Thoughts on a year of Headspace

As I mentioned in my 2015 wrapup, this past year I practiced mindfulness meditation with Headspace. I wrapped up another “pack” this morning and thought it would be useful to collect some thoughts on the various approaches I’ve learned and the experience overall.

  • My main insight was that training the mind really is like training the body. It benefits from consistent practice, varied techniques, planned routines, and even interval training (alternating periods of focus and relaxation). Similarly, the mind can become detrained without regular training, and I noticed a real difference in my mental state after just a few days without practicing.
  • That said, I wasn’t very consistent with my practice, averaging a little less than one session every two days, and sometimes going up to two weeks between sessions (often caused by travel or illness disrupting my routine). Contrast that with some people who mention online that they’ve had a streak of 90 or even 365 days straight, and I wonder how their experience differs. I managed to maintain an overall sense of peace that persists even after a few days off, but some of the more advanced techniques and benefits didn’t stick around.
  • The only way I was able to fit this into my day is by waking up earlier. If I start my day with meditation (after a few wakeup stretches), I’m much better at staying focused. Once I’ve done much of anything else, my mind is too distracted to have a successful session.
  • Meditating on the breath always seemed to me an arbitrary choice–why not on a concept or a sound (like “om“). However, I gradually came to appreciate it, as your breath is always with you (and if it’s not, you have bigger problems than mindfulness), and doesn’t require conscious effort to maintain. When the goal is to clear away distracting conscious thoughts, the breath is a handy aid.
  • I was initially skeptical of the “pack” approach unique to Headspace, but it too proved itself over time. It’s nice to break down what could be a lifelong practice into manageable chunks, giving you a tangible goal every 10 or 30 days. And while I started each pack wondering how meditation was supposed to improve a skill like creativity or generosity, every time there was indeed a helpful insight or new practice. A few examples and reviews:
    • Focus was the first pack I tried. What stuck with me is the sense that sustainable focus isn’t something static and fixed, but rather the ability to steer your attention to different things at will–a dynamic experience. I wrote about how my son exhibits this trait naturally, but it was a new (or renewed?) practice for me. I continue to use the visualization of a glowing sphere moving through the parts of the body when I’m cycling, especially during hard efforts, to keep my overall attention on the body’s performance and prevent my mind from wandering.
    • Anxiety was next, and while this was a natural emotion for meditation to help, the approach was again surprising. The technique instructs you to first name, and then categorize, whatever stressful thoughts enter your mind. You might think of a difficult project at work, for example, which you could then give a title, mark as “negative”, and label as a “thinking” anxiety. The simple act of acknowledging the thought can be enough for your mind to let it go, a bit like how writing down an important todo item lets you relax mentally–it’s no longer your mind’s responsibility to keep track of it.
    • Appreciation was a nice shorter one and quite related to Generosity. In both cases you’re instructed to think about who and what makes you the happiest and most fulfilled, and the goal is to cultivate that feeling (rather than, say, translate into direct action). I found Generosity more valuable overall, as you extend that feeling toward others and into the world.
    • Creativity was a bit of a slog. 30 sessions, and again the goal was mostly to recognize the “feeling” of being creative. It introduced one nice technique though, the idea of rapidly alternating between focus on the breath and “letting go of the mind”, which trains you in the art of smoothly entering into a focused state at a moment’s notice. During this series I found myself better able to do “micro-meditations” throughout my regular day.
    • I’ve only tried 10 days of Headspace Pro, the packs with less guidance and no particular theme. I did find them more challenging, and less motivating, than the themed packs, and haven’t been back recently. Hopefully more consistent practice will make them accessible again.

I continue to find new benefits from Headspace, even after a year and over 150 sessions. Here’s to another year of mindfulness!

Tricking yourself–for science!

Now that’s scientific rigor! A team studying gravitational waves is intentionally trying to fool itself:

Because gravitational waves are so tiny, and it’s easy to get false positives, the LIGO team includes three individuals capable of injecting false signals to test the group’s ability to weed them out.

On originality

“Don’t try to be original; just try to be good.” – Paul Rand

2015 – Toward health and happiness

This was a good year for growth in body and soul. Feeling healthy, calm, and ready for adventure!

  • Enjoyed lots of adventures with the family, including 2 visits by my parents to California, our annual beach trip to Michigan, time in Tahoe, Santa Barbara for Easter and Christmas, and perhaps most importantly time away as a couple in Northern California and Colorado.
  • Got as fast on the bike as I’ve been in over 10 years, riding an 18:43 Old La Honda, 31:28 Montebello, 9:20 Redwood Gulch, 26:46 Kings Mountain, and 43:10 Gibraltar over 8,210 km and 127,051m of climbing. Lots of indoor training with Zwift, which makes cold 6am mornings in the garage bearable.
  • Inspired by a Body Spec scan, lost almost 20 pounds on a simple diet of mostly vegetarian proteins and fats: vegetables, salads, avocados, eggs, cheese, oils, nuts and nut butters. Followed a bunch of Tim Ferris’ slow carb diet tips. Tastes great, satisfying, and good for my energy levels, which used to vary wildly throughout the day and are now steady and strong. Kill the grain brain!
  • Read 38 books, lots of science fiction “just” for enjoyment, but a few that shifted my mindset a bit. Most impressive were Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (a new design hero), Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, and Eaarth by Bill McKibben. Lots of learning about our changing world and future possibilities.
  • Got my brain under control through regular mindfulness meditation with Headspace. 147 sessions over 46 hours this year, and I can finally steer my attention toward things I want and away from stressful and painful things I don’t.
  • Simplified our lives of clutter and mess with 2 separate weeks of focused cleaning and expunging–each time the week around the new year. Definitely a positive annual tradition, though we always find a way to fill them up again…

And with that we’re off to 2016! Thanks to all family and friends for their support this year; excited to see what comes next.

Topple vs. restore

“In our world, we have enough power to topple our most important systems, but not the power to restore most of them…[but] there is still time to restore this well enough to aid fundamental changes in how our societies make decisions, and especially to start to better deal with the large potential systems disasters we face.” – Alan Kay

Trains go up, trains go down

This is awesome: use excess solar power to drive trains uphill, then let them drive back downhill to generate power when the sun goes down.

Peloton by Harold Braul

I love the Peloton Series by Harold Braul; dreamy and beautiful.

Investing in Omaha

In an age when all the attention is on rich Silicon Valley people designing things for each other, it’s interesting to read why the world’s most successful investor lives in Omaha, Nebraska:

Buffett is known for investing in quality businesses that have fallen out of favor with the market, and he said being in Omaha helped him do that.

“In some places it’s easy to lose perspective. But I think it’s very easy to keep perspective in a place like Omaha,” he said.

Buffett said being far from Wall Street actually helped him.”It’s very easy to think clearly here. You’re undisturbed by irrelevant factors and the noise generally of business investments…If you can’t think clearly in Omaha, you’re not going to think clearly anyplace.”

I’ve worked with several rich and famous technologists, and I always wonder if their prior success helps or hinders their future efforts. I think it’s a bit of each, but no matter how rich you are, there’s one thing you can’t buy–the groundedness and perspective of life outside the bubble.

Tribal techniques for global issues

I love this–traditional South African negotiating techniques were used to get a climate deal in Paris (and Durban in 2011):

An indaba is designed to allow every party to voice its opinion, but still arrive at a consensus quickly. It works because opinions and arguments can only be aired in a particular way:

Instead of repeating stated positions, each party is encouraged to speak personally and state their “red lines,” which are thresholds that they don’t want to cross. But while telling others their hard limits, they are also asked to provide solutions to find a common ground…

[In Durban in 2011] the South African presidency asked representatives from the main countries to form a standing circle and speak directly to each other.

A South African analyst explains the indaba process in more detail:

The draft text of the agreement is produced (by the chieftaincy, presidency, secretariat, etc. following extensive stakeholder engagement) and circulated. Those in support give automatic approval of the agreement and discussion ensues; those who agree during the discussion are incorporated in the agreement.

Those most affected or with immovable positions (simplified to key disagreement areas) discuss among themselves, arrive at a solution (this is a more facilitated session) and the solution is then incorporated into the wider agreement with changes acceptable to the whole collective – which is easier as everyone was part of the process and changes tend to be superficial, if any.

Interesting that some of its success comes from making the process more intimate and personal–while still keeping guidelines on the format. Hopefully the way we move decision-making forward includes learning from the history of different cultures like this.

Forecasting our memories

When the Long Now audience of 2515 looks back on the audience of 2015, their level of contempt for how we go about judging political debate will be roughly comparable to the level of contempt we have for the 1692 Salem witch trials. – Philip Tetlock

It will be interesting to see–and invent–the ways we do improve political debate.