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I tried a meditation challenge for 30 days and this is what happened

For the last month, I made a commitment to meditate for 20 minutes every day. That was the only rule. Sit down, set at timer, close my eyes and use something close to a meditation technique for 20 minutes.

More: 5 Benefits of a 3-minute meditation

I’d been trying to start a meditation practice for a few weeks prior but hadn’t been able to set a consistent schedule. When a coworker mentioned doing the challenge, I thought it sounded like the perfect opportunity.

First things first: If I’m honest, I missed three days in the 30 days, so I made up for them by extending the challenge by 3 days. In the course of the challenge, I did meditate in a host of different places. In a chair. In bed. But also in my car — parked, of course — on a beach and even on a plane.

Days 1-14: Sheer stubborn will

For the first two weeks, the only thing that kept me going was sheer stubborn will. I was trying focused attention meditation — I would sit down and start focusing on my breath. Then I would lose focus dozens of times over the course of 20 minutes.

“Hey!” I’d hear myself saying, “Focus! What the hell? Pay attention!”

It wasn’t until I was talking to a coworker that I realized how counterproductive that was.

“How is meditation going?” he asked.

“Fine. I have to figure out how to stop being a jerk to myself.” (Wait — what did I just say?)

“How so?”

“I really react and respond to rules, and I feel like the rule is to focus on your breath. Every time I lose focus, I get mad at myself for breaking the rule.”

Until I said it, I hadn’t realized it was true.

Days 14-16: Testing out open monitoring meditation

I was continually frustrated with not being able to keep my brain focused, until I read this analogy on Reddit

“A lot of people think they fail at mindfulness meditation, just watching the breath, because they get distracted by thoughts. In fact, being distracted and then noticing the distraction and returning to your breath is the entire point.”

So, having to bring my attention back to my breath over and over again wasn’t a problem — it was the point.

After that, I tried to instead focus on everything that was around me. This is sometimes called open monitoring meditation. Instead of focusing on my breath, I’d sit and I’d pay attention to my senses. Hear: car. Let it go. Feel: Neck tension. Let it go. Smell: Candle. Let it go.

This seemed to help me be gentler with myself. And after a couple of days, I went back to trying focused meditation.

My focus still wandered, constantly, but re-focusing was a much kinder process.

Day 17: A new technique

Three weeks into the challenge, I visited a friend whose mom does breathwork. I told her mom about my meditation challenge and she recommended a technique to me, which she called “tapping into your womb space.” She’d learned the technique at a conference from Rachael Jayne, who talks about the idea that women’s energy comes from their pelvic area (men’s, in contrast, comes from their chest.)

More: 5 Simple tips for becoming a meditation teacher

The idea of “womb space” made me feel a little hippie dippie, and I wasn’t sure I liked the divide between men and women’s “power” sources (what about transgender people? What about women with hysterectomies?), but I was open to trying a new technique.

She led my friend and me through a brief meditation by imagining turning on a light directly in the bowl of our pelvic area. I couldn’t help but feel like different parts of me — my chatty, racing brain, my muted, confused feelings and my body — seemed to calm and connect into one. I started using this visualization in meditation and also in moments I was feeling particularly frantic.

Days 17–30: Still not Zen

On a small number of days, I found myself in a steady sense of focus and awareness. Most days, I would find focus for a few breaths and then my brain would run off like a restless puppy and I would have to remember to bring it back.

I also found that it was hard to convince myself that I was getting any benefit while I was doing it, but when my 20 minutes would be over and I would open my eyes, I could sense a difference between the way the world felt when I’d started. It seemed clearer but also farther away, less directly affecting me.

Another benefit was that when I went to yoga, I felt like it was easier to show up and be in the moment on the mat rather than running to-do lists through my head while in downward dog.

Overall impression

I thought it was really worthwhile, and I kind of wish I’d set the challenge for more than 30 days. Since the 30 days have been over, I’ve still been meditating but haven’t been as consistent with it, which is something I want to be better about. Even if I don’t feel like I’m reaching a particularly meditative state, closing my eyes and allowing my brain not to race in a million directions in itself feels really nice.

The biggest things I learned from the 30 days were:

  • Be nice to yourself when you start. It’s important to know what your goal is, but getting frustrated when your brain wanders isn’t doing you any favors.
  • Failing to focus is part of the process. Embrace it.
  • Stepping away from everything to focus only on yourself is a really wonderful gift

Someday I might even try to do two different meditation sessions a day — one in the morning and one later in the day — but, ah, baby steps.

More: 10 Things you can do to achieve wellness this year

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