A few years ago, when I was spending a lot of time with people interested in personal development, there was one thing I found continually surprising. On the one hand, practically everyone agreed that meditation has a favorable influence on the quality of everyday life. On the other hand, the majority of people I spoke with didn’t practice it, although many said they planned to start “soon.”
Not many people were practicing; however, many of them were vividly discussing Eckhart Tolle’s, Osho’s, or Ken Wilber’s books. I took part in these debates, although, at most, I had read two books on meditation and was pretending to be familiar with the subject rather than really having something to say.
After a while, I realized that such empty talking is pointless and does not go beyond the second noble truth, well known from Buddhism. Ultimately neither reading books nor discussing them was going to reduce my stress, organize my thoughts, or develop my attentiveness.
I decided to see for myself whether the effects of regular meditation are indeed so spectacular. I had already had a great deal of positive experience with intensive Vipassana meditation courses. During a nearly two-week stay I was spending 10 hours a day meditating and I was feeling great afterwards. For this reason, I chose this technique for my year-long challenge.
Today, in a rather personal way, I will share my impressions of this experiment with you.
HOW DO I DEFINE MY YEAR OF MEDITATION?
I started my regular practice on October 16, 2013, during the first day of my third Vipassana course. Until October 27, 2013, there was a lot of meditation—during those 12 days I meditated more than 100 hours. After returning from the course, I reduced my meditation time to one hour a day. Not exactly every day, though.
I was consciously taking breaks, which is considered a serious sin when introducing habits.
My first decision was to not meditate during trips. Sightseeing, going out to parties, or spending time with friends was so involving that I didn’t have the willingness to meditate.
The period from the end of October 2013 to late 2014 was rather intensive in terms of longer and shorter trips. In fact, with a bit of rounding, I’d say that I spent about 40 days away from home.
Apart from that, there were three or four days when I decided that I didn’t feel like meditating, so I gave myself a miss. Another five or six times I was too tired to meditate, so I went to bed “on an empty stomach.” In all, these breaks amount to about 50 days, which shall be subtracted from the year of meditation.
After accounting for these breaks, I reached the full 365 days somewhere at the beginning of December 2014. At that time (December 2014) I was slowly beginning to write down my impressions after a year of meditation.
WHAT HAS CHANGED IN MY LIFE AFTER A YEAR OF DAILY MEDITATON?
At least a few things have changed:
Time for myself
A great advantage of a regular meditation is the fact that every day I have one hour just for myself. Irrespective of what is going on that day, there is a moment when I turn off my mobile phone and dedicate some time for contact with myself only. Not with a book, a film, or a friend—with myself.
Regular meditation has helped me strengthen my awareness of my own emotions and
beliefs. This has resulted in me being much more honest with myself. I know much more clearly what I really want—and what I do not want.
I now find it much easier to admit that I am afraid or ashamed of something, allowing me to react to it and not hide something from myself. Apart from this, I feel that I am making decisions that are far more consistent with my own values.
Using this time in another way—such as sitting every day in an armchair and thinking about my life—would be impossible for me. Apart from this I suspect that I could have get bored soon. That is why meditation is an ideal solution in my case.
Motivation for meditation
Making time for meditation was very easy at the beginning of the process, because I was “warmed up” after the Vipassana course. I went through a crisis around the third and fourth and seventh and eighth months. These periods were difficult, as during Vipassana meditation you experience not only blissful peace, but also negative emotions. It is easy to imagine how I was “boiling with motivation” to face them when I came home after a tough day.
Nevertheless, after I had managed to meditate for an hour I was happy that I had decided to sit down. It was like being proud of myself after attending a seminar that I hadn’t really want to go to. At this stage, I have a desire to meditate practically every day. It feels like a natural need, similar to the urge to take a daily shower.
Feeling of happiness
This is the area where I definitely feel the most significant changes. Although last year was completely bizarre on account of many factors, without a doubt I am now experiencing the happiest time of my life. Although different types of stress or moments of sadness occur from time to time, these are much less frequent than before. What’s more, they last for a considerably shorter time.
The reason for this is probably the fact that I don’t complicate my life by excessively analyzing it as much as I used to. Instead I am much more active and I keep in touch with reality, whatever it may be. The fact that I am also more tolerant and respectful towards people around me, even if they advocate different values than me, is also significant.
Apart from that, I sometimes experience feelings that I call “pops of happiness,” which usually happen unexpectedly. For example, while I’m driving, I might suddenly feel incredibly fulfilled and happy. This lasts for about a minute or two and then I come back to my usual self.
I have noticed a huge improvement in this area. I get irritated significantly less often, and if I do get angry, I recover much faster. How much faster? While I used to feel anger for about 10 to 15 minutes, now it seldom takes longer than 30 seconds for me to calm down (although the anger still happens).
The crucial thing is that the peace really is internal. The change is not about wearing a poker face all day and showing everyone how calm I am; it’s the other way round. As a matter of fact—and this came as a surprise to me—for the last few months I have been a very expressive person.
For many people—especially adherents to New Age meditation—consciousness is the most important part of meditation. In my opinion, this can be very harmful if you don’t develop peace along with it.
In the case of consciousness, I experienced changes in the area of perception—I now notice many more subtle differences and signals than I used to. This is true in different contexts, such as conducting coaching courses, taking part in discussions, or reading business publications. It is as if I have a more perceptive mind than I used to. I often have the feeling that I can see an issue from different points of view, and it is much easier for me to put my personal beliefs aside for a while.
I also immediately notice when I lose focus or am annoyed by the pressure of my thoughts. Of course, there are two sides to every coin. When we recognize our racing thoughts, it is very easy to engage them. This happened to me, especially at the very beginning. After some time I learned to cope with this, to pay less attention to the thoughts, and to concentrate more on other things.
Changes in behavior, feelings, and way of thinking
It is hard for me to comment on this. I have observed that many things have changed in my way of thinking and acting, and due to the nature of the technique (in which it is not always clear what are you meditating on) the majority of these changes happened unexpectedly.
I started noticing these changes when something suddenly changed in situations (both important and mundane) in which I had been behaving and feeling the same way for many years. For example, for many years I had always put off cleaning up my kitchen. And then one day I simply started doing it automatically, without any extra encouragement.
Meditation itself also has another important function. If I practice it in the evening, it works as a sleeping pill. It effectively organizes my thoughts so that I fall asleep within a few minutes instead of engaging in an all-night-long review of interesting thoughts and ideas.
I sleep about half an hour less than I used to. (I still sleep a lot, though!) I often have utterly realistic dreams, which I remember in the morning. Sometimes they even transform into lucid dreams.
Dealing with failures
In Vipassana, you have to be able to manage your attention consciously. As a result, your mind is a bit absent, so you are exposed to numerous episodes of frustration. From this, I learned how to be calm about my failures.
Instead of worrying about failure, I just keep doing what needs to be done until I reach my goal. I have a different approach to exercising and the realization of my plans. I tell myself “I don’t care!” and give up far more rarely—instead of giving up, I try again the next day.
Memories that have not been thought about for a long time routinely come to mind during meditation. I have easy access to memories that had once been forgotten and sometimes these are very pleasant. In addition, I find memorizing new information much easier.
I also have a feeling as if my working memory has improved. Things that used to be very engaging for me are now not stimulating enough. It’s as if I now have extra space for other things. If I were to bet, I would say that it is my semantic processing that functions more efficiently. As a result, I am able to organize more information as it appears.
My body is more relaxed. This is surprising, as groups of muscles that are not engaged during sitting in meditation or exercising are significantly more stretched too. I also have a better awareness of my body.
While this leads to an increased sensation of pleasure, it is a disadvantage when it comes to pain: when something hurts, it hurts badly. It took me some time to learn how to redirect my attention outwards in moments of pain.
My concentration is much better; however, only in certain areas. The main improvement is in directing my attention inwards (probably because that is what meditation is all about); directing my attention outwards has improved as well, but significantly less. If I intentionally redirect it outwards, I find it easier to keep focused.
Sense of time
I have a very strong feeling that each day is more and more dense, as if it had more than just 24 hours. When two weeks pass I feel as if it has been a month. This favorably influences my productivity.
Many people look for this in meditation. Actually, Vipassana is an extremely grounded technique. As is frequently repeated during the course, the indicator of progress is internal peace, not ecstatic state.
However, I have experienced a few very interesting and pleasant states, and a great deal of the spiritual elation I experienced during the last year came from stability. From time to time I have a tranquil sense of being “just a human,” which is useful, especially when ambitions come to the fore.
WHAT COULD HAVE INFLUENCED THESE CHANGES OTHER THAN MEDITATION?
Of course, during the last year or so my life was not only about meditating. For this reason, thinking that all these changes were due to the meditation only would be wrong. To be sure, other life experiences, coaching exercises that I perform, or conversations with friends also had a great impact. It is worth mentioning the fact that introducing any habit in itself helps to improve the sense of control over one’s life.
So why have I chosen to list the above changes? Mainly because I have experienced steady progress within these categories during the whole year. I do not dare to claim that other events had no influence on the dynamics of these changes—it may well be that they did. Nonetheless, due to the impossibility of applying scientific methods, I chose the changes that are most probably—at least partly—the result of meditation.
IS MEDITATION FOR EVERYONE?
Yes and no. Simple concentration on breathing as a stress reduction method can definitely be done by anybody. However, very active people might have some difficulty sitting still for 20 minutes at the beginning, let alone a whole hour. Still, this is not impossible.
Michael Jordan, famous for his fast-paced lifestyle, used mindfulness practices. The basketball player was able to do a training session at the gym, play an NBA game, play a game of golf, appear at a charity event, visit sick children in a hospice and, play a game of poker with friends, all this within a single day. And he lived like this for months on end. If Michael Jordan can do it—so can you.
Not only is your temperament important, but also the goal that you plan to reach with the help of meditation. If you expect only a temporary reduction of significant stress, I strongly recommend sports, especially running. I will advise meditation to manage minor stresses or in addition to exercising.
If you would like to create some time for yourself, to give yourself a moment to stop and organize your thoughts, look at your life from a distance, or just find a great source of creativity, then I definitely recommend meditation.
You have to bear in mind that there are all kinds of meditation. Some practices called “meditation” are just simple relaxation techniques that you may have witnessed in films about Tibetans. These are helpful too, however, they have little in common with insight meditation. I will discuss the differences between these another time.
You may also like: 5 Common Myths About Meditation
Photo by Neil Gaudet. CC BY-NC 2.0