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My Brain’s Stronger Than Your Brain

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By Brain's Stronger Than Your Brain

In a recent episode of The Tim Ferris Show (my favorite podcast, behind The Productivity Show, of course), Tim Ferris interviews Arnold Schwarzenegger. The interview ends with Arnold talking about his experience with meditation.

I took the time to type out this interesting six minutes, so I could share it with you on this post about meditation.

“I don’t meditate now, but I got heavily into it in the 70’s. I remember there was a time in my life where I felt like everything was coming together and I did not find or couldn’t find a way of keeping the things separate. I was thinking about my bodybuilding career. I was thinking about my movie career. I was thinking about the documentary “Pumping Iron” and the movie “Stay Hungry” that we just finished shooting and my investment in the apartment building. Is the financing from the bank going to go through? All of these things were always coming together. At the same time, I was training for the Mr. Olympia competition in South Africa. I was training at Gold’s Gym and I remember all of the camera equipment was in my face. In the middle of squatting someone was trying to change the battery pack on my lifting belt. Eventually, I felt that I’ve got do something about it because I have such great opportunities here. And everything is happening. Everything is going my way, but I’m just clustering everything into one big problem rather than separating them out and having calm and peace and being happy.

So I ran into this guy on the beach who told me he was a teacher in Transcendental meditation. So I told him I should do something [like that] because I feel like I’m overly worried and anxious and feeling pressure like I’ve never felt before and he said, “Arnold, it’s not uncommon. It’s very common. A lot of people go through this and that is why people use meditation. TM is one way solving the problem.” I liked that. He sold me because he didn’t say it was the only way he just said it was one of many ways [of dealing with overwhelm, pressure and anxiety].

So I went and took a class. [After the class] I went home and tried it. I did 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night. I would say within 40 days, 3 weeks I got to the point where I could really disconnect my mind and, as they say, to find those few seconds of disconnection and rejuvenate the mind and also learned how to focus more and calm down. I saw the effects right away. That I was much more calm about all of the challenges that were facing me and I continued doing it for a year. By that time, I felt like, “I think that I’ve mastered this. I think that now I don’t feel overwhelmed anymore. Even today I still benefit from my year of meditation because I don’t merge things together and see everything as one big problem. I take on one challenge at a time. When I go study my script, I don’t let anything else interfere and I just concentrate on that.

The other thing that I’ve learned is that there are many forms of meditation in a way. When I study and work really hard. When it takes the ultimate amount of concentration. I can only do it for 45 minutes, maybe an hour. Then I have to go run off and maybe play chess. I play chess for 15 minutes and I have all of the energy in the world again and jump right back and continue on with my work as if I have not done it at all that day. I’m fresh. That’s another way I think of meditation. And then I also figured out that I could use my workouts as a form of meditation because I concentrate so hard on the muscle. I have my mind inside the bicep when I do the curls. I have my mind inside my pectoral muscles when I am doing bench press. So I’m really inside and it’s like a form of meditation because you have no chance of thinking or concentrating on anything else at that time but that training that you do.

There are many ways of meditation and I benefit from all of those. And I am today much calmer because of that. And much more organized. And much more tranquil.”

Arnold is not the only high achiever that espouses the benefits of meditation.

Oprah, Arianna Huffington, Ray Dalio, 50 Cent, Kobe Bryant, Ev Williams (founder of Blogger, Twitter and Medium) and Bill Ford (CEO of Ford motors) all have meditation as part of their daily ritual.

What does this growing list of ultra-successful meditators know that we don’t? They all lead incredibly busy lives, no doubt, but they still carve out some of their limited time to sit and do nothing.

And meditation is not easy. It not only takes time but energy, discipline, determination and other qualities that we normally regard as unpleasant. It would certainly be a great deal easier to sit back and watch some television or take a nap. And wouldn’t an easier activity help you conserve your limited willpower? Aren’t we always going on about how you need conserve your willpower so you can focus on your goals?[1]

In fact, Asian Efficiency’s definition of productivity is the time spent on taking action on your goals. So expending effort on non-action… yeah. Doesn’t sound so productive to me.

So why?

Simple. Because you are human.

We humans are wired to be dissatisfied with our lives. This dissatisfaction, anxiety or feeling of “this isn’t quite right, I need to improve this” is what kept humans alive for millions of years. The urge to change or escape the present moment drives nearly all of our behavior. This ruthless survival mechanism keeps us alive, but it has a side effect… it makes us suffer. We have evolved to suffer and we are better at it than every other creature on this planet.

“A man who suffers before it is necessary, suffers more than is necessary.” – Seneca

Many times you can go for days or weeks putting up a good front. Making ends meet. Everything looks like it is going well from the outside. And then the bottom drops out again. The ancestral voice says “More”, “Not good enough”, “It needs to be better”, “Once you climb up this hill you’ll be there… I promise.”

But that’s a lie.

That voice is putting you on a roller coaster ride that you just can’t get off of.

rollercoaster

You’ve got your lows. Complete dissatisfaction with your current life situation. Then you work your ass off to get to a peak. You enjoy the view for half a second only to come plummeting back down again.

So is that why high achievers seek meditation? Do they want to overcome the “this isn’t quite right” feeling by quieting their mind? Maybe. But it doesn’t seem like that is the main reason. The “if only” mindset is likely still playing in the background of these famous artists, athletes, and entrepreneurs. That’s part of why they are great. They are always striving for more.

Many high achievers have chosen to slice out 5, 10 or 30 minutes of their day and devote it to meditation because they believe it improves their decision-making skills and their performance under pressure. When you are at the top of your game, any improvement in those two areas can mean the difference of millions (or billions) of dollars, world records in sporting events or hundreds of thousands of new fans or followers to their cause.

Meditation supposedly does this by allowing their brain to better cope with the stresses we were biologically programmed to feel. It makes their brain more capable. In addition to the ability to handle great amounts of internal and external pressure, it allows for a happier, healthier life.

Frankly, that is a lot of promise for such a small commitment. So how does meditation follow through?

Proponents of meditation, including yours truly, believe it generates the improved mental abilities through:

  • Increased awareness of one’s surroundings, emotions, and people in their lives.
  • Increased ability to focus on the task at hand.

Let’s start by talking about the how meditation increases awareness.

Increased Awareness

There are two types of meditation that are typically purported to have the most benefit when it comes to increased awareness. The meditation styles are Vipassana and Loving Kindness. The other type of meditation we will discuss is Zen meditation. I’ll explain the differences in a moment.

Vipassana and Loving Kindness meditations help bring you more awareness in three ways.

  • Increased mindfulness (Vipassana, Loving Kindness and Zen)
  • Increased feelings of connection (Loving Kindness)
  • Stress Reduction (Vipassana and Loving Kindness)

Let’s go through the different factors that play into keen mental awareness one-by-one so you can decide which meditation could potentially give you the most benefit.

1. Increased mindfulness

When I say mindfulness, what do I mean?

To me, mindfulness is staying aware of your responsibilities. You can be mindful when making the bed. You can be mindful with your finances. You can be mindful when you are having a conversation with a single person or participating in a group discussion.

Life gives us ample opportunities to be mindful every single day. However, how present are we actually?

Did you know that your mind wonders about 50% of the time?[2] If you read the Tim Ferris Show transcript, we are about 1,500 words into this article so far. How many times has your mind wandered since you started reading this post? What were some of those thoughts?

In fact, we pay so little attention to many of our life experiences we might as well be asleep. That is where the idea of “awakening” comes from. It’s not some grand insight that only the most spiritual of people will ever know about. It is the idea that you are not lost in a cloud of your own self-centered thoughts and emotions. Being awake means that you are able to see more of the truth. You can see more truth because you are able to take in more of what is happening in your present reality. It’s like when you press the pause button and remove the buds from your ears when you get to the end of the checkout line. Your senses, your mental energy and your attention can be given to the checkout clerk and paying for your groceries instead of the audiobook or podcast that had captured your mind.

Becoming 100% awake is an ideal to strive for. However, think about what would happen if your mind focused on your current responsibilities, circumstances or objectives 60% of the time vs. the average 50%. Every day you were 10% more aware vs. lost in a cloud of unfocused thought. It may sound insignificant, but the continuity of that present moment awareness starts to add up. That 10% extra awareness would compound. If you focused that extra 10% on being a better partner, learning more about the world around you, practicing a valuable skill, in 7 years you’d be twice as far as on your endeavors than if you had stayed lost in your thoughts for that same amount of time.

All forms of meditation, particularly Vipassana and Zen meditation, allow you to notice when your mind is wandering sooner and bring it back to the present moment. It does this through intentional practice. Your chosen meditation will have you focus on your breath, an image, a centering thought or a mantra that you repeat for a set amount of time. When your mind wanders from your intended focus, you’ll eventually notice, “Hey. My mind is not focused on my breath.” You can then acknowledge that the thought came into your consciousness and go back to your meditation. It’s as simple as that.

The more often you do this, the better you’ll get at noticing when your mind has wondered. This improved awareness of mind wondering will happen both inside and outside of your meditation practice.

Here is a good time to talk about the different types of meditations practices, what they help you learn, how they look and some examples you can try on your own. The three types of meditation that are most popular worldwide are Vipassana, Loving Kindness, and Zen.

NameLearnLookExampleDifficulty
VipassanaLearn to listen to your thoughts without being caught up in them (insight meditation)Count your inhalations and exhalations to 10 for 5 minutesTranscendental meditation, HeadSpaceMedium
Loving KindnessLearn to see and feel the connection between you, others and a universal consciousnessSet an intention like discovering how you can best serve the world and then detach from the outcome while focusing on a mantra that you repeat for 10 to 15 minutesDeepak Chopra
Jon Kabat-Zinn
Low
ZenLearn to focus your concentrationFocus your mind on a mental image like the buddha or a flickering candle and do your best to let no other thoughts come into your mind for a set amount of timehttp://zen-buddhism.net/practice/zen-meditation.htmlHigh

2. Stress reduction

When your mind wonders, where does it go? It goes to the things that have your attention. What generally has your attention? Two things. Circumstances you want or circumstances that you do not want.

“I don’t want to be embarrassed when giving that speech.”
“What would if feel like to be able to afford that new house?”
“I wish my spouse would stop waking me up in the middle of the night so I could get better rest. I’m so tired right now.”

Evolutionarily, we are driven by fear. Fear keeps us alive so we can pass on our genetic information. So we are wired to spend most of our time thinking about circumstances we do not want to happen. What happens when we ruminate about all of the things we don’t want to happen in our lives? We get stressed and anxious.

Both being aware of the present moment (through Vipassana or Zen) or shifting your thought patterns to consider others (through Loving Kindness), are ways of keeping your mind off of (not so)merry-go-round of negative thinking humans are wired to have.

merrygoround

Being able to separate who you are and what is real from the stories that run through your head, reduces stress and anxiety levels. When you can see that there is a HUGE difference between a dog that is going to eat you in your mind and an actual dog that is going to eat you, you’ll be able to devote more of your energy to the things that will make a difference instead of burning off energy living in flight or fight response with high (adrenaline-induced) cortisol levels that also make you fat, damages your immune system and clouds your judgment.

“You have to remind yourself that you can do the very best you can when you’re very, very relaxed, no matter what it is, whatever your job is. The more relaxed you are, the better you are.”Bill Murray

3. Increase feelings of connection

As I said at the top of the article, dissatisfaction is the natural state of human beings. This can be even truer for high achievers who are always looking for the next mountain to climb, championship to win or company grow. This dissatisfaction can cause a lot of achievement with very little happiness.

To be truly successful, you want to achieve great things that have meaning to you AND enjoy yourself while you are working toward your goals. After all, as far as we know, you only have one life to live. What’s the point spending it suffering? Striving after the next new thing that will only bring you temporary satisfaction.

Here is where Loving Kindness meditations shine. Loving Kindness meditations help you shift your attention and intention to a higher plane. Rather than being maniacally focused on your next achievement, worthwhile guided meditations will have you see the greater connection between you and everything else.

Intellectually, this connection is easy enough to understand. The air we breathe comes from all corners of the world. Most of the cells in your body will be completely different in 7 years time. Everything you eat and every person you meet will cause a ripple of cascading effects. However, really seeing that connection day-to-day is a whole new ball game. Especially after that jerk cut you off in traffic.

To put it another way, Zen and Vipassana are for noticing your repetitive thought patterns. Loving Kindness is for changing those thought patterns. Rather than distinguishing the imagined man-eating dog and real life man-eating dog, it gets you to start thinking about stuff other than man-eating dogs (like what makes you happy or the abundance around you). It could also help you realize man-eating dogs are just an extension of you.[3]

Mindfully changing your thought patterns is powerful because your thoughts lead to your words. Your words lead your beliefs. Your beliefs lead to your actions. Your actions shape your character and your destiny.

Increased Focus

When we are in the moment and absorbed completely with an activity, we are at our best. Some people call this state flow. I just think of it as the ability to focus.

So how does meditation help you focus? We’ll need a little neuroscience background to help us with that question.

Your brain is plastic and malleable. When you focus your attention and learn new concepts or skills your brain will start creating new neural connections. It does this by branching out slight neural connections called dendrites. These connections are thin and extremely fragile when first created. Your brain’s not sure if you are going to need this exact connection sometime in the future so it doesn’t want to expend the energy solidifying it just yet. But as you use the same connection over and over again (through repetition of a particular skill or piece of knowledge) the brain decides this pathway is worth keeping and grows a myelin sheath around the dendrite to form a full on connection that is more robust. The myelin sheath is durable but can still disappear if not fired for an extended period of time. When you build enough connections with a certain skill, that area of the brain actually becomes bigger, denser, more robust and more capable.

Scientists have even coined the term “neuroplasticity” to describe the fact that the human brain changes in response to experiential learning.

My favorite example of neuroplasticity is a study done on cab drivers in London. London was built pre-automobile so the streets aren’t a nice clean open grid you might find in many American cities that were built with the car in mind. Because of all of the twists, turns, dead ends and alleyways, it is extremely hard to learn how to effectively navigate the city. When fMRI was done on veteran taxi drivers, their hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for spatial navigation (a.k.a. your sense of direction), was larger and more developed than the average person.[5]

Meditation has the same brain growing effects of learning a new language or driving a cab for 30 years. It does this by growing connections in certain regions of the brain. A recent study took 16 healthy, meditation-noobies and put them through an 8-week meditation program. Using magnetic resonance images before and after the 8 week program, the scientist were able to see changes in gray matter concentration in the left hippocampus and other regions of the brain associated with learning, memory and emotional regulation.[4] And this is after 8 weeks. If you happen to be a zen monk for the last 30 years you are in real luck! Expert mediators have a thicker prefrontal cortex and right anterior regions. This dense prefrontal cortex helps people focus and refocus attention voluntarily in response to distractions.[6]

So what does this mean for you?

It means you can increase the brain density of the areas of your brain that will allow you to focus and do your best work. A wider, more flexible attention span makes it easier to:

  • Be aware of a situation and avoid those errors and mistakes that occur when attention your strays
  • Be objective in emotionally or morally difficult situations
  • Achieve a state of responsive, creative awareness

Your focus muscles will allow for “ultimate concentration” and avoid the problem of “clustering everything into one big problem rather than separating them out and have calm and peace and being happy.”[7]

multitasking

Takeaways

You can use meditation to give yourself a stronger brain. High performers are using Vipassana, Loving Kindness and Zen to gain a mental edge that leads to a more successful life. And you can too. There is nothing mysterious or woo-woo about it. It’s straight forward training for your mind. Like learning a musical instrument, new language or sport, it takes only time and repetitions to master.

Mental benefits aside, meditation has the capacity to broaden your understanding of your feelings and thoughts. This consciousness will give you more control over your emotions. When you can control your emotions, you can choose to live happily. Because, after all, you’re only human.

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[1] Goals defined as desired outcomes
[2] Killingsworth, Matthew A., and Daniel T. Gilbert. “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” Science 330.6006 (2010): 932-932
[3] By man-eating dog, I am mainly referring to common threats to the ego people often feel. Like the fear of public speaking. But it can also include more real threats like spiders or less connected humans that could harm you.
[4] http://www.psyn-journal.com/article/S0925-4927%2810%2900288-X/abstract
[5] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17024677
[6] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361002/
[7] http://faculty.washington.edu/wobbrock/pubs/gi-12.02.pdf

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7 Comments

Posted by Nootrodelic  | June 28, 2018 at 12:51PM | Reply

Great article! Well written and structured.

No wonder so many celebrities practice meditation. It’s like going to the gym and exercising focus!

GG!

Posted by Koen Boelrijk  | September 22, 2016 at 4:28AM | Reply

I don’t think Arnold stopped meditating at all, he just replaced the practice with for example his strenght training where he would also focus his thoughts as if it where a meditation session.

Posted by Mitko Ivanov  | April 21, 2015 at 7:45AM | Reply

Bookmarked! This should be heard!

Posted by Jack  | April 20, 2015 at 12:05PM | Reply

Interesting article! might be something i would like to implement into my own life. Any good book recommendations that dive a little deeper on how to actually meditate or is it simply trying to focus on one thing for a set period of time?

Posted by Zachary Sexton  | May 5, 2015 at 7:54PM

I think guided meditations are the way to go learn how to meditate. I’m a fan of the HeadSpace app. Calm.com is also good.

If you want to dive deeper into Vipassana meditation, Mindfulness In Plain English is the best book on meditation I’ve read.

Posted by Deane Alban  | April 2, 2015 at 10:58AM | Reply

I listened to the podcast with Arnold and was fascinated that the benefits of meditation stayed with him long after he stopped doing it. I wonder if that is typical? I also wonder why anyone who has developed the practice and stuck with it a year would stop! I know he’s busy but as you point out some of the busiest, most successful people on the planet find time to meditate. All-in-all a fascinating look at a unique man and success story.

Posted by Zachary Sexton  | April 6, 2015 at 5:49PM

I’m not sure if Arnold’s experience is typical. I know I’ll need to keep a consistent practice to keep my mental chatter at bay. I agree with you though. He’s a unique make with a unique take on meditation.

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