Earlier in the year my wife Tina underwent the “75 hard” challenge, a challenging and unforgiving 75 day regiment with a few daily rules. She knocked it out of the park. And then a bit later my friend and colleague Alejo casually mentioned that he had meditated for an hour that morning. With these inspirations I set out to meditate for the next 75 days. Today is day 75 and below is a brief collection of my thoughts after this experience.
tl;dr: I’m meditation-pilled. You should be too.
I meditated for a minimum of 30 minutes a day for the last 75 days. About once a week I would meditate for longer, up to an hour and a half but usually an hour. On occasion I would do two 15 minute sessions a day, but for the most part it was a single session per day. To start with I used Calm’s app with their guided 30 minute meditations. Eventually I transitioned to timed but not guided meditations, or not using the app at all.
In general, I’ve practiced meditation by trying to focusing on my breath. I found that the most effective thing to build a routine and my concentration. Towards the last weeks I also have experimented with noting the sensations and thoughts that I have to some effect, but as of now my practice is mostly focusing on my breathe. In addition, I have supplemented this with some other side quests that I detail more below.
Finally, I started to read “Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha,” a book that is a hardcore “technical” introduction to meditation and the theory behind it. It takes the surrounding spiritual thought around meditation seriously but not literally, and is somewhat more of a technical manual so far rather than a scripture.
Overall I have been stunned by the benefits of meditating daily for 30 minutes. I’ve previously had a meditation habit that was about 10-15 minutes per day that I remember fondly. But the slightly longer practice for me has been much more impactful, which in turn created a feedback loop where I wanted to meditate more and for longer, and that drove more impact.
What I have noticed is that there is a time where my mind needs to cool down and calm itself. After that threshold is crossed and my mind is more still, the meditation takes a qualitatively different form, and it is more impactful for me. Even though it was more difficult starting at a higher threshold was important for me. The other things to note is that I’m putting in quite a bit of time energy into my practice now, and that degree of seriousness certainly has had an impact.
These are the benefits of my practice that come to mind:
It sounds a bit ridiculous writing that all out because it really is a bit ridiculous how concentrating on my breathe, and recently some other techniques, can induce all of these changes. But I’m fully meditation-pilled now.
The final thing that I would note is that I’ve had a few meditation sessions where deep in concentration I had experiences that blew me away. The feelings of stillness or happiness that unveil themselves were stunning and exciting (ironically, that excitement can clear them away as I’ll lose focus). With a bit of reading I’ve learned about jhanas. These are, and this over generalizes to summarize in short, intense meditative states of bliss and calmness that are non-addictive and accessible purely by meditation. I am not sure I’ve achieved but I am pretty sure they exist after my own experiences.
Meditating was probably the most impactful habit I built in 2023. It’s a little ridiculous how beneficial I've found it and how challenging it can be given the lives we live. But it’s worth the effort. And by putting in the effort a lot of other force multiplying habits become easier, like breaking the grips that our phones have on us more broadly. But this is just my experience and your milage may vary. I have long wanted for routines to build mindfulness, mental clarity, and to stop being super online. So I might be biased in some ways.
My deeply meditative experiences have me curious about the limits of meditation and the mind more broadly. Jhanas seem, probably, real. And given what they seem to be it is a bit stunning that I hadn’t heard about them until recently. Why isn’t there more attention on them? If real, they seem to be a huge open secret - very powerful knowledge that is known, but not widely, and is difficult to evaluate for yourself.
If jhanas are real, what else is? What else can we do just with our minds? What are these different states that we have access to with concentration anyway? Why can the mind be stilled in the first place? It dawns on me how little I, and we more broadly, seem to know about how the mind works. That blows me away given how central our minds are to our experiences individually and collectively.
Finally, as I understand the history, a lot of the practice of meditation was created long, long ago and for the most part hasn't seen much innovation. What would that even look like? What can we do with the tools we have now that we didn't have before - principally a more sophisticated understanding of the brain, a lot of sensors, a lot of compute, and even new pharmacological tools (e.g. psychadelics)? Put in the form of a question: what would the buddha be doing today if he were alive today? It seems unlikely to me that he would be doing the same thing he was doing 2500ish years ago!
I had a number of what I would characterize as side quests along the way.
The first of these were meditation headbands, like Muse. These are headbands that measure your brain activity and try to give you real time feedback on how high quality your meditation is. The challenge is they need a baseline measurement of your brain’s activity at rest to compare your brain while meditating. So, if you come to your practice very calm it can be frustrating because the feedback you’ll get is that you’re not meditating right, even if you actually are very calm! But if you come scatterbrained and get reasonably more calmed down you’ll get a lot of positive feedback even though you haven’t really deepened your practice. However, I have had a few very positive experiences where the bands was “just right” - pushing me to challenge myself and focus more. It’s just a bit tedious of a balance.
A second side quest has been a continuing sauna and cold plunge habit. That relates to meditation for me because it’s an hour or two where I wouldn’t have my phone and would (mostly) sit in calm contemplation while in the sauna. I also see cold plunging as a sort of mental training, because plunging yourself into freezing cold water is quite uncomfortable. Your body hates it and sends you distress signals to get out immediately. So the challenge is to wrestle with that and stay, because a few minutes won’t kill you. And there are a bunch of other benefits to this routine you can read about elsewhere.
The third side quest for me was to change my relationship to my phone, basically to use it less often and to break its grip on my attention. This manifested in a few things, like taking long walks without it, removing notifications that might steal my attention, and resisting using it while in transit. Instead I’ll try to sit in mindful concentration, or do breathe work. Recently I’ve picked up a Light phone that I’m experimenting with.
A final interesting but lesser side quest has been breathe work. At times I have focused on my breathe and it’s follow on effects for my heart rate, HRV, and by extension my calmness and mood. I was impressed by how just regulating my breathing can have a large positive impact on all of these all around and put a decent amount of effort into this, but on balance this has fallen in priority relative to meditating or other pursuits. I do think I’ll return to it in the future, though. With some practice I can notice the change in my body and mind that slowing down my breathing has, and that’s very interesting.