I've heard about the benefits of meditation for much of my life. Five years ago, I tried to get into it. I went to local classes and yoga. I even did an all-day retreat. As much as I tried, I couldn't translate these experiences into my non-Namaste life.
My breakthrough came at the start of 2016. I tried an online app and started with five minutes a day, three times a week. The app is easy to use and keeps me engaged with fun, competitive games. After six months, I was at an average of 10-15 minutes per day. In the last few months of 2016 I was at 20 minutes per day.
How has meditation made a difference in my life? And more important, what can it do for you? I notice small changes throughout my day-to-day. But recently I had a huge challenge I was able to overcome thanks to my meditative routine.
I love to run extreme marathons. For 2016, I joined up with 60 other crazy runners to take on Danko Island, a 250 kilometer path in Antarctica. In addition to preparing physically for the race, I loaded my iPhone with music, audiobooks, and podcasts to keep myself going. The night before our week-long race, we were on a ship through Drake Passage, one of the roughest seas in the world. In retrospect, I was foolish to take off the case so it was easier to charge my iPhone. We were carried up and over some huge waves. The ship pitched violently and my phone slid off the table, hit the floor face down and smashed the glass. Yah, I should have known better.
Gone were access to all music, podcasts and audiobooks needed to keep me entertained during the seven-day adventure that was starting the next morning. With a pit in my stomach, I reached for the phone hoping against hope that it would be salvageable. Confirming what I already knew, my phone was broken. What lay ahead were some very big voids of solace.
Oddly, there was an eerie calmness to the situation.
Let me tell you why: presence, one of the main fruits of my meditation practice.
Running 6-12 hours a day through deep snow and harsh wind are a real physical test and, as you may imagine, an even bigger mental challenge. Breaking my iPhone would take it to the next level: I had to be 100% present, truly and utterly, for the first time in my life. It was a little more presence than I had bargained for.
However, I found myself beyond grateful. I heard the crackle of ice, saw mini avalanches on the other island, watched big chunks fall into the ocean, along the bluest blue and perfectly carved by nature ice in the world. All I wanted is for those memories to stick into my mind forever.
Here are a few specific ways meditation helped me during the race in Antarctica:
1. Start the day off right
As General Colin Powell and General Stanley McChrystal share, doing one thing correctly first thing in the morning helps you face your day with confidence, even if it is just making your bed. I may only make my bed two days a week, however, I start every day after the alarm goes off with at least 20 min of meditation. This is my quiet entry into the world. I work through things on my mind from the previous day and always come up with one or two positive ideas or intentions for the day ahead. During the race, meditating kept me focused and ready to face the new challenges each day offered.
2. Face Adversity
Mathieu Richard, Biochemist turned Buddhist Monk and self-proclaimed happiest man in the world, says meditation awakens neurons in the brain that stoke feelings of happiness. When meditating, a person faces moments of minor adversity, bursts of distraction, that require a quick refocus. Mental adversity faced in continual sessions build the muscle memory to quickly overcome obstacles and provide calm in our lives. If you look at the brain waves during meditation, which the app I use shows, you can see where the mind is calm or active during the ups and downs. That 20 minutes is a microcosm of the ups and downs I faced for hours on end every day for a week in one of the most remote places on earth.
Meditating teaches you to keep control of your thoughts. You can then better control your ups and downs throughout the day. When you reduce the distance travelled on the emotional roller coaster, you increase your resistance to mental and physical breakdown.
3. Chunk it out
Huge problems are incredibly stressful. So how does one deal with an enormous challenge? Breaking into smaller ones. Concentrating well for 20 minutes is hard. When meditating, your goals isn’t to focus for 20 minutes. It is to focus in the moment, for 10 breaths and to keep that focus up for 20 minutes.
During the race, before heading into the bitter elements, I focused on the obstacles the day would present before meeting them. A mantra began to develop: balanced, strong and grateful, repeated in my head throughout the race and carried me, hour to hour and day to day, to the end of the competition.
4. Calm in the storm
Sometimes it is the pre-trial that sets the stage for the main event. Four weeks before I left for Antarctica I sprained my ankle. I saw my adventuring life flash before my eyes. I had two options: freak out or breath in deep and do some self-diagnoses. I was present, calm and started problem solving. Over the next two hours I got professional input, focused on reducing inflammation and started a plan for healing and rehab. I focused on was hourly icing, daily healing and meeting weekly improvement mileposts to get back up on my feet and gaining the strength to get to the start line. When I look back, this is a part of my race I am most proud of. Meditation provided patience pre-race that allowed me to leverage calm and presence during the race.
When I returned from the race, people asked how I would describe Antarctica.
Antarctica is like experiencing silence, pure stillness, beauty, presence, and a calm that I am likely never to see again in my lifetime.
Meditation is as close as you can get to that feeling at home.
If you are interested in bringing more calm and presence into your life three apps I would look at are:
Each app has pros and cons. Try them out and find the one that is right for you.
Based on the success, the impact and calm meditation has brought me,I am committed to 30 minutes per day in 2017.
To a calm, intentional and thoughtful 2017 ahead.