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Meditation Tools and Muscles

February 17, 2020

I have been meditating on and off since last June - around 8 months now. I don't have much experience with it yet, and I'll try not to sell it in this post. Instead, my goal is to share the tools I'm using, a bit of my path into meditation with each of them, and some of the mental muscles that I'm now thinking about in my daily minutes.

Breathe

When I first got an Apple Watch, I decided to try out the Breathe app. My first round of habits were to do it before bed and after runs in the park.

I immediately enjoyed the benefits - choosing to sit quietly and match my breathing to the wrist vibrations calmed me down, and gave me much needed mental space.

I tend to work hard to capture every single thought and dream, every little todo item whenever it comes to mind. This stems from Getting Things Done and years of journaling - my post from yesterday includes some tools to help make that capture even easier. I've always enjoyed enumerating all my thoughts to get my mind clear.

However, after years of doing this, I'm starting to realize how much I take for granted the cost of processing all these thoughts. It's a drag to have a huge todo list, and all the time! I need to cut that thing down!

Using Breathe was eye-opening for me - trying to keep my mind on breathing, I found all kinds of thoughts, memories, projections surfacing, coming and going. Often, I'd finish five minutes and scramble for post-it notes or a journal page to start getting the thoughts down. Over time, I started to accept that these things are ok to let go. The thoughts are ok to have! Things will be ok if they don't get captured.

I've thought of journaling in the past as way to process my thoughts. I always write down where I am, what's been going on since the last entry, and what I think of that. It's a first shot at some emotions, even if it's written plain-as-day. If I didn't write it down, I'd sometimes come back to difficult situations in the same mental state as I'd left them - I hadn't actually processed my emotions yet.

Breathe taught me that this kind of processing can happen in my head. I'd follow the breathing and let my mind wander wherever it wanted to - and I really enjoyed it!

I told some friends the above takeaways from Breathe, and they made a distinction between the above 'Mindfulness' and 'Meditation' itself. I was making no effort to clear my head, I was actually creating space for thoughts, then filling that space immediately. I think there are benefits to both, but at the time, Meditation felt like it'd be different, it'd be work, and it wouldn't give me room to think about whatever ideas I wanted.

Calm

I started doing Calm's 'Daily Calm' in conjunction with some of the evening breathe I was doing. These are guided meditations, usually 10 minutes at a time.

Before trying it, I thought I'd be put off by the guided aspect, but it turns out I needed it. This was an easy, relaxing way to learn to meditate. If my mind was too busy to calm down on its own, here's a guide. Just do what they say.

The guided aspect let me be a bit lazy, because all I had to do was sit and turn it on. But the guides gave me some advice and lessons. I enjoyed the Jeff Warren's How to Meditate course so much that I'm on my second way through it now. Note that it did take me ~60 days to finish the first time. Habits are hard to start sometimes!

Calm has other things worth listening to as well, but I'll leave it to you to explore. I'm proud to day I'm currently on a 33 day streak!

New Muscles?

Calm's How to Meditate course covers four mental muscles. Here I want to touch on each one, mostly as practice for articulating them.

Concentration

Concentration usually makes me think of someone with a crease in their eyebrow. In this context, that is not the expression you want. Instead, relax, and just start noticing where your mind is.

Working your concentration muscle is simple. Every time you bring your focus back to your current task or your home base, that's your "bench press with the universe." Get your reps in!

Clarity

If bringing your attention back to your current task is practicing concentration, noticing and observing where your mind is in the first place is Clarity.

Meditation give us the opportunity to study what our minds are doing at rest. For example, mine likes to brainstorm feature ideas for whatever project I'm currently obsessing with, and then examine my recent social history for guilt-opportunities (gopportunities).

Noticing and observing your own tendencies is a huge step toward understanding yourself, and will lead to more clarity in your own life.

Equanimity

Equanimity is being ok with things - not letting it affect you. For me, it's maintaining a sense of calm in the face of something that really annoys me, or when I feel manic or excited about something.

I think it's easy to look for this when situations are dramatic, but it may be more important in the small, in the every day. It's easy to get annoyed by other people's habits, or when a personal routine gets cut off or upset by some obstruction. Equanimity is the counter to that negative, reactive energy.

Friendliness

Practicing friendliness means going easy on yourself and others. If your concentration is slipping, that's ok. Give yourself a break and be glad you're here and trying today.

Meditations on gratitudes and affirmations are common, but for real value from those, you need to first be kind, forgiving, and caring with yourself.

I'm still working on this one. Something about repeating phrases feels too monotonous for now.

My take on these is second hand.

I definitely recommend that Calm course from Jeff Warren! If you're interested but don't want to sign up for Calm, you can at least check out this post he wrote up about starting meditation.

Habits are hard! Go easy on yourself

It's ok to drop them and pick them back up. Be a prefectionist tomorrow.

I've been journaling for about 10 years. How? It's easy to keep something up for that long if you let yourself pick it back up again after realizing you forgot to do it for two months. Give yourself a break! You're doing fine.

Russell Matney

Russell Matney

Software Engineer, Writer, Indie Game Dev