Unlike some of my other months, I don’t feel like I did much of anything for Buddhism month. For Stoicism month, I took daily ice baths. For Catholic month, I went to Mass almost every day. For Judaism month, I attended prayer services nearly every morning. And for Islam month, I prayed five times per day and went to a mosque a few times.
For Buddhism, all I did was sit on the floor for 10-20 minutes every day and try to pay attention to my breath. Not exactly the most engaging thing to be doing…or so I thought.
Here are the results and observations of my 30-day Buddhist meditation experiment
I am not more focused
My goal was to cure my “monkey mind” and to improve my concentration, especially at work.
That didn’t happen.
I still get distracted at work. I browse internet articles, switch between tasks, answer e-mails right away, etc.
In the middle of that sentence I just checked my e-mail.
This may be one of those cases where, at least in a short time frame, modern productivity techniques may be more effective.
At a reader’s recommendation, I tried out the Pomodoro Technique a couple times and I saw immediate results. It’s not a habit yet, but I was impressed by how quickly it worked.
I don’t think this invalidates Buddhist meditation as a means to develop concentration, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect significant results in focus (measured in work productivity) in thirty days.
Plus, the Buddhist goal for meditation is not to become more efficient at your day job, it is to develop penetrating insight into the nature of reality. Though, I have to wonder if Buddha would have been a productive employee. Maybe he would have annoyed everyone with his always -cheerful and always present demeanor, without actually getting any work done…
I am more mindful
I didn’t increase my ability to concentrate, however, I did become more mindful in general. Mindfulness in this case means simply paying attention and being aware of what is going on in your external environment (sounds, movement, etc.), and your internal environment (thoughts, emotions, etc.).
For example, when something or someone annoys me, I am very aware of the feeling of being annoyed. I don’t just linger in a state of annoyance.
This was similar to the effects of Stoicism, where you acknowledge that your mind is negatively perceiving something that is happening.
However, with Stoicism, I taught myself to immediately rationalize the annoyance away. I would think “Ok, the noisy music is just sound waves that reach my ears and being processed by my brain. It’s neither good or bad, so there is no sense getting irritated by it.”
With Buddhism, the process is, “Hm, I am getting irritated by the noisy music. Interesting.”
There isn’t a need to “do something” about the annoyance. You just accept it.
The other difference is that while Stoicism was very defensive in nature, Buddhism was more neutral. Stoicism was very useful in countering negative emotions and thoughts. It taught me to pay special attention to the negative so I could immediately deal with it.
Buddhism taught me to pay attention to everything: good, bad, or neutral. If it is a nice day outside, I noticed the way the sun felt good on my skin, the pleasant breeze, etc. If I was driving to work I’d notice the other cars on the road and the building I never pay attention to.
This is a direct result of meditation, as you are taught to notice things that distract you from the breath, acknowledge it, and then return to the breath.
The practice carried over into my daily life.
I haven’t quite hit the point where the mindfulness has led to penetrating insight, but a couple of times I did get a similar feeling of “the absurd” that I experience during my Stoicism month. It’s the sense that everything just happens and it’s neither good or bad. It just is, and that’s okay.
It’s difficult to explain, as it’s mostly a feeling, but it’s a calming one.
I imagine after extended meditation practice with an experienced instructor, this experience would become more frequent and increase the level of contentedness in my life.
Buddhist philosophy can be depressing
The first noble truth says that the world is filled with suffering. Everyone gets old, gets sick, feels discontented, feels anxiety, etc.
It’s actually quite dark.
Buddhism also teaches that the self as we understand it is not real. There is no separate “self” in the world, we only exist in relationship to other beings and things.
Once you start getting these ideas rattling around in your head, you can easily find yourself in an existential depression, wondering what the point of existence is.
Since I am naturally prone to this kind of thinking, my Buddhism month definitely got me thinking along those lines, which led to bouts of depression, especially at work.
The thing is, Buddhism doesn’t teach everything is suffering; it teaches that there is suffering, its cause (craving and ignorance), and the way to end suffering (The Eightfold Path).
If you’re just studying Buddhism on your own, you may be drawn to the darker sides of its teaching and not adopt the arguably more important teachings of compassion, mindfulness, etc.
“It is true that the Buddha taught the truth of suffering, but he also taught the truth of ‘dwelling happily in things as they are.’ To succeed in the practice, we must stop trying to prove that everything is suffering. In fact, we must stop trying to prove anything. If we touch the truth of suffering with our mindfulness, we will be able to recognize and identify our specific suffering, its specific causes, and the way to remove those causes and end our suffering.” – Thicht Nhat Hanh
I didn’t do this, but it’s probably helpful to find an experienced Buddhist practitioner to help guide you through the teachings and practices of Buddhism. While DIY Buddhism is certainly an option, you may find that you work against yourself sometimes, simply due to inexperience.
Buddhist philosophy is attractive
As I mentioned, Buddhism can lead you to have some dark thoughts, but it is also an incredibly accessible and attractive philosophy, especially for secular types.
My very brief study of Buddhism leads me to believe that you can adopt Buddhist philosophy without believing in God or gods and supernatural events or beings. There are teachings about re-incarnation and such, but they can be interpreted as helpful metaphors.
I think the most attractive concept proposed by Buddhism is the idea that you can achieve enlightenment. More importantly, enlightenment is something you can achieve in this lifetime through practice, it’s not something that happens after you die. There is no day of judgment or heaven and hell, it’s a state of mind that can be cultivated.
One important thing to remember: Buddhist philosophy is difficult to grasp, especially for a Western audience. Stoicism was very easy to understand and very rational. Buddhism shares some of the same ideas as Stoicism, but explains it in a distinctly Eastern way.
Compare these two ideas about perception, one from Thicht Nhat Hanh and one from Epictetus:
“When we say, ‘I can see my consciousness in the flower,’ it means we can see the cloud, the sunshine, the earth and the minerals in it. But how can we see our consciousness in a flower? The flower is our consciousness. It is the object of our perception. It is our perception…The idea that our consciousness is outside of the flower has to be removed. It is impossible to have a subject without an object. It is impossible to remove one and retain the other.” – Thicht Nhat Hanh
“With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.” – Epictetus
Both passages talk about our relationship to an object (the flower and the cup), but I find Epicetus’ words much easier to understand. He reminds you that the cup is just a cup and it is more important to manage your mind in relationship to the cup. Thicht Nhat Hanh says that we can only see our consciousness because a flower exists. If there was no object to perceive, our consciousness wouldn’t exist.
So Buddhism, while attractive, requires the Western student to change his way of thinking, and more likely, experience the teachings, not just think about it.
If you’re looking for a quick fix to your distracted work habits, Buddhist meditation is not the answer. Or, at least it’s not the answer if you only have 30 days to practice.
However, if you find that your days go by and you don’t know what happened to the time, meditation might be right for you. I did notice an increase in mindfulness over the past 30 days that helped me “be present” on many occasions, or rather, recognize that I am not present.
Outside of meditation, Buddhist philosophy is incredibly interesting and might resonate with you more than the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). It feels “softer” than Stoicism and it provides a more comprehensive worldview. It’s not just about maintaining tranquility, it’s about understanding what you really are in relationship to the world around you.
If you have any further questions about my Buddhist month feel free to leave a comment below or contact me directly.
*For the last week I started using this meditation app called Headspace that provides guided 10-minute meditation sessions. It’s pretty cool! It made meditation significantly easier than the solo 20-minute sessions I was doing until that point.