A manifesto for a more wondrous age.

Hey everyone! A quick update before I get into this post, I wanted to apologize for the radio silence the past few days. It was Thanksgiving here in America last Thursday, and I haven’t had an internet connection in my apartment since the Thursday before that. It should be resolved soon, but who knows.

Monopolies are bad, net neutrality is important, let’s all build a mesh net and crush the bureaucracy. Anyways…

In my previous post, I wrote about how to meditate. This is sort of a companion piece to that post, but is also an extension of it. Even though I’m using some of the language related to meditation, this can be applied to many different fields beyond it.

There’s more resources now than ever before when embarking on any journey of learning and personal discovery. Information is so widely available that the bigger issue is not where to get it, but what’s worth your time. A lot of this information is geared for the absolute beginner.

While this is great, it can be a burden of its own making.

In learning how to practice your awareness and meditate, an easy place to start is with guided meditation. If you’ve never experienced this, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a recording of a teacher helping to guide and shape your experience. They tell you everything from how to sit, to what to think, and how to feel. It’s sort of like hand-holding.

Of course, this is a great place to start, especially if you’ve got no frame of reference for how something like this should go. I still find myself listening to guided meditations, especially after an absence. Or if I want to work on something specific addressed in the guide.

A few days ago, I sat down to meditate, and decided to go back to do a longer session from one of the Headspace packs. I sat on my floor Zazen, and began the session. I started to falter around the 7 minute mark. I hadn’t been meditating for a few days before this, and was finding it difficult to sit Zazen and listen to the recording. Instead of guiding me, I found the sound of the voice to be distracting, pulling me away from the awareness I had been working to achieve.

So I stopped doing both. I switched to sit in a half-lotus position, and turned off the recording. I had one of the most rewarding sessions of my life, sitting in meditation for almost 30 minutes. That would never have happened if I simply quit, or if I had kept listening to the recording. You have to be aware of when guidance stops being helpful and starts being an obstacle.

Another way of looking at this is through learning a language. There are many great apps and websites and books and podcasts to help you learn a language. Even the most popular ones, like Duolingo (which is a great app), is still rather limited in what it can offer you. It’s a foundation, but some people use it like it’s an entire ecosystem.

At the end of the day, the only thing that’s going to really teach you how to speak a language, is practice speaking a language. Of course, textbooks and other resources are great tools, but you should look to diversify your resources as much as you can.

One of the ways people feel locked into a particular resource is through streaks. Both Headspace and Duolingo offer methods of counting your time spend learning and track your progress. This is a very effective means of motivation in the 21st century, which I’ve written about here. However, making this the end-all-be-all means of your learning is a surefire way to limit your potential.

As great as any of these apps or websites are, they can’t be the only means you have of personal growth. For me, my best progress comes from a testing of my own abilities, a stepping out of my comfort zone. A fear of breaking a streak, or second-guessing your abilities is an easy way of making sure you’ll only go as far as any one of these resources can take you.

The best solution is to not put stock in these types of systems meant to keep you complacent. They offer the feeling of progress, even if progress isn’t being made. However, this can be hard, and relies on a confidence that takes time to build.

You can try externalizing this tracking to a third-party, like to a notebook or calendar, or to a different app like a habit tracker or logger. This at least allows you to track the progress on your own terms, which might help ease your weariness.

Either way, the most important thing about learning is knowing how you learn best. Maybe you work best with lectures, or one on one with a teacher. Or maybe you’d prefer to just sit down with a textbook and notebook and figure it out on your own. If you know this, you can utilize it best for you.

That way, when something isn’t working, you can turn the recording off, and study how you work best.

I wrote a bit about this in my newsletter, which you can sign up for here. I said:

That’s the beauty of meditation, as far as I’m concerned. I’m not so much searching for a revelation when I meditate. Instead, I’m looking for a sense of calm and awareness, which often can lead to a revelation later. This is sort of the inverse process of running for me, where the act of running itself leads to insights.

There’s a special power in repetitive activities that let your mind wander, and in its exploration often finds something you didn’t even know you were looking for. I can’t tell you how many plots I’ve “solved” while out for a run or in the shower afterwards.

The difficulty with guided meditation, or more structured learning, is that is doesn’t let your brain have this time to wander. If you’re walked through all the steps, you won’t have to fill in any of the gaps on your own. For me, this is the process that leads to the best progress.

Have any of you tried guided meditation? Did it work? How do you learn best?