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It was earlier this year that a dear friend of mine and I decided to do a 30-day meditation challenge. We didn’t really know what to expect or even entirely what we would get out of it, but something in us knew that it was time. For both of us, it was as much a return as a new journey. I’d spent much of my twenties bouncing in and out of a meditative practice. Some years, I would consistently return to meditation, while others would fly by without a single care about sitting and breathing. My friend had experienced much the same.

But it kept calling to us. And when we found ourselves preparing to read the Bhagavad Gita together, we decided that it would be best for us to commit to some kind of regular meditation.

The challenge had simple parameters: meditate at least 20 minutes a day for 30 days straight.

It seemed like such a small commitment. But over time, we both began to feel the power of the practice, and soon, we were both committed to a long term practice that would go on long after the challenge had ended.

In the year or so since, we have continued to discover and rediscover the value and importance of this single daily ritual. But to fully understand what we experienced, and what we continue to experience, let’s first understand what it is we are talking about.

What Is Meditation?

What meditation allows you to do is control and tamp down the ego. That is all. The ego tells you stories about yourself, tells you what is possible, tells you what you should be embarrassed by, reminds you of past failures and future perils. It is what the neuroscientists call the Default Mode Network in the brain. It is what the Zen Buddhists call the monkey mind.

It’s important to note here that we are not talking about what pop-psychologists refer to as “mindfulness exercises” as they hock their new book on a TV talk show. We are talking about a practice that has been in use across all known cultures for many millennia. It is not anything new, it is ancient. It is not anything glamorous, it is beyond the desire for glamor.

How to Meditate

The process is simple. Find a quiet spot, at least when you are beginning. Sit upright with your back straight. You are looking for a comfort level where you will not be annoyed or distracted by your physical body but not so blissfully relaxed that you doze off. If sleeping were meditating, we would all reach nirvana by the time we were toddlers.

Some people swear by closing your eyes, others believe a half-lidded gaze is the royal road. I leave this to you for experimentation—you’ll have plenty of time to figure out your ideal way.

Now that you are situated, breathe in slowly through your nose, using your diaphragm. The diaphragm is located in your stomach. By pushing the stomach out, you will find air pulls into the lungs. Many will be able to hear this form of breathing in the throat more than the nose. If you cannot discover your diaphragm, even after a quick internet search, just try slow, deep breathing for now.

And there you are, meditating away. Breathing slowly in; breathing slowly out. What we humans notice when we do this is a disturbing over activity of the mind. Thoughts come. Some are memories, some commentaries, some worries, some judgments. This is perfectly normal. These are messages from the Default Mode Network, the scurrying of the monkey mind. This is to be expected, and these let you know that all is working well. Good job, brain. What one does in meditation, however, is notice the thoughts and let them slip by. You know that they are thoughts, and there is nothing wrong with them, but they are not your concern. Goodbye.

Some people find labeling thoughts the trick. They notice to themselves, This one is a memory, and they file it away and get back to breathing. Others will use a mantra that they repeat in their head, filling out the space, thinking Hare Krishna (or whatever their mantra may be) on and on in rhythm with the breath.

Still others swear by passage meditation, with its most popular advocate Eknath Easwaran. Here, the meditator memorizes an important passage from a spiritual text and repeats it in their mind endlessly as they meditate. And of course, many choose to use a yantra or other image to look at while they practice.

For me personally, I simply notice and return to breathing. In and out.

Whatever you choose, it does not have to be complicated. In fact, sometimes the least complicated is the most effective — that is one of the insights that meditation can give you.

The Practice

That is the sum total of human knowledge on meditating, minus a few things here and there that do not achieve consensus among meditators. It is not a practice that is served by over analysis and intellectualization. It is not a practice that is served by discussion. It is a practice served by practice alone. It is a practice that will expand at points in your life, taking up an hour or more of your day. There will be times when you can only commit to five minutes. The point is to meditate.

What you will find is that when you begin, you will meditate for hours and hours and then open your eyes, stretch, and see that the clock has only budged a few minutes. How can you overcome this? Set a timer at first. Try five minutes a day for a few days. Inch it up to ten, then fifteen, then twenty minutes. Once you are meditating for twenty minutes every day, you are likely to begin to notice things. A certain change. It isn’t that life begins to glisten, but things do get a little quieter in the head. The long term effect of this is profound, but do not worry about the long term effect. Just meditate. That is all you must concern yourself with. If it is a day of your life, you will meditate. It is a practice. There is no goal. There is no good day or bad day of meditating.

That last point is worth considering. When you get into the habit, you will find some days you fall easily into the rhythm of the breath, and the monkey mind is more or less sitting zazen next to you. This feels like progress. It feels like you are on the doorstep to enlightenment. But meditation has no goal. It is a practice. There will be other days when you cannot stop fingering wounds of guilt and shame, grief and trauma. It is all you can do to get a breath or two in without the monkey mind hooting in your ear. It feels like you are further from the gates to the Pure Land than the day you began this idiotic sitting thing. But meditation has no goal. It is a practice. Remember that meditation is not about having no monkey mind, it is about consciously returning to the breath when thoughts come your way. You are meditating just as much when the monkey mind is raging as when it is napping on the job. You are doing fine. Return to the breath. It is a practice.

On Makyō

A related issue to the one above plagued me during my first run at a meditative practice. I was in my early twenties. A few weeks into my daily meditating, I noticed that I’d gotten so “good” that when I took in deep breaths, the colors in the room glowed and wiggled beyond the borders of their objects. When I breathed out, the colors constricted into faint glimmers inside a black and white world. This was evidence, I thought, that I’d gained control of my mind and potentially the universe that my mind contemplated. It was the beginning of the end of my practice. That attitude of being proud of certain meditative experiences led to disappointment the next day when I could not conjure up such a light show. The disappointment deepened the day after that and the day after that when I was only able to sit and breathe. I’d forgotten that that was all I needed to be doing.

The Zen Buddhists, who are worth listening to for many reasons, call these visual distortions during meditation Makyō (devil’s cave). They warn strongly against considering these, as they create expectations and beliefs that form a small cave within which your ego is protected and can flourish inside of your meditative practice.

How the Challenge Works

The 30-day meditation challenge has a fairly straightforward appeal. It is a short enough time frame to allow yourself to commit fully, but it is long enough to establish a habit and to begin to work its magic on the practitioner. Somewhere in week one, we both began to feel different, and by the end of the month we were in the swing of things.

What cannot be denied is that meditation makes your day-to-day experience much calmer. There are not as many highs or lows. Things do not frustrate you as easily.

Now, I can’t promise you that after 30 days you will be a wise sage capable of attaining enlightenment. But I can say that you will notice the sage inside you is beginning to wake up, if ever so faintly.

It seems that a single month — about one moon cycle — is the right amount of time for the human body and soul to align on something. There’s a comfort in that. And with the 30-day meditation challenge, you can align these on a practice that all the wisest spiritual teachers of any age have pointed to as the most important step in liberation.

One of the reasons, I believe, is something both my friend and I began to notice by the end of the challenge. Meditation does something to you — it begins to ask you to build your life around it.

Because the benefits become so important, and the end goal is of the highest importance, meditating starts to ask that you live in a different way, that your life begin to organize itself around meditating.

In other words, you start making decisions based on what’s best for your meditative practice. You begin to take more care to get good sleep, you don’t over indulge at nights as that will interrupt your practice the next day, and you start to seek more peace and harmony at home and in your community.

This alone is such a powerful force. It helps you make the decisions you already instinctively know you should be making. And as time goes on, you look back and realize that you are living a much different life than you were before you began to meditate.

But all of this is still, ultimately, not meditating.

Meditating is something so much simpler than lifestyle decisions and clear mindedness and habit building.

Meditation is sitting and not grabbing a hold of thoughts.

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