Meditation: One Year

So it’s been about a year since I started doing regular, twice daily meditation sits. I’ve been meaning to post much more on this process than I have — but just like any sit is a good sit in meditation, I guess the same is true for blog posts about it.

To be honest, there’s not been much to report for long stretches. If you read back over my 30-day meditation recap, a lot of that stuff still holds true. Probably the most dramatic experience to date is that of the profound body stillness that I am able to achieve during sits. No longer do I fidget, have itches that need scratched, or any other physical distraction. It took quite a while to reach this point. But now I can even sense my body anticipating the sits and it just starts calming itself down when the “ritual” begins.

Speaking of rituals, I have expanded the techniques I practice quite a bit, according to the self-pacing suggestions and lessons over at Advanced Yoga Practices. I started out with the basic mantra focus technique, but I switched back to the breath focus technique I was using prior to discovering AYP. I not only found the mantra too distracting (“am I doing this right?”), but over at the AYP message boards it seems even some of the advanced members had been doing the technique wrong themselves! All too much for my over-analytical mind.

I also discovered in this time Daniel Ingram’s superb “Mastering The Core Teachings of the Buddha“, which is an incredibly down-to-earth and irreverent approach to this idea of meditation from a very practical view. He’s also got a great sense of humor as well as decades of direct experience. Right up my alley. Ingram isn’t too concerned about one’s technique as long as it works for you. Breath focus seemed to work for me. Mantra did not. I gave mantra a good 6 months before jumping ship. I think that is a fair run. I highly suggest giving Ingram’s book a read. You can get a free digital version in all sorts of formats at that earlier link.

So anyways, I moved back to breaths as the object of attention for my meditation sits. I continued to do spinal breathing pranayama as I had been, now up to 10 minutes from 5. I began adding other techniques to the pranayama sessions, specifically mulabandha, sambhavi mudra and ujjayi. I also began working toward the siddhasana sitting pose (a specialized cross-legged pose). These were slowly introduced over the summer months, and then in early fall I began doing the AYP “Asana Starter Kit”, which is an abbreviated set of asanas (stretches; literally “poses” or postures). These are most similar to what most people know of as “yoga” — the postures. The starter kit are a collection of mostly spinal flexibility movements. All of this info can be read up on in depth over at the AYP site in the free online lessons.

The first hurdle, as I’ve come to discover in light of many other healthy lifestyle changes I’ve made over the past year, is just to establish the habit. Just do it every day. Sit down and make it happen. Especially those days you want to blow it off. I didn’t know any of this at the time of course, so I was impatient and wanting more immediate and dramatic results. Now! It’s funny how the mind feels as if it “deserves” something for all the time and effort put in. Granted, yoga and meditation promise direct experience if one follows the practices, but there is also a bit of a time factor involved in anything that involves change.

I also got serious about a regular exercise routine last year, and the one thing I’ve learned from both direct experience and reading is that gains take a lot of time and hard work — even just small gains. And they take more time than work. And lots of persistence through the repetitive boredom than anything else. In a sense, your own impatience itself is your critical guru. Testing to see if you are actually serious about this, willing to put in the dedication and effort, filled with enough willpower and self-discipline to just sit there for 30 minutes every damn day! Just making time to sit quietly alone twice a day for 5 minutes is in itself an achievement. Forget “meditating” or doing anything at all during that time — just set aside that time in your schedule. That’s the first goal. Factor in relatively little happening during that time, and your Inner Guru sits and watches patiently to see how serious you are about all of this.

There’s actually quite a bit of satisfaction to be gained from carving out this niche of time in your life. It’s more difficult than you think, the challenges and obstacles are not what you’d expect (they are far more “in your head” than practical obstructions). Accomplishing this is itself rewarding, and has a noticeable effect on you as any other positive habit you’ve established. Enjoy that novelty-fueled dopamine rush while it lasts!

Once you’re actually on your butt twice a day and making serious effort at this, the next step happens. This is where you stop (or at least reduce) expectations. You start to try to do this meditation thing correctly. You eventually discover (hopefully) that the goal of meditation is not to “clear your mind”. Hell, you can’t be bothered with “clearing your mind” when you realize that you can barely keep your attention on your breath for ten breaths in a row. Usually not more than three in a row! By this point in time, your bhakti (“drive” or passion) to learn more has probably led you to the information that what is generically referred to as “meditation” is more accurately called “concentration”. Only when you’ve mastered concentration can you use that mental state to then attempt to do meditation.

Eventually, something interesting happens. As I mentioned at the start, the body seems to become conditioned. it’s like riding a bike in a way. Slowly, and one day without conscious awareness of the “switch”, you find you are reaching extended moments of deep concentration. Usually you notice this after the fact. Then you start sensing them happen at the time, then as their frequency increases you begin to notice the sensations preceding these experiences. Things become interesting. The experiences are very subtle. In fact, it’s no surprise that a mind that doesn’t get lost in a meandering tangle of thoughts, but instead can bring it’s focus back to the things it wants to focus on without effort, coupled with a body that offers little or no distractions, is quite ideal for noticing these subtle shifts. Wax on, Daniel-san.

Nothing “cosmic” is happening at this point. However, there is a very beautiful peace in that stillness. In a way it’s like learning to ride a bike. It’s been far too long since I learned how to ride a bike to use that analogy, but I’d have to guess it’s very similar. Even now, I still get quite the enjoyment out of simple bike rides. Steve Jobs famously said that a computer is like a “bicycle for your mind“, but I’m starting to think that role may have been filled years ago by meditation.

Sometimes I wonder if the appeal of meditation is the ritual, the self-discipline, the achievement of just making it happen every day. The whole idea of “the path, not the destination” comes to mind often. But there are also some profound moments of stillness and peace that are undeniably the result of the cultivation of these techniques. It’s said that the real benefit of mediation is the experience of your life when you aren’t meditating — that’s where the real results are to be found. Not your experience during meditation. It’s tough to really discern these things at times, especially after having implemented a lot of other healthy life changes with nutrition, exercise and quitting some bad habits. Not to mention learning more about my true nature as an introvert. But I am slowly sensing that rising inner stillness of meditation sits showing up in my daily life. I look forward to meditation sits actively now. There is a flow of inner energy (literally, and quite surprisingly so) as well as a “dynamic stillness” that I find carrying over more and more into daily life.

It’s difficult for me to type these words, as they are the kind of thing that I would have scoffed at not that long ago for being vague and subjective. Which they are, I have to agree. I can’t prove any of this. I’m also not making very big claims (at least not yet!). But part of my desire to give this a serious try was to experience it directly, and what I’ve come to learn and experience is that this is the only way to really know, and that is to do it for yourself. The Inner Guru weeds out the candidates that aren’t ready. I think anyone interested in giving this a serious try is drawn to this from within themselves. You can’t convince someone to try these kinds of things. They come to them on their own.

The crazy thing about this past year of meditation is that I’ve been pretty consistent with exercise for about the same period of time, yet I can sense more change and results from meditation than from working out. It’s probably all due to a lack of proper perspective. But for something as intangible as mediation, I’m quite impressed with the depth and effectiveness of change over time with such seemingly simple and innocuous practices. I’m looking forward to Year Two and beyond for sure.