Does 125 hours of mindfulness work?

Jan 18, 2021 · 5 minute read

In a word, yes. But the question needs some context.

Let’s start with defining “mindfulness”. Wikipedia, the UK charity Mind, and the UK national health service all say a similar thing, that “mindfulness” is awareness, a sense of what’s happening in the moment. Meditation is the tool we can use to bring about mindfulness. As Colm Meaney’s character in Layer Cake, Gene, succinctly puts it — “meditation is concentrating the front of the mind with a mundane task so the rest of the mind can find peace”. Usually that focus is on our breathing.

The first thing you notice when you meditate is just how busy your mind is. It’s like trying to get a dog to sit still so you can take its photo whilst there are squirrels running around. This is the first, and most valuable, thing you learn from the process — being aware of your mind. Robert Wright:

Robert Wright

Wright talks about the default mode network, an area of our brains best known for being active when we’re not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest. Being able to even notice this wandering is happening and to bring it under control is just the start of what mindfulness brings.

A few years ago my wife did an online course on mindfulness, and at the time I pooh-poohed it. Thinking of myself as being of a more scientific mind, something as woolly as meditation didn’t fit. But then I suffered what I came to realise was burnout. I decided to be a little more open-minded and downloaded the Headspace app on my phone.

I’ve always found it hard to stay focussed on anything; it’s probably how I ended up in product management 😃 Juggling lots of things at once suits the way my mind wanders (side note: writing blog posts is bloody hard work). I am well aware I do not have a restful mind.

I digress. I started using the Headspace app with a minimal 10 minute meditation. Determined to ‘play along’ with the gamification, I wanted to keep a streak going for as long as possible. I managed a year. 10 minutes, every single day, for 365 days. For starters, it was purgatory — even 10 minutes felt like forever, and nothing ever seemed to happen. Then one day I realised I was noticing things. I was noticing my mind wandering off, noticing feelings bubbling up — like frustration or anger. Although hard to describe, it’s like suddenly having two minds — with one monitoring the other if it’s running away.

I recall the first time I had an experience directly related to having practiced mindfulness for a long period. I’d flown to New York for a 45 minute presentation to a client, part of an important deal a colleague had been working on. That morning I did my usual 10 minute Headspace before I left the hotel. During my presentation, something very odd happened. I could almost “see” thoughts coming, as if they were on a road ahead of me and I was following them. The words I knew I wanted were appearing in my mind as if on a teleprompter — it’s quite hard to describe, and I’d think nothing of it if it wasn’t for the fact I’d experienced nothing like it before. A couple of years later a friend recommended I read Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism Is True (she knows I’m not at all spiritual, so knew this book would be good — she was right. I highly recommend reading it) and as I read this bit, I realised what I’d experienced:

“Come to think of it, I had never seen this thought assume any form at all. But it now looked as if—literally looked as if—one part of my mind was speaking the thought to another part. There was even a kind of line tracing the path of the message, like an arrow on a diagram indicating the direction of communication. I watched this intracranial conversation, watched the message travel from sender to recipient, as a kind of outside observer, even though I thought of the recipient as in some sense being me. It’s almost impossible to convey in words the power of this experience and its aura of significance.”

He later talks about how chasing this kind of experience will only leave you disappointed. This is something that I’ve learnt from meditation, it’s best just left to do its thing. Have no expectations. It’s a system, not a goal. Just do it and see what happens.

Wright’s book is full of science, and Headspace have their own information on the details we now know about meditation’s physical effects on the brain. Recently I came across this article, about Steve Jobs.

“There was one thing, however, that Jobs didn’t know, although he might have guessed it to be true. Meditation does more than just calm you down and make you a better manager. Meditation literally causes your brain to age backwards.”

Last year I probably meditated two or three times a week, but I was up to 20-minute sessions. I no longer need the guidance of Headspace, but I’ve stuck with it as there are some interesting courses. I’ve done the ‘motivation’ course four times already, and it’s one I return to again and again. Plus, Andy Puddicombe often imparts some little gems of wisdom in his relaxing tone of voice. I can’t meditate for less than 20 minutes at a time now, it feels rushed. Most days are pretty terrible, with my mind wandering all over the place. But now and then I have a fantastic session, and the entire day seems to unfold in a more pleasant fashion. I’ve started 2021 with the goal of meditating every day, for the entire year, once again.

headspace

I now find myself able to control my emotions, able to concentrate, able to see things far clearer than I could before. It feels easier to see a bigger picture — when I look at problems at work, I find my mind automatically ‘zooms out’ to find the wider context. My wife says I am more patient than I’ve ever been.

Mindfulness very much works for me. Will it work for you? To be candid, I can’t see a reason not to try. It’s a tool I would not want to be without.