I Meditated Every Day For A Month. Here’s What I Learned.

Shortly after I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, my therapist recommended I try meditation. At the time, I think I smiled and said it sounded like a good idea. But my internal reaction was “hell no.”

Having grown up in a Buddhist household, I was often coerced into meditating as a child, when I would much rather have been playing basketball or video games. This had two main effects: one, the smell of incense makes me sick to this day, and two, I learned to hate meditation.

But meditation is not a religious practice (not necessarily, anyway). It doesn’t have to involve crystals, Sanskrit, or the burning of those horrible scented sticks. It’s a scientifically valid method of relieving stress and anxiety, and strengthening your ability to focus.

So, after years of stubborn refusal, finally I committed to meditating every day for thirty days. There were a couple of lapses, so truthfully, the title of this article should be “I meditated for 30 out of 33 days,” but that’s a lot less catchy.

How to do it

To help me explain meditation (and to make sure I hadn’t been doing it wrong the whole time) I reached out to Laura Kampel, clinical psychologist and PhD candidate at Black Dog Institute.

“There’s basically two different ways to practice meditation,” she says. “One is by having a formal practice, and the other one is by incorporating meditation or mindfulness into all your activities as much as you possibly can.”

I started off with the first method. Each morning, I did an eight-minute session of breathing meditation. One of the most popular forms of meditation, this means simply using one’s breath as a focal point for the mind; concentrating on maintaining a rhythm of inhaling for four counts, holding for one, and exhaling for another four counts.

What matters most, however, isn’t the breathing itself, but the attention you pay to it. The crux of meditation is trying to keep your mind on one thing – in this case, your breath. And whenever you find your focus wandering – to your next task, your job, that thing your mum said last week – you pull your focus back to your breath.

The aim isn’t to have zero errant thoughts; they’re natural and inevitable. The point is to be aware of them, acknowledge them, and return to the present. Every time you do this, you’re strengthening your ability to maintain focus. As Kampel puts it, “Each time you catch your awareness and you bring it back to the present, that’s a biceps curl for your muscle of attention and awareness.”

So now we know how it works, let’s dive into what I’ve learned.

#1 You need to stick out the discomfort

In this age of hyperstimulation and on-demand everything, sitting still and not consuming media is depressingly far from normal. And if you’re anything like me, this will make your first time meditating a twitchy, irritating experience.

That said, once I’d done a couple of sessions, the irritability dropped considerably, and I started to relax. Even on days when I had trouble with my focus, I still found the breathing exercises incredibly calming by themselves.

#2 You don’t need to be “spiritual”

Mindfulness and meditation aren’t necessarily religious practices, even if they began that way. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone more allergic to mysticism than me, and yet I’d say that I’m definitely benefiting from the practice, despite my home’s complete lack of Enya albums and mantra beads.

But don’t take my word for it; the research is there. According to Laura Kampel, studies have found “Improvements in cognitive capacity and concentration, in memory and learning… And more awareness in your habits of thinking and feeling. They’ve also found psychological benefits, for your mood and emotional well-being. People who practice it experience fewer sad moods, and less anxiety and stress.”

#3 It’s amazing for stress

Like a lot of busy people, I have trouble switching off. I often feel that if I’m not accomplishing something – writing, learning, cleaning or exercising – I’m wasting time. Ironically, this inability to relax inevitably makes me less productive, as I begin to distract myself from the growing ball of unattended stress in my stomach by procrastinating (and as we’ve previously covered, procrastinating is not the same as relaxing).

And this is where I’ve found meditation really useful. Whenever I get myself into the workaholism-procrastination cycle, a few minutes of meditation acts as a circuit-breaker. It stops me spiralling and makes it easier to get into a headspace where I can be more objective and constructive, and rest if I need to.

#4 It can be applied to basically anything

Keeping your mind on-task is a universally useful skill. Whether you’re concentrating on your breath, preparing a meal, or cleaning your room, all of these things can be done mindfully, and benefit from that mindfulness.

(I’ve found this especially true for shaving – since I started applying mindfulness, I no longer put down my razor looking like Heath Ledger’s Joker.)

#5 I still suck at it

Though I’ve come a long way from my first fidgety attempt, I’m still no good at meditation. I’ve noticed that whenever I successfully banish all exterior thoughts, I get so impressed with myself that I lose focus; like a kid excited to have stayed up on two wheels, I promptly fall off the bike.

But the cool thing about meditation is that you’re supposed to suck at it. Like physical exercise, it’s only worthwhile when it’s challenging – and, as Laura Kampel reminds us, regular.

“The most important thing about mindfulness or meditation is practice,” she says. “It’s a very similar practice to physical exercise; you can’t expect to have the full benefits of exercise if you’re not doing it regularly.”

#6 I’m sticking with it

I can’t say that meditation has completely changed my life. But I can say that it’s brought unmitigated benefits. For just a few minutes each day, it helps me build patience and focus, while reducing stress and shutting down anxiety.

That’s almost worth enduring incense for.

Joel Svensson is a Canberra-based writer originally from Melbourne. He’s written more latté-fuelled stories about first-world problems than he cares to admit, and can be found coping with misleading hashtags at @le0jay.