July 16, 2003

Meditation revisited and revived

Back on January 8, 2003, I wrote an email about my meditation experience and fortunately shared it with James and others, else it would now be lost. James held onto it. My copy got lost in my hard disk crash, but he was able to dig a copy of my email out of his files and send it to me.

Far worse than losing this, however, was the slow erosion of my meditation practice over the past six months. Most of this erosion took place as I obsessed over the coming war with Iraq – reading about it, writing about it, demonstrating, and generally feeling frustrated.

In truth, that was a time when I needed meditation most. I needed to come to grips with my frustration with the human race - the total idiocy of war – and my own inability to do anything meaningful to stop it. Well, slowly I have done that – and slowly I have returned to meditation, until I’m now approaching – but not quite at – the point I was at in January. (I should add that benefits of meditation never left me – though there was an erosion – I frequently found myself looking deeply into things and handling them in a different, more satisfying way, because of my meditation experiences. But I want to do more – learn more.)

I’m doing one thing different from what is described in my January essay on the topic. I start now with a cup of tea made with water brought to a boil – NOT microwaved. I let the tea seep for four minutes, then take it and place it on the table in front of me that also holds a single candle.

I then slowly drink the tea, not taking my first sip for 10-15 minutes because it is simply too hot. That means I’m well into a meditative state by the time I start drinking the tea. I sometimes open my eyes when I pick up the tea cup, but I find that I focus better if I keep them closed and slowly and gently reach for the cup – and after having a sip, slowly and gently return it to the coaster on the table. That makes the tea drinking part of the meditation. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks at one point of a “tea meditation” and I suspect this is what he had in mind. In any event, I find that it takes me the full 30-35 minutes to consume the cup of tea this way.

As I said, I feel I’m back nearly to where I was when I wrote about meditation in January, but not quite. I was hoping there would be something in what I wrote then that would help me now. When I got the piece from James I was pleased to see it was helpful. I picked up several small points in rereading it. Perhaps it can do someone else some good - someone who is considering meditation, or confused by it, or frustrated because they have tried it and can’t quite get the hang of it. Here’s my January email - I see no reason to change anything I said. Still accurately reflects my experience.

Feel under no obligation to read the following (about meditation) or respond - I just wanted to jot down things while I still remembered them and know you have some passing interest in the subject so I thought I would share my notes. These are not instructions - they are simply a report on my experience. If they are useful to you, wonderful, if not, well, find something that is ;-)

That said, meditation has had an incredibly positive impact on my mood, actions, and interactions with the world. I don't know what it might do for others. It has been good for me. Here's what I feel I've learned in the past three months.

Why meditate?

Meditation is not an end in itself. It is an exercise to help you see more deeply into reality all day long - not simply while you are meditating. I meditate for 30 minutes each morning for the same reason I walk - to make my body, mind, and spirit healthier so it can handle the rest of the day better.

What is meditation?

For me it means slowing down, focusing, and being still in body and mind. The result is a heightened sense of awareness of yourself and the world.

When do I meditate?

When I'm most awake and full of energy - for me that means the morning - about 30 minutes after I get up. Right now I meditate for 30-35 minutes each day. It doesn't have to be the same time of day, but as with any exercise, that's helpful in building a habit. If I try to meditate when I'm too tired I am likely to fall asleep which is the opposite of meditation.

I went through periods where I tried mediating at different times. For a week or so I even tried meditating five minutes at a time every hour. All of these experiments were helpful - not only in bringing me to the point I am at now, but in themselves were worthwhile at the time.

Where

Anywhere that's convenient, but having a single location that is routinely used is helpful. I use the library. I close the door, light a few candles, and sit in the same spot. Quiet is less important to me (because of my poor hearing) than it may be to others. Soft light is very important to me. I find electric lights visually noisy and thus distracting. Of course the smell of the candles appeals to another sense and this is helpful as well. Finally, the candles themselves can be a subject of meditation, or at least mindfullness.

That said, I feel I can - and have - meditated under a variety of different conditions, including when surrounded by people at Sunday meeting. Neither time nor surroundings should become an absolute or fixation. In fact, one of the basic precepts of mindfullness is not to cling to anything.

Physical position

This was a tough one for me, both because of my weight and because my body is unusually inflexible. I suspect the recommended Lotus or half lotus positions are important and helpful. I can't be comfortable sitting in either. I tried sitting cross-legged and I tried kneeling with a pillow under my lower legs and a second pillow on top of my legs between them and my fanny. Kneeling in this position with my back straight feels right to me, but I can't maintain it for more than 10 minutes without significant discomfort. Even when I sit this way for 10 minutes, getting up is a slow and somewhat painful process.

Finding a position delayed substantive progress in meditation for four-to-six weeks. That is, I kept trying every day and made some progress, but 10-20 minutes was the best time I could do and with a lot of discomfort and I never felt I reached a state where there were clear physiological changes.

I finally found that the two important keys are to be comfortable (just to the point that you are not distracted by discomfort) and to sit straight. It's also useful to have your feet flat on the floor and your hands in (or near) your lap in a relaxed, palm up position. (It's recommended that you overlap them, but I don't find this comfortable, so I don't.)

So for the past six weeks or so I have been sitting in a chair with a straight back and a hard seat and that has worked perfectly.


Mental state

My main tool for focusing is counting my breath. I usually start each session with two long breaths, repeating as I breath in and out, the following:

Breathing in, I calm myself,
Breathing out, I smile. (and at this point I consciously smile)
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.


I follow that by taking 20 deep breaths counting:

In One
Pause
Out One

In Two
Pause
Out Two

I count this way only to 10, then start over again. Each breath takes me about 15-20 seconds for the cycle of in-brief pause-out.

I find 20 breaths this way helps me to focus my mind on my breathing which then becomes a touchstone for the rest of the meditation session. That is, every time I find my thoughts drifting off, I gently return them to my breathing, sensing the air going through my nose, filling my lungs, raising my stomach, etc.

I do NOT deep breathe through the whole session. I do it from time to time to return my focus and sometimes even return to counting.

Sometimes I find it a little difficult to let go of my counting and so I simply stop on whatever number I am on and repeat that number over and over until I know I have actually lost count and its nonsense to continue counting.

It is absolutely critical NOT to fight your mind, but observe it in a non-judgmental fashion, let it run, and gently try to guide it back to focusing on your breathing. I sometimes have songs, or tunes running through my head, or any of a thousand other concerns or thoughts. That's ok.

I also fine that I frequently am aware of some part of my body, sometimes in an uncomfortable way - such as a sudden itch on the side of my face or scalp. I see these as excellent opportunities to practice "mindfullness" - that is the ability to observe this thing happening to you without judging or unduly reacting. I never scratch such an itch and I do not fight it - I simply observe it in a friendly manner and in a reasonable amount of time it always seems to melt away. This is, of course, what I am trying to learn to do in handling my emotions and more serious physical pain. It is a concrete example of how meditation is an exercise preparing you for other experiences.

Results

From the very first attempts - abbreviated and to some extent wrong-headed - I found this to be a satisfying experience that if nothing else, relaxed me and made me more aware of myself and the rest of the world. During the last two weeks, however, I think I have begun to reach the state that others talk about - no enlightenment, of course, but a changed physiological and mental state that is very peaceful and satisfying.

This state - none of this - is anything that you strive for. You simply meditate, focus, and see what happens.

Until about three weeks ago I used a timer to time my meditation. I read in "The Relaxation Response" that this was not a good idea. I'm not sure why, but I agree. I stopped using the timer. Instead, curious to know the length of my meditation, I start a stopwatch and set it aside. I never look at it, nor think about the time after that. I do seem to know when about 30 minutes is up - seems to be a natural rhythm for me at this point - and when I do come out of my meditative state the watch always confirms that somewhere between 30 and 35 minutes have passed.


I usually start with my eyes closed - although I'm experimenting with opening them more now - and the first five minutes I count my breath. I think that somewhere between the 10 and 20 minute mark I cross a threshold where physical changes take place. That is, my brain seems to have stopped sending signals to most of my body, so I am perfectly still and don't desire to move - in fact, I don't feel that I can move without a special effort that I don't want to make. My breathing becomes very gentle at this point and when I observe it I notice the breaths are shorter and perhaps more irregular in duration.

At some point - I suspect it's very close to 30 minutes - I decide to start coming out of this state and I reluctantly and slowly open my eyes. I find that they are unfocused and it's easy to keep them that way - much easier than it is to do so when I first start to meditate. I also find that I can move them without moving my head. It is as if my brain has decided to reconnect with my eyes, but has still not established diplomatic relations with my hands or feet. That's fine. I want to stay in this state and I do for several minutes until I realize that in order to have time to do my physical exercise and have breakfast with Bren, I need to come out of it.

So I do. I reach over, look at the stop watch, and stop and clear it. I get up, put the candles out and move my chair back. I am very relaxed, very peaceful, very happy.

Final thought

I don't know, as I said, if this will work for someone else. Obviously there are many it has worked for and others (including me most of my life) for whom it is (or was) of no interest - who might try it, but can't seem to do it for whatever reason, or don't get any result that they think makes it worth the effort.

I have certainly found that reading about meditation helps and I have learned a lot from my reading. But there has been a constant handing back-and-forth between the reading and the experience. For me it has been critical to act and read and act some more and read some more. I can't imagine learning one-tenth of this by reading about it - it's like reading about the taste of an in icecream Sundae having never eaten one - the best descriptions simply can't match the experience.

Again - I must stress that I know that I am at a very preliminary stage in this exploration. I haven't a clue where it will lead next, nor do I have plans other than to just keep doing it and see what evolves.

Westport,
January 8, 2003


Posted by Greg Stone at 03:10 PM | Comments (5)