M21 and Adventures in Mindfulness
A few weeks ago, I began the M21: a twenty-one-day mindfulness challenge. Jess Gumkowski of Yogi Triathlete and Goldyn Duffy offered the opportunity to start or deepen a daily meditation practice.
Twenty-one days for $21. I took a chance and bought in.
The practice of meditation and mindfulness is nothing new to me, but the consistent and daily implementation was lacking in my life. From what I know about behavioral psychology, having a financial stake in a given activity increases the odds one will value it more and use it. So will positive peer pressure and support.
Each day, Jess and Goldyn would post something new in the Facebook group. Every few days they would add a video explaining the importance of being mindful throughout the day and what it means to be fully present and experience each moment as it is happening. Jess and Goldyn also recorded guided meditations for us to try in order to get deeper into the practice.
Before we go any further, let’s clear up some of the confusion.
What is mindfulness?
What is meditation?
The two terms can be confused.
Mindfulness is defined as “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.”
Meditation is the practice of engaging in a “mental exercise (such as concentration on one’s breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness.”
To be mindful is to pay attention to the present moment. If I am eating, I intentionally notice the sensation of hunger in our body, the sight, smell, texture, taste, and feeling as we swallow. If I am listening to someone, I intentionally make eye contact and focus on being with them in that moment to truly hear them. Meditation is a practice that helps people become more mindful, often by focusing attention on the breath or the body. But meditations can also involve visualizing oneself taking a specific action. While meditation is a central part of eastern religions like Buddhism, it can be used completely independently from, or in conjunction with any religious tradition. In fact, there are many similarities between meditation and prayer in regards to the changes it produces in the mind and body.
The beauty is that meditation requires no belief, just noticing what is happening.
My journey to mindful living
Meditation has played an important role in my life. When I stopped drinking and using drugs, the full force of unpleasant emotions bombarded me. These were feelings I had put off experiencing by numbing out, and they arrived to collect their dues. I realized I could not wish them away. No amount of distracting myself or looking for external sources of happiness and joy changed my circumstances.
When I finally decided I was ready, the teachers appeared in my life. I learned that I could sit in silence – for just a few seconds at first – and allow whatever was there to just be. No need to push away thoughts and feelings. No need to hold on, either. I could allow unpleasant feelings and thoughts to be there, returning to the sensation of my breath. Returning to the sensation of my body in the present moment. Little by little, these feelings dissipated and no longer held me captive.
Diving deep a year later, I joined my teacher for a five-day silent retreat in the Santa Cruz mountains. No talking, no television, no phones, no books or magazines. No radio or music. Not even writing in a journal. Just a steady rotation of sitting meditations, walking meditations, daily chores, and meals. I found a stillness never before experienced in my life. In one sitting meditation, a past hurt “bubbled up” to the surface and after allowing it to be there, it released. I felt much lighter. Mundane experiences were now precious.
My meditation practice faded after a time and I decided the M21 was exactly the reboot needed to get back into it. The M21 Challenge doesn’t require a retreat center and a week off from work. It can be done wherever we are. Throughout the 21-Day challenge, I meditated for a minimum of 20 minutes each morning.
Setting aside time in the morning to meditate, some things appeared during the 20-minute session. However, most of the benefits occurred later throughout my day.
Here are some of the things I learned about myself and experienced:
- There are many thoughts and feelings I have held onto. Wasted energy going into replaying events in my head of interactions with people that bothered me. Meditation has helped me let go of past events so I can pour myself into the now.
- I carry more stress and nervous energy than I readily admit. I noticed patterns of eating – or the urge to eat – to escape anxiety. When I stopped to check in with myself, most times my stomach was not hungry. Now I am more likely to take a few breaths or a walk instead of gorging myself.
- I feel my body more than ever. I feel my intestines digesting food. I feel my heart pumping blood and nutrients throughout my body. I feel my muscles and notice more readily if they are tense and straining. If they are, I can relax them.
- When I pay attention and really show up in the present moment, I can feel so much love for my wife and kids, my friends, my clients, and people I come across. Nothing changed with them. The only difference is I am showing up and letting go of whatever emotional baggage I was lugging around with me from the past
- I notice people’s moods and energy much more. My mind is freer to recognize the subtle nonverbal cues from others and better understand them and their current state.
- Clutter! Now that the mental clutter is clearing out from my head I see the physical manifestation of it around my house and in my office. Things I have set down mindlessly or stuffed into drawers is more apparent and I can take small actions to clear it up. I have started to complete small tasks that were put off for months.
- Automatic patterns and habits are more apparent. Some are consistent with my values, like always flossing before I brush my teeth each night. Others do not work as well for me, like my habit of checking out 5 books from the library and trying to read them all at once. Spoiler alert: I usually end up with 5 half-finished books that are due back. With a little more attention, better ways of doing things seem so obvious.
- I get nervous before swim sessions! My ego did not let me listen to my body signaling this. I truly love swimming. After the initial warm-up sets, I am fully engaged and in a flow state. But there is a nervous energy present some mornings when getting ready to leave the house. My meditation lets me acknowledge this feeling and detach from it. There is such a difference now in my mornings. I can tell how much easier it is to focus on my technique and feeling the water. I love swimming even more now.
- Hesitation! This might be put into the category of automatic patterns, but it stands out now that I see it for what it is. Many times I hesitate to take meaningful action because of fear of discomfort. Before this challenge, I did not notice this blockage. Now I see that many times when I am about to do something I value, like writing, I can hesitate or stall long enough until automatic habits kick in, like checking social media or email until I run myself out of time.
- My actions are more aligned with my values when I am meditating regularly. By noticing my sources of stress, I can deal with them in healthy ways and allow myself to take action to move closer to my ideal self. Some of this is from reflecting (in meditation) on how I want to live my life. Some of this is from noticing the feelings that arise when difficulty arises (mindfulness) and allowing myself some temporary discomfort for the sake of growth.
Putting it into Practice
While the first few days of getting up a little earlier were coupled with a desire to go back to sleep or just go do something else, I began to crave this time as I noticed how much easier I was able to handle stressors during the day. Now it is a habit and I don’t have to spend time debating whether or not I will get up early to meditate. Like flossing each night, I just do it.
The practice of a daily meditation and mindfulness go far beyond being just a good habit. It has helped me find the excitement and beauty in everyday moments. Truly amazing things are happening each moment, all around us. I don’t need to constantly look to a fun time in the near future, I can find true joy right now.
If you want to truly experience a vibrant, enriching life, consider trying the M21 challenge. It is perfect for the beginner and experienced meditator alike. I am not compensated or benefitting financially because of this endorsement. It is only my desire to see everyone benefit from this by experiencing it for themselves.