Meditation + Daily Journaling — Mixing My Consciousness-Processing Cocktail
A little over a month ago, I decided to attempt three lifestyle design changes simultaneously. Yes, I know that doing so is not recommended, but they just so happened to coincide…or so I thought.
- I decided to take a break from social media. The craving to check vanity metrics had started to feel like nicotine addiction. Like lighting up a cigarette, every time I’d light up my phone screen, I was only filled with disappointment at the lack of fulfillment.
- I started meditating as a means of strength-training my attention span.
- I started daily journaling…because of my recent interest in Matt D’Avella videos. The minimalist lifestyle YouTuber announced that it was his next monthly habit challenge. I thought I’d enjoy the sense of community that came with following the bouncing ball.
One of the reasons I felt OK about starting habits 2 and 3 stemmed from number 1. Cal Newport, in his excellent book Digital Minimalism, warned that one of the side effects of a social media detox would be boredom. Being so incredibly conditioned to “light up” at any hint of downtime (from waiting for your take-out to be ready to the quiet that falls over a house once your son is finally asleep) can leave you not knowing what to do — like Will Ferrell’s character in Talladega Night’s, “I don’t know what to do with my hands.” For this reason, Newport recommends developing constructive activities for leisure to fill the void that social media once filled and avoid relapse. For me, surely meditation, jumping rope, and journaling would do the trick.
My first go at meditation was somewhat of a Catch 22. I wanted to establish a practice in it to strengthen my fully-diagnosed-ADHD-short attention span, but the voices of the guided meditation teachers were too distracting.
“I want you to bring your focus to your breath,” a breathy cult-leader-esque voice would utter through my headphones. Who is this freak? Who talks like that?
After reading Meditation For Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris, I decided that guided meditations weren’t for me. Instead, I learned how to meditate on my own using nothing but a timer.
- I’d start by sitting on the floor. This sounds very yuppie and yogi-like, but it was actually because my cat was known for leaping onto my lap, thus breaking my meditative state and making me scream like a little girl.
- I’d close my eyes and try not to look around at the shapes on the inside of my eyelids. (Did I mention I’m ADHD?)
- I’d focus on the sensation of the cold, almost minty air entering my nostrils — as though I’d just popped a piece of Extra Polar Ice into my mouth. I’d then focus on the warm exhale, like a warm shower on a chilly morning. This sounds gooey, but it works.
- Just as this would happen, my thoughts would mutiny. We ate out last night, so what was I going to pack for lunch? Do I have a meeting today? Should I put on a collared shirt or t-shirt? Is the cat playing in the recycling bin again? As this mutiny began, I would return my focus back to the breath. Icy cool air in. Warm, luxurious air out. Each return to this focus was like a bicep curl for my attention span.
Though difficult, I started to enjoy having this mental exercise in my back pocket. Where before, I would whip out my phone and be thoroughly unfulfilled by Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, now I could now fill those moments with a few mental bicep curls.
Over time, I started to show gains. One day, I found myself in a meeting that didn’t require my input — only my attention. As my mind started to wander, a cool inhale through my nose alerted me to my wandering mind and course-corrected my attention span back to the subject matter. “Huh, well waddaya know, ” I remember thinking. “This hocus pocus actually works.”
After a few days of cramming micro-meditations wherever I could stick them, I noticed that something besides my phone screen was missing. Oh, yeah — my thoughts. I had grown so accustomed to returning to the breath that I had scarcely even been able to experience my own mind. Because of this, thought traffic was starting to back up on my mental highway.
As Newport also stated in his book, we’re a society starved of seclusion. I’m not talking about being alone with our devices or media, but just being alone with something that frightens us the most — our thoughts. Think, for a moment, about the last time you were alone with your thoughts — no input media. No task. Just…you.
In a study published in July 2014 edition of Science, participants were asked to spend between 6 and 15 minutes alone with only their thoughts…and the ability to give themselves an electric shock. Despite already knowing how painful it was with a pre-test shock and even saying they’d pay money not to be shocked again, a fourth of the women and a third of the men shocked themselves again when left with their own thoughts. Apparently, the pain of an electric shock is less severe than 15 minutes with your own mind.
Upon realizing that I had been keeping thoughts at bay via micro-meditations, I let myself indulge a few. And then a few more came through. Soon, the practice felt like getting a sip from a firehose. How could I make sense of this all? Enter journaling.
Being a writer for a living for a marketing firm, I had completely forgotten about my plan to journal regularly. And boy, did it just…feel…good.
What made journaling so pleasurable was its ability for me to ground the airborne thoughts like swatting flies in my bedroom. No longer would these ideas, emotions, aspirations, and problems buzz around my head. Journaling allowed me to pick each one out of the air for closer examination.
As an example, for the past two mornings, my routine had been thrown off by me hitting the snooze button twice after the initial alarm. This additional half-hour of ceiling-gazing made my morning and entire day rushed and just off. My disappointment brewed inside but was not analyzed enough to prevent it from happening the next morning. Documenting this disappointment, however, allowed me to snatch this blunder out of the air and process it.
Before long, journaling was more than a box of bickers, but also a treasure chest. One evening, I was having drinks with my brother, who was in from out of town. We hadn’t seen each other in a while and were both taking breaks from social media, so the conversation was fresh and delicious — not a mere review of our Facebook timelines. He excused himself to use the restroom, leaving me alone at our table with my phone…which had no social media infinity pools in which to sink. Instead, I opened the Google Doc containing my journal entries, and Voice-To-Text-entered some of the following:
“I am enjoying my time with him thoroughly…It’s nice to know that my brother and I are on very similar wavelengths. We’re both into meditation, fitness, and just becoming better people. I think this really comes down to what happens when you become a mature adult and start looking at improving yourself on a daily basis. I’m really glad to know him and here he comes so I got to go…”
Matt’s Conclusion Vs. My Own
Once Matt came out with his daily journaling experiment results video, I had forgotten that it had been the reason why I’d started journaling near-daily in the first place. It had grown into something I looked forward to doing rather than a chore to check off of a to-do list. Matt’s own experience was somewhat mixed — that he saw the value in it, but that he couldn’t see himself maintaining the habit with the same consistency. Still, his journaling allowed him to process some unrelated anxiety he was feeling at the time of the experiment. And for that reason, good for him. For me, however, daily journaling had become a powerful ingredient in my consciousness-processing cocktail.
Lifestyle design specialists don’t recommend trying several significant behavioral changes simultaneously. While this is true, I don’t think I could have found this effective balance in how I process and control my thoughts had I not gone against their advice.
I hadn’t planned on finding a balance between mental focus and productive introspection, but I did in a way that works for me.
- My meditative practice hasn’t so much as increased my attention span as it has shortened the amount of time it takes me to course-correct my focus.
- My daily journaling definitely won’t result in any Pulitzer-Prize-winning material, but it has given me a space to play with my thoughts productively.
Find more of my blog articles at TheKenLane.com.