What is Meditation?

Meditation can be many things depending on whom you ask. In this article, it refers to the idea of intentionally sitting and focusing on the present. Although it’s most often associated with Eastern religions, it’s not a religious practice. It doesn’t matter if you’re Christian, Muslim, Mormon, Jewish or any other faith. It’s a way to train the mind, which will change your perspective on life.

When I mention the word “meditation” in the article, I’m referring to “a practice to develop conscious awareness of the present moment.” But, I will additionally use the word “mindfulness.” They are terms often mentioned together or used as synonyms.

Meditation is the formal practice of sitting down, or walking, standing, or lying down. Whereas mindfulness is about being aware, and it applies to everything.

To give an example, when I wake up in the morning, I sit on a small cushion and observe my breath for 15 minutes. This is an example of meditation. While pouring a glass of water, I spill water on the ground and notice my feelings of anger rise up inside me. This noticing of anger rising but smiling in spite of it is mindfulness. I’m mindful of my emotions which allows me to stay in control.

Meditation and Programming

In the world of programming, we often need focused attention when building programs and writing code without repetitions. Think of it as being “in the zone” or as some know it, in the “flow” state. This is when you submerge yourself in your text editor and forget about everything else. Your mind is only thinking of that present moment. Being in this mode, you fully experience that “coding high” of writing functions that make or do things to achieve a bigger goal.

As mentioned before, meditation is a practice to develop your level of attention on the present moment. Now, if we practice meditation on a regular basis, we can train our mind in to live with more awareness. This can be applied to any area of life.

And that includes programming as well — because of the amount of focus needed while developing software. As programmers, we need to meditate and spend time observing our breath and nothing else. We will be able to translate that practice while coding, and be able to focus more deeply on our programs.

My Personal Experience

I began meditating four years ago when I heard about the benefits from a TED talk I watched called The Happy Secret to Better Work by Shawn Anchor. The idea of a regular meditation practice and the ability to live fully in the present interested me. I remember buying a book on Zen Buddhism and then started meditating. I had no idea what I was doing.

This initial meditation phase started when I was studying abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina during college in 2013. After watching the video, I went to a bookstore and looked in the Eastern Philosophy section hoping I’d find something on meditation. Luckily for me, I found one titled Los tres pilares del Zen or in English, The Three Pillars of Zen. “Genial! I’ll learn to meditate and practice my Spanish at the same time”, so I thought to myself.

Although it seemed like a great idea at first, it proved to be tougher than I anticipated. My Spanish language skills were good. But the technical language used to describe the meditation practices troubled me in the beginning. Luckily there were photos in the book, and I used my dictionary when I didn’t understand something.

I started meditation with a simple practice. I observed my breath. One inhale and one exhale = breath. I counted to ten. This was a great starting point for a beginner. I kept a small journal and did it a few times per week but couldn’t keep it consistent. It was tough because I only did it when I found time instead of adding it to my routine.

Fast-forward to 2014 and 2015 — I continued meditating on and off a few times per week. Yet, I still had trouble maintaining a daily practice. I tried doing it before bed, but I wasn’t consistent because the nights on the weekends were unpredictable.

In August 2016, I decided to make it a part of my nightly routine. Each night, I followed the same steps:

  • Set alarm for the next morning
  • Sit down and observe the breath for a few minutes
  • Brush teeth

This routine made my practice 5x more effective. I added meditation to my life and made it a habit. As a result of this, it became easier and easier to find time for meditation. I didn’t have to think because it was part of my routine.

More recently in July, I switched my evening practice to a morning practice after a friend convinced me to switch. He suggested meditating in the morning because it provided you with a wonderful way to start the day. It also gave you a “blank slate” to begin your day.

Like before, I created an “automated” routine and added in meditation to make it easier for my brain to remember. The routine is as follows —

Wake up

  • Wash face
  • Meditate for 15 minutes
  • Smile and begin day with a clear mind

Besides switching to a morning practice, my friend suggested I use a free app to track my meditation progress called Insight Timer. I love it because it has a meditation timer, guided meditations, and a minimal social network so you see when your friends meditate. You could hold yourself accountable this way. I also suggest trying Yoga Nidra for helping you sleep.

I’ve been using the app to track my meditation progress and recently achieved 100 days in a row as of November 5th. My goal is to hit 365 days in a row.

The Benefits

The purpose of writing this article was to explain how meditation can benefit all in the tech industry. It can be of help especially in a field like programming, where we constantly struggle or feel frustration when things don’t work out.

Here are some ways you, as a programmer and human being, may benefit from meditation —

Focus on one block of code at a time

Taking on new projects as a developer can be daunting. The most difficult part of a new project is figuring out where to start. We immediately think about all the things that need to be accomplished.

Similar to focusing only on the breath, we should dedicate our efforts on one piece at a time.

Mindfulness will help us become aware of the stress and all the working parts of our project. Programmers must let go that feeling of overextension and begin with the first task. We stay mindful of the task at hand. This will prevent “thought-overload” when developing more advanced software. It can even be helpful with agile software development like Scrum, where you’re adapting often.

The more you meditate, the stronger your minds becomes (Mrazek).

Enhance your cognitive abilities

Programming has many difficult concepts we must wrap our heads around to solve complex problems. To do that, we need the cognitive ability to process theory and visualize how all the moving pieces work together in one single system.

In a recent article published in the Harvard Business Review, Goleman states that mindfulness practice can help us with both “strategic work” and problem-solving. Through meditation, you’ll be able to further enhance these cognitive abilities. This in turn will benefit your study of programming no matter your skill level.

Live in the present

In order to maintain a healthy balance between working as a programmer and life, we should embrace the present moment . This applies to coding and also other areas of life.

The beautiful part about meditation is “singular focus” — by that I mean, doing one thing and only that thing. When you sit to meditate, you have one goal — be there in that moment. It’s easier said than done but the principle is what’s important. If we apply that principle in our lives, it can serve us in many areas. When you’re with your family or friends, be there in the conversation and moment. When you’re coding, write code and focus on building. Meditation facilitates building this skill of living in the present.

Handling the ups and downs of coding

As programmers, we often feel stressed when we can’t solve a problem or when we’re behind on a deadline. It can also happen when we’ve been tasked with something we don’t know how to do. I have had this issue happen to me many of times. Sometimes while experiencing much frustration, I contemplate smashing my computer onto the ground.

With regular meditation practice, we can learn to use our breath as a way to handle negative situations in a stress-free way (Corliss). Using this method, we can apply it to those situations in which you run into an issue or a bug that you cannot fix.

Later, you realize it’s because you were missing a semicolon, or because you forgot to account for something in your function. Those small moments can have a large impact on the rest of your coding session. Using our breath we can stop, let the negative feelings come in, experience them for that moment and then let them go. This will allow you to bounce back quicker when you’re struggling with a project.

Increase your level of happiness

The most significant benefit of any type of meditation is an increase in your level of happiness. When you meditate, you learn to focus on the simplest activity we do every day — breathing. By learning to observe the breath, you train your mind to take joy in the little things. You wake up to life and start to live every moment in the present instead of living in the past or future as most of us tend to do.

After you start meditating, you’ll notice how much satisfaction you feel after accomplishing even the littlest of things. Such as when you write your first function or when you figure out how to horizontally center that div. All those “small wins” that you once took for granted or didn’t fully enjoy will feel bigger, because you pay more attention to them — just like your breath (Fredrickson).

Here’s how to get started

Here’s a list of steps you can take today to get started —

  1. Figure out how much time you can spend meditating. My suggestion would be between 2–10 minutes. Anything more and you may feel overwhelmed. It’s better to start soft and gently.
  2. Decide where you’re going to do it — usually a quiet room works best. It can be done sitting on the ground or in a chair.
  3. Set a timer for however long you decide to meditate. This way, you won’t have to worry about checking the time every 15 seconds.
  4. Sit, take a deep breath in through your nose and out through your mouth. Smile.
  5. Breathe slowly and observe the air coming in through your nose and going out your mouth. One inhale and one exhale count for each breath. Count ten breaths then start over.
  6. *When your mind wanders, stop, acknowledge it, smile, then return to your breath. This is the most important step. It’s inevitable that your mind will wander but you must not punish yourself for this. It’s normal behavior but we must remind the mind that we acknowledged it and then return to the breath. I wish someone would have told me this when I began meditating. I didn’t learn this until this year — almost 4 years later.
  7. After your timer goes off, thank yourself for making time to meditate and smile.

If that felt good, see if you can do it two times next week. Then, add another day the week after. You can also experiment with increasing the amount of time you meditate. I decided to start at the beginning again with 2 minutes in July and then slowly worked my way up to 18 minutes.

I learned this technique from an awesome book called The Motivation Hackerby Nick Winter. He calls it the “success spiral.” You start off with a small number that seems too trivial to track (like 2 minutes a day) and then slowly increment it until you reach your goal.

I do want to stress this — that the number isn’t important. What’s most important is that if you’re serious about it, you dedicate time to it every day. Like #100DaysOfCode, the best thing you can do is make it part of your daily routine until it becomes a habit. You’ll get more out of it.

Just like coding, there are a plethora of free resources out there! I highly recommend doing your own research and seeing what you find. Here are some suggestions to get started —

If you like books and want to read about meditation

  • Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das . This book changed my entire perspective on life. I loved it. It was one of the first books I read on meditation and Buddhism.
  • Why is the Dalai Lama Always Smiling? by Lama Tsomo . Tsomo uses a more casual approach so everyone can easily relate to her. But she also includes scientific evidence to back-up her claims. I really enjoyed it. She also includes different Tibetan meditation practices.
  • Real World Mindfulness for Beginners by Brenda Salgado . A dear friend recommended it because it includes practices and exercises good for beginners. I hope to use it with my co-workers in the office.
  • The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa . This book is a little more advanced. I’m reading it now to bring my meditation practice to the next level.

If you like e-courses

Try this Free 8-week e-course on meditation for beginners by Namchak. I did this in August 2016 and have since been using the meditation technique during my everyday practice.

If you like apps

  • Insight Timer — It’s free, has a timer with bells and guided meditation. You can also add friends and see their progress (great for accountability!)
  • Headspace — This one is paid, but I’ve heard great things from friends who use it.

Regardless of who you are, meditation is a powerful practice that will change your life. I lead a meditation group that meets twice a month via Google Hangout. If you start meditating and would like a community with whom you can study and practice, you can send me a DM on Twitter for more details.

I hope you found this article useful. Please let me know by clapping, sharing it on social media or leaving a comment below. And if you’re an experienced meditator, please share any additional resources in a comment below for the community!

Sources

  • Corliss, Julie. “Mindfulness Meditation May Ease Anxiety, Mental Stress.” Harvard Health Blog,Harvard Health Publishing, 3 Oct. 2017, www.health.harvard.edu/blog/mindfulness-meditation-may-ease-anxiety-mental-stress-201401086967.
  • Fredrickson, Barbara L. et al. “Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources.” Journal of personality and social psychology 95.5 (2008): 1045–1062. PMC. Web. 12 Nov. 2017.
  • Goleman, Daniel. “Mindfulness Isn’t the Answer to Everything. Here’s When It Helps.” Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business Publishing, 28 Sept. 2017, hbr.org/2017/09/heres-what-mindfulness-is-and-isnt-good-for.
  • Mrazek, Michael D., et al. “Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity and GRE Performance While Reducing Mind Wandering.” Psychological Science, vol. 24, no. 5, 2013, pp. 776–781., doi:10.1177/0956797612459659.