I’ve been meditating for about a year now, and for four months seriously. It seems like a good time to stop and just write down what meditation means for me right now; in particular, how much time it takes and what I try to use it for.
I follow the Pareto principle, where I try not to over-invest in activities, instead trying to get 80% of the benefit with about 20% of the effort (with 100% of effort being the quantity of work needed to get 100% of the benefit). So my meditation practice is currently quite light, when compared to most serious practitioners. It looks like this.
In the mornings I wake up and make coffee for my partner and me. I start work later than them, so they leave earlier. Then I do a guided meditation. I use Sam Harris’ Waking Up app, which I can recommend. I started with the 50 day initial course, with each session being about ten minutes long; Sam takes you from complete beginner to someone familiar with focus techniques, duality and non-duality, loving-kindness and open eyes meditation. After finishing the initial course a daily guided meditation becomes available, which you can customize to fit in either ten or twenty minutes depending on the time available. Nowadays I often do twenty minutes.
In the evenings after I get home from work I try to meditate for another ten minutes, either guided (redoing a previous meditation) or unguided (the app has a built in meditation timer, where you get bells every few minutes as desired; the bells remind you to stay on target). This doesn’t happen every day as some days it’s gotten late and we need to go straight to exercise and dinner instead. When it doesn’t happen, and sometimes even if when it does, I meditate in the same way just before taking a shower (I shower in the evenings, just before bed).
In the weekends the routine is quite similar, although the morning meditation is shared with my partner (we just meditate at the same time with the same session playing).
Benefits and ramp up
At this point the benefits I’ve noticed in my life that I can attribute to meditation are various enough and clear enough that I feel comfortable trying to ramp up my practice. To put it shortly, meditation seems to have increased my focus and my creativity; I’ve been writing more, and have been able to stay on target with my daily activities longer than I used to (I’ve always procrastinated too much).
All in all, I find that I seem to have gotten a bit better at thinking about hard things. By this I don’t mean I’ve gotten smarter, but rather that I’ve noticed a range of improvements when trying to think about issues that I find difficult or off-putting. The easiest way I can describe it is as follows: whereas before I skirted around difficult topics, now I find myself a bit more willing to tackle them — or at least think them through. That doesn’t mean that my problem solving skills have improved, of course; rather that I have a chance to solve more problems just because I bother to start on them more often.1
For me, this is one of the main advantages of meditation: it teaches you to recognize patterns of thinking, and through it it enables meta-cognition. To use a corny programming metaphor: it gives you access to the scheduler in your mind, and then lets you use your resources more efficiently.
As I’ve written elsewhere, what you do with your resources is an ethical decision. I believe that thinking about the problems that other people and beings face is one of the ethical responsibilities that every privileged person has. For my own take on how to do this efficiently, see goals.
I think a slightly increased practice may yield worthy benefits; put another way, I want to explore if I’m really hitting the Pareto sweet spot. Currently I plan to ramp up my morning sessions by adding an unguided session after the guided one; another ten minutes. I will use it with the following default program, with bells to mark phase transitions:
- One minute: focus on sounds/breath.
- Four minutes: think about topics chosen in advance, while trying to not lose myself in thought. Examples:
- The nature of human existence.
- How to help people reach their fullest potential.
- Four minutes: Metta (loving-kindness).
- One minute: focus on sounds/breath.
Of course, this could all be placebo effect or just plain old self-delusion. But as long as the world plays along with my efforts, it’s hard to argue with even short term results as they pile up. ↩