It's a Matter of Practice

For the past five years, I've sat down just about every day to practice meditation and only recently have I realized exactly what it is I am practicing. 

The revelation came a few months ago when I was about to undergo some outpatient surgery. Deep in the vast cavernous space of the surgery prep area, a nurse with a well-practiced monotone directed me to remove all my clothes, place them in the plastic bag and change into the hospital gown, opening in the back. There was a clue that I was in the subordinate position. Still I followed her orders, hopped up on the gurney, pulled the thin sheet over me and waited to see what the next person would do to me. The next person was a nurse anesthetist with a cool surfer dude personality and even though he put me at ease a little bit, it was really starting to sink in that someone would be cutting something off of me soon. By the time the anesthesiologist came around to approve the silly sauce about to be injected into my veins, I was at full tilt worry and anxiety. She introduced herself and then remarked to me how unusually calm I appeared. What was my secret, she wanted to know. 

That’s when I realized something about my meditation practice. I do sit down daily to practice something, but calling it meditation makes it seem a little loftier than it actually is. Most of the real estate in my brain has been staked out by anxiety and fear, grief and despair, doubt and uncertainty and misgivings. It's not that I'm calm while I'm sitting in stillness, I'm just practicing remaining calm as my emotions toss me around.

So when the nurse pulled the curtain shut behind her and separated us into the very clear categories of patient and healthcare professionals, I felt my anxiety level shoot up and I observed my thoughts race to terrifying conclusions. This was stress and this was appropriate for anyone about to have surgery. I was not feeling calm. In fact, I was extremely anxious. But there was something different about me than the other people hooked up to IVs in the pre-op center whom this doctor was about to anesthetize. I was comfortable with my anxiety. I was comfortable with my anxiety because for the past five years I have practiced remaining calm as emotions roil through my body.

Substitute in any anxiety-producing situation of your own for my stint in the land of outpatient surgery. It might be a client asking you the one question you dread; it might be your co-worker throwing you under the bus. Lots to choose from here. Being on intimate terms with your own anxiety might just shift the way you handle stressful situations.

You can say I meditate, but I say I observe the anxiety while I cultivate the calm. This takes a lot of practice.

Measure for Measure

The latest study on the benefits of meditation was released this week in JAMA and covered by all the usual suspects (Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Forbes). The study concludes there is no evidence that mindfulness meditation is an effective tool to control substance use, sleep or weight.

imagesStill, we all come to meditation seeking something: more focus, relief from pain, less anxiety. And we want to know if it works. Yo! It's way more subtle than that. If you stick around long enough, you start to see that what you sought was mostly valuable because it brought you to the practice and what you find has little to do with what you sought.
Meditation is experiential. I have a moment of clarity. I notice a cry for help disguised as a fib. I remain calm as the airline agent insists I told her to discard my boarding pass. I think of an old friend and the next thing I know, I see her walking down the street. Oh, that's happened to you too? But I'm not thinking it's a coincidence.
As per the Serenity Prayer, there are two categories of situations in life: the things you can change and the things you can't. Meditation brings you closer to acceptance of this basic reality. How much closer? Can the benefits of love be scientifically measured? These type of metrics are best left to poets and philosophers.

Dumb secrets

There are secrets and there are dumb secrets. Dumb secrets are those bits of information that are hidden because the only potential holder of the secret does not want to know. The sort of people who don't want to know are called husbands. A man can only carry so many subjects in his head at one time. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It does not occur to my husband to worry about the very thing that distracts me from my work. He has access to the information and chooses not to access. The result is that there is information being withheld from me and the not knowing sucks up all my attention and diminishes my focus. My husband, in the meantime, gets his work done. So, my choice is to ask my husband for information which will require him to think about something he does not want to think about or to make peace with the fact that whether or not I know does not change the status of the information. The facts are the facts whether or not I am aware of them.

Today's meditation was dedicated to letting go of the need to know. What has happened has happened whether or not I am aware of the results


Still Life with Distraction

UnknownPhone rings, dog barks, my nose itches. What interrupts you in the middle of your meditation practice? There are thoughts, of course and the goal is to let the thoughts float on by. Sometimes I have an interesting idea and I promise myself I'll come back to it later, then I keep my promise. But outside distractions are out of my control. In real life, the sounds of the physical world interfere with the time I have set aside for silence. Here is what I do: I hope the noise subsides and I start again. I don't start from the beginning. I've already done my breathing and have relaxed my body. I have a head start and I use it. I just go back to my mantra and back to the place where I found my stillness. This is not a perfect practice. This is meditation in the real world.


Meditation Sticker When I sat in Lee's living room and she taught me what she knows about meditation, she insisted I not call her my teacher. She once scolded me, as only a former  high school English teacher could, for referring to her as a guru.

I used to say: Everything I know about meditation I learned from Lee.  But now I see why this is not true. Every time I sit down to meditate, it is a new meditation and new chance to find stillness, to find the way to my center. No one can really teach such a thing because it is within each of us to find our own way. But those of us who have cultivated a habit of sitting in stillness every day can encourage others that they too are able to do the same. It is not magic. It is not mysterious or esoteric or only available to those who  have scaled the mountain and sat cross-legged for day upon uncomfortable day with the guru. It is available to everyone and it is available to you.

Subjective Observer

UnknownThis past weekend, I participated in a Meditation Workshop at Cleveland Yoga with JoAnne Aboussouan. This is the first time I've ever done any kind of group meditation and I wondered whether I would experience something unusual, some sort of group energy experience. Meditation has enriched my life in many ways, but it is pretty consistent that when I look for something for meditation to bring to  me, it doesn't. The concept I found most helpful was an overview of various breath techniques. For example: alternate nostril breathing. This is when you  use your thumb and forefinger to close off one nostril, inhale through the other nostril, hold for a few seconds, then slowly exhale through the alternate nostril. Like diaphragmatic breathing, this type of breath work allows your nervous system to calm down and in general get you centered enough to be able to sit in stillness. It only takes a couple of minutes and I count this breathing time as part of my 20-minute meditation time.

We also spent some time talking about our Objective Observer. This is that part of yourself that observes your thoughts as they pop up when you're trying to meditate. Your objective observer is used to your monkey mind and without judgment, she watches your thoughts, then watches as you let them drift away. Personally, I don't use an objective observer when I meditate. I have a subjective observer. She's fond of coffee and ice cream just like I am, but she is a kinder, gentler version of me. When my monkey mind kicks in and the thoughts breed more thoughts one after the other, my subjective observer says: It's okay. You're going to get it. Try again.

For twenty minutes each day, there is no voice that chastises me for all the things I have not accomplished. But there is a voice who is encouraging and kind and optimistic that I will achieve stillness despite all the negative distractions. I think I'll go buy her a latte. 

Perfectly Simple

transcendental-meditation-challenge-140x80I do not study meditation. I am not an expert. I'm someone just like you who always thought meditation was something I SHOULD do. Sit in stillness for twenty minutes? Impossible. Complicated. As far as the practice of meditation goes, we all  have the capacity to trick it up until meditation becomes something too intimidating to try. To sit in stillness is difficult, but it is perfectly simple. Here’s what I do:

  • I take five or six diaphragmatic breaths. That means when I inhale, my belly goes out. I imagine a waterwheel in my body. Inhale and exhale smoothly. Inhale, the breath travels up to my head; exhale, the breath spills down. Try to stay rhythmic and not to work too hard.
  • Sit in a comfortable place. I like to sit on a straight-backed chair with my feet flat on the floor.
  • Next, I imagine a bright light shining out from my eyes, my ears, my nose, my mouth.  It’s important to relax your mouth.  All sensations that I have experienced so far in the day are gone. I will them away. I send the light down my neck, both shoulders and arms and all fingers.  I send the light down my spine to my legs, including my toes.  The light ends in my chest cavity where I try to imagine a colorless, empty space.  This last bit of imagination is impossible. Be okay with that and you're on your way.
  • If you get an itch, feel free to scratch. This is meditation, not a trance.
  • I focus on my “third eye” (the light between my eyes that I am able to see with my eyes closed).  I repeat a mantra.  Something simple like at ease or peace or the ambitious Who am I?   I use the mantra to remind myself to let go of my thoughts.  As a thought passes into my mind (and thoughts will pass through your mind), I encourage myself to draw the thought down to my heart.  It helps to imagine a magnetic force from my heart that draws the thought downward.
  • When the next thought pops in, I encourage myself again.  Treat yourself kindly, like you would a small child.  Say:  It’s okay, you’ll get it next time or Try again.

The whole process takes me twenty minutes although I do not set a timer. My body seems to know when the twenty minutes is up. The first five minutes are for breathing and relaxing, the last fifteen minutes are when I encourage myself to meditate.

I try to find the stillness, but it is rare to succeed for more than a moment or two. But the only way to fail at meditation is to never try.


Meditation This is the most useful advice I have received to support my meditation practice:

  • Sit in a comfortable position. For me, that is in a straight-backed chair with my feet flat on the ground.
  • Treat yourself as you would a small child. As you meditate and your thoughts wander, be forgiving. Say: That's okay, you're going to get it. Try again.
  • Do not set an alarm. Trust yourself to know when twenty minutes is up. Have you woken up a moment before your alarm goes off? Your body knows.
  • When you have an idea that needs more thought, promise yourself you'll get back to that idea later. Keep your promise.

This is the most difficult advice to follow:

  • There are no goals in meditation. If you're trying to achieve something, you're not meditating.
  • Give yourself this time every day. Every day.

Capitalist Karma

Corporations have come to meditation with the hope of boosting their bottom line. Decrease stress:  increase productivity and develop leadership skills. Why not? Besides, who am I to judge? I also came to meditation with a secret desire for increased creativity and productivity. If you have a goal, you're not meditating. But everyone I know who has come to meditation came for a reason.

  • Sleeplessness
  • Attention Deficit
  • Focus
  • Productivity
  • Grief
  • Anxiety
  • Enlightenment

Meditation may or may not fix any of these issues, but it will definitely bring a change and will definitely reveal something obvious about your life that for some reason was not apparent before. Just because the goal is workplace efficiency or a more profitable bottom line, it doesn't rule out the possibility that meditation will bring about unexpected benefits that were never the goal of the program. For me, that is the point of meditation. It's now what you are seeking, but what you find.

So for my money, more meditation for the suits! Let every corporation instill a meditation program. Bring on the capitalist karma.

Thoughts for Later/Thoughts for Never

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There are two categories of thoughts that pop in and out of my mind as I sit in stillness. There are the ideas that get me excited, some new way to look at an old project or a word blend that pleases me. When these ideas alight, I capture them. I promise to remember the thought and come back to it later. Then, I keep my promise to myself.

But, there is a second category and those thoughts are the ones I try to push out of my brain forever. Little pinpricks, bits of bad juju. These are the thoughts that concern something not within my power to change:  thoughts about someone else's actions and my frustration in not being able to change what I am not able to change. I use my mantra to lure the pesky thoughts from my mind and from my body. I try to envision the thought turning to vapor, then dissipating right out of my spinal cord.

The banished thoughts will return again, they always do.

Again and again, I try to make myself accept that I have no control over the thoughts of others, little control over my own thoughts, and twenty minutes a day to work on it.