I meditate (and why you should care)

I've been meditating regularly for about a year and a half. I started out lightly, going from 5 minutes a day to 10, 15, 20 and now since about a year ago up doing two 20 minute sessions a day.

This is not the first time meditating - I've dipped my toes into it now and then, the first time being about 15 years ago when I found a book about it and decided to give it a go. Back then it didn't last very long and I probably was going about it in spectacularly wrong ways.

But about a year and a half ago I took it up as a more serious attempt. I'll admit the reason was mainly to see if I could squeeze out some more brainpower since I felt I was hitting my wall constantly.

It did pay off - but I think what it brought was not only pleasant but a whole new take on life - where getting mentally a bit more focused was only a fraction of all good things.

What is it?

If anyone still is oblivious - here are the short basics: Sit down, focus on your breath and try to stay to be aware of what you are doing right now. Which is breathing. Just sense the breath going in and out and keep your mind solely on that for 20 minutes. Done. Oh, except -your mind will wander and you won't keep your mind on your breath for more than 20-30 seconds at a time.

When it does wander and you wake up to notice that it has - don't beat yourself up - this stuff has to gentle. Simply acknowledge that it wandered and bring your attention back to your object of meditation (such as the breath) and try to stay there as long as you can until it starts to wander again.

To time yourself - set some kind of alarm - but make it a non obtrusive and serene. I have an app I'm using where it plays a gong on a reasonable level once when it starts and once when it stops. That's it. The key point for me is that you don't have to turn anything off once its over. Alarms needs some action and after a session you just want to stop at your own pace.

Sounds simple huh? It is. The hard part is to keep at it because you will be set back a number of times. Chances are you'll never do a 20 minute session straight without mind wandering. That's ok. Its not a goal either - its just part of a bigger journey.

But why?

As scientists have discovered - your brain is wonderfully plastic: it can change itself and the thoughts you think changes the pathways which in turn changes how you think.

Its a non-linear system. You can use this and meditation taps into this. Brain scans on mediators have shown that their brains change within 8 weeks of meditation practice.

Brain changes are maybe fine and dandy - but what does that give you other than a different brain from that you had yesterday?

I'm a programmer - not a hippie Jim!

Indeed. The benefits are easily googled. Some sites have more scientific backing, some don't. I won't rehash in detail all arguments again here - go follow some links and come back. I'll put a spin on the arguments in a programmers perspective to add something to the discussion.

Better focus and attention - Programming if anything needs focus. You know - when you're in the zone. But with this you will be better at getting in the zone and staying there.

Improved memory retention - one of your most important assets.  The more of the workings of the code your head the better. If its out there in eclipse or vim, its going to take longer to solve the problem and its more likely that you'll find pitfalls when you've gone further down the wrong tracks.

Improved working memory - same here. More parts of a problem in your head - better solution by discarding of faulty branches and or combining more novel solutions of the parts.

Improved perspective taking / creativity - I've chronicled creativity and taking different perspectives before. The more I get into this - the more I think this is the stuff that makes a really great programmer. The ability to switch sides on a problem.

More social - Engineering is a team sport whether you like it or not. You need to talk to others and you benefit greatly from having others as sounding boards. If google says that there are no genius programmers then it must be true. There are however very clever programmers that gets inputs and ideas from others and juxtapose them into something great. 

Less stressed - Stress and pressure kills cognition if anything. When you're faced with deadlines or just the weight of life you will head for the old beaten path because its familiar missing obvious and valuable clues. You don't take the time to let things sink in first.

When searching for more benefits I stumled upon a good discussion on stack exchange which elaborates on the points above a bit more.

Drawbacks

Clear blue sky! Soft bunnies and free coffee for all? Or to get all of this wonderf├╝l - what's the cost?

It takes time - A bit ironic, this ties in with being stressed out in the first place. If you haven't got 10 minutes over to take care of your stress levels then you really really need 10 minutes to lower your stress level. But yes it's a hurdle and something has to go. Maybe its the TV? A fringe benefit is that meditators may need less sleep - but don't take meditation time from sleeping - that's a recipe for more stress. See it as a bonus.

It takes effort - It's tempting to go for the couch instead. Meditation is after all an activity where you do something - you focus. The key here is not to see it as a chore - but 20 minutes for yourself to calm down and feel better. To get to know yourself. It's a bit like going to the gym or getting exercise. Its not necessarily the act itself - it's the payoff afterwards.

It takes patience - Like said at the outset - these things also takes patience. The first time will probably be smooth sailing and you'll be thinking "Whats that drunk dude rambling about. I've got this". The first time will also have the biggest effect. Everything is much calmer and quieter after that first session.

Its the second, third, nth time when things are not going well that are hard. You get bored, you don't get the same calm effect afterwards (it's more ingrained in you now and the lows and highs are less noticeable), you get itchy, your mind constantly wanders and you're frustrated on why it can't perform such a simple task.

Touchy feely

Although its becoming more and more mainstream about half the pages you wind up on are plain weird. Its got that new age edge to it. Chakras and aura healing. There are also some religious connotations that might make some uncomfortable.

And since the weirdos still have some ins on this - some will regard you as weird for doing this. Kind of like therapy a decade ago - it meant you were crazy and had head problems. Meditation means you're a hippie who doesn't wear shoes to some.

This presents a dilemma for you - should you be open this this or try to stash it away when no one looks? I've opted for being open with this. I'm doing this and see great benefit from it. That's it. When and if others gets defensive or start to attack you - simply state that this is for you by you and others need not to apply (but they really would benefit from it too, but don't say that).

My experience is that everyone so far has been cool with it. I tell them I meditate and that I need to disappear for 20 minutes to do so. No one so far has opposed or questioned anything.

Research is still biased

There are shelves full of reports on meditation dating from the 70-ies - but a study from 2007 showed that most of the material lacked sorely on quality and objectiveness. People who are into this badly wants to prove that its working. Just like I am now :)

Also, people having positive experiences are more prone to answering and writing on it. I bet there are few who would start sites informing about the negative impact meditation have had on their life.

Although I've tried to take steps towards providing contrary arguments I'm writing this because I think I've noticed effects. But they might be coincidental. They might have happened anyway. They might not even have happened and I'm still the same as before - only thinking that I've changed. It might be something in the water. Can't know. Hence I'm also biased. 

Benefits as a programmer

Barring all the negatives I just racked up - I really think its a no-brainer when it comes to possibly upping your skills applicable to programming. More focused, less stressed, better memory and working memory, more creative. Especially that last one I think is the icing on the cake. To get better at perspective taking.

A bit like optmizing a program by inlining loops vs rethinking your data structure. You can get 2-3 times faster with really optimized assembly code. But its always that guy who rethinks the whole model that beats you by a factor of 10 in speed. And that shift requires taking perspective and coming up with novel solutions.

Benefits as a human

I wrote on the outset that this has been beneficial at large and not only for programming. That's probably the greatest takeaway from all of this. I feel much calmer and happier nowadays.

From this side it looks pretty clear that the ADHD society is taking its toll. Health costs are skyrocketing for illnesses that are linked to high stress and anxiety and the smartphones aren't helping this.

We are built for bursts of activity followed by periods of downtime. This stuff used to be built into our daily lives. A few minutes of just listening to the wind blow and so forth. We used to have time to stop and just ... stop. To wait.

Our minds are terrible at separating fantasies from reality - as to so that you can get the same physical response from a mere thought than you can from the real experience.

I firmly believe you can train your mind to select more on what you want to think instead of passively accepting everything your monkey mind wants to rant over. But for that you need to be aware of the process. And that starts with just sitting and waiting.

And the most convincing argument I've come up with that keeps me going after setbacks is - It can't hurt, right? What have you got to lose?

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