I am not a dirty hippie. No, honestly, I’m not. I am, in fact, a grumpy, skeptical, philosophically materialist atheist. Yet, on and off for the last 15 years I have practiced meditation.
It feels good, helps me relax and it makes my mind feel clear, perceptive and sharp afterwards. It was only recently that I started doing it in conjunction with programming. The match was so good, that I felt the proselytic urge to share what I had found. My example is programming, but it can obviously be any intensive, possibly creative, mental task, such as writing, studying or playing Yahtzee.
In the 60s and 70s all sorts of fantastical and simply untrue claims were made about meditation. Unfortunately that can make people zone out when they read about recent research of higher quality that shows many real effects. See for example this Wikipedia page on meditation research.
Meditation has, among other things, been shown to increase happiness and well-being and physically change structures in the brain related to those things. It improves short-term memory. It may decrease blood pressure and risk of heart attack.
But you don’t actually have to care about any of those things. The effects after a 15 (or possibly 10 if you’re really in a hurry) minute “successful” meditation are so obvious that you should be able to evaluate if it is worth it to you, on that alone. Many do longer than 15 minutes. 30 minutes or more is not unusual. But perhaps you have a busy day - 15 minutes is enough.
Programming or problem-solving
Before settling down to meditate, decide on what you want to work on next. If there is some creativity or problem-solving involved, start by very quickly going through the problem in your mind, just long enough so that you have put what needs to be done within what constraints into words.
Now here’s the trick - don’t solve or design anything yet. Fight that urge. Let those thoughts vanish for now. It is especially important that you don’t think about the task during the actual meditation. Your subconscious will take care of that.
Afterwards you will be in a mentally refreshed state, ready to jump in and create. It feels different.
Meditation has always worked well for me as a cure for procrastination. If you need to do something that you have been putting off, it is easy to convince your mind that you might do it even better after some meditation. Easy, because that let’s you avoid the task even longer. However, promise yourself that you will do it right after you are done.
Sit for how long you want. If you get impatient after a while and long to do something, great! Just stop and do your task. Right after meditation you will be in a very special state. Facing that task, as long as it is well-defined, will probably no longer feel like anything special at all.
When I write “meditation”, I mean evoking the relaxation response through mental silence. The basic concept is really stupendously easy. 1) Just sit. 2) And don’t have an inner dialogue.
First part you can do, right? I suppose you can lie down as well, but we are not going for sleepy here. Thus sitting seems to convey the right sense of calm wakefulness. Also, if you are doing this in an office, sitting meditation in your chair might be slightly unusual, but getting down and lying on the floor will be too full on eccentric for most people.
But the second part. No inner dialogue. That usually scares people. “I can never do that”. “Even if you think about not thinking, that is thinking too”, etc. This is where various techniques come in. You will have to find out what works for you.
The most important thing to know is that you will have thoughts. Your inner dialogue will notice the silence and try to kickstart all sorts of new interesting internal conversations. This is not failure or you doing something wrong, it is what brains do. Just notice what happens and, no matter how tempting and interesting that thought seemed, let it pass. It will come back to you when you are done. Redirect your attention to something else. How good it feels to breathe out, for example. The longer you sit, the more space it will be between these attempts of your brain to start the dialogue again. Also, as you meditate more often, your thoughts will get sparser quicker.
When you start out, or when you pick up the habit after a long hiatus, you will have lots of meta thoughts of the type “Hmm.. how am I doing?”, “Is this right?”, “This does feel kinda good” and “OMG, my mind was totally silent for a bit there!”. That, too, is normal. When you catch yourself doing it, don’t judge. Just let the thought go.
It tends to be easier if you close your eyes, I think. But feel free to gaze at something calming or hypnotic or just into the distance. For something to focus on besides the mind’s chatter, try one or two of the suggestions below.
One technique is to focus on your breathing. In through your nose, out through your mouth. Slowly. Focus on how it feels. When words come, return to your breathing. Some people imagine breathing in energy or “good stuff” or whatever. Some people count their breaths to 10 and then over from 1 again. I don’t use that myself, because counting feels, to me, slightly like dialogue. It is effective at stopping other words, though.
Imagine you are a mountain. A patient, wise Japanese one. Sit like a mountain. Or, imagine that your mind is a completely still lake or pool. No ripples. Calm.
Imagine a spot of light in the middle of your forehead. Or maybe a laser. Shine it.
Compassionate meditation is an alternative that can feel good. Imagine a small sphere around you. Wish everything within it well. Give everything within compassion and love. Slowly expand your sphere. Smile and breathe.
Getting started can be the tricky part. One way to help this is to borrow techniques from hypnosis. For example, with each slow breath you may image yourself taking one step further down a ten step stair that leads to a door. When opened, the door leads to a calm nature scene that you have chosen in advance. You sit down and start your meditation.
Also it helps if you are in a reasonably calm state to begin with. If you are all wound up, mind racing, maybe stressed about something, it will be much harder to let yourself settle down and relax.
The most effective way I know of reaching a meditative state is through sound. Specifically, through brainwave entrainment. I know. Just the word “brainwave” makes it sound like such a load of bullcrap.
Just like with meditation there are some weird claims about entrainment, like being able to overcome all sorts of maladies, heal wounds faster, etc. Ignore those things. If any of those benefits exists at all, they are just secondary effects of being able to relax and sleep better.
What certainly is real, though, is that our brain sends out electromagnetic waves of various frequencies. Depending on what state we are in, different frequencies dominate. Here is a table of different frequencies and when they dominate. Meditation happens in the alpha and theta regions.
What is also real, is that listening to auditory pulses of specified frequencies makes your brain emit those same frequencies stronger. Thus, listening to pulses of theta or alpha frequencies (4 - 13 Hz) makes you emit more of those. Of course the association between relaxation and alpha waves might not go both ways. This might just be a mixup of cause and effect and making the brain emit more alpha waves might not make you more relaxed.
Well, studies show that they do. Less interesting to you, perhaps, is that anecdotal evidence from myself and everyone I know that have tried it (including my infant girl, who I put to sleep that way a few times..) is that it makes you go into a meditative state (or, if you like the terminology better, elicits the relaxation response) faster than anything else. It might just be placebo, but given the evidence above, it is probably not. Also, it will work on the first try, so it really is very easy for you to try it out for yourself.
There are many programs that help you put together these sort of frequency curves, add background noise and stuff. Neuro-programmer 3 Home is very good, but only for Windows (rumoured to work on Linux + Wine) and a tad expensive. I recommend Gnaural, which gives you very detailed control, is free open source and works on Win, Mac and Linux.
There are many builtin examples, but I have posted a file that Gnaural can read, with a 15 minute 4-5 Hz meditation with isochronic pulses for headphones here. After the meditation phase is done (you will know without a doubt when that phase is done, because the higher frequencies will gently wake you up) I have put in 30 minutes of 40 Hz. If it helps you with your productive phase, let it run. If it gives you a headache, turn it off.
Another good thing about entrainment is that it tells you when you are done, so you don’t have to wonder about how long you have been sitting.
So, in conclusion, don’t put it off. Take 15 minutes and try it right now. Then tell me in the comments what you thought.