woman meditation in the sun

“Meditating for 365 days straight changed my life, just not in the way I expected it to”

Posted by for Wellbeing

I’m not saying I spent 2020 in a trance, though frankly, that would have been nice considering the circumstances. But I did meditate for 365 days in a row and here’s how it changed my life…

It started simply enough. I had tried meditation on and off for years, but inevitably, life would happen and the habit would drop off. My story begins in January 2020, when I was swiping through my phone looking for enlightenment and landed on the Headspace app.

Andy Puddicombe is the app’s founder and as well as warming to his Bristolian tones, I liked that he had trained as an actual monk. Although a friend pointed out that the journey to enlightenment doesn’t traditionally move from studying as a monk to becoming an app developer – but I didn’t mind. I figured that if someone was getting the word out about meditation and trying to make it accessible to the masses, then that was a good thing.

Most importantly, I could listen to Andy tell me how to breathe for ten minutes without wanting to rip my hair out.

I started with ten minutes; ten minutes a day of Andy’s lovely, soothing voice simply telling me how to breathe.

Ten minutes, it turns out, is a lot of time. 

My brain was so used to constant stimulation that just 600 seconds without distraction or stimulation felt like agony. Once my brain realised that it had to go an entire ten minutes without focusing on some task or taking in information, I felt as though it revolted and began to eat itself – sorry but this is the only way I can explain it. In my mind, it went something like this:

‘Not going to give us anything to think about?,’ it said. ‘Fine. Here are some mad, distracting flights of fancy. Hey, remember that embarrassing memory from years ago that you wish you could forget? Look at this recipe for a delicious snack that you wish you could be eating right now instead of meditating. Oh also, while you’re thinking about all this, you are definitely not meditating. DING! Your time is up. What a terrible meditator you are.’

This was incredibly difficult at first and in the past I would have given up, but there was one crucial difference this time: I discovered the app’s ‘running streaks’.

The app tells you how many days in a row you’ve completed a meditation. Once I’d completed three days in a row, I received a bell and a little cartoon figure congratulating me – and god help me, it felt good. In my defence, I’m a child of the 90s, so I grew up collecting gold coins and toadstools (thanks Nintendo). This was enlightenment gamified and every time that number grew, I felt a tiny rush of achievement. As though I had actually succeeded in meditating, even if my brain was telling me otherwise. 

woman sitting cross legged at home meditating
Meditation: writer Niahm Walsh used the Headspace app to stay motivated to meditate for 365 days straight

Admittedly, I didn’t always do ten minutes. Some days were hard, some days were busy, oh right, then there was a pandemic, and some days I just couldn’t be bothered. But no matter what, I always did some meditating – be it three minutes or just a few breaths. 

More often than not, I did complete the ten minutes and while even these were sometimes torturous, I did have days where I felt I could sit for hours on end with the guided meditation

Eventually, I even did away with Andy’s voice all together – preferring to sit in silence. Regardless of how I felt that day or how hard it was, I made sure to log into the app and record that I had done some form of meditation that day. 

Forget the yearning for enlightenment and inner peace. At this point, I was being plain competitive and like a kid aiming to receive an award for perfect attendance, I just couldn’t ruin my perfect streak.

Then at 286 days in (that’s almost nine and half months, about mid-way through September), the unthinkable happened. I went to log that day’s meditation and was greeted with a cheery cartoon figure congratulating me: ‘One day’s streak!’

I had missed a day.

I know it happened at 286 days because I still have the crawling email I sent to Headspace’s headquarters, explaining that I know I’m supposed to be shedding all earthly concerns and that recording a running streak really shouldn’t be part of my end goal, but I was really trying for the full year and had come so far and was there anything they could do? One kindly reply from Norman in tech support later and my streak was reinstated. He also included some reading about attachment and how meditation is meant to be a lifelong practice – yes Norman, I know you’re absolutely right – but I couldn’t help it. I was thrilled to see that tiny cartoon figure light up once again.

In the end, I did it! In January of this year, I completed 365 straight days of meditating. So, what happened? Well, I didn’t begin levitating. No beam of light shone from the mountaintop to illuminate the truth, and I most certainly have not reached nirvana. And no, I haven’t decided to give up all my earthly belongings to embrace the life of an ascetic.  

But what changed was this: everything. Taking time out to sit in silence, to slow down and to reflect has made me a calmer and more patient person today. I’m sleeping better than ever before and am feeling healthier than I ever have in my entire life. Yet somehow, all of this actually matters least.

What has had the most profound effect is how I tuned back into my own subconscious. For me, the journey wasn’t about an out of body experience, but rather, going deeper into myself. 

It turns out, you can’t sit quietly with your own brain once a day for an entire year without finding yourself there.

I’m not here to convert you to meditation. What I would say is: give it a try. 

What you are not allowed to do is start with 10 minutes. I forbid it. Ten minutes is a long time, your brain will turn into spiders, you will hate it, you’ll feel bad and quit.

Instead, start with one minute. Start with one breath. Sit quietly and take one deep breath.

Then maybe do it again tomorrow. And gradually increase the number of breaths or seconds or minutes over time. 

365 days later, you might just come back and meet yourself here.

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IMAGE: Getty 

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