Still Learning: the Benefits of Meditation

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My goal for the 2012 triathlon season was to win the Overall of the Great Floridian.  The odds weren’t exactly stacked in my favor. I was coming off a four year layoff and hadn’t raced an Ironman since July of 2007.  I was older. I had less training time available than at any other time in my life. Oh—yeah—and I still had leukemia.

So I decided to do a gong.

Not a bong, you pot-heads—a gong!  A gong is 100 continual days of practice.  And that practice could be anything: working out; drinking water; daily stretching; whatever you would like to make not just a habit—but actually part of who you are.  Once you’ve done anything for 100 days continuously, it becomes a defining characteristic for you.

In late 2011, someone could easily have defined me as a dishwasher.  Ever since my son was born, I’d become quite proficient at cleaning, especially in the kitchen.  At the same time, my wife acquired an uncanny ability of dirtying dishes. And lest I not acknowledge her appropriately, she also developed the same skill with utensils, pots, pans, and any other implement remotely related to culinary preparation or consumption.  But I didn’t really see how my dishpan hands were going to help me win an Ironman. So I opted for 100 continual days of meditation.

Like a lot of people, the whole concept of meditation was a bit much for me.  Or maybe it was a bit too little. I had tried it before, albeit inconsistently.  And for me, sitting down and doing nothing was just too damn hard! After all, my idea of a vacation was hiking on a mountain trail or cycling around Europe.  The beach was bearable if I could bodysurf or do some open water swimming. To just sit there with a goal of No Thing?  I didn’t have time for that!  I had a job. I had a family. I had to train!  

Train your weaknesses and race your strengths

Obviously, my weakness was resting enough.  It’s not that I didn’t believe in recovery days.  But the emphasis was always on the physical: easy swims or spins; the occasional day of no exercise (usually characterized by a ten or twelve hour work day).  I stretched everyday and did consistent bodywork. I even got a massage whenever I could squeeze it in.

Yes—my body got some much needed down time, but my mind was always in motion.  If I wasn’t working, I was studying. If I wasn’t studying, I was writing. If I wasn’t writing, I was reading.  And eventually I came across an old Zen saying:

You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for 1 hour.

Obviously, I could’ve used an hour.  But I’ll tell you straight up—that just wasn’t going to happen.  My goal had to be realistic; one which stretched me but, at the same time, was actually attainable.  So I compromised: I promised myself I would sit and meditate for 10 minutes every day.

Sure, 10 minutes may not seem like much of a compromise when an hour is the starting point of negotiation.  But I had to start somewhere. Something had to be better than nothing, right? And I realized that from No Thing could come Any Thing—including the Overall win of the Great Floridian.  

One of the goals of meditation is to let the brain rest.  More specifically, it’s to enter a state of No Mind—a place which spiritual teachers and other practitioners have termed the Gap.  See, there is a space between thoughts where the mind is perfectly still. Exquisitely balanced between one idea and another, the mind is completely at rest.  And just like a successful training program allows for physical recovery, mental recovery is essential, too.

In fact, I think it’s even more important.

I remember taking the S.A.T. in high school.  It was weird, because it was the one time in school when we were actually encouraged to eat a candy bar or drink a soda—anything to keep “mentally sharp” for the demands of the test.  And while my teachers’ recommendations may have been a bit misguided, their hearts were in the right place. You had to keep your brain fueled or the test was going to kick your ass.

I use that experience only to highlight that thinking is, ironically, very physically demanding.  The brain uses as much as 80% of the available blood sugar when cognitively engaged. In fact, commercial weight loss programs would probably be much more successful if the people doing them actually studied the body.  Not only would they realize that diets don’t work; their research would also engage the brain—a very inefficient and energy consuming organ.  

So just like turning off the lights or turning down the thermostat can decrease your monthly electrical bill, allowing the brain to consistently recover can lower the energy cost of running your biological systems.  Increase your body’s efficiency, and you have more resources you can devote to a particular goal.

Including winning an Ironman.

Thus, began a deeper exploration of my own mind.  It was crazy to think I didn’t know it as well as I thought.  I had spent every waking hour surrounded by thoughts. They circled, repeated, and escaped without recognition so often and in such succession that I never could appreciate what quiet truly meant—and I’m still learning.  

Indeed, with meditation, I am still learning.  

In contrast to the dynamic nature of thoughts, stillness is hard to recognize.  For once identified, the quiet is startled into a thought which leaps away and entices you to follow it.  But if you can resist that temptation—acknowledge the thought but stay in the quiet—that silence can serve you.

Benefits of Meditation

  • Reduce Stress
  • Decrease Anxiety
  • Improve Digestion
  • Increase Focus
  • Raise Pain Tolerance

The amygdala is a part of the brain which plays an important role in both stress and anxiety.  The practice of meditation has been shown to decrease grey matter density in this area. In fact, numerous studies show meditation enhances all of the above listed skills.  And any one of them would be life changing for most everybody. But if you’re an athlete, proficiency in these areas is part of what determines your performance both in training and in competition

I can be wound a bit tight in the days leading up to a big event.  Maybe I’m just anxious to get going. And I do that on race day—to the tune of 2 or 3 trips to the Port-o-let before feeling even close to comfortable on the starting line.  Even then, I have to be careful about what and how much I eat.  My fueling strategy is about to get put to the test, and it helps to have digestion working for rather than against me.  I need to be focused on my race; not my belly or any audible or olfactory protests coming from it, especially during the latter half of the run.  After all, I’m expecting pain. On some level, I welcome it. I know that the more discomfort I can handle the faster I can go. So if closing my eyes and saying a few Ohms was going to help me improve my athletic ability, then rub my belly and call me Bhudda—I’m down!

If only it were that easy.  

Svadhyaya is the Sanskrit term for Self Study.  And even once you’ve immersed yourself into meditation, learning to watch the Watcher is a skill which takes time and practice.  Daily practice. 100 days and even a lifetime of practice. But the rewards, especially for an endurance athlete, are well worth the investment.  It’s like each mile on the road or every meter in the pool. And the more you practice—with focused attention—the deeper your level of unconscious competence.  

Technically, this proficiency develops through the process of what’s termed neuroplasticity.  That’s scientific speak for the brain’s ability to reorganize itself. In the case of a person who suffered a stroke, parts of the brain which are still intact can “take over” for the injured area.  Many people might question whether or not an endurance athlete’s brain is firing on all cylinders anyway. But the truth is: endurance athletics is won or lost in the head.

When I was racing bikes in Spain, one of my teammates was a guy from the Ukraine.  He was brought up in the old Russian system of sport where one million kids were chosen and told they were going to be cyclists. Through testing and competition, that number was narrowed down to one thousand; then to one hundred; and then, finally, to one.

He was that one.

I hated riding with him.  He was my own teammate, but going out to train with him freakin’ sucked.  He was 6’5” and probably gave an awesome draft. I never found out, because he’d insist you ride beside him.  He was fluent in English, but speaking was off limits, too (not that I had any oxygen to spare anyway). So I’d suffer in silence with absolutely no feedback from him about how he was feeling until he dropped me on a climb.  If I could keep him in sight, he was having an off day. If he silently disappeared up the road, he was feeling good.

Most of the time he was feeling good.

Funny thing is, though, he never once beat me in a race.  This guy was an absolute beast on the bike—a predator on two wheels.  He was a cycling machine who had been literally manufactured since the day he was born to race.  He’d been given the best coaching, the finest equipment, and every possible advantage since he was still on training wheels.  But there was one critical piece missing that even the best developmental program in the world could never make up for—he didn’t like to ride the bike.

That small oversight is probably something meditation could never have fixed.  Hell, years of therapy probably couldn’t make a dent in that problem. But the story of my teammate illustrates how important the role of mind is in sport.

And it’s critical in life, too.  

When your heads on straight, it’s easier to move in the direction you want to go.  Meditation facilitates this “orientation” via its impact, not only on the amygdala as mentioned above, but on three other areas of the brain as well: the Insula, the Lateral Prefontal Cortex, and the Medial Prefrontal Cortex.  A consistent practice of meditation strengthens the healthy interactions among these four regions while decreasing the neural connections which perpetuate feelings of anxiety and fear.

If you’re running for your life, it’s hard to throw in a cartwheel!

We often revert to what we know when stressed—even if that “knowledge” (or action or response) doesn’t serve us.  In other words, novel ways of thinking and even learning new skills are difficult if not impossible when worried or scared.  That particular observation was one of the key concerns which no longer impacted my clientele when I opened up my own studio.  See, the music played at most gyms is annoying, and much of it literally triggers a stress response in the body, even if you like it.  Stress adversely affects the quality of your workout. This is especially true if—like happens regularly in my facility—the concept being taught is new or complex.  According to Dr. John Diamond in his book Your Body Doesn’t Lie, when one listens to certain styles of music, a phenomenon he terms switching occurs, during which:

…symmetry between the two cerebral hemispheres is lost, introducing subtle perceptual difficulties and a host of other early manifestations of stress….The entire body is thrown into a state of alarm.  The perceptual changes that occur may well manifest themselves in children as decreased performance in school…in adults, as decreased work capacity, increased errors, general inefficiency, reduced decision-making capacity on the job, and a nagging feeling that things just aren’t right—in short, the loss of energy for no apparent reason.

Many other studies support Dr. Diamond’s conclusions.  Generally, they find that classical music from the Baroque period actually facilitates learning, jazz has a neutral effect on learning, and most rock—especially post 1950’s—inhibits the learning process.  The one exception to this last point, believe it or not, is music by the Beatles. I guess the only folks stressed by Beatles music were the parents of kids listening to it.

Meditation helps down regulate the learned reaction to stress.  It helps reorganize the brain so that unhelpful patterns are broken and replaced by healthier perspectives on the most appropriate response in a given situation.  For a more technical discussion on this subject, my left brain dominant readers out there will likely be satisfied by reading You Are Not Your Brain by Rebecca Gladding, MD.         

In the meantime, I’ll admit that I’m the pot calling the kettle black when I say that most athletes tend to emphasize the effort.  It’s what we know—what many of us have been taught.  And while I’m not a believer (anymore) of the “no pain, no gain” philosophy, I will use a judicious amount of understatement and say that I love pushing beyond my physical limitations.  Maybe that’s why the idea of meditation appealed to me. It was a challenge.  Yet I innately knew that the recovery meditation promoted would allow me to explore my physical limitations at an even deeper level.  And it has. Just like I often tell the athletes I coach:

Quality Training is Predicated on Quality Rest!

How to Meditate

A typical 10 minute meditation session might look something like this:

  • Find a quiet place with minimal distractions.  I prefer to be outside when possible with my bare feet on the Earth.  Sometimes I stand. But often I will sit with my hands resting in my lap, palm up.  
  • Close your eyes and breathe gently through your nose and into your belly.
  • Focus on the inflow and outflow of your breath.  I will sometimes couple a mantra or a specific idea or thought with my breathing.  Inhaling Health, for example, and exhaling Gratitude.
  • Receive and accept any thought that comes to you, but allow each one to slip away.  If you notice your concentration has been captured somehow, bring your mind back to your centering thought and back to your breath.  
  • Allow your focus to intensify until there is nothing but you and your breath.  When the gaps between thoughts become frequent enough or long enough, you may be able to recognize them without shaping them into consciousness or any one thing. And it’s here (for a brief moment at least) that the mind can do anything—including rest.    

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