The Mindfulness Challenge was his idea—the guy known for taking on extreme physical endurance challenges for his community like biking 100 miles across the Colorado Rockies and skiing over 60 runs at Arapahoe Basin.
Ryan O’Donoghue’s next extreme challenge would be a little less physical: he was going to meditate every day for a month.
“Those who know me best, know that I often take on too much and that I am challenged with staying present in the moment,” O’Donoghue explains. “This year, rather than take on yet another physical endurance challenge, I’ve decided to embark on a path I hope will influence the future years of my life.”
Such activity doesn’t stem from O’Donoghue’s need to prove anything. Rather, these challenges are aimed at raising proceeds for First Descents in memory of his brother Colin, who passed away after a two-year battle with cancer.
O’Donoghue is CEO of First Descents, a nonprofit that provides free outdoor adventure programs for young adults with cancer. He explains that young adults diagnosed with cancer have an increased risk of anxiety, depression, issues surrounding social isolation and alienation—even increased risks of substance abuse and suicide.
“It’s a unique time in people’s lives when they’re trying to establish themselves in their careers or relationships or starting a family,” he says. “A cancer diagnosis forces people to be reliant on the healthcare system and, in a lot of cases, their friends and family. It’s this weird time in life where everyone else is moving forward and they’re sitting on the sidelines because of their cancer diagnosis.”
That’s where First Descents comes in. The organization surrounds these youths with peers in epic destinations all over the country and introduces them to challenges completely unrelated to their cancer—like whitewater kayaking, surfing, and rock-climbing. O’Donoghue says these adventures help bring their participants into the present because when “they’re in a rapid or climbing a rock, there’s no time to think about their treatment or their condition.”
First Descents offers around 40 weeklong programs each year in addition to their single-day adventures in 13 cities throughout the U.S. The organization’s core values—adventure, community, challenge, humility, and humor—are incorporated into every program.
“The eventual goal is to have people adopting some of our core beliefs in active healthy living, healthy nutrition, and mindfulness,” O’Donoghue says. “We ask people to get off their phones and try to forget the outside world and be present.”
O’Donoghue embarked on his own Mindfulness Challenge in late 2016 because he wanted to become a stronger leader for First Descents—more focused and more centered.
“I practiced meditation here and there, but it kept on falling off,” he explains. “There was always something keeping me busy or some meeting to run to. I knew that in order to keep myself accountable, I needed to share this challenge with my community and say, ‘I’m doing this.’”
Like many, O’Donoghue had some preconceived notions about mindfulness meditation before the challenge. He hadn’t thought of mindfulness as a skill to learn, assuming that meditation was only a success if you got through it without your mind wandering.
“Being a little Type A, if I didn’t get through 10 minutes without thinking about what I had to do that day or hearing a sound and getting distracted, I would feel like it was a failure,” he recalls.
But after successfully completing his challenge—racking up a 31-day Run Streak with Headspace—O’Donoghue has already benefited from the positive effects of a committed meditation practice.
“I can identify my emotions when they’re happening and not just latch onto them and let them drag me down the street,” he says. “I’m able to recognize [them], note it, and then almost have a grin about it, have a lightness about it, instead of letting [my emotions] derail me, which, historically, would be my tendency.”
Now only one question remains: will O’Donoghue keep up the practice now that the challenge is over?
“I fully envision [meditation] being a daily practice for the rest of my life, based on the results I’m feeling after just one month,” he says. “The more I understand about the science around it, it’s kind of a no-brainer if you’re someone who cares about self-maintenance and self-care… Then it seems like there’s no better place to start than with your mind.”