Buddhism: Week 1 Wrap-up
Over the past week, I’ve done a total of 140 minutes of meditation (20 minutes per day x 7). While it would have been great if that were enough time to achieve nirvana, unfortunately that isn’t the case.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far about meditation
It is friggin’ hard!
Whenever you see photos of people meditating, they look so calm and peaceful.
When I meditate, I start off by focusing on the breath, but then my monkey mind wanders to other thoughts. Sometimes it’s my unfinished to-do list, other times its about TV shows I’ve been watching (Jack Bauer, anyone?), and I frequently think about the fact that I’m not supposed to be thinking about those things.
So yea, meditation is not a relaxing exercise.
However, sleep is.
I dozed off a few times during my meditation. And dozing off is not the result of a clear mind, it’s the result of an overly active mind! It’s similar to when you’re going to bed and you are thinking about a bunch of things that eventually become non-sensical and turn into dreams.
There is research that shows sleep is a way for your brain to reorganize and reconsolidate memories, it acts like housecleaning for the mind.
After heavy use, hard disks tend to get “fragmented.” This is because when data gets stored, it is written to wherever there happens to be free space on the disk. This makes it inefficient to keep track of it all as files may be split and written in many different places. A defrag consolidates the same data into a more logical order. Defragmentation is a taxing chore for the computer, so many people schedule it to happen overnight. In the same way, sleep may serve to reorganize and reconsolidate memories. The mechanics of how this defragmentation works remain unclear; synaptic scaling might be just one of several processes at work.
If, during meditation, your monkey mind becomes very active, maybe it’s possible that your body gets overwhelmed and wants to shut down and go to sleep, or rather, force the monkeys to sleep.
Meditation, once you’re good at it, is probably a way to “sleep” while being fully conscious.
This makes me wonder if this is why we’re so tired after work, especially if we’ve been distracted all day. If we don’t have time to calm the mind monkeys during the day, whether through sleep or meditation, we become exhausted.
Speaking of work life…
Meditation has not helped me focus at work
I was hoping that after a week of meditation I could somehow focus on all the boring things (notice that I made a judgment about work) I have to do at work.
That hasn’t happened yet. I still find myself procrastinating quite a bit.
I have noticed that when I am able to get in a focused state, the work isn’t so bad though. Not pleasant, but it’s more pleasant than bouncing from Word document to various things on the interwebs and back again.
This is evidence that learning to cultivate focus and concentration is an important tool, whether you do it through meditation or some other means.
It’s also important because becoming focused may make us less susceptible to feeling victim to the externals of our job, and help us be happy or content wherever we are.
I learned through Stoicism that you can learn to shake off annoyances. I learned through Catholicism that serving others makes you more content. Though Judaism I learned that participating and developing relationships with others is intrinsically rewarding. And I learned through Islam that reducing your arrogance can also reduce your anger.
With Buddhism, perhaps I’ll learn that almost any work can be pleasant if you focus.
Cal Newport tells the story of Thomas who quit his job to join a Zen Monastery, only to realize that the problem with his previous jobs wasn’t the jobs, it was himself.
He returned to the bank he had left two years earlier. This time, however, he approached his job with a new awareness. Without escapist thoughts of fantasy jobs dominating his mind, he was able to focus on the tasks he was given, without constantly comparing them to some magical “future” occupation…
On paper, this should be a stressful job, but Thomas has found appreciation for its moment to moment requirements.
“I noticed that it does not matter what the task is, if I am focused it is generally pleasant,” he told me.
So maybe the solution to career anxiety is not finding a single job that you can definitely see makes a contribution to the world (though that would be awesome), it is cultivating the dual qualities of mindfulness and focus and bringing it to your work every day.
Don’t trust me on this though. I still suck at both those thing so I could be full of it.
In addition to the 20-minute meditation sessions I’m doing on my own, I’m going to start deliberately practicing mindfulness and focus at work. This may be more fruitful than expecting my meditation sessions to suddenly “spill over” into my working life. Sine I only have 30 days, it’s probably not realistic to expect a series of 20-minute meditations to change my entire work life.
If you have any tips for developing concentration at work, please leave them in the comments below.