Following my column Boost Your Brain And Give It A Break—At The Same Time, I received a number of comments and e-mail requests from readers wanting to know how to get started with meditation. I thought I'd share with you how I got started, my routine, and what the effect has been on my thinking and creativity.
I got involved in meditation by accident. I was researching my 2009 book In Pursuit of Elegance, and was looking into the proverbial "quiet mind." I was also exploring how our patterns of thinking influence our creative problem solving capabilities. My research took me to UCLA neuropsychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, to whom I introduced OPEN Forum readers in my article The Neuroscience of Change—Or How To Reset Your Brain.
It was Dr. Schwartz who introduced me to meditation. I was more than a little surprised when he told me he meditates for one full hour every day without fail. I found it fascinating that a devoutly religious neuroscientist did that—and I figured there must be something to it, so I asked him to teach me how. It wasn't just curiosity, though. I had an ulterior motive.
Like most writers, I imagine, I tend to suffer from chatter brain. If I happen to wake up in the middle of the night, it’s nearly impossible for me to turn off my thoughts. Sometimes the ideas are good, but often it’s just the same old loop being replayed. I wanted to find a way to eliminate the things that might be getting in the way of genuine focus. I really wanted a way to still my overactive mind.
Here’s what Dr. Schwartz told me to do:
"Sit still in a chair, in a quiet room, for 20 minutes, and just watch yourself breathe. Pick a time and a place when you can be reasonably sure no one will interrupt you. Close the door to minimize outer distractions. Sit comfortably in a chair, or cross-legged on the floor, with your hands resting in your lap. You can close your eyes, or you can keep them open but unfocused. Place your attention on the inner rim of your nostrils, where you can feel the subtle movement off air as you breathe in and out.
Now, ‘watch’ your breathing go in, go out, go in, go out. Make a mental note for each in-breath and out-breath like this: ‘breathing in,’ ‘breathing out.’ Or just ‘in’ and ‘out.’ Try to be aware of the entire in-breath, from the time it starts to the time it stops. This is the time to make the mental note ‘breathing in,’ if that's your choice of note. Don't worry about the exact words, it's the process of observing yourself that's critical. Then try to be aware of the entire out-breath, from the time it starts to the time it stops. This is the time to make the mental note ‘breathing out.’
"Now, if you suddenly notice that your mind has wandered away from your breathing, just make a mental note of that. For example, ‘wandering, wandering,’ or ‘thinking, thinking,’ or ‘imagining, imagining’. Then gently bring your attention back to an in-breath or out-breath, and continue observing and making mental notes of those observations."
I made it for all of about 30 seconds before my mind started to buzz off to faraway places. But I didn't give up. The next time I did it, I maintained my mindful awareness for almost two minutes. On the third try, I made it to nearly five minutes. Over time, I gradually increased the time to where I could make it to about 30 minutes.
Eventually I discovered that the 20-minute mark is my "sweet spot." I added some gentle Zen-like instrumental music to the process, which some say only adds distraction. But for me, it works. The 20 minutes of meditation leaves me in a quiet calm, and prepares me for another Eastern practice I conduct daily, that of hansei, or reflection.
I spend about 10 minutes a day conducting hansei, immediately following a meditation. Here's what I do:
- Review experience. I answer a few simple questions as they relate to my day:What was supposed to happen? (What did I think would happen?) What actually happened? What accounts for any differences or gaps between what I thought or expected to happen and what actually happened?
- Look for patterns. I note any recurring themes from previous hansei, and write down any potential connections among seemingly unconnected things. I always carry a notebook with me to do that.
- Riff and project. I try to think of a few "what if?" ideas that come to mind based on the first two steps. I jot down opportunities to test out those new ideas. Sometimes I take my "what ifs" and turn them into "if-then" hypotheses: what do I think will happen if I do (X)? I'll make some quick notes—to-dos, to-donts, etc.—that will initiate my thoughts and provide some preliminary direction.
I find that a bit of mental nothingness followed by some mental somethingness really sets the stage for my more creative moments, and allows my mind to more easily and often find "the zone," or that "flow" state.
Try it and let me know what you think!
Next week, I'll share with you yet another mind-quieting technique I've toyed with, called neurofeedback training. In fact, I'll share with you how to "paint your brain."