It’s becoming hip to be introspective. Apps like Headspace and Calm have raised hundreds of millions of dollars, and have users across the world. In a hyper-connected world, the ‘contrarian’ thing to do is withdraw yourself from social media and a constant attachment to your phone.
A central part of this is meditation; taking as little as 10 minutes a day to close your eyes and empty your mind, focus on your breadth, and disconnect from the world. These meditation apps offer a nicely-designed interface, a soothing British narrator, and various modules to help with one’s day-to-day struggles. Some are on ‘anxiety’, others on ‘stress’, and one gaining an increasing amount of popularity: ‘sleep’. How effective are these apps and do we need to meditate to be introspective?
In this post, I’ll review my experience with meditation and the various apps, how it has benefitted me, and why I don’t think meditation is necessary to train the mind.
Starting to meditate
I used to think people who meditated were weird — much like those who did keto or intermittent fasting, and look how well that turned out! The idea that you needed to remove yourself from daily activities and block off anywhere from 10-30 minutes to ‘clear your mind’ sounded folly. Even worse, the concept of using an app to do this sounded like the exact ‘tech trash’ nonsense that I desperately try to avoid (and am often susceptible to).
Regardless, some turbulence in 2018 (head injury, breakup) pushed me to a limit where meditation seemed like a good idea. I started with Headspace, following the ‘basic’ module of 10 minutes a day, right before bed. Soon after, I added another 10 minutes in the morning, leading to a total of 20 minutes of meditation per day.
Within the first few weeks of starting to meditate, I saw two outcomes that made it seem like a worthwhile endeavour:
#1 — Quality of Sleep
Anyone who lives a reasonably high-stress lifestyle knows how hard it is to ‘turn off’ at the end of the day. I’m incredibly jealous of people (i.e. my dad and brother) who can fall asleep within 5 minutes of going to bed. For me, it takes anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes. I can pinpoint this to a ‘racing mind’ — thinking about what happened during the day, what I wasn’t able to accomplish, or thinking back to awkward experiences that I wish had gone differently (i.e. making a bad joke at work).
Meditation was incredibly helpful for this. It forced me to focus on my body and let thoughts come and go. This is an important differentiator that I’ll get into later: meditation does NOT encourage you to block out emotions and thoughts. Instead, the idea is to simply ‘observe’ the thoughts that are going in your head, and not ‘chase’ them. With meditation, my sleep noticeably improved.
#2 — Mental clarity
I’m not a morning person, as hard as I try to be. My morning routine typically involves stumbling out of bed, checking my email, and frantically trying to organize my day. Successful people all have their own routines — you can check out The Proof by my buddy Adrian to see how Mark Cuban, Tim Draper, and other entrepreneurs tackle wellness. Meditation stopped my ‘busy mind’ and forced me to settle my body after waking up. This helped me when getting into the office, as (while I still needed coffee) I wasn’t rushing to any specific task or waiting for my brain to ‘wake up’.
I was a Headspace subscriber for a full year, having meditated for 28 hours and sometimes as consistently as 12 days in a row. This isn’t to gloat — I genuinely found that meditation improved my lifestyle and the amount of self-reflection I did. However, I stopped using the apps and meditating in general around 2 months ago.
Meditation isn’t for everyone
I can agree that the mind, like the body, needs to be trained. But like the body, I’ll disagree that there is ‘one right way’ to train the mind. I love lifting weights, but someone can be just as happy (and even healthier) by solely doing cardio or freeweight exercises. Similarly, I don’t believe the mind needs meditation to grow.
To further explain that, I’ll dive into some of the ‘cons’ to meditation that I found in my year-long journey. There are valid rebuttals to these (that I confront), but I hope this gives some context around how I see meditation. The caveat: with the body, I can refute arguments like ‘your workout isn’t great’ by saying ‘I lift more than you’; unfortunately, the mind is more subjective, so won’t get into that ;)
#1 Not the universal cure
For physical workouts, there is a time and place for everything. If I only have 20 minutes, I won’t do a full workout, as that might take me more than an hour. In fact, it’s probably hurtful to try doing the full workout, as I’ll feel unaccomplished by the end and possibly even miss muscle groups.
Meditation is similar; if I had a long day where I’m incredibly tired, I’ll probably be dozing off during meditation instead of doing it properly. For another scenario, if something during the day really irked me, I found meditation to be equally ineffective. I.e. as hard as I tried to ‘empty the mind’, those emotions still dominated my body.
Rebuttal: “Once you get better at meditation, it’ll be easier to do it despite emotions/thoughts”. I think that’s like saying “Once you get better at Crossfit, you’ll start seeing results” — most people won’t make it to the stage of ‘being good enough’, so is it really an effective tactic if the majority can’t utilize it properly?
#2 Carving time
We’ve all been there: you wake up at 9:15am despite having set alarms at 2-minute intervals from 7:45am through 7:57am. You’re feeling groggy as ever, and the day is off to a terrible start. Let’s meditate?!
No, I don’t think that’s a good mentality. I’m sure it’s possible, but I think it’s weird to grab a phone booth / room and try meditating for 10-15 minutes in the middle of the work day. Another example: work is done and you’re heading on a date, but you have some emotions flowing (anger, anxiety, etc.) that you can’t pinpoint. Let’s meditate on the subway? No, that sounds weird as well.
Rebuttal: “You have to make time to meditate, even when it’s hard”. That’s how it becomes effective” — again, majority of people aren’t going to put in this level of work. Even with the body, you see benefits from working out + cardio almost immediately. Hard to defend an activity that only gives return after X amount of effort.
What’s the solution?
I’m not denying that meditation has its benefits, and can be a great fit for some people. However, I need a solution that gives me the same start & end to my day, while being more versatile throughout daily activities. Maybe it’s in addition to meditation — but there should be another solution.
And there is a solution: writing. I tell everyone that they should start a blog; it’s an activity of self-reflection that helps you organize your thoughts in a way that’s understandable by readers (aka people with no context). You also get the added benefit of dialogue. I absolutely LOVE IT when people message me about recent posts, sending their thoughts and even challenging me on certain ideas (this one took a lot of heat).
However, I recognize that it’s not the best solution for a lot of people. Maybe you’re scared to put your thoughts out there, for fear of what others might think. Or more likely, you’re not sure if anything you’re thinking is worth reading. I’ll cut the BS — both those fears are probably valid. I put out posts that get 400+ views, and some that take me a few hours to write and get 30-40 eyes on it.
This doesn’t invalidate writing as a method of self-reflection. Whether it’s a moleskin notebook you keep in your desk or a word document on your computer, writing can be a huge help. It’s the one activity that clears the mind, by dumping everything you’re thinking onto paper (or… screen?). Writing can be a stream of consciousness, a structured argument, or a combination of both. You can also write for 5 minutes a day or 2 hours a week, whatever works for you.
Where do I start?
I recognize that ‘writing’ is a bit too general, and I try my best to make these posts actionable. First, you can check out Writing Well on how to formulate your thoughts in a coherent way (if you’re planning to blog). It takes about 30-45 minutes to get through, and it’s entirely free. I don’t follow all of this, especially since blogging is more of a personal reflection activity for me VS something to gain followers/a brand, but it’s super helpful.
You can also check out David Perell’s course on writing — it’s more geared towards people who want to become a content creator (blogger, podcast, etc.) but I’ve heard nothing but good things about the course and the outcomes of the students (i.e. published posts for 30 days without fail).
That aside, here are some pointers on how you can start writing:
This is by far the EASIEST way to start writing. My friend Kanwar recommended starting a 5-minute journal about a month ago, and I have never missed a day. Sure, I sometimes miss a morning or night, but it’s hard to argue that you don’t have 5-minutes to pull out a notebook + paper and jot down your thoughts.
The journal works like this: you write three headings in the morning: “What I’m grateful for”, “How I’m going to make today great” and “Affirmations about myself”. I add (3) bullet points for each. I.e.
Grateful: A strong friend group, self-control in eating, a flexible work schedule
Great: Hold my fast until 1pm, workout, message (2) people that I really value in life.
Affirmations: “I’m a good son”, “I will achieve my fitness goals”, “I will make time for people that matter to me”.
At the end of the day, you wrap up with another two headings: “What made today amazing” and “How I can make tomorrow better”. See below for sample bullet points:
Amazing: I did XYZ for a client, did 20 minutes of cardio, had a good conversation at work
Better: Make time to write a blog post, plan my calendar in advance, wake up by 730am
I rarely achieve all these ‘daily goals’. It’s also hard sometimes to come up with things I’m grateful for and why today was amazing (if it sucked). However, this ‘micro feedback loop’ is working wonders in my day-to-day. It reminds me of what I set out to do, kicks off + ends my day on a good note, and summarizes how I’m feeling.
Stream of Consciousness
I haven’t really tried this one, but I’m bullish on it. If you don’t like writing, try doing this as an audio recording instead. Whenever you’re feeling a flow of emotions/thoughts, grab your notebook and write / talk for 5-minutes non-stop. This can be ANYTHING: who’s bugging you at work, why you’re disappointed in yourself, what you love about life. Don’t be afraid to ask yourself questions in this ‘stream’ and either answer them or write them down for later.
You’ll find after 5 minutes it’s hard to keep the same thought going. That’s because most of our thoughts + emotions are reactions — once they’re put in a logical framework / reflected upon, 90% of the time they don’t have any ground. The remaining 10%, you can set some ‘next steps’ on what you should do to address the situation.
Meditation is great, I won’t argue against that. However, it’s not the ‘cure-all’ that apps like Headspace and Calm make it out to be. I’d say it’s no more effective than following keto as the #1 solution to losing weight/becoming fit — it might work, it might not, but either way you might learn some things about yourself that inform future activities + decisions.
Do you meditate? What other strategies do you use for self-reflection + keeping yourself grounded? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or message me on Twitter or Facebook with your thoughts.