How “Reverse Meditation” Tricked Me Into Being More Productive and Mindful
Taking a tried and true method of relaxation and turning it on its head
There’s been a boom in recent years around meditation. People have realized that it’s an excellent practice for mental and physical health. Apps like Calm, Headspace, and 10% Happier have become wildly popular in the past 5 years, all due to the positive buzz around meditation. It’s been a vindication of the idea that sitting and doing nothing for some period of time is highly beneficial.
But there’s one huge problem: meditation is difficult and frustrating.
The trouble most people have with meditation is that the mind is so hard to calm down and sit with. For most of us, it’s always churning — always thinking of something else. There’s worry, anxiety, planning, fantasizing — it’s all there in waves that seem to wait for us to sit down and try not to think.
But what if instead of getting frustrated at that, and giving up on meditation, we used it to our advantage? What if you could use your overactive mind that seems not to want to meditate, and get it to benefit you? I believe you can.
Recently, I’ve adopted another practice that helps me to both be more mindful, and also be more productive and motivated. It’s like meditation, but not quite. It embraces all the normal roadblocks to traditional meditation, and uses them as fuel for good. For lack of a better term, I call it “reverse meditation”.
Regular Meditation Works, but…
There’s no doubt that disconnecting from the barrage of thoughts and feelings for a bit is healthy and helpful. But that’s only one end of the spectrum of how we can handle our overactive minds. That is, classical mediation handles the overactive nature of the mind by refusing to engage with what’s going on in it.
That provides a helpful departure from what we do for most of the day. For the most part, we usually half-heartedly engage with the stuff that pops into our minds. We recognize it, react to it (worry, wonder, etc.), and then get pulled away by the next thing that grabs at our attention.
But what about the other end of the spectrum? What about engaging with the stuff that pops into our head — in a decisive way — rather than hoping it passes? I think there is a way. And though in some ways it’s the opposite of classical meditation, it can yield the same benefits.
…so Does Meditation…in Reverse
Anyone who has tried meditation probably remembers the simple instructions you get. And they remember how frustrating those simple instructions can be.
Sit and focus on your breath, or some object of focus. As thoughts pop into your head, merely observe them and let them pass. Keep doing that, being sure not to go down the rabbit holes your mind tries to go down. Most likely, you fall down various rabbit holes of distracting thoughts, and feel frustrated.
This practice can be effective, but you have to be disciplined about it. You also have work on detaching yourself from your thoughts and feelings. It’s beneficial work, but it’s also difficult to get into.
I’ve found a slightly easier practice that may prove to be the gateway into regular meditation. It can, in a way, prep you to start embracing mindfulness, by helping you to deal with the distracting thoughts that pop up.
I’ve found benefit in setting aside a different period of time to do the opposite of what meditation teachers tell you.
How to Do It
Find a place that’s somewhat quiet, where you probably won’t be interrupted for 10 minutes or so. Sit quietly and still, don’t try to think of anything at all. When things pop up in your head, it’s your job to engage with them. Follow them where they take you. But there’s one rule: each thought you engage with, you need to make a decision. There’s a helpful process to help you do that. Which I’ll lay out below.
In the simplest terms, the process is this:
- Get a pen and a piece of regular paper.
- Sit in a comfortable position and be as still as possible.
- Let your mind wander however it wishes to, without trying to think about anything in particular.
- Write down anything that you start thinking about that seems like you need or want to take action on it. Basically, anything you feel pulling on you. This could be an idea for something new to try, or something you had previously forgotten you needed to do.
- Do this for 5 minutes at first, but 10 minutes would be better. Even 2 minutes is better than nothing.
After you’re done, take another 5 minutes and decide one of three things to do with each item you wrote down:
- Assign a next action to it, and load it up in your to-do list. Then cross it off.
- Put a little light bulb symbol next to things you’re not going to do anything about now, but perhaps later.
Why This Works
The reason this practice works is related to the reason why we come up with our best ideas in the shower. It’s when we’re not trying to think of something or when we’re actively trying not to think of something that we often think about a bunch of things.
This taps into what neurologists and psychologists call the default mode network. It’s been noted in studies across disciplines, as well as lauded by writers who talk about creativity and brainstorming. Basically, it’s the part of the brain that begins working when you’re not focusing on anything in particular — like when you’re just sitting, doing nothing.
Reverse meditation taps into this network, and helps to extract the magical things that can come out of it. The best part is that reverse meditation tends to have 3 sneaky side effects that really help both productivity and mindfulness.
3 Sneaky Benefits
First, doing reverse meditation helps your become better at mindfulness and regular meditation. I’ve found that by setting aside time to record those ideas that keep popping up in my mind, I get better at leaving them alone when I’m trying to be mindful. I know I’ll take care of them another time, so I’m less likely to get pulled away by them — which helps me be more mindful in general. I’m more present during other parts of the day, which means I’m more likely to do traditional meditation for longer, and not get so frustrated.
Secondly, it helps you get more creative and get more done. The more I write down things as I think of them, the more I’m likely to find good stuff to do. Some of the best ideas I’ve had came to me during sessions of reverse meditation like this. I’ve written many articles that came to me when I was just sitting and letting my mind go wherever. I’ve also had things I forgot I needed to get done pop into my head. Writing them down then and there was key to moving on them quickly.
Thirdly, this practice tricks you into another highly beneficial practice: journaling. Think about it. All journaling is is writing down what’s on your mind. And what did you do in the reverse meditation session? You wrote down what was on your mind — as it popped in there. How simple!
This gets you the benefit of journaling, but without having to sit in front of that daunting blank page you have to fill up! In fact, you started off by trying not to fill up the page, and I’ll bet you filled that page up.
In fact, slapping the date on the top of each page, and reviewing them periodically is a great way to evaluate your habits and productivity over time. If you see the same actions pop up again and again, that means that they’re important to you, but you aren’t treating them that way, because they’re not getting done! It’s amazing the patterns that appear when you look back at your mind’s history.
Traditional meditation provides benefits by calming the mind and allowing you to observe what’s on it without acting. Reverse meditation is a method for sitting and waiting for things to pop up in your mind, then recording them and committing to doing something about them, or letting them go.
It leverages the default mode network of the brain to pull out things that may need your attention or action. It makes it easy to journal consistently, because you’re not actually trying to journal, but still achieving the goal of journaling. It also helps to generate better to-do lists than when you’re sitting and trying to think of what you need to do. Finally, it actually helps you to be more mindful in general, because it acts as a way to put on paper the things that are normally pulling you away from the moment.
While I still highly recommend a consistent classical meditation practice, it can be really helpful to add some reverse meditation to your toolbox as well.
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