Can't Meditate Like a Monk? Try This Instead
By Nate Klemp
I’ve come to a sobering realization when it comes to my meditation practice: I will never be an elite meditator.
And that has led me to rethink the basic nature of mindfulness practice.
Here’s the context. In Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson’s latest book Altered Traits, which brings together the most cutting edge scientific research on the benefits of meditation, they conclude that the benefits of meditation are a function of the amount of time you spend doing the practice.
Beginning level meditators (those who have practiced for at least a couple weeks), can hope to experience:
- Better focus
- Less mind-wandering
- Improved working memory
Long-term meditators (those with over 1,000 hours of practice), can experience these benefits and:
- Lower reactivity to stress
- Strengthening of prefrontal circuits for managing distress
- Greater ease in sustaining attention
- Weakening of the attachment system
Olympic level meditators (those with somewhere around 27,000 lifetime hours of meditation), can realize a near permanent state of meditative awareness:
- Large gamma waves synchronized throughout the brain
- A meditative brain state that persists throughout the day, even when formal meditation has ended (Goleman and Davidson, 273-4).
The Good and The Bad News
Let’s assume this research is right. And let’s bracket the question of whether it’s overly reductionist to say that your skill as a meditator is a simple function of how many hours you’ve spent on the cushion.
I see this as both good and bad. The good news is that, with just a small amount of meditation practice, we can experience some pretty amazing benefits. And, with a few years of consistent practice, we can begin experiencing some of these 1,000 hour benefits.
The bad news is that most of us will never even come close to reaching the threshold of an Olympic meditator. Hitting 27,000 hours, after all, effectively requires dropping out of modern life. You would have to give up on jobs, kids, family and spend the bulk of that time meditating.
The reward for all that work - living in a consistent state of present moment awareness - sounds amazing. But for most of us, the cost is too high.
The Problem With Monk-Style Meditation
Knowing that most of us will never become Olympic meditators, how should we adjust our approach to mindfulness?
A good start would be to stop trying to meditate like monks in a monastery. Most apps, books, and blog posts focus on what I'm calling the monk-style approach to meditation. They portray meditation as a practice that requires us to set aside time and create distance from the chaos and distractions of everyday life.
There are two problems with focusing exclusively on this model. The first is that it leads many busy professionals to conclude that they simply don't have time to add this practice to their day. Meditation quickly becomes yet another rock in the backpack of modern life - another "have to" that takes time and mental energy out of the day.
The second, more fundamental, problem is that this monk-style model of meditation leads us to view meditation practice and life as separate. Meditation is that thing that happens for 10-30 minutes, where we get present with the breath while sitting in silence, tucked neatly away from the chaos of life. Life is that thing that happens as soon as the final gong rings, when the texts and emails flood in and we have to go back to rushing through the day.
The Case For Chaos Meditation
Monks and professional meditators don't have to worry about sorting through an inbox with 100 new messages or sitting through back-to-back meetings all day. We do. And that's why it's worth shifting our focus from monk-style meditation to a more integrated approach.
Lately, I’ve been calling this alternative “chaos meditation.” Chaos meditation isn't a full scale rejection of monk-style practice. Of course it's valuable to spend longer stretches of time sitting. It is, however, an approach that focuses on bringing mindfulness practice deeply into contact with the wild, distracted, nature of modern life.
Chaos meditation can happen anytime, anywhere. You don’t have to close your eyes or sit in full lotus. You don't have to escape to a quiet room or a mountain ashram. In fact, the most crazed spaces in modern life - the city center, the airport, or the social media news feed - are some of the best places to practice it.
Chaos meditation is really just a fancy name for finding opportunities throughout the day to shift your attention from ordinary states of stress, distraction, and mind-wandering to what’s happening right here, right now in the present moment.
Notice: The first step is to Notice – become aware of where your attention is directed. In most cases, you will likely find that your attention is scattered – lost in thoughts about the past or future.
Shift: The second step is to Shift – to redirect your attention to the present moment. You can do this by bringing your attention to any object of focus, the breath, sounds around you, sensations in your body or even something you feel grateful for.
Rewire: The final step is to Rewire – to take just 15 to 30 seconds to really savor this experience and to reinforce the shift you just made at the level of neurobiology.
The great thing about Notice-Shift-Rewire (NSR) is that it doesn’t require you to check out from modern life. You can do it in the line at the grocery store, at the gas pump, or while walking through a parking lot.
And, unlike monk-style meditation, chaos meditation doesn’t take any time out of your day. It’s a practice you can do 10, 20, or even 50 times a day without having to stop doing all the things you need to do to meet your commitments.
Nate Klemp, PhD, is the Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer at Life Cross Training (LIFE XT), a company devoted to giving professionals the tools to train resilience, wellbeing, and peak performance. Along with Eric Langshur, he is the co-author the New York Times Bestseller Start Here: Master the Lifelong Habit of Wellbeing. Nate holds a B.A. and M.A. from Stanford University and a PhD from Princeton University. @LIFE_XT or @DrNateKlemp