If you had asked me a year ago, I would have lumped Mindfulness and Meditation into the “woo-woo” category, along with sun signs, crystal energy, Myers-Briggs types, and SAT scores. I identify as a realist—and a Gryffindor, thank you. However, the Fall of 2019 was a difficult time. I was burned out from going too hard on my freelance gigs and also trying to navigate a string of personal and family tragedies. I was looking for a way to feel stable.
On a whim—and maybe with a little desperation—I downloaded a meditation app, brewed a cup of Earl Grey, and threw a pillow on the floor to rest my weary tush of tepid transcendence. This was all very exciting for my dogs. Have you ever tried to do yoga with dogs in the room? It was like that. And I’m no good at yoga, either.
When your life is in a whirlwind, 10 minutes of focused breathing can feel immediately stabilizing. What surprised me, though, was the practicality of mindfulness as I was beginning to understand it.
Meditation has since become an anchor (point) in my life. After over a year of daily pausing, breathing, letting go, and listening, I still feel like a beginner...but I’ve seen a significant positive impact. Practicing mindfulness has taught me about focus and flow, navigating difficult emotions, and how to be more present, more often. It’s been a great benefit to my personal life and my working life as a freelance motion designer, and it can do the same for you.
What is Mindfulness?
The best part is that it’s not a bunch of woo-woo theories, but a practical method of tapping into your natural ability of awareness— which helps with all kinds of things. It’s mental training to let go of procrastination, manage stress, and get more out of your precious, precious time.
“Mindfulness is the idea of learning how to be fully present and engaged in the moment, aware of your thoughts and feelings without distraction or judgement.” —Headspace
There are many different techniques, from focusing on your breath to building mental images. These can be helpful, but they are only tools.
Meditation isn’t a concept or a theory to learn. It’s the experience itself that enriches our lives in a very personal way. By witnessing your own mind, you build a very intimate knowledge of yourself that no one else ever could.
That said, when we’re trying to describe meditation, sometimes it’s easier to say what it is not.
SOME MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT MINDFULNESS
“Meditation is esoteric and ethereal. It’s like the Avatar State.”
Exclusive, secret mountain meditation groups do exist, and it can be a spiritual experience for many people, but it doesn’t have to be either of those things. You don’t have to be a monk, a Silicon Valley exec, or an Airbender to benefit. You can practice meditation and apply mindfulness to your life as-is.
“Meditation is relaxing. A luxurious escape from reality.”
During meditation, we move closer toward our reality by becoming more aware and experiencing the world as it is—the good and the bad. Vacations are relaxing, but they don’t help you in the moment of anxiety. A regular meditation practice trains the mind to respond to stress as it occurs in a healthier way.
“Meditation is intellectual.”
Mindfulness is about getting out of your head. We practice awareness to fully experience present sensations and let go of disruptive thoughts. It’s the opposite of intellectualizing the world around you, which creates a barrier between you and your environment. Mindfulness is free from judgement.
Focus and Flow
Our current understanding of the human brain is very limited. Part of that is because we’re still learning how to study the dang thing. Most popular science points to EEG tests, which record electrical activity across the brain, as the best evidence for different states of mind. Other peer reviewed articles consider these electrical pulses akin to neurological “exhaust fumes.” While there are experts on both sides of the debate over the significance of brainwaves, neural oscillations have been observed and measured since 1924 for some interesting results.
Brainwaves are classified by frequency, from Delta on the slow end to high-frequency Gamma waves. For the most part, these frequencies correlate to different levels of activity. Here’s a quick overview:
Delta waves — Deep, dreamless sleep. Highly coveted by freelancers and in-house motion designers alike. This is a restorative state for your body.
Theta waves — Calm and open. Reduced consciousness or “zoning out.” Daydreaming. Automatic tasks such as taking a shower or driving your typical commute, often leading to “aha!” moments.
Alpha waves — A relaxed but alert mind. Taking a break between tasks. Scrolling social media. Casually working on something creative that’s not on a deadline.
Beta waves — Engaged in activity, including: making decisions, having a conversation, and doing tasks that require concentration, like storyboarding or adjusting your value graph.
Gamma waves — Heightened perception and moments of insight produce bursts of gamma waves. That moment when you figure out how to write the perfect expression for a complex rig.
GET IN THE ZONE
Flow is the state of being fully absorbed in your work so that you achieve an effortless synchronization of your mind and body passionately engaged in the task at hand (a.k.a. being in the zone). While in this state, our brain produces pulses between the theta and alpha frequencies. Another benefit of flow, as artists of all stripes already know, is that it feels good.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could experience flow on-demand?
Long term practitioners of meditation, mostly Buddhist monks, have demonstrated the ability to slip into various states of mind at will, including sustained gamma waves. On top of that, the brain of a long-term meditator is observably different even at rest, and in how it ages. Studies suggest meditation and mental training improves neuroplasticity and keeps the brain physically in better condition, slowing the aging process while improving performance.
Does that mean we need to relocate to a remote mountaintop to achieve peak brain performance? It probably wouldn’t hurt your chances. If orange robes aren’t your cup of tea, though, we can still reap benefits from a regular meditation practice right at home.
THE CONDITIONS FOR FOCUS
I always thought of focus as something to hold on to if I wanted to keep it. This perspective requires a lot of effort and creates strain. The reality is the opposite.
When we meditate, we actively encourage our minds to maintain awareness of the present. This requires recognizing when we get distracted, acknowledging what caused the distraction, and then letting it go to return to the present. Our awareness and attention are always there, underneath the disturbance of thought. It’s the release of distraction that is the heart of focus.
Procrastination is the inability to surrender the distractions, which we tend to seek out and cling to out of fear. You can’t force yourself into a state of flow, just like you can’t force yourself into a deep sleep. Instead, you can create the conditions for flow (or sleep) to happen more easily. Training the mind to let go of unhelpful thoughts, pleasant and unpleasant alike, makes it easier for us to uncover focus and slip into flow.
Navigating Stress and Difficult Situations
The freelance life isn’t all peaches and plugins. Motion design requires solving highly complex problems in a limited amount of time. We’re often juggling multiple projects and clients while trying to also keep up with our personal lives. Even the most talented, most established artists are susceptible to burnout. Stress is inevitable.
Taking a vacation is a great way to kick the stress to the curb for a bit, but you always have to come back to it at some point. While mindfulness can’t remove stressors from our lives, and meditating really hard won’t extend your deadline, it does make navigating difficult situations easier.
In meditation, the mind witnesses both the world around us and the thoughts that naturally arise. It could be a disturbance such as barking dogs next door, or a memory of that weird thing you said to a crush in 9th grade. To remain present, we practice letting go of each.
While we can’t do anything about the irritating dog next door, or your awkward teenage years, the practice of sitting with that difficult feeling and letting it pass is training your mind to better navigate stress. Rather than get hung up on the disturbance, or trying to bury it with more distractions, we simply observe the mind with an open curiosity. The irritant is still there, but you’re more comfortable with it now.
Practicing the response of release ultimately makes letting go of unhelpful thoughts and feelings a little more automatic over time. In the midst of a demanding project, this skill can save your sanity and promote the well-being of any blessedly supportive family members.
STORIES AND BEING PRESENT
The breath is a central focus of meditation because—in Dungeons & Dragons terms—it is a True Neutral force, and it’s always with us. Thoughts, on the other hand, align all over the map, from good to chaotic.
Thoughts often become stories that we tell ourselves, narratives that get acted out in our heads, or maybe in the shower. At their best, stories become daydreams, a pleasant distraction. At their worst, stories feed anxiety and other negative emotions that can lead to mental spiraling. Either way, the stories in our heads are not connecting us to the present.
Mindfulness can’t promise happiness, or any other feeling; but, when we’re able to be fully present, we can experience happiness more fully. We also strive to experience negative feelings with the same clarity and calm. Being fully present with those more difficult emotions (anger, sadness, jealousy) actually makes them more manageable.
Creating a Meditation Habit
Much like diet and exercise, or learning any new skill, the value of mindfulness really lies in making it a regular practice.
GUIDED MEDITATION VS. FREEFORM
Guided meditation is definitely the way to go when you’re just beginning. You may be lucky enough to live near a meditation center, or you might be able to find a class if you belong to a fancy gym. Building a community around meditation certainly has benefits.
Freeform practice has been shown to lead to deeper states of meditation, but you’ll need some experience before diving in on your own.
For the rest of us, apps like Calm or Insight Timer provide easy access right at home. I like Headspace. The app is chock-full o’ features, courses, sleepcasts, and focus playlists. Plus, it heavily utilizes beautiful and fun motion design throughout. They’ve recently premiered an animated series on Netflix featuring the same playful animation style.
You don’t have to sit lotus style on a pillow and it doesn’t have to be perfectly silent. You don’t even need to close your eyes. Meditation can work sitting, standing, and even during automatic tasks (theta waves!) like walking or showering. Laying down usually results in falling asleep, but occasionally that’s a happy bonus, amiright?
All that said, for best results, set yourself up for success. Sit comfortably and with proper posture somewhere you’re not likely to be disturbed.
Habit building is an art in and of itself. Another misconception about mindfulness is that it requires dedicating huge stretches of time to sitting around. One of the benefits of these guided meditation apps is that they offer sessions as short as 3 minutes. Some simple breathing exercises only take 60 seconds. So the daily commitment doesn’t have to be aggressive, just consistent.
KEEP A TOKEN
I keep a small purple stone on my desk as a reminder to be present. Sometimes I fidget with it during meetings. When I notice the fidgeting, I’ll pause and run a quick breathing exercise right there in my chair. It’s a gentle nudge to apply mindfulness in every moment, especially outside of guided meditations.
The only rule for your token is that it can’t be representative of something else. For example, I also have a small wooden snail on my desk, a souvenir from Oaxaca. The snail wouldn’t make a good token because it reminds me of my stay in Mexico. Choose your token with care, and keep it in sight.
After my first few meditations, I noticed the app also kept track of my run streak and gave me a cute illustrated badge for meditating three days in a row. If I wasn’t already curious, the gamification convinced the “capricorn” in me to see what else I might learn from a daily practice. I committed to earning the 365 day streak badge.
In those early days of practice, when my life was spiraling, meditation felt like the best, most stabilizing part of my day. After a few months, my world normalized for the most part and meditation began to feel more like a chore. This is when having the (admittedly completely arbitrary) goal was helpful.
Alas, after 119 days of dutifully tuning in to the soothing sound of Andy Puddicombe’s guidance, I broke my streak. It’s absurd, but the idea of having to start over to reach my goal caused me to nearly quit altogether.
THE ONLY GOAL IN MEDITATION IS THE JOURNEY ITSELF.
The payoff of a daily practice is more than a badge. When times get tough, when I overbook myself or a project is difficult, I can rely on the experience of my practice to navigate those situations in a more healthy way. Thanks to regular training, mindfulness, with all its benefits (for me and the people around me) is easier to apply throughout my day.
I’ve recently broken my streak again, after about 450 days. It was still disappointing, but this time I picked it back up without hesitation.
You’ll often find mindfulness books categorized under self-help and, more specifically, productivity. All the productivity advice in the world won’t help if you don’t have a personal desire to take action. Meditation is open to anyone who is curious to try. Even a few minutes a day can build a foundation to make a difference.
Go forth, and woo-woo.