…And instead I ended up unclenching my heart
I’ll admit it. I started meditating to be more like Kobe Bryant or Ray Dalio than the Dalai Lama. As a Self-Identifying “Productivity-Hacker” (with evolving views) and Aspirational “High-Performer,” I was always on the prowl for a new tool in the “tool kit.”
For background, I started meditating in May 2015 after leaving a 14 year career in finance. I think that my state of mind could best be reflected by Lao Tzu:
Following Ray Dalio’s (not to mention Jeff Bridges, Moby, and Clint Eastwood — yes, I’m pretty impressionable) lead I signed up for a three day course in Transcendental Meditation (“TM.”)
TM is a mantra-based meditation (i.e. you repeat a sound/word in your head) and is NOT focused on eliminating thoughts (that would be bad for me). The recommended practice is two 20 minute sessions per day, preferably first thing in the AM and then in the afternoon. In the past year, I estimate that I’ve meditated for 12,470 minutes (or 207 hours, or 8.6 days) and at this point it’s become a non-negotiable part of my life, on par with exercising.
My practice consists of a 5:15 AM session, right when I awake and I try to leave space in my schedule between 3–5 PM (although, while not always possible, I can usually do it right before bed at 10 PM as a backstop.)
I approached meditation with a very open mind, but highly skeptical of the “cost/benefit” analysis of the practice (i.e. the “Return on Time”). I want to share my observations, skepticism, and resulting practice.
Our minds — Messy, Reactive, Tired and Taxed
As the Lao Tzu quote so accurately describes, my mind was whirring at a mile-a-minute — with no interruption.
I’m going to date myself here, but in college we drank a lot of Long Island Iced Teas aka “LIT”(1).
For the first 35 years of my life, my brain felt like a LIT. It was the complicated cocktail of… well, Life (fears, insecurities, ambition, love, heartbreak, parents, first generation immigrant value systems, experiences, biases, resentment, grief, envy, … you get the point) — which I summarize below with an Emoji masterpiece.
This is exacerbated by our tendency to:
- Over-Index on the Negative: Behaviorally, we remember negative experiences more than positive ones. Great.
- The “Comparing Mind:” I’m taking this from the Buddhists, but I was so obsessed with external validation and society’s “markers of success” that they clouded my judgement.
- Our iPhone ? Obsessions: Which deserve its own category, below
Step AWAY from the iPhone
We are bombarded with information and notifications (exacerbated by the big tech companies really psychologically hacking our brains). Take the following example regarding “context switching.”
Wow. Layer on the guilt for Aspiring High-Performers that there’s SO MUCH GREAT CONTENT TO READ AND LISTEN TO (Yes, indeed there is) and as a result our brains our overtaxed, overstimulated, and just damn tired.
A good analogy is to look at young kids and their primary activities: exploring, pooping, eating and sleeping. Kids are happy in all of these states, the difference being the impact on energy summarized below:
As adults, we are over-exposed to the “exuberant energy” yet dismissive of the “restorative energy” — enter meditation.
My Post-Meditation Mind: Glassy
Surfers typically discuss the ideal conditions as “glassy” (as opposed to choppy or wind-swept). 12,740 minutes later my mind feels much stiller and a lot of clarity has ensued, like a glassy surf day. ??
But First, the Present Moment
Why are we so scared of it?
Question for you — when was the last time you idly sat around and did nothing? Or walked around without headphones on? I was the worst at this, listening to audiobooks on “Chipmunk setting ?” (i.e. 2.5x speed), instantly grabbing a book/magazine/phone when I was on the couch, even reading the back of labels when I was waiting for my wife while grocery shopping. I sent out some amazing tweets from the playground and devoured my Instapaper queue while my daughter played on the slides. Why?
All in the name of “productivity?” That was the irony, I wasn’t playing Candy Crush, nor was I even listening to a Bill Simmons podcast. I was reading about Cognitive Biases or finding esoteric leadership articles for RadReads. Dan Harris (2) summarized this well:
“With one foot in the past and one in the future, we’re pissing on the present.”
Escapism in the Name of Productivity
It took me a while (and a lot of meditation) to notice that my productivity obsession masked my escapism. I’ve come a long way in noticing and engaging with some of my deep-rooted fears (being broke, dying, failure, FOMO) and being present somehow felt like a waste of time in terms of shit which needed to get done. I mean, dude, if I’m going to DIE, I better leave a mark on this earth somehow.
12, 740 minutes later — What do you have to show for?
I don’t want to misrepresent meditation as being the panacea to these fears (spoiler alert — it’s not) but it did open me up and give me the awareness to engage with the voice in my head in a more constructive way. Specifically, presence enabled the following first order effects:
[INSERT ARROW CHART]
- Gift of Presence — I felt this very tangibly with my 2 year old daughter. I’m around her often, but I really started to pick up on her subtle cues around her quirks (always tucking herself into tiny corners), personality (she flirts with my bearded friends, Exhibit A and B), we made up new fun games together (like drawing animals) and learning new ways in which I can soothe her, which I usually believed were solely mom’s super-powers. I really believe that I’m now capable of seeing many more of the beautiful moments in her life.
- Listening (to Others) — As a married male, it’s safe to assume that we’ve been reprimanded by better-halves for not listening. My escapism was having an impact on my marriage, Lisa would say “You’re there, but you’re not there” and it’s true — even if I wasn’t on my phone, I was ideating on something or updating a mental to-do list. (To dig in on how this is fear-based, listen to Jerry Colonna interview Joseph Chura.)
- Listening (to Myself) — While reasons one and two have the most direct impact on those I love, this one has probably impacted me the most deeply. With presence (and decreased escapism) I was finally listening to myself — as Parker Palmer (one of my favorite philosophers) writes, Letting my Life Speak. I was listening to my own cues around my passions (teaching others, writing) which is moving me closer towards my vocation or true calling. I could notice when I was over-extending myself and also was more in tune with the people in my life who were energy providers (as opposed to energy vampires ? — we all know the type!).
- Unclenching of my heart — And finally I became more open and authentically vulnerable, which has helped me become more compassionate. I believe that I have more love and positive Joojoo to share with those around me. This is also a very raw state to be in, you’re exposed, but it’s the state that I have chosen to be in. Especially after having a carried a clenched heart for so long.
It’s a lot, but those were just the first-order effects
There are second-order effects?!?!
- Kinesthetic Intelligence Increase — This could also be described as refining your “gut instinct” and a concept I’ve learned from Josh Waitzkin (who teaches meditation to Hedge Fund Managers, listen @ minute 28). With clarity, you become more trusting of your instincts, improving your decision making.
- Awareness of my Cognitive Biases — Extending the point above, this clarity, presence and awareness has made me more attuned to my own Behavioral Biases.
- Worry Less (and sitting with my fears) — In Buddhism there is a term called Prapañca, which can be described as “The Imperialistic Tendency of the Mind” or the “Useless Narrative” in our heads. It’s a simple formula, you have a big client pitch, you’re scared of fucking up, you fuck up, you get fired, can’t pay your rent, and you and your family end up on the street. From one trigger (the client pitch) we have the tendency to extrapolate into our biggest fears (being dead and broke).
- Letting Go and Forgiveness — This is related to Prapañca but even more externally focused; the glassy mind helps the small shit just roll off and the unclenched heart paves the way for forgiveness. There’s a specific meditation called Loving-Kindness (or Metta) during which you specifically direct positive thoughts to specific individuals with a simple meditation. I’ve occasionally practiced this (on top of TM) and it really is a magical experience (which is scientifically proven to increase empathy).
- Being Proactive vs. Reactive — I’ve noticed more intentionality in my every day life in the following form: caring less about external validation, dictating the pace of my day all while “executing” with more accuracy. It’s hard to pinpoint, but the clarity from meditation has boosted my confidence (most likely through the reduction of my fears).
Thank you for reading this far, I write this from a place of deep passion, having recently lived through it. I plan on writing more on the topic, beginning with this “tweetstorm” on how to begin. There are no “quick fixes” and the benefits of meditation are seen in tiny, incremental steps. In fact, I recognize them more on the days during which I don’t meditate. The practice of meditation provides a unique “vessel” for increased compassion, which the world is currently lacking and if the gateway to this compassion is a tool to be a high-performer, than it’s a win-win.
Khe Hy is the creator of Rad Reads a publication dedicated to Being your Best Authentic Self. Mindfulness and Knowing Yo’ Self are frequently covered in the Rad Reads Newsletter, delivered each Saturday AM. Subscribe Here!
- If we were going big, we’d drink Tokyo Iced Teas which substituted the “splash of coke” with midori, making the cocktail 100% alcohol.
- Dan Harris’ book 10% Happier (despite the click-baity title) is a great read on meditation and Buddhism. As a Type A news correspondent, he approaches the topic with healthy skepticism and pragmatism, and like this blog post, the desire to “perform.” He ends up, well, you’ll have to read it. (Side note — a great Audiobook candidate.)