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Why meditation isn’t what you think

I was sitting on a park bench two years ago, trying desperately to think about nothing. I wanted to meditate, and the idea of meditation was to let go of the mind so it could relax, right? My first attempt at this ended with me thinking “what a pointless and impossible exercise”. How wrong I was.

Fast forward to the present day: I now meditate 10 minutes every morning, and I consider it to be one of my most important daily rituals. Allow me to tell you how I built this habit and why meditation is so vital for your ability to focus.

The shift in my attitude towards meditation came when I heard that Yuval Noah Harari, historian and author of Sapiens (and arguably the greatest modern-day visionary), meditated 2 hours per day. “Fascinating,” I thought, “but of course if you’re a best-selling author without a ‘normal’ day job; you have all the time in the world to laze around and relax.”

However, when I read into the reasoning behind his meditation practice, detailed in his latest book (21 Lessons for the 21st Century), I finally understood why building this habit is so important in our modern world. He explains that his practice was motivated by the realisation that “If I can’t observe the reality of my own breath for 10 seconds, how can I hope to observe the reality of the global economic system?” Reading this, I started to think this wasn’t just true for economics, but for life itself.

One of the biggest challenges we each face daily is information overload. A continuous bombardment of notifications on our phones, email alerts on our computers and advertisements everywhere we look. When we open any ad-based app and many free websites, we plug ourselves into the Matrix, as part of the attention economy. Any tech company with an ad-based revenue model designs its services with the primary objective of keeping your attention for as long as possible. Social media platforms, regardless of their mission of ‘meaningful connections’, are no exception.

But maybe you don’t use social media, and you disabled your WhatsApp notifications (which I highly recommend). Still, that doesn’t protect us from all the other influential stimuli present in our environment. For example, if I tell you now that, whatever you do, DO NOT think about a pink penguin walking through your front door, you will probably fail. This is because we are not entirely in control of our thoughts. If you can refocus on the details this article, rather than thinking about what to feed the penguin, or how you'd react when it appeared on your doorstep, you have succeeded. You have taken back control of your mind.

The same goes for taking control of our attention, which the external environment is desperately trying to wrestle away from us. Meditation is not about relaxing our mind; it’s about training it - taking back control over the mind to limit its manipulation by all the stimuli in our environment. It’s about unplugging yourself at will from the social media matrix and liberating your consciousness from thinking about pink penguins - being in charge of your mind to make your own decisions for your future.

Science has recently produced several studies that support these anecdotes and suggest incredible benefits of meditation. Research points to an enhancement of our productivity, quality of our relationships and sense of self-worth. Neuroscientists have even proven its ability to alter our brain structure - enhancing parts of the brain responsible for memory and learning, and reducing the size of the amygdala and the fear and anxiety it produces.

With incredible apps like Headspace or Calm, meditation has been slowly going mainstream for the past couple of years. It has arguably even been rebranded as ‘mindfulness’. Gone are the days when meditation was seen as purely a thing for monks, sitting cross-legged at the top of a mountain for days on end. It’s becoming more understood as a rational, scientific solution to information overload. And now anyone can do it, sitting normally on a comfy chair for 10 minutes.

Want to get started with meditation, or build up a more consistent habit? I’m still on this journey myself, but as always, let me share with you three tips:

1. Get an app. Gamifying the process with a kind voice to guide you will make it easier to get started and motivate you to continue. I recommend the free Take Ten trial of Headspace. (Side note: I’m often told that I sound like the Headspace guy when I do visualisation exercises in my workshops - we actually grew-up in nearby UK cities).

2. Set a consistent time and place. Building new habits is about creating a routine. I recommend doing it in the morning after showering, so you have the full-day benefits and reduce the risk of falling back to sleep. Choose a spot at home where you won’t be disturbed and not somewhere that you associate with other activities, like working or sleeping.

3. Get an accountability partner. When we set actions at the end of our workshops, we always get people to partner up, to exchange their actions. You can create a feeling of accountability by sharing your new habit with a friend - maybe even deciding to start on this journey together. I found exchanging screenshots of the completion message after a meditation session to be a simple yet effective method for this.

I’m very interested to hear how you get on with these tips, so feel free to drop a comment below. And I bet many of you have some experiences with meditation that others could learn from, so feel free to share!

In the words of Yuval Noah Harari, I hope that you can “closely observe your mind and body, witness the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and realise how pointless it is to pursue them. When the pursuit stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear and satisfied.”

Finally, if you take away anything from this blog, understand that meditation is about training your mind to enhance focus and self-control. It’s no longer just a fluffy, spiritual ritual - it is a scientifically proven practice for improving the overall quality of our life.


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