In January this year I decided to conduct an experiment.
I had just gotten back from my second 10 day meditation retreat, and - no surprises here - I met many people who'd done courses before, but had never followed up with the suggested two hours of meditation per day (two hours? who has two hours a day to spare?!). But the ones who had been meditating for a long time were convinced that a regular daily practice was the key to going deeper.
So I decided to commit to three months of meditating two hours a day. Why only three months? Well - let's just say that I've been told that, any time now, my life is about to turn upside down. I didn't want to make a commitment that I couldn't keep, so I decided to make a strong commitment for at least three months.
My wife wrote a short piece about meditation, and my commitment, on The New York Times' Well Blog. Since then, a lot of people have asked me if I've noticed any benefits, and what they are.
I have. I'm convinced that it's become easier for me to bridge the gap between the person I am and the person I strive to be. My friend who's an associate editor at Yoga Journal said that would make for a terrible quote in any reputable publication because it's such a general statement devoid of any specific examples.
But it's really hard to give specific examples because the benefits are so personal and subjective. And luckily this isn't a reputable publication. Would I behave differently if I weren't meditating two hours a day but only 15 minutes? What if I were chanting or praying instead of meditating? Who knows. I'm not really concerned about answering those questions because I'm not trying to test the efficacy of meditation (I'm convinced of it already).
My experiment wasn't about the meditation, though that was a crucial part of it.
During the course, one follows the eight precepts of Sila (Morality). Among these include 'non violence' - which also translates to being vegetarian, and 'no intoxicants'. The theory goes that perfect morality is an essential foundation for concentration, and concentration in turn is an essential foundation for Wisdom.
I've tried being vegetarian several times (longest stretch - one month), and also tried giving up alcohol (longest stretch - a year). I don't consume either in excessive quantities, and I've always enjoyed both - so I decided that I didn't really need to suppress my desire to consume them. Until now. I mean - would you forgo Wisdom for a plate of chicken tikka masala? (I know someone who just might)
Starting with the premise that meditation (especially at the two-hour-a-day-level, and after having spent ten, ten-hour days at a retreat) makes one more aware of oneself, I decided that I wanted to see if I could actually notice the effects of consuming meat or alcohol.
Just giving them up wouldn't work - because I wouldn't have a good 'control' for my experiment. Instead I decided to limit my intake of both to: three times a week each of meat/alcohol in January, twice a week in February, and once a week in March. I marked every intake on google calendar with an A for alcohol and M for meat. I also annotated my calendar any time I had a particularly difficult sit.
A quick diversion. I realize that it is counterproductive to think of a Sit as either "good" or "bad". The whole point is to observe the reality of your experience as it is, in a non-judgmental way, and do so with equanimity. But that doesn't take away from the fact that sometimes I'd sit down and spend the hour calmly focussing on different parts of my body and other times my mind would be a storm, I'd struggle to keep my eyes closed, and then realize that it had only been thirty minutes. I marked those times with a "-1".
What I found was fascinating.
As suspected, it was almost impossible to have even one drink, and then sit down to meditate. I'd usually organize the evening so that I'd meditate first, and then have a drink (This was made particularly easy thanks to my awesome employer google, where there are meditation rooms on campus. I've meditated in several buildings in Mountain View, as well as in Seattle while on a business trip).
Also, as suspected, the morning after having a couple of beers was a little difficult. But I was surprised that even a single drink tended to have an effect on my meditation the next day.
But the big surprise was the meat. Sure - a big meal of red meat makes most people feel a bit sluggish, but I noticed that the effects of meat were just as unsettling on the mind as alcohol. Definitely less intense (I rarely planned my meditation around a meal unless it was going to involve alcohol), but tended to last for three to four sits (1.5 - 2 days). Dropping down from three meals a week to two, and then to one, really brought this point home. In March I was able to clearly see that the single meat meal upset a balance, whereas in January it was a little harder to notice since the various effects merged together.
On a side note - counting my meat meals had this strange effect where I'd always have to figure out if it was worth using my single meat-coupon (as I called in in my head) on any given meal. Suddenly sausage at breakfast, or chicken soup at lunch was just not worth blowing a coupon on. Note also that, given how fantastic the food at google is, the bar was extraordinarily high.
So where does that leave things now that it's April?
Now that I've meditated at least two hours a day for a little over one hundred days in a row, I really hope to keep going. In fact the thought of stopping pains me. I'm particularly inspired by someone about my age who's been meditating for over seven years.
What about the consumption restrictions? Contrary to my intuition, going through a period of "self-deprivation" actually ended up being instructive and wasn't just an exercise in masochism. If I hadn't controlled my intake in a systematic way, I wouldn't have been able to notice the effects.
But living in such a forced, controlled way doesn't necessarily add to a joyous life. I stand by my earlier conviction that if I give up something (meat or alcohol), it shouldn't be because of some sense that it is right but, rather, because it's just not worth it. Like how putting your hand directly inside a flame is just not appealing because you know you're going to get burnt.
So - I'm no longer counting my meals or my drinks. But I'm pretty sure, if I keep up my "daily practice", I'll change the way I eat and drink.
PS: That's not me in the picture. I don't meditate upside down, and I can't even do lotus position right-side-up.