What do meditation and touch typing have in common?

I recently got back into meditation. I found an accountability partner who is making the journey with me. It makes the process more rewarding, and motivating. This time around, I overcame one of the issues I had with focusing, and this article shares how I went about it and how I am applying it to other areas in my life, including programming.

It starts with a quote

I love the book The Mind Illuminated, the best book ever written on meditation that I found in english. In the book, Culadasa decomposes the meditation practice into stages and tells the reader what to expect at each of those stages. When I meditate, I generally am at the second stage out of ten: I am a newbie. I am an analytical and studious person, I like to get "better" and "learn" by using my brain "solve" problems. That's why sustained attention is difficult for me.

Sustained attention in meditation cannot be cracked it with your brain. Instead, you learn by taking a distance with your thoughts and accept them as they are, for what they are: thoughts. You surrender to the fact that you cannot make the process faster than it is bound to unfold:

“Now, sustaining attention is trickier than directing attention. Why? It’s possible to voluntarily direct attention. However, the part of the mind that sustains attention for more than a few moments works entirely unconsciously. We can’t use our will to control how long we remain focused on one thing. […] It’s a lot like learning to throw darts. The complex motor skills you need for dart throwing also involve training an unconscious process using intention and repetition”

Culadasa (John Yates) – The Mind Illuminated

Achieving sustained attention is a matter of training your unconscious processes, it is a lot like throwing darts. Once I read that, it clicked for me, and it all suddenly made sense. I realized that it was just like touch typing!

What? Meditation is like touch typing?

The same idea of performing complex tasks with our unconscious mind is what we commonly call muscle memory. To be clear, muscle memory is not only about muscle, it is about mental pathways. You can see it at play when you learn to drive, ride a bike, touch type, learn a new text editor, or programming language syntax, and meditate! When building muscle memory, it is hard to surrender to the fact that we don't have control over that process and cannot speed it up with our brainpower.

Two years ago I learned to use a Kinesis Advantage 2 and to touch type. I struggled, it took me weeks and I kept going back to the previous keyboard I was using. It was hard! I didn't know when to look, when not to look, how fast to try to type when doing the drills. There is a surprising lack of information about the exact brain process to learn touch typing. The drills involve typing few keys rapidly and associating them one by one with the right finger and get your brain to acquire muscle memory.

Learning sustained attention in meditation feels just the same as learning touch typing, nothing replaces drills and deliberate practice. That's why you can't just become "good" at meditation by using your brainpower.

So how do I apply this in my life?

When learning a new skill, take some time to recognize what aspects of the learning experience are purely analytical and what aspect involve building unconscious muscle memory. Practice the former using your analytical brain and concentration and practice the latter by doing drills, and repetition. Even if you think you are not learning anything by repeating, your brain is learning in the background when you practice and later when you sleep.

Happy learning!