Meditation: An Exercise For Non-Spiritual People

Are you stressed out? Suffer anxiety? Quick tempered? Lack focus? Just feel on-edge?

Is it hard to be as productive as you want because you’re distracted, or have “ups and downs”? How about the feelings of guilt when you perceive that you are under-performing in some way? Trouble sleeping?

I’m not a doctor. Nor do I play one on T.V. So I’m not here to give medical advice if you think you have a severe clinical issue, you should definitely talk to someone smarter than me. Seek professional help. I’m just a dude that is happy to share an experience that has helped me tremendously in hopes that it might help you too.

I’ve been a fitness coach for 13 years. Tangible results are the cornerstone of the training I provide to my clients. If you’re doing an exercise and it’s not improving your health, then stop doing it. You either get results, or you get a new program.

Of course, there must be some patience. The most effective training possible can still take weeks to reveal the benefits. But hopefully, as the coach, I have done my research before I assign an exercise. I can predict what the results will be based on prior experience and evidence.

I try to stick to evidence-based fitness. In fact, I can use fitness as a great analogy for much of my actions in life. Evidence is a key feature I look for before adopting an idea. Of course, I’m human, complete with emotions, biases, and frequent mistakes. But I feel more confident when I am pursuing rational thought. 2 + 2 = 4, a is a, etc…

Although it’s fun to ponder the mysteries of the universe, at the end of the day I am a decidedly non-spiritual person*. So my curiosity for meditation has been tempered with my reluctance to listen to any religious dogma. I, like perhaps many of you, have associated meditation with spirituality, religion, or mysticism.

But then I kept hearing about the benefits of a daily meditation practice from several thoughtful people in secular arenas. The psychological and even physical benefits that were being put forward finally convinced me that it would be worth my time to invest 10 minutes per day for a while to see what it’s all about. So, I downloaded the Headspace App and took their 10 for 10 challenge: 10 minutes of guided meditation for 10 consecutive days. That was about a year ago.

I’d like to say I’ve kept it up every day since, but that’s not even close. I’ve missed days. A lot of days actually. According to my meditation app, I’ve meditated a total of 118 sessions in about the last 10 months. Literally, only 39% of the time since I started. Major life changes threw me off my habit for over a month straight at one point, and my most successful streak was the initial run where I practiced 34 out of 38 days. I’m telling you this because one of the big obstacles in getting people to try this is the idea that you have to be some kind of ultra-disciplined mindful guru in order to meditate “correctly”. But even with my sporadic attempts to make a daily habit, I have still seen tremendous benefit.

Another common misconception is if you’re unable to focus, you’re unable to meditate. But that’s like saying if you can’t squat 200kg (440lbs) then you can’t workout. It’s backward thinking. You have to start somewhere and 10 minutes of mind wandering may be where you start. Even that misses the real point though. You see, the mind wandering (and you noticing that your mind has wandered) is the exercise. That’s what meditation is.

Each time your mind wanders off, and you come to the sudden realization that you are no longer focused on your breath, that is a “rep”. Congratulations! You’re successful. Now do it again. Observe your breath, the mind wanders, you notice, you return to observing your breath, your mind wanders, you notice, you return, rinse and repeat.

This literally is the exercise for your brain. And just like any good fitness program, all you have to do is show up and be as consistent as you can be in doing the reps, and results will come.

In my case, I think I saw results in the first 35 days or so, but I wasn’t really sold on it until about 6-months in. I began to notice a general feeling of peace. An ease to my daily life. Sure I can still get upset, angry, stressed-out, but it’s so much less frequent. In fact, I went through about a 3-4 day funk recently where I really felt overwhelmed and depressed. The funny thing about it though was toward the end of that dip, I realized: that used to be normal. I used to feel that way a lot, now it was a foreign interruption. Day-to-day me is a lot less agitated than one-year-ago me. I have clarity for where I’m headed, and generally more patience to enjoy the present moment.

Know Thyself

A memento mori mosaic from excavations in the convent of San Gregorio in Rome, featuring the Greek motto. “Know Thyself”

I think the greatest motivation for continuing my meditation practice is self-knowledge. It may sound odd, but in the process of learning to meditate, I have learned a lot about myself. The amazing carry-over skill, is the ability to study myself, my thoughts, and my actions as if I’m a curious 3rd-party observer. It’s hard to describe, but this is like some kind of superpower. To be aware and present enough to ask myself, “What are you doing? Why are you thinking that? How are you feeling and why?”- is becoming a habit. Not when meditating, but throughout a normal day. It’s like I’ve exercised a muscle, that now allows me to lift heavy burdens and see what’s underneath.

This is huge, and perhaps one day I’ll find adequate words to convey the benefits. For now I’m still a novice, but I know enough to let you know that meditation is

  • nothing woo-woo
  • not necessarily spiritual
  • not a waste of time
  • and it’s not requiring herculean feats of mental discipline in order to reap huge positive results.

It’s simply an exercise – a workout for your brain. A short daily practice can literally improve your mind.

Who wouldn’t want that?

If you’ve been dismissive of meditation, or reluctant to try, hopefully I’ve at least given you a moment to pause and consider it as a tool. If I’ve piqued your curiosity enough to at least learn a little more, here are a couple of very short videos that are in line with my views on the matter.

And I would encourage you to try a guided meditation app. I happen to use Headspace. Consider it an experiment. 10-minutes per day for 10 days, and if it doesn’t seem too bad, keep going. Be patient. Instead of looking for results right away, just focus on seeing how many days in a row you can get the 10-minute exercise in. I imagine within a few months you’ll start to see some of what I’m talking about.

Have you brushed off the idea of meditating? If so, why?

Have you seen tangible results from a meditation practice? If so, what are they for you?

I would love to hear your views in the comments below.

*This article is not intended to be an argument against any particular religion, nor am I trying to come across as condescending. In fact, I think that many religious people may be ignoring meditation as a tool because they associate it with a religion that is not theirs. My hope with this article is not to convince anyone to give up their faith or sense of spirituality, but rather to demonstrate that meditation is simply a tool. It’s an exercise that one can do for the brain, just as one might do squats or running to work the legs. Meditation is non-religious and should be accessible to everyone, regardless of a religion or lack thereof.

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