Face it, if meditation were a pill, you’d want it. If it was a workout, you’d probably be doing it already. You’ve heard all about its much-lauded de-stressing capabilities; you’ve read that it boosts immunity, regulates sleep, and enhances memory, focus, and your gray matter; you know successful, smart people do it (Kobe Bryant, Novak Djokovic, Jerry Seinfeld, those snide geniuses at Google who call their in-house meditation class “Neural Self-Hacking”).
You know all of this, but, almost assuredly, you do not meditate. Why?
“There are three things,” says Dan Harris, the ABC News correspondent who chronicled his encounter with meditation in the highly skeptical (and highly hilarious) memoir 10% Happier. “The first is that guys think it’s bullshit — that you have to wear your wife’s yoga pants or chant. The second is that people assume it’s impossible: ‘My mind is too busy.’ ” Last, Harris explains, is that men assume meditation is all about being mellow, that it will rob them of their edge.
“We’ve been ill served by the art around meditation,” he says. “It shows people floating off into the cosmos with these beatific looks on their faces; that’s horseshit.” Harris believes meditation is more like a trip to the gym. It should feel like work, and if it doesn’t, then you’re probably cheating.
The workout metaphor is particularly apt. You should think of meditation as exercise, not magic or religion. Strip away the spiritual yada yada — the bells, the incense, your aunt in the oversize purple sweatshirt who’s always telling you that your chakras are blocked — and meditation is just training for your mind instead of your quads.
Which is why meditation has at least this much in common with CrossFit: It will be hard at first, and both the challenges and the rewards will increase over time. “It’s simple but not easy,” says Lodro Rinzler, a meditation teacher and co-founder of mndfl, a studio that takes a streamlined, boutique-fitness approach to meditation. “People think that if the mind wanders, they’re doing it wrong,” he says. “Everyone’s mind wanders. Be prepared — the mind is a wild beast.”
What makes meditation simple is that, according to Rinzler, you need to do only three steps: Sit with a relaxed, uplifted posture (“You don’t have to sit in perfect Lotus. You can sit in a chair”); bring your full attention to your breath; when your attention strays, as it surely will, come back to the breath.
The not-easy part: Trying to focus on your breath without getting caught up with what went wrong at work yesterday, or what you’re having for dinner later tonight, or why they didn’t give Gal Gadot a bigger part in Batman v Superman (or why — now that we’re talking about it — they don’t just give Gal Gadot a bigger part in every movie) is pretty much impossible.
“The mind is constantly going 100 miles an hour,” says Rinzler. “To think, ‘I’m meditating, it should go down to zero’ is unrealistic. It’s a gradual taming of the mind.” That’s taming — not emptying. “You will get lost a million times,” says Harris. “The whole game is to notice when you get distracted, and start over — and over and over and over. Every time you do, it’s a biceps curl for your brain.”
If you think you’re too ADD, antsy, or fidgety for meditation, think again. “Asking the mind to turn off is like asking the heart to stop beating — it’s not going to happen, and it wouldn’t be healthy if it did,” Rinzler says. In fact, he calls those moments when you catch yourself thinking “the golden opportunity.” Returning to the breath, again and again, trains the mind to be rooted in the present, not the past (work), the future (dinner), or fantasy (Gal Gadot). In this way, mindfulness is a little like being more awake: There’s less anxiety and more action.
You do not need years of practice to achieve this. One study by Harvard-affiliated researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital showed detectable neural changes after eight weeks in subjects who meditated an average of 27 minutes a day. There were increases in gray-matter density in the hippocampus, which helps with learning and memory, and decreases in the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with fear, stress, and anxiety. Meditate regularly and, research suggests, you can even increase brain volume in areas that usually get thinner with age.
At this point you may be thinking, “There is no way I have time for meditating 27 minutes a day.” No need. You can feel results from meditation nearly instantly.
We can get started right now, if you can spare 19 seconds. Breathe in while you count to four, hold that breath for a seven count, then exhale for an eight count. Congratulations, you’ve just meditated. You likely feel just a little calmer — that’s the relaxation response kicking in — and you’ve taken your first baby step into the most popular form of meditation, called “focused-attention,” where you direct your attention on an object, in this case your breath. Turn those 19 seconds into a few minutes by simply repeating the sequence. You’ll stoke your parasympathetic nervous system — the opposite of your fight-or-flight reflexes — which can improve relaxation, digestion, and recovery from workouts. Ta-da.
I’d tried meditation before. About a year and a half ago, I went to 15 sessions at the Path, a meditation group in New York. I was surprised that the hourlong 8 a.m. classes — or sits, as they’re called in the meditation world — weren’t more difficult. (My foot fell asleep, but I didn’t.) Still, I didn’t experience much in the way of change. And every time one of the organizers talked earnestly about taking our experience home and establishing a regular practice (“maybe just five minutes a day”), I felt the same way I did as a teenager after the dental hygienist finished a cleaning with a little wisdom on the importance of flossing. Of course, you’re right! Not going to happen!
Turns out, skipping regular meditation was almost certainly the reason I didn’t get much out of my 15 hours at the Path, other than some free herbal tea and a bit of calm that disappeared minutes after I got to my desk. “Consistency is the biggest thing,” says Andy Puddicombe, a 43-year-old former Buddhist monk and co-creator of the meditation app Headspace. His app — which has been downloaded over 6 million times and claims over 5 million active users — bills itself as a “gym membership for the mind,” with its program functioning as a personal trainer. “The analogy holds true with physical training — go [to the gym] two hours once a week and you’re probably not going to see loads of benefit,” he says. “Go every day for half an hour and you’re far more likely not only to develop the habit but to see sustainable results.”
One of the many things that makes Headspace easy to stick with is that it doesn’t even ask for a half-hour — just 10 minutes. To goad you on, the app uses some of the same adherence tools that activity monitors like Fitbit do (emails congratulating you for progress; tallies of “run streaks,” or consecutive days meditating; mindfulness push notifications to fire up motivation). And it’s content-driven, and that content makes the hard work of meditation almost absurdly inviting and clear. The first 10 sittings come with animation that looks like a Zen version of Pixar, illustrating precepts about recognizing your thoughts and then letting them go via cartoons about learning to watch the traffic instead of running out into it and chasing cars. Take a breath, have a thought, and then let it simply drive away.
The app also offers sessions for activities like commuting, cooking, and running, all designed to help you bring mindfulness into the part of your life that happens when you’re not sitting with your eyes closed. The walking sessions were a real eye-opener, and not complicated — I just focused on my steps the way I would my breath.
I was only a few weeks in when I noticed small changes that felt oddly impressive. I was leaving fewer dishes in the sink (because I’d begun to recognize the feeling of dread a growing pile of dirty dishes produced), watching less TV (because it suddenly seemed ridiculous to use it as a soundtrack to scroll through Twitter and Facebook), and I wasn’t arguing with my wife over small things so often. It felt like there was a fraction more space between my thoughts and my mouth, and I didn’t have to vocalize every thought in order to have it. I wasn’t the only one who noticed my calmer, amenable self. For my birthday, my wife told me we were going to Montreal, a reward, I thought, for my new behavior. (I’d suggested the trip numerous times but had never managed to get her onboard.)
The changes seemed to be happening surprisingly fast, and I wondered if they were a placebo effect. I asked Harris, and he told me he’d gone through something similar. “The initial benefits took a couple weeks,” he says. “The first data point for me is that, at parties, I would overhear my wife telling people that I was less of an asshole.” But if the dishes were getting done and I was getting rewarded with a trip I’d given up on, why argue with success?
What came next didn’t feel successful at all: All that awareness started piling up, and I felt overwhelmed by it. One of the upsides of being more mindful is the ability to explain my feelings without sarcasm. The downside is actually being more in touch with those feelings, including lots of annoyances I’d learned to tune out with TV, bourbon, and loud music (or all three at once). My insides started to feel like they were sweating — a weird internal struggle that no one else could see — which was an experience not nearly as fun as clean dishes.
According to Harris, this is a meditation tier-two problem. “You get over the hump, you do it every day, and then you start noticing moments like when your wife says something annoying — you now have the self-awareness to realize that your skin is crawling.” The old you would have served up a caustic remark without thinking. But now you have what Harris calls a superpower: mindfulness. “You have this urge to say something that’s going to ruin the next 48 hours of your marriage — but you’re aware of it, and so you have a choice.” Choose to acknowledge your feelings, then let them go, and you’re on your way to tier three. Here’s hoping he’s right. We leave for Montreal in 12 days.