What I’ve learned from 700 consecutive days of meditation practice
700 days. 785 sessions. 118+ hours. A Lifetime of lessons.
Today I celebrated 700 consecutive days of meditation practice with the Calm app.
I struggled for years to accrue a streak longer than 30 days, so 700 feels like a big win. Even though my practice has been locked in for a long time (though still not a habit), it’s hard to believe I’m here.
And yet, here I am, and it feels great. A true milestone.
So I’ll pause for a moment while you acknowledge it. 🙂 Thank you.
When Words Travel Through You
As part of my meditation practice, I take a few minutes after meditation to journal about what came up for me: emotions, thoughts, other reflections. This journaling often reveals subconscious things that are just beneath the surface and helps me integrate the meditation.
While writing my notes today, swimming suddenly popped into my mind. I haven’t been in the pool much this year, and my last swim was weeks ago. But suddenly, it was there. Specifically, my mind recalled how a few years ago I was putting up some big personal best milestones in my morning swims.
The thought was hardly conscious; it was on the edge of the edge of my thoughts. But it showed up in my post-meditation notes as the underlying subject of an implicit comparison:
It’s been a long time since I hit a new personal best milestone in my morning workout.
(I sit for daily meditation practice at the gym, at the conclusion of my morning workout.)
WTF, inner critic? Way to rain on my parade.
Immediately after writing that sentence, my fingers countered with a different voice, pointing out the clear absurdity of that comment. that every single day I hit a new personal best milestone by the mere fact of showing up for my morning workout (over 4 years of daily fitness) and meditation.
What Meditation Helps Me Notice
Let me pause here to point out three things. 700 days ago, I likely would not have
(1) noticed the fleeting thought about my swims;
(2) seen the implicit comparison in my statement about milestones; or
(3) countered the BS statement from my inner critic with the truth so quickly.
As I got up off the mat, I noticed how quickly my mind had gone to that place of comparison and judgment.
The Rich Irony of my Self-Judgment Today
Ironically, today’s Daily Calm meditation was about self-compassion, in celebration of World Compassion Day.
Sometimes, you just have to laugh at the delicious sense of humor of the universe.
Let me pause for a moment to make the implicit obvious, because this is so important, and I want to make sure you’re with me here:
On my 700th consecutive day of daily meditation practice, on World Compassion Day, in the moments immediately following a guided meditation on self-compassion, I engaged in self-comparison, self-criticism, and self-judgment — basically, the opposite of self-compassion.
Shooting the Second Arrow
This is typically the point where I would immerse in the downward spiral of what Tara Brach calls “shooting the second arrow” — judging myself for the self-judgment immediately after completing a meditation about self-compassion. Of course, being the overachiever that I am, I almost never stop at two arrows.
It would sound like this:
I can’t even be compassionate to myself on World F*cking Compassion Day? What hope do I have?
I did not ask that today, which is progress.
But as I walked home from the gym, I felt the familiar swirl of the self-criticism machine winding up for action:
Why haven’t I made time to fit in more swims? Why don’t I try to swim in the evening? How can I make my morning practice more efficient?
Ah, inner mean girl. After taking yesterday off (she’s been working overtime lately), she was rested and revved up for action.
The Trap of Self-Criticism
In our relationship with ourselves, it’s easy to fall into self-judgment and self-aversion. We often believe that discipline and tough love will keep us in line. I’ve often worn my tendency to self-criticize as a badge of honor, proudly boasting that nobody is tougher on me than I am on myself.
This feels like it should serve my productivity; it feels like the model of discipline, drive, and hustle that our culture promotes as the path to success. But to the extent that this ever was a true path to success, it’s now an outdated model.
Self-judgment, self-comparison, self-aversion, and self-criticism all close off the internal space we need to do our best work.
And studies show that positive emotions about ourselves fuel productivity more than self-critical emotions. Tim Phychl’s work, for example, shows that self-compassion and self-forgiveness are more effective weapons against procrastination than harsh discipline or “tough love.”
Counter Criticism with Compassion
Self-compassion involves creating a space within ourselves that’s free of judgment. A place where we can respond to our frustrations and failures with kindness and care. — Tamara Levitt
Toward the end of the Daily Calm meditation, meditation guide Tamara Levitt extended the invitation to counter our inner voice of criticism with love.
Speak to yourself as if you were speaking to a best friend, and eventually you will become your own best friend. — Tamara Levitt
This can feel extremely difficult. Somehow it seems so easy to give these things to others, but not myself. But I know the truth: we cannot give others what we don’t cultivate within ourselves first.
The practice and path of meditation are to cultivate this skill.
Notwithstanding my habitual descent into self-judgment, what happened next appears to show that I am, in fact, building the muscle of self-compassion (see, there’s a reason I sit for meditation in the gym — it’s part of my workout).
Inner Wisdom Speaks Up
Somehow, my inner wisdom managed to rise up and put a stop to the inner critic.
Not today, bitch.
She reminded me of a few things:
(1) This is why I continue to practice meditation every single day.
As I have written about before and as I teach in The Ritual Revolution, meditation is not a habit. It is a practice — a ritual — designed to cultivate other habits, such as the habit of self-compassion.
Clearly, my habit of self-compassion needs more conditioning. It’s a muscle. You’ve got to use it and strengthen it to keep it in shape.
(2) This is the practice.
We practice meditation to increase our awareness of what happens in life “off the mat.” Far from doing something “wrong” or not making progress, my experience after formal practice today is what I have been training for over the past 700 days.
I noticed I got pulled into self-judgment and I pulled myself away, back into self-compassion and open-heartedness.
Being able to see what is happening at the moment when I get pulled away and shift myself out of it is exactly the skill I’ve been practicing.
(3) This is why I celebrate my wins every day. Even the little wins. Especially the little wins.
Sometimes, it feels rote to write down “I did a workout today. I sat for meditation practice.” I often hear my inner critic putting it down: “BFD, you do that every day. It’s no longer a win.” (Why are inner mean girls so mean??)
Actually… it is. It’s a win every day I do it. And writing it down daily reinforces that I did it.
What makes 700 days more of a milestone than 699, or 698? Nothing, other than that it feels bigger. Perhaps it’s the roundness of it. And it’s great to celebrate the big milestones, the round numbers. But it’s important to recognize that you don’t get to day 700 without day 597 or day 233 or day 39 or any of the others.
Sustainable lifetime practices are conditioned and reinforced one day at a time. You can’t skip days. You can’t skip steps. There are no shortcuts. Every day is essential.
The big wins require the little wins.
Building Muscle, One Day at a Time
There’s no magic number when I’ll be done. Meditation is a form of exercise like any other. It requires daily commitment and devotion. And so I’ll be back tomorrow and the next day, and the day after that. I’ll sit on the mat after my workout, surrounded by clanging weights, feeling the energy of bodies moving around me, as I tune into myself to strengthen the muscles that are only visible within:
Self-kindness. Self-compassion. Self-acceptance. Self-care. Self-trust. Self-love. Self-respect.
These are the muscles that I use to create the space in which I produce my best work.
And that, for me, is the true meaning of productivity.