What I Learned from 365 Consecutive Days of Headspace, Or, “How I Survived the Pandemic and Completed My Dissertation”
Though I have been meditating since I first picked up the book Zen and the Martial Arts at age 18 in 2005, I had yet to go a full 365 consecutive sessions uninterrupted. At the time when I found the book, written by by Joe Hyams (a veteran who studied under Bruce Lee), I was living in small town rural Iowa, transitioning from high school to college and looking for a replacement to football — a sport which largely helped me manage my mental health during those mostly unhappy days of high school. Because it was the only option available where I lived, I started taking classes in Shotokan, an Okinawan form of karate, and became interested in the links my teachers would make between body, mind, and respect for your teachers. It was through karate that I met my first entry points to meditation: Joe Hyams and the Buddhist tradition of Japanese origins we know as Zen.
Following Iowa and shotokan, I discovered a diverse range of Buddhist teachers. On my daily bus rides to campuses where I taught, I would listen to the podcast Secular Buddhism by Noah Rasheda. A range of other books would find themselves at my bedside, The Art of Happiness by the Dali Llama, No Mud, No Lotus by Ticht Nacht Hahn, and my personal favorite, Untangling the Self by Andrew Olendski. Supplementing the teacher-via-text was a constellation of temple visits across the country. When I’d visit my friends Demian and Trent in San Francisco I’d go to the San Fransico Zen Center, and in Pittsburgh, where I was working towards my Ph.D., I’d make periodic check-ins at either Olmo Ling or the Shambala Center.
But it wasn’t until my university’s effort to increase campus wide mental health by offering a free subscription to the new online app Headspace did I find a way to “sit” for a full year . I downloaded the app and thus began the next phase of my practice: from karate and books to temples and podcasts, I was now under the guidance of Andy Puddicombe & Co. via a my phone and the app.
At first I found the app a little annoying — I was used to sitting in silence (that is, sans any guidance) and relying upon a timer to chime when my session was over. If I forgot my phone or went hiking, the absence of a phone likely only added to my meditation experience that day. With the app, I felt tethered to the phone and its never ending notification bings that always seemed counter to whatever was meant when people spoke of mindfulness.
However, as I completed my first few themed packages on Headspace (typically a themed block has 10 sessions) and became more familiar with the app (as well as the do-not-disturb button on my phone) the annoyances of pairing my meditation practice with a phone-based practice started to wane and I was on my way.
Making the Commitment to 365 Consecutive Days
I make no claims to being a visual artist, but I sketched a little drawing above to show how, for me, there’s distinction between the mind that sits (in orange) with the elements that contextualize your practice (in blue): length of time, time of day, and the thoughts that arrive when you sit. The mind that sits — when all is working well-has a barrier between the context and the practice made of open ended questions. Although the questions sit alongside you, they need not be pursued or even answered. They are just there.
In my own practice, I experiment in various ways, sitting for 5 minutes one day, 30 minutes the next day, and making a note of what changed or what might have felt different between the two sessions. Other alterations include meditating first thing in the morning, at the end of my workday, or both.
After a while — the experiments became tasks versus spaces to learn — my mediations were driven by the desire to check a box in a habit tracker and I was losing sight of what was going on for me from moment to moment. I’ve discovered with others that along the meditation journey it is quite ok for sitting to occasionally feel more like work — not everything you do that’s good for you is always going to feel good in the moment. However, at this point in my life as Ph.D. student, I found myself stressed and alone —feeling dismissed by much of the department and also face the magnitude of completing a dissertation; in a sense I had to transform my primordial “good question” from infancy to adulthood as a proud and defendable “research program.” I was feeling stuck and meditation wasn’t helping.
One day I sat down in the office of my department business manager to get his perspective on some financials. I was considering alternative funding options for my education, and implicitly, if it was worth continuing. On my way out the door, I noticed framed on his wall, an image of an orange circle, imperfectly drawn, against a white background. It reminded me of the Headspace color scheme and an Ensō circle . I told him as much and he responded, “yes, it’s my reminder to meditate. I meditate every day.”
I didn’t say much other than a cursory non-response, “Cool. Well, take care” as I left — but the seed was planted. The business manager put in my mind what would be the next experiment in my mediation practice. After reading Andy Puddicombe’s blog post on mediation streaks , I decided this was the next experience to explore my mediation practice. Even though I’d been at it for 15 years, none of those years had went on uninterrupted.
It was December 8th, 2019, and I decided the next day to start my 365 consecutive days.
From Task to Refuge: Meditation and Pandemic
When the pandemic hit, I was a few early months into the 365 day challenge. As with everyone, everything had changed: where I could go, when I could go, and if I could go, all became difficult questions to face during lockdown. The world seemed gripped in fear, death, and uncertainty. It was during this time that my meditation practice shifted from a task or habit orientation to medicine-for-the-soul orientation.
In my apartment, my Turkish towel and Tibetan meditation cushion became the only stable place for me to sit in silence — and in that silence I would watch my fears visualize: of my parents getting sick, my partner’s sadness at the prospect of an extended break from seeing his family, and scenes from the nightly news as a national catastrophe unfolded at the hands of our leaders.
As I sat and watched these thoughts dance from one dark narrative to another, I began to understand the refrain built into every Headspace lesson: “Note it, then return gently to the breath.” Notice the narrative. Name it as a thought. And then return to breath.
What I learned during the pandemic about meditation is that when we return to breath, the importance is less on the breath, and more on the action of letting something go. Whether you return to breath, or another thought (one of your choosing), or the task at hand (washing the dishes, peeling an orange, or listening to a friend), the refrain Headspace teaches is to abandon the storyline of your thoughts and return to what’s present — whatever that may be.
When I sit, I think of this practice as “lassoing” the thought and then letting go of its rope. When the thought is lassoed, you (1), recognize it, and (2) recognize it for what it is — a thought and nothing more — and now, as a lassoed thought, you can let go of its rope and return to breath.
Below is a little drawing I did in an attempt to capture the abstract process I see going on during my sessions.
Roughly speaking, the figure I drew reflects how I experience meditation. There are thoughts always preceded by more thoughts. If I notice the thoughts, that’s the first step of practice. From noticing the thought, I then anchor myself to something — typically something physical like my breath if I am sitting or my steps if I am walking — and then move back and forth between noticing and anchoring.
Occasionally, inevitably, I leave the orange circle of noticing and re-anchoring and find myself attached to the storyline of the blue thoughts — populating and passing by like an endless conveyor belt. With enough practice, I notice what the conveyor belt is feeding my mind, and rather than trying to stop it from moving, let go and turn my attention elsewhere.
From Refuge to Change in the World
Every now and then during the headspace sessions Andy Puddicombe will speak to how meditation helps make the world a better place. I would listen and want to believe what he was saying but it always seemed a little grand — a big promise from big tech — and I would invariably go about using the app as I always had the next day. After all, I was using the app for a clear purpose (to build my practice) and didn’t have to believe in every word of the company’s mission — I was getting what I wanted from it and it was getting me through the pandemic.
However, one day, that perspective changed. I was sitting during a visualization meditation, focusing on the image of sunlight as it emitted from my chest and grew outward, from the space of my body to the space around me, to my partner in the next room, to the neighbors whose name I don’t know downstairs, to the barista at the coffee shop, and so on until the whole world was engulfed in that same, shared, warm light. I sat for this exercise before, but for some reason, this time, I recognized how, like me, everyone was suffering. Everyone was suffering and the warm light was connecting us — calm and warm it had the power to ease our pain, even if only for a moment. After this moment, the app was no longer a utility to help me get through my thing — but an app to help me recon with the simple interconnections between our shared humanity.
It was at that point where I learned something valuable. If I am more mindful, I can be more peaceful when I interact with others. If I can listen to my students more thoughtfully, appreciate my research committee more genuinely, and forgive my department more earnestly, I can let go of my anger and sadness, and in doing so, find something else. I recognize meditation not just as a refuge for the self — but as a daily action we can do to build a more peaceful world by being more peaceful to the people around you.
Before I put on my suit for my dissertation defense in May, 2021 (over Zoom, of course) I sat on my cushion and slit the blinds. I opened the app, found an unguided meditation and sat for ten minutes, watching as my thoughts came, letting them go, and taking notice of where I was, my feet on the ground, my chest rising and falling.
I was not about to defend my life’s work. I was not worried about what questions my committee might ask me. I wasn’t thinking about anything — it was just me, my breath, a slightly quicker thud-thud of my heartbeat, and the feeling of warm bands of sunlight flowing through the window blinds, gracing my arms, my forehead, and my fellow teachers everywhere light can be found.
Takeaways You Might Consider
1) If you have an active meditation practice, consider doing an experiment to advance your practice.
Can you sit longer? Shorter? Do an unguided session if you typically do guided, or vice versa? Have you tried to sit for 15, or 30 days in a row? What might happen if you do? What are you curious about when you sit? What changes?
2) If you don’t have an active meditation practice, consider finding a teacher.
A teacher can be found in the form of a book, a podcast, or a local community (my list of teachers are included in the references section at the end of this post). If you’re new to the gym, you might hire a trainer or go to class — everyone starts at the beginning — what makes meditation distinct is that it gives you tools to try and consistently return to that beginning, no matter how long you’ve been at it.
3) Start right now:
Close your eyes and inhale… hold… exhale. The world has changed, did you notice?
 J. Hyams, Zen in the Martial Arts. Bantam Books, 1982.
 N. Rasheta, “Secular Buddhism.” https://secularbuddhism.com/ (accessed Jul. 13, 2021).
 D. Lama, The art of happiness: A handbook for living. Penguin, 2009.
 T. N. Hanh, No mud, no lotus: The art of transforming suffering. Parallax Press, 2014.
 A. Olendzki, Untangling self: A Buddhist investigation of who we really are. Simon and Schuster, 2016.
 “San Francisco Zen Center.” https://www.sfzc.org/ (accessed Jul. 13, 2021).
 “Olmo Ling.” https://www.olmoling.org// (accessed Jul. 13, 2021).
 “Pittsburgh Shambhala Meditation Center.” https://pittsburgh.shambhala.org/ (accessed Jul. 13, 2021).
 “Headspace.” https://www.headspace.com/ (accessed Jul. 13, 2021).
 Modern Zen, “Enso Circle (written Ensō) and Enso meaning in Zen,” Modern Zen, Jul. 13, 2020. https://modernzen.org/enso-htm/ (accessed Jul. 13, 2021).
 “Your Headspace run streak — it’s not about the number — Headspace.” https://www.headspace.com/articles/building-a-meditation-practice (accessed Jul. 13, 2021).