Unconventional Zen: The Benefits of Irregular Meditation

Exercise is a cruel mistress. If you give her time and attention, she rewards you with fitness, self-esteem and the ability to look better naked. But if you spurn her, even briefly, she wreaks terrible revenge. Hell hath no fury like a missed run (or five).

A medically-enforced three week hiatus caused yesterday’s run to feel like an Everest climb. As I struggled through a measly 3k, it occurred to me that every skill has a half-life. Fitness has a very short one, measured in weeks and months, although the basic skill of putting one foot in front of the other is a life-long talent. Peeling an orange is another skill that doesn’t fade, whereas a second language needs regular practice or it weakens.

Playing the piano falls somewhere in the middle. I took lessons for years as a child and built a base level of skill that never seems to fade. Yes, my repertoire shrank over the years and I can play only about four tunes these days, but the fingers still remember what to do. And a bit of practice sharpens them up in no time.

Meditation is exactly the same, despite what the monthly subscription apps would have you think. It’s possible to build a foundation of mental strength that lasts for years, with only occasional top-ups to keep things fresh.

I think this is a useful re-frame, because it changes meditation from a daily practice that only monks and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs find time for, into a fixed-length project with a finish line in sight. With a concerted but finite effort, you can transform your mind into a more resilient, balanced and self-aware space, that’s better able to cope with the madness of modern life.

Back in 2015, I embraced meditation as a way to combat anxiety from one of my many job moves. For five months I practiced meditation using the Headspace app. The soothing tones of Andy Puddicombe wafted in through my headphones, while my fears and worries melted away. After ten days, I felt considerably calmer and more balanced. A month later, I was feeling very Zen and appreciative of nature and the joy of the moment. After another month, I graduated from guided meditations to sitting with a simple timer.

Finally, I just stopped. I can’t remember why, but I felt like my brain has reset into a more peaceful, accepting state. Studies suggest that the brain can be changed by meditation, so perhaps there was a physical shift. Either way, I’m convinced permanent adustments were achieved during those five months.

Flash forward to today and I’m a very irregular meditator. When life gets hectic, I bash out a week or two and everything sharpens up, just like with the piano. But most of the time, I don’t feel the need.

So if you are thinking about meditating but feel unable to commit to the long-term practice, try approaching it like a project. Do three months and see if things feel different. 20% of the effort for 80% of the rewards.