I started a daily meditation practice on November 1, 2014. Since that day, I am incredibly proud to say that I have not missed a single day of practice. That’s over six straight months. Now, I want to share with you what I learned after six months of meditating, how it changed my life, and how it didn’t.
However, before we talk about what I learned after six months of meditating, I want to tell you about my sixth grade teacher.
The Mythical Mr. Anderson
My sixth grade teacher’s name was Mr. Anderson.
Mr. Anderson was a special breed. He taught off curriculum more often than not. He told us stories about things that were interesting, and taught us things while we never even realized we were learning. For example, one vivid memory was a conversation about the veracity of the bible. He explained to us how Moses parting the Red Sea was actually more likely to be the tide going down at the Reed Sea, which was no less miraculous, but far less visually impressive than Charlton Heston’s performance in The Ten Commandments.
He taught us to think critically. He taught for the love of teaching. He loved his students, and we loved him.
In addition to being the best teacher I ever had, Mr. Anderson was also a bit of an odd bird.
He always dressed the same way: shirt, tie and sweater, regardless of the season. During recess, he would stand outside in his sweater, regardless of whether it was a sweltering summer day or several degrees below freezing. He never got upset. Ever. He was excessively private. His mannerisms could only be described as eccentric.
Put all this together, and many rumours swirled. He was independently wealthy, and taught for the fun of it, so he was never stressed. He was gay, but didn’t want anyone to know about it, which is why he was so private. He was some sort of mystic, which explained everything.
How many of those statements were true, if any, I have no idea, but the one about being some sort of mystic fascinated me. I remember my parents getting him to reluctantly agree to have his photo taken with me at my grade school graduation ceremony. After multiple protests they finally broke him by saying, “But you’re his favourite teacher, and it would be so sad if he didn’t have anything to remember you by.”
When we finally got the photos developed (this is before digital cameras, boys and girls), there were two pictures. In both pictures, Mr. Anderson’s head was cut off because the picture was improperly framed. My father, a veteran photographer, was perplexed. He never missed a shot like that…
A different time, during the dead of winter when I was bundled into toque, mittens, and probably a full snow suit, and he was wearing his regular sweater-and-tie combination, I asked him, “Aren’t you cold?”
He explained to me that he had learned how to control the sensations of his body felt, and essentially not let the cold touch him. At some other point, he had also mentioned meditation.
I added all this up in my 11 year-old brain, and came to the conclusion that my sixth grade teacher was a magic man.
Meditation Gives You Superpowers
Many of these realizations only came to me later in life as I added life experience to my memories, but I had unconsciously convinced myself that Mr. Anderson had given himself superpowers through his meditation practice. As such, I gained a strange respect for the mystical powers of meditation. Hollywood depictions of monks who can control their “chi” and perform supernatural feats probably didn’t help this mental image.
Regardless of what my rational mind thought about these effects of meditation, subconsciously, I think I’ve always believed that the right meditation practice can take someone beyond the boundaries of human limitations.
Ironically, when I started meditating on November 1st, 2014, it was not to become superhuman, but rather just because I wanted to be happier, calmer, more at peace and more focused on what was important.
This was my stated reason for meditating, but in the back of my mind, I was still hoping that along the way, I’d gain those superpowers. I’d develop unlimited patience and calmness. I would learn to be unaffected by temperature. I would learn to control cameras with my mind.
For the first couple of months of meditation, things were going very well. As I began training my monkey mind, I was seeing noticeable differences, both in my meditation sessions, and in my daily life. I was calmer, and when stress would hit, I would actually do an exercise and find mindfulness again. I was mindful of this new practice. And I was seeing that I had better control over my mind. When I began my practice, sitting still for five minutes was a challenge. Eventually, getting to twenty-five minutes was a non-issue.
I think I started to believe that I was on the path to developing those super powers.
Then, after a couple of months, something strange happened.
I was no longer feeling those benefits.
Whatever, the requisite amount of time it takes for something to become a habit (some say 21 days, some say longer), I had successfully made meditation a habit. But that’s good, right?
The Dangers of Habit-Forming
Well, sort of. I no longer had to force myself to meditate. I would wake up in the morning, and it was natural that the first thing I would do to start my day would be to sit in silence. In that sense, making meditation a habit was a good thing.
The down side, however, was that mediation became something I did without thinking about it. This defeats the purpose of being mindful. In order for meditation to “work,” you need to be doing it consciously, and be present in it. Once something becomes a habit, it becomes second nature, and begin doing it paying attention to it.
Here’s an example. It is common in mindfulness meditation to focus on the breath, and in order to help focus the mind on the breath, you count the breaths. When your mind wanders, you lose count, and you start again. This is a very common technique. When most people start meditating, they get extremely frustrated by the fact that they can’t seem to even make it to ten without getting distracted. I was no different.
However, after a few months of practice, I realized that it was easy for me to keep count of my breath even while my mind would wander. I’d realize that my mind had drifted from the practice for minutes on end, and yet, there I was, still keeping perfect count of my breath.
I had gotten so good at counting breaths, it was now second nature. Unfortunately, the counting was no longer doing its intended job of keeping me focused on the present. Instead, it was now just a meaningless exercise.
The same occurred with other exercises and visualizations as I got used to them. In fact, after a few months, I not only felt like I had hit a plateau in my practice, but I felt like I had fallen backwards. My mind felt very similar to the way it had felt at the very beginning of my practice. The only difference was that I could sit still for twenty-five minutes while my mind bounced all over the place.
More often than not, mediation became an exercise in frustration. But still, I refused to give up and I powered through, figuring that eventually I would break through this wall and come out the other end. And perhaps then, my superpowers would be waiting for me. Maybe this was just the trial that one needed to go through to achieve nirvana?
I’m Not That Special
It was during this period of intense frustration with my practice that a moment of clarity hit me from an unexpected source.
Driving to work one morning, I was listening to Tim Ferriss’ podcast, and he was interviewing Amanda Palmer. The entire interview is interesting, and it’s probably my favourite episode of that podcast. The majority of the episode is about how Amanda Palmer went indie and how she got what she wanted when she realized it was up to her to reach out to her fans and ask for it.
However, there is a couple of minutes of the hour-long episode where Tim and Amanda discuss meditation. It’s so short, that if your mind wanders you could probably miss the exchange, and it’s probably not even the most interesting part of the interview. But, it’s in that minute or two when Amanda Palmer was talking about her own meditation practice that clarity hit me.
Amanda has been meditating over a decade, and when she described her practice, she could have been describing exactly what I was feeling. She described the frustration of sitting for long periods of time only to realize that you’ve spent the entire time not being mindful at all. She described the dejection of feeling like you’ve been practicing something for so long and still suck at it. She described meditation as close to torture.
That’s when it hit me. I’m not special.
Everyone who meditates is going through the same thoughts. Amanda’s words resonated with me, but I’m sure they resonated with everyone who’s taken the practice of meditation seriously. The frustration is part of the exercise. Being aware of the frustration is part of the exercise.
If after over a decade of meditating, Amanda’s still going through this, what are the odds that I, after a mere six months, would be having an easier go of it?
When I decided to start meditating, I decided to do it alone, with the help of a couple of apps, but never with an actual teacher. As a result, I didn’t know if what I was feeling was normal, or if I was doing something wrong.
Since that moment of clarity, I’ve spent a lot more time talking to people about what they feel when they meditate, and it just reinforced what I now know: I’m not that special. It’s challenging for everyone. But that’s the point, isn’t it?
I Don’t Know When it Gets Easier
The simple truth of the matter is, I don’t know when it gets easier. I don’t know if it ever get easier. I’ve talked to a lot of people, and it’s hard to get an answer that applies to me. Those who say it gets easier seem to be saying that it gets easier to accept that it doesn’t get easier (there’s a koan in there somewhere…).
If it it never actually gets easier and it’s simply a constant struggle to be present, to be mindful and to be aware, then it would seem to suggest that at no point am I ever going to get those super powers that I’ve been hoping for all these years.
So, why bother? Why go through all the trouble if it’s just going to lead to more frustration?
Because it’s worth it.
Every once in a while, not as often as I would like, I will experience a moment of clarity. A moment of bliss. A moment where all the workings of the universe and my place in it (my insignificant place) all become clear. That occassional feeling, no matter how rare, would be enough to keep me practicing.
But that’s not the real reason I keep going.
Why I Continue Meditating
The real reason I’m still meditating is because of the ongoing frustration. No. I’m not a masochist. I don’t enjoy being frustrated in all things. In fact, I enjoy happiness so much, my blog is called The Happiest Man in the World. I enjoy having fun, being happy, and avoiding conflict. So, why am I saying I enjoy the frustration so much?
Because it forces me to realizes how happy I am. The struggle to remain present is a struggle to constantly recognize and be grateful for that present moment. It reminds me to enjoy the moment. I have absolutely nothing worthy of complaining about, and chances are, neither do you. But, at some point or another, you and I will get stressed, anxious or angry. All of these things happen because we’re concerned with what happened in the past or what could happen in the future, rather than being present and mindful of all that is right in front of us.
Does a daily meditation practice make me the image of zen calm? No. I still get stressed. I still get anxious. I still get angry. But at least once a day (and hopefully more often), I have an opportunity to remind myself that I should be enjoying the present moment. So, while I don’t always remember to be mindful, thanks to my daily meditation practice, I remember to do it more often.
I’ve also noticed that applying these same principles to what were otherwise unpleasant activities made them pleasant again. For example, I hate exercising. I enjoy the benefits of exercising, but I hate the act of exercising. One day, as I was doing a set of exercises, I realized that what I dislike most about exercising was what came next. The individual set, the individual repetition, wasn’t that bad, it was the thought that I had to do X number more of them. So, I started applying mindfulness to my exercise routine.
Now, instead of having my mind wander, or thinking about how many more reps I have left as I’m exercising, I focus on the single movement I’m doing. Because you know what? No single movement can possibly be that bad! Yes, it requires effort, but that’s much easier to swallow than realizing you have to do the same thing 100 more times…
It was that realization that led me down the path of discovering the beginning of Mr. Anderson’s superpowers. I used to think he didn’t feel the temperature. Now I realize it was the exact opposite. He felt the temperature completely. And he accepted it. He allowed himself to acknowledge that yes it was hot, cold, humid, whatever, but that’s okay, and move along without allowing the discomfort to interfere with his life.
Wrapped up in that observation, I believe, is the secret to how meditation can unlock happiness. By being present and mindful, by accepting the present state, we free ourselves from struggle, from anxiety, from stress, from anger.
The present moment is as it is. My anxiety will not change it. My discomfort will not make it any warmer. My struggle will not make the exercise any easier.
In short, meditation has taught me to enjoy what life has to offer right now… most of the time.
As for the trick with the camera. I’m still working on that one.
If you’ve tried meditation, I’d love to hear from you. What has been your experience? What benefits have you seen? What struggles do you experience? Drop me a line in the comments or contact me directly.
Image courtesy of Pezibear.