The Mental Matrix

Inspired by my recent binge-reading over at David Cain's superb blog, Raptitude, I've been practicing mindfulness as a new companion to my regular meditation practice. Quite soon into the practice, I had some subtly shocking revelations that I thought I would share.

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The Inertial Mind

One insight I’ve had lately regarding meditation sits (and other habits in general) is how often I’m not so motivated to sit, but once I do I find myself quickly getting into the mood, and then I do not want to stop. This then repeats for the next activity I am resistant to begin, and the cycle repeats. I then began to notice this in pretty much all aspects of my life: exercise, art, writing. The activity didn’t seem to matter, it was the shift to a new one that was the crux of the resistance.

It made me realize that the mind is an inertia machine — it prefers to keep doing whatever it is it is currently doing. Helpful or detrimental, it doesn’t seem to care or recognize the difference. The mind just prefers to keep doing what it is doing right now. The insight here is to just commit to getting started, and putting 5 minutes/reps/sentences/notes/brushstrokes/etc into action.

Perfectionist/procrastination advice of “just get started” comes to mind here, as does the idea of tiny habits and mini habits.

You don’t need much time to shift the mind over to the next thing it will get attached to, but the shift is where the struggle happens. It’s as if we have this impetuous child within, as if we do not evolve our personas but rather accumulate upon an ancient core that cannot be matured, evolved, ignored or reasoned with. We just need to understand how it functions, and find ways to work with it. The real key here is that it will never “go away”. We will never “get past” these struggles. Once we learn to accept and work constructively with these ground rules in mind, the easier it is to get past them.

It’s easy to think to yourself “I am lazy” and explain these behaviors away. But I don’t think there is any “I am” in these behaviors. I think these are artifacts of the structure of mind/brain/body. Once we realize these are impersonal, external to the self, and permanent, functional “hard wired” aspects of Mind, we can stop identifying with them and start looking for solutions to work around them. Work with them. Use them, instead of fighting them.

These struggles to sit in meditation, to exercise, to create — they are not signs of personal flaws, weaknesses or limitations. They are signs that the system is working normally. A bicycle only maintains balance when in motion; this is not a flaw, but an unavoidable and intrinsic aspect of the design. There is only one solution: start pedaling.

Techniques for Consciousness Change – Robert Anton Wilson

Excellent interview with one of my favorite subversive philosophers, Robert Anton Wilson, on the topic of self-directed consciousness change, or “meta-programming the bio-computer” as Wilson often refers to these techniques.

As usual with Wilson, the topics range freely across many disciplines from psychedelic drugs to yoga to quantum physics to Sufi mystics and CIA brainwashing conspiracies. This is an excerpt from the full audio program, “Robert Anton Wilson Explains Everything“.

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Yögå: Is Denmark the Origin of Yoga Asanas?

Yoga is commonly associated erroneously with only the poses or postures, called “asanas” in Sanskrit. In actuality, yoga is more of a system of which the asanas are but one part. And a lesser one at that. Meditation and pranayama are the main focus of the physical activity aspects of traditional “meditation yoga” (as opposed to modern “exercise yoga”).

My endless curiosity has been intrigued since starting up meditation as to the origins of the techniques and practices. This includes the asanas of yoga, which I’ve recently started experimenting with. Some brief research revealed that I was not alone in thinking these questions, and author and scholar Mark Singleton did all of the hard work for me. He discovered what seems to be an origin of yoga asanas in the country of Denmark, where he discovered an early 20th-century Danish system of dynamic exercise called Primitive Gymnastics that were uncannily similar and not influenced by yoga or by yogis of India. And it seems as if the asanas were covertly introduced into yoga by anarchists!

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Upgrading Your Mental Operating System

This lecture that Gary Weber gave for a Buddhist Geeks conference was extremely inspiring and informational to me. I like his non-nonsense, direct experience, scientific approach to the process of meditation. And the fact that it worked for him, and he’s very enthusiastic about the results.

I’m not one for the trappings and baggage that usually come along with some of the more esoteric topics I’m interested in. Perhaps that baggage is little more than my own preconception about these subjects. That said, I always welcome the more down-to-Earth kinds of people who talk about these kinds of things, especially when they have some science to back things up.

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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.

How Much “Me” Is Actually There?

Here’s the mistake we make when we listen to the voice of self-loathing: We misperceive a force that is universal and impersonal and instead see it as individual and personal. That voice in our heads is not us. It is Resistance. Those thoughts are not our thoughts. They are Resistance.

via Steven Pressfield, “Resistance and Self-Loathing

As usual, Pressfield’s insight strikes me. He may be talking about the artist’s struggle, but it resonates further out than that. One of the most powerful mind weapons again depression is the knowledge I gained from “The Mindful Way Through Depression”  that every depressed person has the exact same self-deprecating thoughts. This tells us that they are not true. They have nothing to do with you as an individual. It seems like a simple concept, but the more you start to understand it, it becomes profoundly powerful: these thoughts have nothing to do with me at all.

Recently, I read Susan Cain’s “Quiet” — an superbly great book on what it means to be an introvert. Having devoured articles and blog posts for a few years now since learning of this incredibly useful information that I am an introvert, I was surprised to be blown away by most of the stories and science Cain revealed in “Quiet”. Not only was I silently agreeing at just about everything as the book progressed, I often found myself having mini-eureka moments (“…so that’s why I’ve always done that!”). Honestly, it got me choked up at certain points, recalling things back to my childhood which left me bewildered. The puzzle pieces finally had the box lid to reference! Again I found powerful information: these behaviors, thoughts, and preferences have nothing to do with you at all.

So this was great: some troubling aspects of my inner world were finally finding some solace. But that opened a new can of worms, one I wasn’t really expecting: if none of these things are “me”, then where exactly is “me”?

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The Physicality of Spirituality

My experimentation with meditation keeps bringing up this question: why there is such a major focus on physicality as the basis of what are constantly referred to as spiritual practices, as opposed to ideals, commandments, precepts, beliefs, philosophies, deities or religions.  Perhaps it’s just at odds with my preconceived (and vague) ideas of what the concept of “spirituality” meant to me prior to practicing meditation techniques.

I had always assumed that so-called proper, moral living (like obeying the Ten Commandments) was the groundwork one had to lay for a spiritual experience in life. Live properly, and your reward is spiritual bliss. Rather, it seems that living one’s life according to these precepts is the side-effect of achieving certain levels of proficiency in these body-based techniques. This is very interesting to someone who leans towards an agnostic — and at times atheistic — view of the world.

The writings on meditation practices claim that if these techniques are applied persistently, one does not need to intellectualize these experiences — they will be direct and real experiences you will have for yourself, about which the validity of the reality of them will not be in question. Not much faith required here it seems.

The deeper one researches the literature on meditation and yoga (and we are talking traditional yoga here, not the watered-down exercise trend), the more one sees that being a so-called “spiritual person” is more like being an intensely physical person. Or at least one who has established a high degree of conscious control over their body.

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Meditation with Advanced Yoga Practices Techniques: The First 30 Days

I started meditating about a year ago. I was pretty consistent for about 4-5 months and then kind of lost the momentum. I picked it back up in December and have been doing it pretty much daily since then.

Discussions with a like-minded friend led to some deeper research on the topic. This led me to the website, techniques and writing of Yogani on AYPsite.org (Advanced Yoga Practices) and I really liked what I found there. I decided to give the techniques offered there a try, and this is my 30 day recap on my experience so far. Continue reading “Meditation with Advanced Yoga Practices Techniques: The First 30 Days”