Thus spoke the rodent on Wednesday, 6 September 2017:

Solving problems with meditation

I'm sure you've heard of meditation, perhaps even mindfulness. Along with physical exercise, it is often floated as the solution to all life's problems.

Is it?

Problems

You might want to experiment with meditation if you find yourself...

  • stressed
  • tired
  • struggling to concentrate
  • overwhelmed by draining thoughts like worries, doubts, or hate

Solutions

Meditation, or specifically mindfulness meditation, creates a low-risk environment in which you can practice skills which help combat the problems described above.

Specifically...

  • observing your thoughts and emotions
  • adjusting the object of your attention
  • scheduling a regular time

Applications

Meditation teaches you to observe your internal state, your thoughts and emotions. You might think that you have a good handle on what's going on within you, but that's not always true. Strong emotions tend to disable human mind's observational capabilities.

The more you practice observation, the better you will be able to identify exactly what situations or events cause you stress, or set off the self-fueling loop of draining thoughts. Observation of internal state is how you debug your problems and find out their underlying causes.

Observation is also what enables you to handle problems that have already arisen, reacting earlier and minimising their impact. Worry, doubt, thoughts generated by the impostor syndrome: the earlier you notice them, the faster you can realise you're going down the familiar (and unproductive) rabbit hole.

Once you notice your thoughts going in an undesirable direction, you can then make use of another skill: letting go and readjusting your focus. Meditation gets you used to how your thoughts and emotions arise and pass. After handling distressing thoughts in a safe, sandboxed environment, you will be able to repeat the same process "in real life" with a greater deal of confidence and control.

Finally, a regularly scheduled meditation session provides you with a regular period of relaxation that is nevertheless free from the nagging feeling that you should be doing something productive, commonly experienced by stressed and overworked people who actually need to take regular breaks the most.

Learning mindfulness meditation

App: Headspace

The best teach-yourself-meditation app that I've tried up to date. It taught me a version of mindfulness meditation that I still use and helped me hit a half-year long streak of meditating every day.

Meditation newbies will find this app especially helpful, as it teaches mindfulness meditation step-by-step by introducing elements of the process with "training wheels" of verbal instruction, and then slowly removing the training wheels until you can meditate on your own without any help (so, you don't end up locked into the subscription if you don't want to continue.)

Headspace also helps you keep up daily practice through research-proven mechanisms: involving your friends as a support community, charitable giving, and measuring your streaks (how many days in row you meditated). The app has a 10-day trial period, after which you need to activate a subscription. However, for every streak you hit: 10 days, month, three months, half a year, you get a voucher for a number of days to use Headspace for free that you can send someone else - perhaps a friend, who can then send you their vouchers... and that's how you become meditation "gym buddies."

Book: Joy on Demand by Chade Meng-Tan

The best mindfulness book that I've read and tested. Independent of apps, technology or internet access, it leads you through a process of developing a sustainable meditation practice - starting with a single breath. Instead of single one-size-fits-all routine (which is what Headspace provides), Chade Meng-Tan takes great care to provide alternatives, in case one of the steps doesn't work for you. However, the largest benefit of the book is developing a sustainable practice (based on making meditation joyful, thus the book's title) which means you don't need extra gimmicks to count your streaks, or gym buddies to prod you into continuing.

As a bonus, before Meng-Tan started writing books and teaching mindfulness, he used to work as an engineer at Google where he ran mindfulness trainings as an extra. If anyone can teach a techie meditation, it will be this guy :)

Tags: personal development