My 108-Day Meditation Challenge: Tales from My Head

meditation space

On March 11th, 2015, I made a commitment to meditate everyday for 108 days. I fulfilled this commitment on June 26 without skipping a day. It was not easy and there were days when I almost broke this vow to myself but I did it. So what led an anti-meditator to change course? How did such a busy-bee minded person sit in complete stillness each day? And why 108 days?

I decided to start meditating because last fall, when I wasn’t meeting with clients or colleagues, or traveling, or managing my household, or health, or personal relationships, the time spent by myself was occupied entirely by technology. I bounced between three email addresses (one personal and two business accounts), two Facebook accounts (one personal and one business), and text messages. I put a lot of energy into the world and toward other people and I didn’t have much left for myself. I had laser-like focus when people were in front of me but then, once on my own, my attention span was about 2 minutes long and I was driven by my technological devices. I struggled at times to tap into my intuition.

Some of you might be surprised to read this because this is precisely the lifestyle support I offer clients. Well, we health coaches sometimes struggle and practicing what I preach is not always easy. (So when I tell you that I get what you’re going through, I REALLY mean it.) In addition, those of you who know me know that, while intense, I am a pretty chill person. I’ve intentionally cultivated mindfulness and awareness in my life since 2002, engaging in a variety of healing modalities to become more present in each moment: yoga, talk therapy, traditional Chinese medicine, Tantra, physical therapy, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais… I love guided meditations and incorporate them in my health coaching and yoga teaching.

Straight meditation, where you focus on your breath and cultivate your ability to rest your thoughts always seemed like torture to me though. I am blessed to lead a relaxed lifestyle but I go a bit batty when I sit still for long periods of time. (In Yiddish, we call this having shpilkes which is akin to ‘ants in my pants’.) By the winter of last year, it was clear that I needed a radical shift and the tools I already had in my tool belt were not cutting it. It seemed worthwhile to at least try meditation. It was not easy but here is some of what I learned and some tips if you’re interested in developing a meditation practice as well:

1. I realized I could not do it on my own, at least not at the beginning.

I found a few teachers to study with in New York and in Hawaii and learned through trial and error that, given my challenges, it was really helpful to be with a group of people and cultivate a daily meditation routine together. I sat with them each day for 24-minutes at the same time each day. Once I got into the groove with others, I felt like I could do it on my own. This was what ultimately inspired me (and gave me the confidence) to do a 108-day challenge. I also publicized that I was doing a 108-day challenge on Facebook in order to create accountability and motivate myself to have a daily practice at home.

Practicing with other people everyday may seem unrealistic for some of you. There are a variety of expensive, less expensive, and free ways to do this but all require carving out time. Attending a retreat or immersion at a meditation center are perhaps the easiest ways to find community and accountability because you are only surrounded by like-minded, committed folks and someone else is dictating your schedule. If you do a retreat or immersion, I recommend going for at least 7 days so that you really develop a routine and experience the benefits of the practice.

If a getaway is not an option, there may be meditation groups in your area or you and a roommate, partner or friend can practice together. Alternatively, while I felt the need to distance myself from technology, technology may be helpful for some of you. Consider using video Skype with someone else who is also developing a practice or already has one. A variety of apps also exist. See this recent article on the “Best Meditation iPhone and Android Apps of 2015.

2. As a newbie, identifying and creating the ‘right’ physical space made a difference for me (and I aspire to let go of it)

While I aspired to be able to meditate anywhere, I needed a default, dedicated space where I could meditate each day. I made a concerted effort to identify what I needed for my go-to space. As I mentioned above, my intention behind the meditation was to create some distance from technology so I could not have the spot close to my computer. Living in a 4-room apartment in New York City, that left three rooms open: bathroom, kitchen, and bedroom. Bedroom it was!

I was very clear that I needed a connection to nature so my spot needed to be by a window. My bedroom has two windows: one that is two yards from the window to my neighbor’s kitchen and one that faces my other neighbors’ yards. I opted for the second window.

My bedroom is rectangular and the bed occupies most of the space but I felt the need to create distinction between sleep space and meditation space so that I did not associate sleep with meditation. I didn’t want to physically block the meditation area all of the time because that would limit sunlight during non-meditation time so I created a daily ritual to convert the vibe of the room: I intentionally did not leave meditation-related things in place all the time. Rather, before each sit, I put the pillows on the floor and, on the sill of the window I face, I put a crystal that reminds me of the ocean, a relaxing-scented candle, and a little figurine of Ganesh, the Hindu god who represents the removal of obstacles. (While I don’t believe in Hindu gods, the little Ganesh regularly reminds me to identify and remove the things that may impede my ability to create space for myself.)

All of this is to say, get creative about creating your meditation space. If connecting to nature is important to you but that is not an option in your home space, print a photo from a place you find calming and put it in front of you while you meditate. Maybe the space doesn’t matter for you. Maybe you’re able to find stillness anywhere. If so, rock on!

Ultimately, there is only so much control we have other these things anyway. If you live in an apartment, you might have loud neighbors. If you have a child or children, it can be challenging to find a physical space where your kid/s and their sound do not penetrate. Kids raise a different issue however than rock n’ rolling neighbors. As a parent, you have been trained to have what one of my client’s calls “Mama Ears”. You necessarily put their voices above your own because you are responsible for their well-being. Be gentle with yourself on this front. Perhaps, at least in the early days of your practice while you’re getting into your grove, meditate while they are out of the house or, if possible, have your child/children be under someone else’s safe care and out of auditory range.

3. I had to find a balance between discipline (to maintain a daily practice) and flexibility (with my time and environment)

Changing any behavior requires discipline. I historically have associated discipline with punishment and negative consequences. My aim with meditation however was to nourish myself so in theory meditating everyday should 1. feel like a choice everyday and not something I was forcing myself to do and 2. should feel like a positive decision. As you’ll see from my journal, at times I craved my meditation space and felt like I was truly doing my body, mind, and spirit good. At other times, it was REALLY difficult to truly believe that sitting down to meditate was an exciting, loving thing to do for myself.

I believe one of the keys to maintaining my commitment to meditate everyday was the measure of flexibility I allowed myself: the time of day when I meditated and the amount of time I would sit for could vary and move with my schedule. I was thus making choices related to my meditation practice. It was not a given.

My baseline was to sit for 24 minutes but, as one of my teachers taught us, there are benefits to be gained from 12 minutes of meditation or even 6 minutes if necessary. In addition, when I wasn’t able to sit first thing in the morning in my bedroom, I would try to meditate somewhere else at a different time. I most often did not get a satisfying, juicy meditation outside of my cozy bedroom setup but that sometimes made me more disciplined to create the space for that the next day.

Maybe for you it will be different but don’t judge yourself if you give yourself a longer rope one day and it proves really difficult. That’s where you are that day.

4. Journaling immediately after my meditation helped me to focus on my breath during my meditation

Journaling gave me a place to put the thoughts that arose during my meditation. This helped my meditation because I could just say to myself, “I will deal with this thought later, when I journal.” I didn’t need to hold these thoughts in my head thus freeing me to focus on my breath during my sit.

Here are a few musings from my journal to illustrate some of the ideas above (or at the very least to entertain you):

3/11/15 At this time of day, if I sit just to the right of center of the window, I can see the moon from my meditation seat.

3/12/15 Today I sit down to meditate with the moon and will rise from my meditation with the sun. That’s cool. Inhale. Exhale. No, I’m not supposed to say that. Inhale nourishment. Exhale toxins. No, that doesn’t work. My inhalations and exhalations are shorter than that. Am I doing this right? Am I forcing my breath? Now I’m judging myself… Inhale, nourish. Exhale, cleanse. That works better… I should be nicer to myself.

 3/17/15 I started looking for the pain in my hip that I’d been feeling for the last few weeks but it wasn’t there… I wanted to sit for longer today. The timer went off after 24 minutes but I would have been fine sitting for longer. Score!

 3/20/15 As my teacher suggested, I started classifying thoughts as they entered into my meditation. Today, when I started thinking about how I would write about this, I named the thought: “I care what people think. I care how I am perceived. That is fear. Hi fear. I need to focus on my breath now. Bye!!!” And I banished her into the cosmos.

 3/25/15 There are about 7 bright blue blue jays in the backyard. We have blue jays? How have I never noticed this before????

 4/1/15 I resisted sitting today. I wanted to get things done around the apartment and clean. I forced myself to mediate but I didn’t feel present in my body. Feeling frustrated.

 4/3/15 Traveling for the first time during my 108 days and staying with family. I didn’t want to sit. I wanted to dive into the morning energy of the house and play with my adorable 2-year old nephew. I resisted though and created the space for myself instead. It can be so easy to lose myself in my family and their needs but I feel so connected to my needs now. Do I do this in my life in other ways? Is connecting with others sometimes a distraction from my other commitments? I originally thought I would post regular updates about my 108-day challenge on Facebook but I’m finding that, during my sit, I start to think about the pieces I will share. I ask myself, “What am I learning now? What can I share that others will benefit from hearing?” I need this time for me. No more Facebook updates.

4/6/15 Coming into my breath tonight was really good. I noticed I was gripping in my abdomen. Do I do this often over the course of the day? How does this affect my health?

 4/9/15 The thoughts that popped into my meditation related to past relationships. I think I need some extra love today. Calling my girls in 4, 3, 2…

 4/19/15 (technically 4/20) Sometimes I wonder who or what I’m doing this for. Am I doing this just so that I can say I did it?

 4/21/15 The 12-minute sit was too short but I don’t have time to do more. I am craving more time being quiet and connecting with myself though. This is good information. I will give myself more space today and will move slowly. I will practice my “No.”

 5/9/15 Sometimes I am so tired that I start to pass out while I’m sitting. Sometimes I am so tired that I forget I’m meditating and let my mind wander. I wonder if it’s worth it to even try to sit on those days. What’s the point?

 5/19/15 Big, creative ideas are entering my head during meditation– new ideas for my businesses, my home, the way I want to decorate the corner of the living room now that I got rid of the furniture that was there… I’m supposed to be meditating but I haven’t had this level of creativity in a while. It’s so great! Should I stifle these ideas?

 6/1/15 Tried to meditate on the train from NYC to NJ. Sitting quietly is not the same as meditating.

 6/3/15 Tried meditating while waiting for friends at a concert in the park. Maybe one day I’ll be able to do that but I am SOOOO not there. At least not today.

 6/5/15 I largely focused on my breath today. The only other thoughts that popped into my head related to a client and how I might support her. I gently brought my attention back to myself—this is my time, she has her time. This meditation space is the place where I nourish myself, I nourish others in other spaces.

 6/19/15 Really enjoying this time by myself. So luscious!

 6/25/15 Tried lying down for meditation. Totally not successful. Too much space to fidget. I put my hand in the air so I wouldn’t fall asleep—that was really annoying. Lesson learned. Only sitting.

So why 108? 108 is a number that has significance in Hinduism and Buddhism as well as other religions. There are 108 beads, for example, on a string of mala beads that practitioners use similar to the ways Catholics use rosary beads, to count chants and mantras. Both traditions believe that the body has 108 channels to the heart and activating each through 108 repetitions of mantras creates harmony and balance.

I chose 108 as the number of days for my challenge in case this whole energy channel thing was legit but also because, at the very least, I thought that a 3½ month daily routine would feel pretty ingrained by the end.

And goodness, was it ever!

In the stillness and in the discipline, I found spaciousness. Each day I had room to check-in with myself and my body. I could identify imbalances and adjust my day accordingly (like the day when I realized some extra love so I reached out to my closest ladies). At a certain point, I sometimes started to crave my meditation practice, like a crisp glass of water when you are really thirsty.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the blog, my intention in developing a daily meditation practice was to cultivate stillness in my head. Perhaps the biggest thing that I learned and continue to re-learn over and over again is that my meditation practice is not about my head. It is about my breath. It is not about my head. It is about my breath. It is not about my head. It is about my breath…

Meditation is nothing but enjoying your beautiful aloneness. Celebrating yourself; that’s what meditation is all about. – Osho

Meditation is not a matter of trying to achieve ecstasy, spiritual bliss, or tranquility, nor is it attempting to become a better person. It is simply the creation of a space in which we are able to expose and undo our neurotic games, our self-deceptions, our hidden fears and hopes. – Pema Chodron

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