Recently my friend Caroline asked 'What's meditation actually supposed to do?' Having been exploring this question myself for a while now, I thought I'd share what I've learned so far.
Yesterday in Part 1 I shared a bunch of relevant short extracts from Pema Chödrön's 'When Things Fall Apart'. Here in Part 2 I describe my first three months trying to establish a daily mindful meditation practice, partly to consolidate what I've learned so far and partly to encourage others.
Four or five years ago, when I was really struggling, my school friend Stephen - an enlightened chap - sent me his copy of a book called 'The Mindful Manifesto: How Doing Less And Noticing More Can Help Us Thrive In A Stressed Out World'. That was when and how I began to understand the basic 'point' of meditation: to practice noticing more or, to put it another way, to practice BEING HERE NOW. That particular book majors on the accumulating 'scientific evidence' of the benefits of meditation for mental and physical health. Perhaps Stephen reckoned someone as 'thinky' as me would take some persuading.
In 2013 I got a lot out of a week-long yoga and meditation retreat in a beautiful Scottish glen, but failed to maintain a meditation practice afterwards. In early 2015 I did a standard 12-week mindfulness evening class in Stoke Newington with Anne. Neither of us 'did our homework' nor maintained our practice afterwards, claiming it was too hard to find the time. 'Mindfulness meditation', by the way, is pretty much just a secular rebranding of what Buddhists have been practising for about 2500 years.
Having weekly therapy from 2010-2015 helped massively with ‘becoming more the author of my own story’ and ‘growing into the spaces in myself’ (particularly my emotional literacy). A couple of years ago I asked my therapist where the next level of insight into self might come from. Her answer: 'Some kind of daily practice'.
We don't sit in meditation to become good meditators. We sit in meditation so that we'll be more awake in our lives.' (Pema Chödrön)
In the summer of 2015 I retired, and began my post-London life of idle vagabonding. During the first year of retirement I made significant progress in the art of mindlessly being. My resolution for this second year is to - finally! - establish a regular meditation practice. It's called a practice because it's hard; you really do need to 'practise'. It's been three months since I began practising (almost) every day.
I started by following the free 'Take 10' introductory programme from popular app 'Headspace', which talks you through a basic ten-minute daily meditation for ten days. Then I availed myself of the free '7 Days of Calm' programme from the 'Calm' app, which is similar but with a north American accent. I would recommend either (or better still both) of these apps for the amount they both manage to teach in such small chunks. Both are down-to-earth and not at all woo-woo.
Thereafter I neither wanted to pay for a subscription to an app nor can I rely on daily wifi access, so I switched to using a set of recordings downloaded to my MP3 player, which we were recommended at our evening class. These are self-explanatory, really good, and you can get them for free just by signing up here. Some have a British voice, others a Canadian one.
I've used these recordings a lot, and I still use them on days when I feel it'll help to have a gentle voice in my ears supporting me in my intention. But - most days - I now prefer to meditate in silence, using the basic structure I've memorised from this 35-minute sitting meditation.
What I try to 'do'
(for half an hour each day)
It's recommended to meditate at the same time each day, to help establish a routine/habit. For a while I tried to meditate in my tent soon after my second cup of morning coffee, but I found having barely moved a muscle I just wasn't awake enough. Now I do all my morning things (coffee, reading, listening to Spanish podcasts, etc.), then 'break camp', and finally sit back down to meditate just before setting off on my bike. By that point I'm often pretty restless and ready to get going, but at least I'm fully awake!
I make sure I'm suitably dressed so I won't get too hot or too cold. I sit, preferably on a chair or surface of similar height. If I have no other option I sit cross-legged on a foam yoga block, which slightly relieves the discomfort I'd otherwise feel in my knees.
I spend a minute or two 'arriving', in other words noticing the fact I'm sitting there, establishing good posture, checking I'm as symmetrical and comfortable as I can get, establishing my intention to sit still for roughly half an hour.
Then I start to concentrate on noticing my breathing. Sometimes I place a hand on my tummy or chest to help me focus on really feeling my breath. I try to maintain focus on my breath going in and out for about five minutes. Just to be clear from the off, the mind constantly wanders: 'if you have a mind, it will wander'. The point in meditation is to notice that, without judgment, and to bring your attention back over and over and over again to the thing you were trying to focus on (e.g. your breath). Many people assume you're supposed to achieve some kind of transcendental state, and if you fail to 'clear your mind' you aren't doing it right. Ha! No, the point is to notice that your mind has (inevitably) wandered, notice where it went, and gently return to your intended focus. Over and over again!
'In practising meditation, we're not trying to live up to some kind of ideal - quite the opposite. We're just being with our experience, whatever it is.' (Pema Chödrön)
Next I expand my awareness to my whole body, sitting there breathing, again for about five minutes. I do a kind of mini 'body-scan', shifting my attention from body part to body part noticing how each bit of me feels, trying just to notice and not to spin off into a mental commentary about whatever I notice. If some part calls for my attention (e.g. hurts or itches) I try to notice this without acting on the impulse to 'fix' the discomfort. SO HARD! This is important because it starts to train the mind to refrain from its habitual impulse to avoid all forms of discomfort.
Then I widen my awareness to focus on what I can hear for about five minutes: sounds that are near and far, constant or not, and the silence from which sounds arise. Again I try not to spin off into thinking about what I can hear. This is probably my 'favourite' bit of the meditation, especially the bird-song. Some sounds are intrusive and annoying; again the point is to notice any emotional response (e.g. irritation) to what arises.
The next five minutes are the hardest. I go back to focusing on my breathing as a kind of 'back-drop' for trying to notice the inevitable wanderings of my mind (which happen without warning just like sounds) as they first arise, and to bring my attention straight back to my breath. It's fascinating to notice how insistently the mind wanders, and where it wanders to, and how long it sometimes wanders before I even realise.
Finally I spend about five minutes trying to stay aware of all of the above elements of my experience at the same time (breath, whole body, sounds, thoughts, emotional response to any of the above), followed by a few minutes trying to focus only on the breath again.
Sounds easy, yeah?
What actually happens
(using yesterday's practice on the beach in Tarifa as a sort of worked example)
So that's what I'm trying to do each time I sit to meditate. What actually happens is something more like this:
Spend two minutes 'arriving': Fidget a lot while trying to get comfy - Wonder if sitting in the shade means I'm going to get cold - Crack my back - Wonder if everyone's spine cracks like that - Remember that I wondered this yesterday, and the day before -
Hear in my head the voice of the guy from the MP3 calmly saying something like 'Coming now to focus on the breath' -
[At this point quite a funny thing often happens. Basically I feel like I'm going to sneeze, and wonder why on I earth that's my body's response to 'Coming now to focus on the breath'. Then I actually sneeze. At first this was very baffling, but I've figured it out now: it's that I feel momentarily so ... um... awestruck and grateful (for want of better words) by/for the profundity of just sitting here, with myself, breathing, my mucus membranes start to 'cry' for a second or two, resulting in a sneeze! So then I have to decide whether to wipe my eyes/nose, or just mindfully 'sit with' the tear/micro-snot.]
Focus on the breath for, like, one breath, then drift off somewhere into a thought about ANYTHING - Gently, and with humour (just like the instructions say) bring the attention back to the breath - Haha, you only managed one breath! No matter, try again, fail again, fail better - In - Out - In - Out -
Repeat the above process for five minutes - Example mind loop: A friend's mum misunderstood a stupid joke I made on Facebook last night and thought I was being rude to her - Will she understand my explanation and apology? - What if she doesn't? - Maybe I am autistic like B and L 'suggested' - Would there be any benefit in a diagnosis at this stage of life? [See how the mind spins off?!] - Whoops, 'thinking', back to the breath - In - Out -
'In meditation we can notice how emotions and moods are connected to having lost or gained something, having been praised or blamed, and so forth... What begins as a simple thought, quickly blossoms into full-blown pleasure and pain.'
'After we've practised meditation for a while, our minds become stiller. We begin to notice everything more. We notice that we're churning out thoughts all the time and that there are also gaps in all that chatter. We begin to be attuned to our habitual patterns... holding ourselves together with opinions and ideas about things.' (Pema Chödrön)
Shift attention to the whole body - Notice the sensations of sitting here, bum on seat, wind on face - Notice my left hand feels like it's on my right thigh and vice versa - How strange! - Oops, 'thinking' - In - Out - In - Out - Hear a woman appear five metres to my right talking nonsense in Spanish to her stupid little drop-kick dog (I peeped) - Can't she see I'm meditating? - Fuck off, the beach is enormous - Oops, 'thinking' - In - Out - Notice my posture has slumped - Crack my back...
Shift attention to sounds - Yey, my favourite bit - Ooops, not meant to judge - Right, wind in the awning of the beach bar I'm sitting outside - Faraway waves - Dog woman talking to someone else, further away now - Good riddance - Someone else shouting at their dog - One bird over in the dunes - Wish I was better at identifying them - Oops, 'thinking' - In - Out - What if me accidentally upsetting my friend's mum causes ructions in the family? - Oops, think about that later, be.here.now
Try to focus on the breath while noticing thoughts 'as events in the mind' - Where do I experience my thoughts? In front of my eyes? Inside my head? Do they move around if I move my eyes? What are thoughts anyway? - Oops, 'thinking' - In - Out - Wow this meditation business is fascinating, I need to tell everyone about it! - But why do I need to do that? Well so many other people could benefit! - Oops, think about that later, be.here.now... In - Out - I think I need to write a blog post about meditation today; I spend every bloody meditation mentally drafting it, maybe if I actually write it that'll stop - Will anyone read it though? - A warehouse next to the hostel has 'What are you doing in Tarifa today?' written on the side - I could use that image for the blog post - Jen's flying today, I could dedicate the post to her - Oops - In - Out -
Right, now widen the focus to everything - In - Out - Whole body - Yep, still there - Sounds: wind, people shouting at dogs - In - Out - Shall I get some wine for later? I definitely drink too much - Oops - In - Out - Rufai posted on Facebook this morning a powerful article about people whitesplaining - I wanted to 'like' it but that's not 'being the change' ffs - Should I share it instead? - What should I do? - Oops - In - Out -
...You get the idea!
Over the course of three months I've noticed a consistent set of loops my mind habitually gets itself into:
- Thinking about my meditation practice. Thinking about writing about my meditation practice.
- Thinking about specific interpersonal dynamics. Did I do the right thing? What can I say/write/do to ensure their good opinion of me? Or, why did they treat me like that? I didn't deserve that.
- Planning something I want to say or do later/ in the near future.
- I've also noticed that currently there's rarely a discernible emotional quality to the wanderings of my mind. Though no surprise to me, this feels like what our Glaswegian mindfulness teacher would describe as 'good noticing'.
So what IS the point of meditation?
In summary, the point - as I've understood it so far - is basically two-fold:
- I'm training my mind to notice - gently and without self-criticism - its own habitual patterns (and any relationships between mind and body and 'heart/gut').
- Having trained the mind to notice it's own wanderings and to 'bring the attention back' to an intended focus, the idea is one becomes more mindful at other times too.
Let's give Pema the last word on this one:
'The best example (of discipline/structure) is the meditation technique... We simply put light attention on the out-breath over and over, through mood swings, memories, dramas and boredom. This simple repetitive process is like inviting basic richness into our lives. So we follow the instructions just as centuries of meditators have done before.'
'We can just look at the whole thing. Meditation gives us the method... How we regard what arises in meditation is training for how we regard whatever arises in the rest of our lives... We're not just talking about our individual liberation, but how to help the community we live in, our families, our country... not to mention the whole world.' (Pema Chödrön)