meditation in silence.

He described it as “the hardest thing he had ever done”

Meditation Retreat

Photo by Giuseppe Mondì on Unsplash

Long Story short: I booked a flight to Nepal and sat my first silent retreat.

And I can confirm: this was the hardest thing I had ever done. Mostly because my European body was not prepared to sit on the floor for 10 h a day. But I did sit through it and I am happy that I did because it showed me the possibilities of what meditation could offer.

So most of the time during that retreat was spent practicing two different techniques: Anapana & Vipassana. Which would be considered a concentration and a mindfulness practice.

The idea is to “sharpen” the mind first, to become more attentive and focused to able to get more out of the mindfulness practice later on. This means to continuously redirect your attention to one thing, in this case, the breath.

We can focus our attention on the breath, we lose that focus, begin to wander, and become aware of that and we can redirect that attention back to the breath.

And that also seemed to be the order in which I got better at focusing my attention.

First I got better at staying with my breath. Then it became easier to become aware of me wandering in my mind. Lastly, it became easier to redirect my attention back to my breath.

Training the quality of our ”executive attention” has been shown to aid with learning, ADHD & addictive behaviors with small amounts of practice already.

But these describe more a change of state rather than a change of trait. For long-term & measurable physiological changes, the intensity & duration of exercise had to be a lot more intense, like a meditation on a monthlong retreat for example.

The second technique “ Vipassana” which translates to “insight” is basically a mindful body scan. And it served as the basis for Jon Kabat Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction. Which is the reason why “Mindfulness” is so popular today.

There is a lot of criticism on how “Mindfulness” got extracted from its original context to a prescribable “drug”. And almost all of the “mindfulness” studies have been done on Mindfulness interventions, like MBSR or MBCT, but not on mindfulness meditations.

This does make a difference because most of the studies that claim how mindfulness can reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and so forth have been done on a set of people who were stressed, anxious and depressed.

Nevertheless, a mindful body scan has been shown to decrease mind-chatter, become less reactive and more aware.

In its original context, it is taught as a way to deconstruct behavioral patterns and to “liberate” the body from its conditioned past. Supposedly this is the technique that made the first Buddha “enlightened”.

To me, this practice was a lot more comfortable to practice because the continuous redirection of awareness allows for a flow to occur. It became a lot easier to meditate for longer periods because I was doing more than just one single task over and over again.

This is also the place where deep meditative, transformative, or even spiritual experiences can take place. Things that are a little more difficult to explain.

Here is my attempt at it: On day eight or nine during the retreat. As I was scanning through my body, getting more and more subtle with the resolution I perceive. I got to a place where I could not distinguish between feeling my own body or the body of my neighbor.

I know that this may sound strange to some. but it left me with a deep feeling of connection.

Getting Back Into the World

The real changes began to happen after the retreat. For me this manifested in three different ways:

First: My perception of reality became incredibly intense. Colors popped everywhere, Taste and smells were intensified. I remember how the first time I listened to music at the airport I almost had to cry because it was so overwhelming.

I think a big contributor was the sensory deprivation though, A retreat like this serves as a hardcore dopamine reset. And the effects eventually faded.

Second: for the following weeks I had a very high quality of attention! I could easily focus on difficult things for a long time, without getting distracted. Which is incredibly useful for learning new stuff or getting difficult things done. That led to a lot more self-efficacy.

It gave me the feeling of control. My well-being and fate were not at the mercy of my environment. I could change something about it. And so I did. Because I could manifest change, goals, and desires like never before. I became interested in learning more about how my body and mind works and my actions became more self-motivated.

This clear focus eventually declined as I introduced more noise and distractions into my life though.

And experienced meditators who have been doing this for decades also confirmed how they often got addicted to that feeling of focus after a retreat.

Third and most importantly, however, I was able to disidentify with my thoughts for the first time. Being able to observe my thoughts, without identifying with them had huge implications for me.

Because how could I be depressed if I was the one witnessing the depression?

I mean I used to take pride in thinking so much every night because I thought that means I am smart. But this simple experience took my sleep onset from two hours a night to 10 minutes a night within just 10 days. And I don’t think that is because it made me any dumber. If anything, improving my sleep quality probably made me less dumb.

What I learned is that I am not my thoughts, my thoughts are mental habits, constantly reoccurring patterns, just like addictive behaviors are. Being able to take a step back from that suddenly created the freedom not to react to them.

“To see the spark before the flame.”

Of course, this is not black and white, a lot of what I am describing now was not something I was really aware of back then. But it created the opportunity for change.

So obviously this experience gave me a lot of reasons to meditate more frequently. But It was still really difficult to get into the habit of doing it every day.

Getting Into the Habit

Sitting still for more than 40 minutes was still very uncomfortable and painful for me and it also wasn’t the most social activity.

What helped me to get into the habit though, was to buy a meditation pillow so I had a dedicated place to meditate every day. As well as to move away from the expectation to meditate for a set time but rather do a specific exercise. Like completing two body scans.

That was rather easy for me and it automatically made me meditate longer and daily.

Fast forward a couple of years.

In the following years, I consistently kept meditating every single day. And I noticed some significant changes in my day-to-day experience.

For example, I noticed how I became less reactive. It became easier not to fall into a loop of gratification. New habits became easier to establish. Old habits became easier to break.

During conversations, I became a lot better at listening. Because I could observe my own reactions without interrupting the person speaking all the time. A very useful skill to have, especially as I began coaching. And I believe active listening to be the most important factor of success here.

But these changes were subtle. I could not even be sure if these were effects from the daily meditation or growing up in general.

And there was another thing bothering me.

I felt stuck.

Because the strong effects I had after a retreat were always to fade after a couple of weeks or months.

Meditating daily began to feel more like a desperate attempt to prolong these effects as I observed my mind becoming more and more cluttered from all the noise in the daily grind.

It seemed like the only solution was to meditate more.

And this was also something I could confirm when interviewing experienced meditators who have been doing the same technique for decades. I expected some near enlightened human beings. But to me they felt stuck, only left with the feeling of having to meditate more. to regain that memory of a certain feeling.

This Idea was not appealing to me at all.

I like to see meditation as a form of exercise:

When I am trying to grow a muscle, I can progressively increase the amount of weight to elicit a stronger response. But at a certain point, the amount of damage and stress I create from that progressive weight will outweigh my body’s ability to recover from that stress.

So unless my goal is to lift as much weight as possible, I’d be much better of to change the input (speed, intensity, duration, etc.)

Switching it up

I wanted to understand better WHY Meditation could have these effects.

The point of meditation is not to relax the body or to “calm” the mind, it is to become more aware, more conscious of what you are currently unaware of. This is non-linear progress however and involves several things you can become aware of.

As Developmental psychologist Terry O’Fallon put it:
you can become aware of gross sensations like bodily feelings. itching, tickling, the heart beating, and so forth. A body scan is great for that.

But you can also become aware of more subtle sensations like thinking, feeling, or emotions. And a body scan is not that great for that. It is not bad for it either. During the Retreat, I had experiences like that, or I would have never been able to dissociate with my thoughts.

But to me, it’s again, like exercise. If I do some pull-ups, I will still get stronger legs because I have to hold tension & activate a lot of stabilizing muscles throughout my entire body. But there is no denying that doing some squats will have a much greater effect on the strength of my legs than doing pull-ups.

And lastly, you can also become meta-aware, which is the awareness of Awareness itself. And maybe that is a little far out there for you but it is something I can experience more frequently. But already knowing that you can become aware of Awareness helped me to navigate which techniques worked for me and which did not.

So after trying a bunch of new stuff out I stuck with two things

  1. meditating with my eyes open, & learning to contribute my awareness equally throughout all sensory channels, instead of just trying to focus on one thing at a time.
  2. Changing my subject of meditation to more subtle things like the desire for gratification, addictions, tiredness, or even boredom.

Both of these led to me carrying more mindfulness into my day, during the time I spend working, walking, and eating.

Suddenly meditation expanded from sitting for an hour to a way of being in the world.

And it was immensely powerful in interrupting addictive patterns as well as integrating new routines.

It also made me realize how much my sense of control shifted from:
I am aware of my bodily state, so I can change my habits.
To:
I am aware of my emotional state so I can change my feelings about my habits.

At least this is where I am at today. And these are also the similarities I’ve come to document from other people’s experiences.

Conclusion

If you did the math I have meditated a lot more than 1000 hours by now, but it looks nice in the title. And I still think the same principles apply.

So let’s review them quickly:

  • Meditation is about bringing Awareness.
  • The Changes from Meditation are subtle and rarely obvious
  • The Progress on Meditation is non-linear and includes gross, subtle, and causal experiences.
  • Becoming better at Meditation includes several skills. like: concentration, Mindfulness, Awareness, MetAwareness, or the understanding of Impermanence.
  • Intensive Meditation and daily practice have significantly different effects.
  • If you want to begin meditating, you should be in it for the long game.
  • It is not about how much time you can spend sitting on the floor, but about how much you can carry that practice into the rest of your day.
  • Also: Don’t be dogmatic about a technique. If something does not work for you, switch it up.
  • experimenting with breathwork, binaural beats or group meditations can be very helpful.

In the end, it is about becoming better at paying attention to yourself and how you react to your environment and others.

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

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