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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
me personally, I simply notice and return to breathing. In and out.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
all of this is still, ultimately, not meditating.
is something so much simpler than lifestyle decisions and clear mindedness and
is sitting and not grabbing a hold of thoughts.
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