It’s not a secret to long time readers of The Simple Dollar that meditation is one of my daily practices. I spend at least 10 minutes each morning meditating, usually by simply focusing on my breathing. I often meditate for another 10 minutes later in the day, as well.
The benefits of this practice, in terms of achieving my financial, professional, and personal goals, have been profound, enough so that I want to discuss my own practice at length and try to show you how it helps me. I have written a few shorter articles in the past on this topic, but I’ve come to realize how absolutely vital this practice has been for me and I felt it was time to really devote a deep article to the idea.
I was unsure how to organize this article, so I started by listing a bunch of questions I would have had several years ago after reading those first few questions, and then I realized by answering all of them, I actually had a pretty good organization of what I wanted to say. So, let’s get started.
What’s the difference between meditation and prayer? Let’s start with this one, because I know it’ll come up in the minds of many readers. I basically view prayer as a subset of meditation. Meditation is a very broad term that includes a ton of specific practices; as Wikipedia nicely describes it, “Meditation is a practice where an individual trains the mind or induces a mode of consciousness, either to realize some benefit or for the mind to simply acknowledge its content without becoming identified with that content, or as an end in itself.”
I view prayer as simply meditation with a connection to some kind of higher power. In other words, prayer is meditation, but meditation is not necessarily prayer, at least in my eyes (though I may be using a very wide definition of meditation). (Similarly, I view being “in the flow” – a state in which you’re so engrossed with whatever you’re doing that you lose track of time and of your physical state – as being a form of meditation.) In general, I use the more general term “meditation” to describe my morning practices, simply because I think that the same general form works whether it involves reflection on a higher power or not. I don’t wish for this article to get bogged down in theology, because the practice itself is helpful regardless of your theological bent. I have learned principles of meditation from devout religious practitioners of many different faiths and from agnostics and atheists, too.
What benefits have I gained from meditation? Obviously, I wouldn’t spend 20 minutes at a minimum per day on something if I didn’t feel like it had a ton of benefits for my life. Here are the things that meditation brings to the table for me.
I feel calmer in almost every situation than I once did. I don’t get stressed out nearly as much by small things and I never feel like I’m losing control or shut down when things are really stressful. I find myself much more accepting of things I cannot control and I’m able to quickly move on to figuring out what I can do about the things I can control.
I rarely have bursts of anger. This is tied to the sense of being calmer, but it’s worth noting that I rarely get angry any more. In the past, I would often get angry with myself (almost never with others) and fall down a rabbit hole of self-blame for things that weren’t going the way I wanted in my life. Now? I understand that sometimes things don’t go quite as I planned.
I deal with crises much more easily. Perhaps this is because I am no longer subject to such strong emotional swings as I am without meditation, but I find that when a crisis occurs and I’ve been stringing together daily meditations for a long while, I simply handle it better. I don’t get upset. I don’t get angry. I simply start thinking about good solutions to this sudden problem.
When I keep up with focused meditation, I find it much easier to focus and get “into the zone” with projects I’m working on. This is something that seems to build on itself. I make it a goal to do some focused meditation for 10 minutes every morning – just locking onto my breathing and trying to focus on nothing else. When I do that every morning for a while, I begin to find it way easier to focus on my work. I find that it’s harder to distract my mind from the big task at hand and that means I get more work done. I can almost directly measure a connection between how much writing I have in the “bank” (so that I can travel and do other stuff without writing) and how much I’ve been meditating as of late.
I feel more content with my life as it is right now. When I meditate regularly, I simply feel more content with the state of things in my life. This doesn’t mean that I lack the will to improve things, just that I don’t feel unhappy with how things currently are. I rarely feel like I don’t have “enough” of anything in my life when I’m meditating regularly, whereas when I don’t meditate I tend to feel like there are a lot of things that I don’t have and I feel worse about things.
I find it easier to resist temptation. This is something of an offshoot of general contentment about my life, I think, but I simply don’t feel as tempted to spend money on stuff or on experiences when I’m meditating regularly. Sure, I feel happier with the way my life is at the moment, but there’s also the underlying factor of feeling as though I don’t really need unimportant things and that I’m better off using the money for long-term goals.
I sleep better at night. I honestly don’t know if this is due to being somewhat more productive and simply making me more tired, or whether it’s directly due to the meditation practice itself, but when I’m keeping up with meditation I tend to sleep much better at night. I find that I just hit this huge wall of exhaustion at a certain point and my whole body and mind is telling me to just go to bed. When I’m not meditating, I tend to drift more toward bedtime, with my energy level gradually declining as the hours wear on, and when I’m in bed, my sleep is a bit more restless.
I know that meditation provides these benefits because I see those benefits start to diminish whenever I get too busy and let meditation drop from my routine. It becomes harder to focus on the task at hand and it becomes harder to get “in the zone.” I’m guided much more easily by temptation. I don’t sleep quite as well. I find that my emotions begin to feel more and more urgent and pressing and I listen to them and follow them more and more. I don’t feel as calm or as in control of things.
I feel less anxious. I often have this sense of anxiety hanging over almost everything that I do in life. When I meditate with consistency, that sense of anxiety gently declines. I don’t bounce my feet constantly or feel as nervous about everything.
Those effects, combined together, almost always cause worse outcomes in many different dimensions of my personal, financial, and professional life.
I should point out that these aren’t completely personality changing. Instead, I would describe these changes as being a solid, notable improvement in those areas, but I’m not just magically transformed into this much better person. I personally like the way that Dan Harris explains the effect of meditation with just the title of his book, 10% Happier. That sums it up. It’s like a 10% or 20% difference, but it’s a difference in a lot of different areas of my life and collectively those differences add up to a lot.
What meditation practice do I use? My actual meditation practices are extremely simple. Anyone could do this.
All you need is a chair and about 10 minutes of relative quiet. I find it helpful to have my phone nearby, as it has a timer app on it.
All I do is focus on my breathing. I focus on the sensation of breathing in… and then breathing out… and then breathing in… and then breathing out. That’s it.
Naturally, I find my mind wandering sometimes during this practice. That’s completely okay and normal. Whenever I notice it, I just calmly refocus on my breathing. Breathing in… then breathing out… then breathing in… then breathing out… you get the idea.
At first, it was hard to even do this for 10 seconds, but over time, with repeated practice, I can go through most of the 10-minute period with only a few mental wanderings. It’s something that definitely comes with practice.
Some people use variations on this technique. They’ll take a word or a phrase and just repeat it in their head, in much the same way I focus on my breathing. If their focus goes away from the word or phrase, they bring it back. I find that this is basically prayer – your phrase could be the Lord’s Prayer, for example, or a similar short prayer.
I usually do this pretty early in the morning, often before anyone else in our house wakes up. I find that if I do it early, it’s much easier to focus; I get more scatterbrained in the afternoon and evening, it seems, and it’s much harder than it is earlier in the day.
I find that this isn’t really something that you can do while multi-tasking unless you have a task that is so repetitive that it only requires one or two infinitely repeated motions. In other words, you might be able to do this while jogging or while doing an extremely repetitive task that requires literally no active thought, but I simply find it most effective when I’m resting in a chair somewhere.
Here’s the thing – if you’re expecting a single meditation session to bring about some profound changes in your life, you’ll be disappointed. It won’t happen. The benefits are subtle, and they really only start to appear with frequent repetitions of meditation. You won’t get up from a single round of meditation and find yourself able to deeply focus on your work and have an amazing newfound level of calmness. It’s more subtle, and it slowly builds over time.
Over the years, I’ve come to view it as a kind of exercise for my mental well-being, just like running and lifting weights are exercises for physical well-being. Just like running and lifting weights don’t really show a ton of outward benefit from just one session, neither does meditation. Just like how the benefits of running and lifting weights are present but subtle if you exercise daily but only for a few minutes, the benefits of meditation are present but subtle if you meditate daily for a few minutes.
How does this relate to financial, professional, and personal goals? The effects of meditation are enormous when it comes to achieving goals of all kinds. Let me explain what I mean.
Let’s say you give into twenty poor spending choices a month that cost you an average of $20 each and meditation offers, say, a 20% improvement in that department. You drop four poor spending decisions and save $80 a month. This is completely realistic in terms of what the benefits of meditation can bring to you. For me personally, I can see the impact in terms of my bank statements when I’m meditating regularly and when I’m not.
Let’s say that you’re able to get into the “flow state” twice a week while working normally and those are far and away your most productive periods of the week. Thanks to meditation, you now can reliably do this three times. That’s a significant jump in your work productivity, one that’s going to have a measurable impact on your career. For me personally, when I’m not meditating regularly, I can basically fulfill my basic writing responsibilities in a given week and fall into a “flow state” perhaps twice. When I am meditating regularly, I almost always find myself “banking” writing for the future because I’m simply more productive with my time and I fall into a “flow state” three or four times in a week.
Let’s say that you’re able to feel a little bit less anxious. This leads to you simply feeling a little bit better all of the time. You don’t feel as constantly stressed out or overwhelmed by the tasks at hand. You have fewer “meltdowns.” You’re just able to deal with things more.
Let’s say that you’re able to be a little bit more focused on the task at hand at any given moment. Maybe this adds up to just a sliver of less anxiety and maybe fifteen minutes of additional focus at home on a given day. That time can shore up interpersonal relationships. That time can get things done around the house.
The benefits of meditation are subtle, but they pop up everywhere. They just keep popping up in virtually every aspect of life, from your work life to your personal life, from your financial life to your spiritual life. None of them are radical changes. They’re all small and subtle. But, together, they add up to something far more than the sum of its parts, and they all come back to that simple 10-minute meditation.
All I can really recommend to you is to give it a shot. Allow yourself to spend 10-minutes a day for the next few weeks trying this out. Make it part of your morning routine. Do it when you’re parked in the parking lot at work, or do it when you first wake up in the morning, or do it when you’re standing in the shower as water pours over you. Try to give it at least five minutes – I recommend ten.
Don’t expect enormous life changes. Instead, look for the subtle improvements. You might just find more than you think.