Meditation Part 1: The #1 skill you should learn as a Thinker type to get the most out of your life (it’s like getting root-level access to your operating system)

Michael CalozSelf-Improvement2 Comments


Overview of this three-part series:

I was a proud skeptic.

People claimed meditation builds self-awareness, but I already had that. I’ve always identified very strongly with my powerful mind, and I considered myself to be a highly introspective person.

Besides, sitting still for a long time felt boring. Why waste that time when I could be putting my brilliant mind to better use solving some complex challenge?

But people I respected kept recommending meditation. I began seeing article after article describing the benefits. Eventually it felt like too much momentum to ignore.

So I gave it a try, and I failed. For years.

I struggled to sit still with my eyes closed for more than a couple of minutes. As an ENTP, my mind wouldn’t stop running, and I felt anxiety and frustration trying to make it shut up.

Finally, after trying all sorts of approaches, I managed to find that deep sense of ease, calm, and mental clarity that had been promised. And now, after a decade of practicing, I firmly believe that meditation is the #1 skill that Thinkers (and pretty much everyone, really) should learn.

It’s the foundational skill for everything from dealing with anxiety, to being more productive, to developing empathy.

I work with a lot of ENTP’s and INTP’s in particular who have seen huge benefits in developing a meditation practice. I believe that meditation is directly correlated with an ability to fully feel feelings, focus on one thing at a time, and get things done instead of losing interest.

If you struggle with any of those, I urge you to make this one of your highest-priority goals.

In this series, I’ll show you exactly how to do it.

My goals with this series:

  • For beginners: I’ll offer you step-by-step instructions for beginning your practice. There are many different approaches to meditation, and I’ll explain a few methods so you can find the right one for you.
  • For people who have struggled: Like I said, it took me years to (begin to) figure this out. And after a decade of trying different things, I’m confident I can give you the most important tips and tricks you need to succeed. If you think you’re just “not a meditator,” that’s not true. Meditation is a learnable skill.
  • For skeptics: Maybe you can’t yet see why meditation would be valuable to you. Or maybe you’ve been turned off by New Age gurus who have wrapped it in mysticism. I shared both of those perspectives in the past and I can tell you this: I’m a highly skeptical, science-oriented person, and meditation has been one of the most transformative practices in my life. There doesn’t need to be anything spiritual or woo-woo about this. It can be 100% secular and approached through the lens of neuroscience. Please keep reading, and I’ll hopefully provide enough evidence to convince you to give it a try.

This is for you if:

  • You struggle with focus in your life (your mind wanders easily, and you get distracted);
  • You’re an ENTP, INTP, ENFP, or INTJ (or any type, really) whose mind gets full of ideas about the future (or the abstract), making it hard to pick the most important one or to take action;
  • You get bored in conversations and have trouble staying present;
  • You feel jaded and don’t appreciate beauty around you (even though you logically know you “should”);
  • You want to be more productive or to make a bigger impact on the world;
  • You fidget and have trouble sitting still;
  • You live with depression or anxiety;
  • You’re interested in trying psychedelics and want to have a positive experience;
  • You feel nihilistic, empty, or unsure about your life purpose;
  • You want to live the most fulfilling life possible.

Yes, you might be thinking that I’m promising a lot here. How could meditation lead to all those different things?

Because meditation is the practice of cultivating mindfulness. And mindfulness—which is closely related to focus—is the foundational skill at the root of nearly all personal growth work and productivity methodologies.

This is the single most important skill you can learn to feel more alive. To have a more fulfilling, easeful, impactful experience of being human.

Intrigued? Read on.

Reading Time (this post): 27 minutes

Meditation is my #1 recommendation for fellow Thinkers in particular

I’m an ENTP in Myers-Briggs, meaning that I filter everything through the lens of rationality. I can’t help but analyze what I see in the world and ask myself if it makes logical sense. Are there studies supporting this conclusion? Can this be proven? Or are people fooling themselves?

If you’re a fellow Thinker reading this, you’re probably skeptical of anything that seems too woo-woo. Even if lots of people swear by it, they might just be succumbing to one of many psychological biases, right?

I’m with you, but I’m going to make a bold claim here:

Meditation works.

And it works so well that I believe you’re missing out on something profound if you dismiss it.

That claim is based on having coached hundreds of people (including fellow NTP’s at the top of their fields). Plus, this skill has been one of the most critical parts of my own personal journey from depression and nihilism to aliveness and fulfillment.

In fact, practicing meditation and mindfulness every day is the most important recommendation I’d give virtually anyone (particularly NTP’s) to improve their life. I truly believe that this should be the top thing you prioritize every day (along with getting enough sleep, which meditation will help with).

Have you tried and failed before? Had trouble sitting still without getting distracted? Tried different apps?

I understand—I stumbled a lot too.

But I want to reframe something for you right now: Meditation (and mindfulness in general) isn’t just a new skill to learn like web development or photography. It’s not just a hobby that some people choose to have. And it’s not just something that’s reasonable to give up on simply because you tried a certain app for a few weeks and it didn’t seem to do anything.

Meditation is not just another skill. It’s the skill.

I believe it touches on a core-level part of being human. Of being a conscious being.

It’s ok if you failed a few times—because mindful, focused, present-moment awareness is something you’ll be working on for the rest of your life. 

So, if you tried a while ago and it didn’t stick, please reframe that for yourself: It’s not that you failed and meditation just isn’t for you. Rather, it’s that you started along the path and hit some bumps in the road. But you’re still on the path, and you will be for many years.

And there will be more bumps, but that’s what it means to be human.

If you tried to eat more healthily for a while and hit some snags, would you just decide, “Oh well, I guess nutrition isn’t for me. I’m just not a person who eats well and I never will be”? No, if you’re someone interested in living a long life in as capable a state as possible, I’m guessing you’ll come back to healthy eating at some point and try again.

Again: If it didn’t seem to work, that’s totally normal. We’re used to instant gratification in our culture, but this is a skill measured not in days and weeks but in months and years.

admin login and password

Meditation is like getting “admin-level access” to your brain.

You might be amazing at logical analysis, but meditation allows you to access a totally different part of yourself.

I mean this very literally.

Here’s my experience: For most of my life, it had felt like I had a high degree of self-awareness. Like I was well-versed in the entire universe of my internal world. Like I had a good sense of its structure and its edges.

But as I began growing in my meditation practice, it was like I began seeing cracks in my conception of self that I hadn’t noticed before—and light was pouring through. (This is a metaphor, not woo-woo.)

I began to realize that what I had thought was everything was just one layer of me.

It’s as if you’ve spent your entire life using a smartphone that you thought was powerful enough. It was all you needed. It could do every task you required.

And then one day, someone points out to you an icon that’s always been there but you never really noticed. That icon means that the phone is in Parental Control mode—and it always has been. What you thought was the entire universe of your phone was just the parts that had been made available to you, and there were all sorts of other features in there locked away.

What would it be like to learn how to disable that lock and experience the full potential of your phone? What if it could show you all sorts of indicators about battery health, amount of RAM available, and so on that you could never see before? What if it contained an option to boost your Wi-Fi signal and connect to more devices at once? What if it could allow you to create macros to automate tasks that you always struggle with?

You’re probably skeptical, so I’ll start by addressing the most common excuses people make—either to not try meditation at all or to give up too quickly.

Or, maybe you’re already sold on the value of meditation but you just haven’t been able to make it stick. If that’s the case, feel free to skip to the next post in this series, where I’ll begin to offer my best practical advice on getting meditation to work for you. (And you might still consider at least skimming the rest of this post since it might offer you even more motivation to keep trying.)

The 5 most common objections I’ve heard

Objection #1: “I don’t see the practical benefit. It’s not worth my time to learn this.”

How about this: Try replacing the word “meditation” in your mind with “focus,” “discipline,” or “access to a different part of your brain that you probably haven’t been using.”

Meditation doesn’t have to be spiritual at all. It’s literally just learning how to focus more on the present moment without getting distracted. That will help you with everything from improving your performance at work to deepening your relationships.

And, it’s so much more than that too. It trains you to be less reactive—to be able to observe in real-time that you’re about to do something negative (e.g., judge yourself too harshly, or give up on something important), and then to choose to do something different instead.

It trains you to observe your mind instead of be ruled by it. To notice your suffering and be with it instead of controlled by it. That might seem trivial, but it’s huge. Do you ever feel hopeless or powerless in the face of loneliness, nihilism, social anxiety, frustration, or indignance?

What if you could soften your reaction to those experiences? I’m not talking about plugging your ears and pretending those challenging feelings aren’t happening. Rather, meditation trains you to be with them in a less charged way that allows you to recover more quickly.

As you meditate more and more, you’ll be able to access a different state of mind—in a very real sense.

If that feels woo-woo, consider the difference between being drunk and sober, or between being exhausted and being alert. Those are all just different states of mind, but there’s a very tangible difference: How much more is possible when you’re sober and alert versus drunk and exhausted?

Objection #2: “I don’t have time to meditate every day.”

I get it. There are so many things that writers and podcasters claim you should be doing every day to live a great life. Maybe you’re already working out, gratitude journaling, or whatever else, and adding meditation feels like too much.

That’s why in this series, I’m going to suggest you start with just one minute a day. You can slowly work your way up from there or just stick with that.

Even a single minute will benefit you. And even as you progress beyond that, there’s no need to aim dramatically higher. After meditating for over a decade now, I’ve settled on just 10-20 minutes total most days as my ideal amount of time. Many days, I just do a single 7-minute meditation in the morning.

Objection #3: “This is no different from homeopathy or chakras. I can see that it benefits some people, but I’m highly rational.”

I hear that, and I felt exactly the same way!

But there’s a difference here. Meditation does not rely on faith.

Yes, it’s been practiced for thousands of years, but that alone doesn’t mean it’s legit. Luckily, we have a huge amount of modern scientific research to back up people’s subjective experiences.

Extensive studies have shown that meditation moderately reduces stress, anxiety, and depression.

Harvard research shows visible changes in the brain after only 8 weeks of meditation practice (including effects like being less likely to be hijacked by challenging emotions).

Johns Hopkins researchers have identified 47 reliable studies showing moderate evidence that mindfulness meditation can reduce depression, anxiety, and pain.

Objection #4: “I don’t need it. I hear people say that meditation helps them ‘separate the self from the thoughts that the self is thinking,’ but that’s already obvious to me. I can see how meditation would benefit other people, but I’m already self-aware.”

You might be highly intelligent, but meditation requires a very different muscle.

Even if you’re excellent at math, physics, or computer science, the skill of meditation is much closer to something like strength training or martial arts. It’s not enough to just understand the theory of those things—you have to train yourself and practice over and over again to be effective.

In my experience, many highly intelligent people are terrible at self-discipline and self-mastery. They have endless brilliant ideas, but they have trouble focusing all their attention on just one of those ideas and saying no to all the others.

If you’re like I used to be, you probably think highly of yourself because your mind is so active.

You always have a million ideas! That makes you valuable, right?

Sure, andis that high cognitive activity level always serving you? Does it make it easy to fall asleep every night, or do you find it hard to settle down? Does it make it easy to finish everything you start, or do you get distracted by too many new ideas? Does it make it easy to be decisive, or do you overthink decisions?

Meditation empowers you to change those things—to quiet the mind when that would be more valuable than having it move full speed ahead.

Think of a complex skill you have—something that seems simple to other people but actually took a long time to master.

For me, programming computer graphics is what comes to mind.

I can remember excitedly calling over friends to check out the simple cube I had finally managed to display on my screen.

They weren’t impressed—because the complexities of computer graphics were completely outside their experience and understanding. They couldn’t imagine why creating a simple cube wasn’t easy. But the reality was that it took me months of learning and thousands of lines of code.

Meditation is like that.

Amazingly successful people like Steve Jobs, Kobe Bryant, Bill Gates, and Tim Ferriss have all named meditation as being hugely helpful to them. Are they all just falling for a placebo?

If you think you’re already perfectly self-aware and in control of your mind, ask yourself this:

Which of the following seems more likely?

  1. You’re naturally wiser and more self-aware than Steve Jobs, Tim Ferriss, etc. They’ve all deluded themselves and succumbed to the placebo effect.
  2. You’re missing something—maybe you’re falling victim to the confirmation bias. You’re imagining that meditation is simplistic only because you’re not yet aware of the depth that’s possible there.

I encourage you to practice curiosity and humility here and consider that maybe there’s something you’re not fully seeing.

None of us ever reaches a point of 100% self-awareness. It’s a never-ending journey—because you’re always changing, so there’s always more to learn. It’s one thing to know theoretically that your core self is different from your thoughts, but it’s very different in practice.

When challenging emotions like shame or jealousy come up, it’s incredibly difficult to just notice those emotions without letting them consume you.

That’s exactly what meditation can help with.

If you still believe that meditation is easy and you’ve already figured it out, I’ll give you a challenge:

Time yourself for just one minute, close your eyes, and focus only on your breath for that entire length of time.

That’s all you have to do: keep your attention on your breath for a single minute. It’s ok if your mind wanders for a moment and you immediately notice it and come back to the breath. But, if you’re distracted for more than a second or two, you’ve “failed” the challenge—meaning there’s more for you to learn here.

Remember that the challenge is to focus your attention 100% on the experience of your breathing and to immediately return to it if you wander.

So, allowing yourself to linger on any of the following would be considered a distraction:

  • “This is easy. I’m doing great. I bet the time is almost up!”
  • “I wonder how much time is left.”
  • “My foot is itchy. I want to scratch it.”
  • “What should I do after this?”
  • “I’m feeling sleepy.”
  • “Crap, my breath sped up.”
  • “My back is uncomfortable. I should adjust my position.”

Instead, passing the challenge means:

  • Experience of breathing
  • Very briefly noticing a thought beginning to appear, but immediately coming back to the breath (in a gentle way that doesn’t feel like you’re forcing yourself)
  • Experience of breathing
  • Experience of breathing
  • Very briefly noticing a physical sensation beginning to surface, but immediately coming back to the breath (in a gentle way that doesn’t feel like you’re forcing yourself)
  • Experience of breathing
  • Hearing a sound and noticing your emotional response, then immediately coming back to the breath.
  • Experience of breathing

If you’re able to achieve that state of mind already (and you can do so consistently), that’s amazing. But if you found yourself struggling (as I still do after a decade of practice), I hope you’ll keep reading.

Objection #5: “It’s too hard. I can’t sit still for that long.”

I had a lot of trouble learning to meditate too. That’s why I wrote this guide—to synthesize all my lessons learned over the past decade and make it as easy for you as I can.

Willing to give it a try?

Why meditation is worth your time

Ok, maybe you’re begrudgingly agreeing by this point that meditation could have some value.

But I want to go further than that—beyond just addressing your objections. I’ve been studying personal growth for a long time, and I truly believe that meditation is the single most powerful lever you can use to change your life.

Any new habit requires a powerful “why” behind it, so I’d like to offer a few possibilities for you now—so that learning this goes from a nice-to-have to a must-have in your mind.

lens focusing background

First, some quick definitions: mindfulness vs. meditation

I define mindfulness as a more conscious awareness of your life experiences—kind of like the difference between having a movie playing on a TV off to the side that you notice once in a while and sitting in a movie theater with all of your focus on the big screen.

I define meditation as a specific mindfulness technique for developing focus, introspection, and equanimity that typically involves sitting still with your eyes closed.

But, there are other forms of meditation too (e.g., eyes open or moving), and many other forms of mindfulness as well (e.g., a certain way of eating your food). In this series, we’ll focus on standard eyes-closed sitting meditation.

Now, on to some of the top reasons to make mindfulness and meditation a priority.

Why #1: This is the most powerful foundation for all personal growth (try reframing “mindfulness” for yourself as “focus” or “self-mastery”)

I’m a transformation coach & counselor, and I’ve spent many years thoroughly studying adult psychology and personal development. I’ve trained in many different modalities for helping people grow and flourish.

And I can confidently tell you this:

Every single effective personal growth practice relies—at a very core level—on mindfulness.

Whether you’re trying to create your life purpose, aiming to develop your soft skills or emotional intelligence, or wanting to improve your performance or productivity, you won’t get very far if your mind is constantly wandering away from the topic at hand.

Mindfulness teaches you to focus on what you’re doing right now. Your mind will try to distract you with thoughts about what you did wrong in the past or what you need to do in the future, but mindfulness is about focusing your attention on being most effective at whatever it is you’re trying to do in the present.

It’s the foundational skill for nearly anything else you want to do in life.

It doesn’t have to be at all religious or spiritual. It’s simply about developing self-mastery.

Learning to meditate is especially important if you’d like to try psychedelics

There’s been a major shift over the past few years as psychedelics have been taken more seriously as pathways to profound transformation and healing. There are extremely promising studies happening at respected institutions (Johns Hopkins, Stanford, UC Berkeley, etc.), and psychedelic substances have begun to be decriminalized in various parts of the United States.

If you’re interested in exploring personal growth through psychedelics at some point, I personally believe it’s critical to develop your skill in mindfulness and meditation beforehand.

Getting into a deep meditative state will help you better set your intention before you dive in. And once your journey is underway, being more skilled in self-mastery and mindfulness will better equip you to notice the nuances of what’s happening and help you steer the experience rather than being overwhelmed by it.

To me, someone using psychedelics without strong meditation experience is like standing at waist-height in the ocean on a beach without knowing how to swim—it’s possible to hang out there enjoying the feel of the water, but if you get swept out into the ocean by a big wave, you’re sure going to feel safer if you’re a skilled swimmer.

Meditation is like booting into a different operating system

Whether or not you ever try psychedelics, deep meditation can truly feel like an altered state all by itself.

Like I said earlier, it’s like getting admin-level access to your brain.

Think of it this way: If your brain is a computer, regular consciousness is like running that computer in Windows, the default operating system.

Getting into a deep meditative state is like booting that same computer into Linux. It’s the same hardware, but the different operating system offers a new user interface that makes certain functionality much clearer.

The only caveat is that you have to work at it. It’s not going to feel like a different OS until you put in a lot of time and effort.

I promise it’s worth it.

Why #2: Meditation can help you deal with overwhelming todo lists, challenging problems, distractions, and boredom

If you’re anything like me, your todo lists tend to be overflowing with more ideas and tasks than you could ever hope to accomplish. As an ENTP, my brain craves novelty. Throughout my life, it’s been hard for me to stay committed to new habits, and I’ve struggled with boredom and disconnection in a lot of social situations.

Meditation builds the mental muscles necessary for staying committed and focused rather than succumbing to distraction or boredom.

Despite my usual trouble with commitments, meditation has now become one of the few habits that I’m able to easily prioritize virtually every single day.

Part of what you’re doing with mindfulness is learning what kinds of tricks your mind plays on you—the excuses it gives you to not have to keep trying

My personality type (ENTP) has a kind of explosive, passionate energy that’s quickly used up. We get inspired to work on a new project and dive in deep. Then, we get bored, lose steam, and feel unproductive until we find our next passion.

Several years ago, I used to often fall into a trap. 

I’d get so focused on a new project that I’d skip meditating for several days or weeks in a row. Every day, my mind would trick me, convincing me that I shouldn’t “waste time” on my usual morning routine (including meditation). If I didn’t jump right into my project, I’d lose momentum!

But after a while, I’d feel a growing unease in my mind—like the beginning of a traffic jam as more and more cars pile onto the freeway.

My mind was crafty.

I wouldn’t even realize that those difficult feelings were linked to neglecting meditation. I would just tell myself I was in a “slump” and that it would pass after a while.

But as the days passed, my unease would continue to build, and I’d feel more and more anxious about my growing todo list. Small tasks would feel a lot harder than they should have.

Then one morning, I’d wake up and suddenly find myself wondering: “Maybe I should meditate today.”

It doesn’t take much—virtually every time, after a single meditation of 5-10 minutes I’d feel an immediate sense of “why didn’t I think of this sooner? of course this is what I needed.”

After days of anxiety and overwhelm, getting back into meditation would lead to things like:

  1. A sensation of warm softening in my mind and body—like I was releasing the tension I’d been holding around my todo list and the false belief that everything is important and time-sensitive;
  2. A sense of the pieces falling into place in my mind—combining in a subtlely different way than I had seen before. A problem I’d been struggling with would make just a little more sense, or I’d remember an important idea I’d forgotten that could help.
  3. A burst of motivation or inspiration—something that had been on my todo list for a while would suddenly seem more approachable. I’d remember that it doesn’t have to be 100% perfect or that it’s less complicated than I’d been imagining. It would feel more natural for me to start work on it instead of continuing to put it off.

The antidote to overwhelm is focus, and that’s exactly what meditation trains you in.

Why #3: Learning this skill will physically reshape your brain

There are a huge number of scientific studies proving that regular meditation literally changes the brain. Until the 1970s, neuroscientists believed that only children’s brains could shift as they learned—that once you hit adulthood, your brain was fixed.

Great news: We now know that’s not true—the brain is still highly changeable, even as an adult.

Meditation is the most proven, lowest-risk way of changing your brain’s default, automatic responses to stimuli. It can equip you to choose how your brain processes and reacts to thoughts and feelings instead of leaving it on autopilot.

How specifically can it change the brain?

Studies with thousands of patients have shown that meditation moderately reduces stress, anxiety, and depression. Honestly though, there’s a mountain of evidence for all sorts of changes—everything from improved sleep, to decreased inflammation, to reduced loneliness, to improved self-awareness, to better memory.

Below is an fMRI scan from Harvard research showing activity in the amygdala while viewing emotional content. The amygdala is responsible for the fight-or-flight response. And you can see in the image on the right that after only 8 weeks of meditation practice, the amygdala is much less activated (less yellow) in the subject, meaning that they’re more in control and less likely to be hijacked by challenging emotions that can send us into spirals of anxiety, fear, rage, or frozenness.

Most importantly, the scans were taken when the patients were not actively meditating, meaning that the effects lasted beyond that active practice time.

Why #4: I was nihilistic and jaded for a long time, and I can tell you that this is the path toward finding meaning

This reason might feel like the fluffiest, but I truly believe it’s the most important one.

Life is short. You’re going to die. You and everything you’re worried about will simply disappear someday.

Think about where you were a year ago. Does it really seem like 365 days have passed since then, or did the time fly by?

We can’t get much more quantity of time in our lives (yet, at least), but we can improve the quality of that time.

Imagine that you paid thousands of dollars to go on the trip of a lifetime to some faraway place. Now imagine that you spent the entire trip playing a game on your phone. Wouldn’t you look back on that as a ridiculous waste?

Again, I know this sounds corny, but the same is true of life in general. If you’re not stopping to pay attention—and indeed, if you’re not able to pay attention because you haven’t trained your ability to focus—then what’s the point of living?

What if you choose to see life as one huge “once-in-a-lifetime” vacation that you get the incredible privilege of going on?

person on phone

In my personal view, the meaning of life is to simply experience it. To enjoy the ride, and to delight in being a conscious human who gets to interact with other humans and explore the world.

Developing the skill of mindful awareness makes that possible.

Meditation is the single best tool that humanity has developed to train the mind to focus on what’s happening right now.

To not only improve your focus, but to rewire your brain toward the practice of truly, deeply living—not someday, but in this very moment.

Do you feel willing to give this a real shot? Let’s dive in.

Meditation Part 2: 9 steps to get the most out of meditation (whether you’re an absolute beginner or you’ve struggled to make it work for you)

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