I’ve been sitting on this post for over a year. I’ve rewritten it in my head dozens of times. I’ve taken it on a test drive with patients and myself. I’ve changed my mind. I’ve retooled. Now it is time.
Meditation is one of the most effective tools one can bring to their pursuit of wellness. The skill it teaches is likely the backbone of most effective psychotherapies- taking one’s will and executing it. That is not the tagline meditative practices would offer. Today I will explore why I am selling hard on this different approach. Regardless, meditation is one of the most valuable skills a person can have. Yet it still remains a largely uncommon practice.
One of the challenges is that few people realize they already meditate. Or at least that some activity they already do can become meditation by applying a mental framework. Do you have a thing you do that brings you calmness? Maybe something that can reliably improve your day or even a moment? Chances are you are on the doorstep of meditation each time.
Meditation may be the single most valuable tool in Tools of Titans. It pops up everywhere and next to diet seems to have the largest footprint in the book. Tim tackles it in his section called “Mind Training 101”, then again in Chade-Meng Tan’s section immediately after it. Arnold Schwarzenegger weighs in. Josh Waitzkin, Jason Nemar, Peter Attia, Tara Brach, Chase Jarvis, Rick Rubin, Tony Robbins, etc, etc, etc. Tim estimates over 80% of Titans have some meditative practice. Many of their routines didn’t even make it into the book.
Clearly meditation is intrinsic to some sort of intentional outcome that elite performers rely on accessing.
My background in meditation is absolutely nil. It was for hippies. When I started osteopathic medical school I read Touch of Life by Robert Fulford to get some perspective on manipulative medicine. It talked through meditation. I have tried progressive muscle relaxation a few times in my life. I went to a few yoga or Pilates classes. That’s about it. Nothing I would call a wellness practice.
When I started listening to Tim’s podcast I was hesitant to buy high on meditation. Sure a bunch of rich people do this. They probably don’t go to work until 10am and work it in between their personal chef’s breakfast and their personal training sessions in their giant home gym. It was also too metaphysical for me. Mind you, I had no basis for that idea. It was all stigma. Assumptions that made me feel better about not doing it.
However meditation kept coming up in podcasts. It wasn’t a bunch of hot air either. Naval Ravikant does it while walking. Rick Rubin does it in the sun. Tara Brachs interview is one of the best descriptions of a morning I can think of having. I think it was Josh Waitzkin and Arnold Schwarzenegger that finally sold me. The former made it sound very scientific. The latter, well, I will take any advice he has. I figured this must be something to look into.
What really stuck with me was a quote by Tara that also made it into the book: “the muscle you’re working is bringing your attention back to something.” This was a watershed moment. I’d heard people talk about mental muscles before in the context of professional development. It made sense. It removed the mysticism and religious association I had from the orange guys that would sit on Hayden Lawn at ASU. It was a mental skill no different than the process I used to help people in therapy. Even a mental skill needed practice and maintenance.
Meditation isn’t some Buddhist thing that requires bendy hips, water fountains, and ferns. It is a skill. A skill you need to have in your life every day like exercise. Having it present brings baseline gains in addition to episodic benefits when you really need it.
In my mind mediation is the practice of taking your thoughts from where they are to where you want them to be. Psychotherapy highlights the ways that this skill is undeveloped. People who consider themselves skilled at executing a plan generally also have a high degree of skill at directing their thoughts and managing their emotions. The muscle that allows them to problem solve a crisis allows them to efficiently shift focus from unhelpful thoughts to ones that work. It’s not to say they are perfect at it but they are better than most. I hypothesize that is why so many Titans meditate. They routinely need to access the ability to navigate stress (“challenges”) and be able to dictate where their emotions reside at certain times.
Any act that furthers that skill constitutes meditation so long as you have actively decided to engage it. Running becomes meditative if you dedicate a portion of your workout to taking your thoughts away from your sore feet or the stitch in your side. Listening to music in the car is meditative if you set aside a time each day where you practice letting your thoughts dwell on the lyrics or a single instrument in a song. As Chade-Meng Tan points out, just one breath is mediatation. In this way meditation is a tool you have in your pocket at every moment.
Another barrier to the widespread meditative practice we all should have is time. We don’t think we have any more for anything. You really do have time to meditate. If you did any of the following today you had an opportunity to meditate- brushed teeth, showered, sat in a car, use the restroom, rode an elevator, walked a block. Finding time is the easy part. Deciding you are going to do what you ask of yourself is hard.
Luckily there is no right way to do it. Doing it with intent is more valuable than the amount of time spent or the method used. As is very Buddhist and mindful, the idea that you have to do it a certain way has already missed the point. In this way I even find the recommendation to be present somewhat leading. Why is my breath more valueable than thinking with contentedness about my last vacation? I don’t think it is. Therefore it is important to reframe it to say “I should focus on whatever I want to give my attention”.
If I can focus on anything why is everyone so emphatic about the breath? There certainly are some very metaphysical answers here that I can’t do justice. Instead I like to think that your breath is a reliable tool you can take with you anywhere. It is always the same (generally). It is always under your control or on autopilot. No one is responsible for your breath but you. In this way the breath is a very valuable training tool. Think of it as the TRX straps of mindfulness.
At this point I am certainly upsetting a lot of people with my wild claims about meditation. Already I’ve challenged dogma and offered ideas that are not meditation or mindfulness at all. Well, keep following me if you will.
What I want to do now is walk through my preferred method of meditation. Next week I will supplement this with analyzing the ideas about meditation in Tools of Titans. There are so many in the book I don’t want to divide the focus of a single post.
Meditating by Intent
Phase 1: The Prime
As with anything you are trying to make a habit, if you can add a repeatable introduction step you are more likely to find success. This “priming” gives your body and mind a cue of what you are about to do. It engages muscle memory more effectively.
Golfers addressing a shot, tennis players at service, basketball free throws, and baseball pitchers and batters pre-pitch are perfect examples. They will sometimes call it a trigger because the actions set a sequence in motion.
Therefore I recommend starting out with something high yield you can do in about 30 seconds to get the rhythm going. By high yield I mean that it makes you feel good or at least that you like doing it. Have fun before the work phase. Wim Hoff does a similar thing every morning with a string or breathing exercises.
I like to start with very deep breaths using a loud forceful inhalation and exhalation. A breath becomes really deep when I can feel my second and third ribs getting in on the game. They have a pump-handle motion compared to the bucket-handle of your mid-thoracic ribs. If you feel for it you can really discern that up and down feel those ribs have during a breath. This extra space is often the difference between the Vital Capacity and Tidal Volume of your breath. In other words, the breath you’re capable of as opposed to the breath you use. I like making it loud because the first minute of meditation is usually where I’m still getting the rambling thoughts out of my head. The noise helps cancel thoughts better than silence. Like a set of Bose headphones for mindfulness.
2. Quiet Phase
We just did our warm up. Now let’s do some base work. In endurance sports, base training is the where you spend most of your time. It is how you build endurance and increase your tolerance for volume rather than speed. It’s low and slow to minimize injury and not engage your anaerobic system.
I think this is a perfect analogy for anything sustainable you want to bring to your life. You won’t be able to run a marathon by doing wind sprints every day for 30 minutes. In the marathon of life, your emotions are better managed by building your mindful base. Quiet, slow, easy, repeatable meditation.
Here I would shoot for 50-75% of your total meditation time. In a 10-minute meditation that would be 5-7 minutes. Allow your natural breath to dominate. As thoughts return or focus wanders, try to recognize it is happening and very softly and slowly return to your breath. If you feel you are “snapping back” to breath-focus it’s counterproductive. That snap is an expression of your judgment that you are making a mistake in meditation.
3. The Work Phase
Okay I’ve already committed mindfulness heresey but now I’m going to double-down on that. As with any skill you want to improve, why wouldn’t you throw a little challenge into the mix? Some will argue that the natural course of life will create enough challenge to help you achieve meditative skill. Okay, I agree. However that sets the bar quite high. For some they are finding meditation in a moment of emotional crisis. “Here go practice not focusing on your crisis” doesn’t help.
Instead I like the idea of creating multiple focal sources and moving between them. It is a basic skill in endurance sports where athletes will practice mentally focusing on their form, their breathing, their environment all in a predetermined rhythm. The idea being that if I practice that movement when I don’t need it, it will be there when I do.
Two things I think are the highest yield for this are music and a metronome. With music I like to practice separating out different instruments. I will alternate between them and then come back to the breath. Guitar. Breath. Drums. Breath. Cow bell. Images of Will Ferrell’s belly. Breath. With a metronome I like to alternate between being aware of my breath and aware of the metronome. Almost to see if I can become unaware of the other.
To make it more concrete I would treat this like a Tabata/HIIT/Fartlek exercise. 20 seconds hard, 10 seconds easy, 20 seconds hard, 10 seconds easy, etc. Repeat for 8 cycles (16 total reps) and do two sets. This will take your meditation over 10 minutes. You can either alternate base and work days with a 70% focus on base or you can decrease the time for your cycles. Just keep a 2:1 ratio hard:easy.
4. Cool Down
The best part of any workout is the end. I like Josh Waitzkin’s idea of ending any task on a high-quality note. This sets you up for future success by leaving your subconscious and conscious associations in a positive place. This will increase your likelihood of meditating again.
Here I steal from Naval Ravikant’s practice of walking meditation. Let’s close our session out with eyes wide-open and a positive appreciation of the world around you. From the moment you leave your meditation the world is going to return to its mission of affecting your life. Why not create time to intentionally enjoy this affectiveness? Experience appreciation and gratitude for what these moments offer you. Call on any of your 5 senses to provide you input.
It can be so powerful to be able to say “I spend a portion of every day appreciating my world.” That’s another very common routine for people Tim interviews.
Okay so once again, I recognize I am offering an idea that is not meditation by the classic sense. Much of what meditation is and why it is thought to be effective is exactly counter to what I have outlined. I agree. It is blasphemy.
However I have met many people who don’t think meditation works for them. So they don’t do it. I have also met many athletes who speak emphatically about the game-changer it can be to do mental training similar to how I’ve outlined. So why not have a go? By building this skill eventually you will that marathon runner who can go out have fun running when a race isn’t on the line. So too will you be able to meditate daily when you don’t need it and kick it up when life challenges you to a race.