Zen-Pond

My Early Experience with Meditation and Mindfulness

Almost 2 years ago I experienced a serious burnout. On the worst days I could barely get out of bed and one of my greatest passions; developing software, felt like a chore.

In recovery of this miserable mental state I was in search of ways to prevent relapse in the future. Meditation was one of the best things that came out of that quest which I still practice today.

I started very simple. Every day around 8PM I would sit at least 20 minutes being aware of my breath, with my eyes closed. If my mind would wander I would try to bring it back to my breath. The first week was great and I felt really relaxed.

However, in the weeks that followed I became increasingly frustrated because I couldn't keep focus on my breath for a few seconds at a time. My mind was wandering constantly. On top of that my thinking about thinking (meta-cognition) increased and during the day I was constantly catching myself thinking about the most trivial things.

Soon I realized that this was actually a good thing and resulted from a growing awareness. It does sound kind of paradoxical in the beginning, to be mindful you have to think more and the goal is to reduce thinking.

Alan Watts describes it beautifully:

Most of us think compulsively all the time, that is to say we talk to ourselves. Now obviously if I talk all the time I don't hear what anyone has to say and so in exactly the same way if I think all the time, that is to say if I talk to myself all the time I don't have anything to think about except thoughts and therefore I'm living entirely in the world of symbols and I am never in relationship with reality.

After some time you come to realize that it's impossible to stop your thinking and you have a lot less control over your thoughts than you think. Sometimes I hear something like this from an instructor; just clear your thoughts. I find this very amusing and to me that sounds the same as if somebody would say; don't think of a pink elephant.

It's better to say. Move your attention to X, and as a consequence if your concentration is strong and you can keep your focus on X long enough it will seem that your mind will become clear or at least the volume of your thoughts will go down. By always bringing your attention back to X you're training your attention muscle and it will become easier and easier. X can be anything but I prefer a bodily sensation, more specific the sensation of the breath through the nostrils.

I guess the message I want to leave you with is that it's normal to struggle in the beginning and that it might get worse before it gets better.

Nowadays the main reason I meditate is not to prevent burnout anymore but it is one of the many benefits you'll undoubtedly experience when you practice persistently.