You meditate? Are you a Buddhist? No? Do you practice Hinduism? What are you a tree huger?
Meditation? Isn't that for hippies?
Now hold up before you start judging give me a chance to explain.
I am extremely passionate about physical self improvement. Hell so much so that I built a career around it. But as I am sure a lot of you can attest to passion for self improvement in one area of your life often leads you to an overall passion to be the best human being you can in every way and in everything you do.
This has been the case for me. I have also come to believe that the better overall you feel and function personally the better performance you will have in all your endeavors. For me this is particularly important because I coach people on eating and exercise so they can live a better life. I want to be the best person I can be so I can be the best coach I can be and help people as much as possible. This defines my success.
Thus I took the same approach that I have taken time and time again in my life and that is follow the age old adage "stand on the shoulders of giants."
When I wanted to be a better catcher in baseball I spent many hours watching and studying the way Yadier Molina plays. When I wanted to be a better linebacker in football I studies the way Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis played the game. When I wanted to take my programming skills as a a trainer to the next level and I read anything that I could find written by Eric Cressey on the topic and bought any program he had ever created. The idea is not to reinvent the wheel and waste time trying to find the behaviors, habits, or principles that the successful people follow through trial and error, but instead use the experience and lessons learned by others to accelerate the learning curve.
I decided that I needed to read and listen to as much information as I could possibly consume regarding the psychology of successful people in order to identify key habits, behaviors, and cognitive processes that I can try and apply in my own life in order to help me be more successful as a person and as a professional.
The question is where the heck was I going to find this kind of information. I started with identifying successful people I respected and surfing the web looking for blog post they had written, book they had published, or interviews they had done. This worked pretty well and I did learn quite a bit in the process, but then I came across a recommendation for a book titled The Four Hour Chef by Tim Ferris. I had heard of Mr. Ferris previously because of his second book The Four Hour Body, but I had never really investigated him further or read any of his work. After The Four Hour Chef I was an instant fan.
Soon after Tim Ferris launched a podcast appropriately named The Tim Ferris Show with the goal of essentially interviewing world class performers in all kinds of fields and dissecting their lives to find the tactics they use to be successful. It was basically for the holy grail product for everything I had been wanting and Mr. Ferris was and is providing it for free.
There have been over 72 episodes now produced and over 60 something of which were interviews with world class performers. I have listened to ever single episode. I have learned a lot about a lot from this podcast and important to be a lot about the habits of successful people.
One habit that has stuck out to be that almost all of these successful people have is that they meditate in someway for some amount of time each day or at least try to do so.
I kind of brushed the idea of meditation off for a while because (1) I had always thought of it as some weird religious/spiritual ritual and (2) I didn't really even understand how to actually meditate or where to start with it.
But after hearing again and again that so many of successful people take part in the practice of meditation I couldn't ignore it any longer. I believe there had to be something to it and I had to at the very least give it a shot.
A quick google search informed me that if you do in fact what to learn to meditate there is in fact an App for that. Ah the beauty of the 21st century!
The app that I decided on using to begin meditating is called Headspace. It rocks and I could not recommend it enough.
From the first go at it I knew I had been missing out big time.
I won't try to overhype it or anything, but meditating really does have a major impact on the way I feel and the way I approach and handle the rest of my day.
Typically I shoot for 10 minutes of meditation each day. It has such a big impact on me that I make it one of my non negotiable each day. I make the decision to meditate each day just like I make the decision to exercise each day. It is important in allowing me to be the best person I can be and thus the best coach, husband, friend, etc. that I can be.
I know you probably are wondering what the effect is that it has. It's kind of hard to put into words, but I will do my best. I feel like that when I meditate I have better awareness of myself, my emotions, my behaviors, and the world around me. I feel more in tune with myself and others around me. It also gives me time to stop being such a futurist (reference from The Rise of Superhman) and come into the present more.
I absolutely enjoy it and plan to continue using it and adjusting my practice for the rest of my life.
Typically this is how I approach the behavior. I wake up in the morning and get ready. I eat breakfast and make coffee. I write in my ETR gratitude journal and then I put a blanket down on the tile floor in front of my couch in the living room. I get my phone and sit down with it in front me in a cross legged position on the floor with my hands resting on my feet. Then I cue up Headspace on my iPhone and I just follow the directions Andy gives me.
That is the beauty of using an application like Headspace when you are just getting started with meditation because having some one guide you and direct you on what to be doing during the 10 minutes of meditation really makes it much more effective and purposeful.
I have been really impressed by the benefits I have been able to draw from such a simple and ancient behavior.
Recently though I got the itch to see if there was an published literature on the effects of meditation, it's efficacy, and the possible underlying biological mechanisms for it's effects. It was basically the biochemist in me wanting to find some kind of explanation for the effects of this practice outside of the typical spiritual explantation given for it.
Come to find out meditation has been studied pretty extensively and although there is conflicting evidence there is quite a bit of research to support it's use as well as some preliminary research providing some possible explanations for it's effects.
Before I give some examples of the findings from this research let me give you some brief information on meditation overall. Typically meditation practice is broken into three categories: concentrative, mindfulness, and guided.
Concentrative meditation would probably be best identified by one of the most popular meditation techniques Transcendental Meditation. It is a form of meditation hat places emphasis on focusing one's attention on an object, a word, a person's breathing, a picture, or a physical experience.
Mindfulness meditation places an emphasis on staying present in the moment in an alert, aware, and non-judgemental manner. The goal being to bring awareness of a person's thought patterns and emotional reactions to thoughts with the hope of becoming less judgmental, more accepting, and acquisition of emotional equanimity.
Guided meditation involves the help of another person providing direction and stimulus during meditative practice.
Headspace, the app I am using, is a combination of Mindfulness meditation and Guided meditation.
All three categories of meditation have had some kind of research investigating them and all have demonstrated some efficacy.
The use of meditation in clinical trials with people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness such as anxiety and depression has shown that it can improve the individual's symptoms significantly. Giving the ill person a better quality of life and it essentially can be used PRN by the individual to control symptoms.
Meditation has also been studies in non-clinical people. This meaning that the study subjects were individuals who did not have official medical diagnosis from a mental health professional. Granted everyone deals with anxiety, depression, emotional instability, etc. to some degree, but these individual's don't experience these emotions in such a severity that it causes incapacity to function normally in life. I know I know we could argue for days about what "normal" means and how one describes "function," but I think the simplest way to think about this is the studies involved people like you and be without any official illnesses. These studies found that meditation improved a number of mental factors including:
- Self concept
- Self regulation
- Negative emotions and personality traits.
Or put simply meditation because enhanced these practitioners life and capacity to live it. It's pretty straight forward that meditation offers the ability to improve us psychologically. That is clear from the evidence. The question then becomes how it does this. A lot of people might think it is just by driving a parasympathetic nervous system response similar to that of breathing relaxation techniques (this is typically what it argued by western science), which is probably part of it, but the evidence demonstrates that it also confers benefits above what breathing techniques do.
This is usually when the eastern influenced explanations come into the fold using finding basis in either Hinduism or Buddhism in which the concept of a higher consciousness is usually at the center. Although this is rooted in a more spiritual understanding of meditation a lot of practitioners report experiencing a sensation similar to this.
There is some evidence for possible biological mechanisms for meditations effects which include improved activation of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) an area of the brain that is responsible for controlling cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior. It is most important role involves executive function which is the differentiation between conflicting thoughts, determining good and bad, estimating future consequences of behavior, working towards goals, predicting outcomes, and establishing expectations.
In experienced meditation practitioners there is observed increased activation of the anterior PFC which is a specific part of the brain that is typically associated with attention, working memory, episodic retrieval, visualizing, and multitasking.
And as expected advanced meditation practitioners demonstrated increased abilities in these areas controlled by the PFC.
It would then appear that meditation may exert it's beneficial effects by improving one's ability to activate this part of the PFC and thus demonstrate these enhanced ability.
This was all really satisfying for me to learn both as someone passionate about self improvement, but also as a scientist as it gave me peace of mind that what I am feeling may not be all a placebo effect and that they is a why for what it works, although much more research is necessary to ever reach a solid conclusion
The goal of sharing all of this with you is not to try and tell you how you should be living your life or what practices you should be partaking in, but rather to share with you some information about how meditation has benefited me and why it might also benefit you.
I think it is at least worth a try and a real effort on your part.
You may come to find it offers nothing and all you will be out is a few 10 minute episodes of your life, but you might come to find as I have that it is an incredibly impactful and powerful habit.
Happy moving and heavy lifting!
Practical, Purposeful, Effective Training
***This article, this one, this one and this one where the ones I am referencing when talking about the research that has been done on meditation. They aren't the only, but they provided summary of the current literature to date on the topics.***