On Meditation and Failure

My goal for January 2017 was to meditate every day. My first two meditation sessions of the month went well as I sat on the edge of the bed and focused on my breathing for twenty minutes. After two days though I began to struggle and ultimately gave up on this challenge.

Part of the reason why I failed was because I did not establish a meditation routine. I was backpacking around New Zealand at the time so every day was different than the last. I found it unacceptable to use travel as an excuse for failure so I vowed to try again once I returned home. Upon arriving back in Oregon I learned about the importance of setting keystone habits into your daily pattern – an idea that was discussed at length in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. Instead of fitting meditation into my daily schedule, I needed to make meditation a concrete object that the rest of my schedule would fit around.

Another reason why my first attempt failed was because I didn’t know any meditation techniques, or any way to gauge whether what I was doing needed fixing or not. When we go to school we are not thrown into a bare room that only has a whiteboard with definitions written on it. No, what we have is a teacher who is there to guide us down our intellectual paths. We have a way to receive information and to get feedback when we are doing something incorrectly. Having someone guide you through the technicalities of any given activity will usher in your proficiency faster than you could ever do alone. Even the best athletes in the world have coaches, who they are technically superior to, because they provide an outside perspective that the player cannot see. Coaches can ask us questions we’ve never considered, and show us ways to solve problems and complete tasks in new ways. Building relationships and allowing others into our improvement process is a sure fire way to aid our skill development.

It is important to understand the root cause of our failures. Pep Guardiola, a renowned soccer coach, said “we will make mistakes. My job is to make sure those mistakes aren’t repeated.” Getting things wrong is part of the improvement process and it is hard to overcome those mistakes when they occur. But if we keep making the same mistake over and over then the improvement process will stall and we will never progress.

To identify our mistakes we need to be able to reflect clearly on what we are doing. Almost all top-tier athletes use video recordings to identify where their form is wrong, or why their decisions were incorrect, and then come up with ways to fix their errors. For mental mistakes that occur outside of athletics we must have strong introspection skills to identify where our faults and biases lay. and that goes beyond the technical aspects as well. Emotions play a strong role in what we achieve over the course of a day. In the month of April, when I finally achieved my meditation goal, I found that by focusing on the emotional benefits that arose from meditation kept me motivated. My meditation technique was not perfect, but our small losses shouldn’t matter as long as we’re trending in the right direction.

“Fall seven, rise eight.”          -Japanese Proverb

Everyone talks about how failure is okay and how it’s actually a good thing. I don’t dispute that, but I find there is a gap between the number of people who pay lip service to that idea and to the number of people who actually put it into action. Accepting failure is the first part that everyone does well, but to then go and take action that can potentially result in failure is much harder to do. Courage and bravery are needed to take action, and that comes from within. The people who we view as happy and successful have developed those traits. It is not solely their actions that earned our respect, it is the fact that they have fostered qualities that allow them to handle  risks and failures. The same concept of looking at the root causes of our mistakes applies to success as well. We must go deeper than the surface level of seeing what happened, and instead examine the reason behind what caused those things to happen.

When I tried the meditation challenge again in April I succeeded. This was in large part due to the fact that I developed a routine that I could stick by. I found a two hour period of my day between my two part-time jobs where I could come home, have lunch, and then immediately sit down and meditate for ten to twenty minutes. It also helped that I read about a book that discussed meditation and its different iterations; Waking Up by Sam Harris. I also downloaded a guided meditation app on my phone called Headspace. By creating a habit of meditating when I finished lunch, by acquiring information that gave an in-depth discussion of meditation, and by finding an app in which acted in lieu of a teacher, I found it much easier to complete this challenge.

I failed in my first to attempt, but I realized where I made my mistakes. I found ways to fix my errors and applied them to my second attempt. Failing to meditate every day doesn’t have significant penalties, but the principles behind correctly dealing with failure applies to larger challenges as well. Accepting failure is possible, recognizing where mistakes are made, and coming up with an action plan to fix those errors in your next attempt provides a general layout in dealing with all failures across all spectrums.


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