Meditation, Personal Development

Meditation is physical

I once heard someone say that meditation is for geeks and yoga is for jocks. That was supposed to be a joke but it reflects a common idea that meditation is a mental practice while yoga is physical one. But meditation is physical – why do we think of it otherwise?

Perhaps that’s because we sit still when we meditate. Exertion is minimal. And the goal we seek… if it’s a calm, clear mind, then that’s a mental goal. 

But how do we achieve that calm, clear mind? 

You could say we harness metacognition – our awareness of our own thinking – as a way of taming that thinking. It’s metacognition that lets us observe each thought, release it, and redirect our attention to a chosen point of focus. Described this way, meditation might still sound mental: it’s one kind of cognition quieting another.

But what’s key here is the chosen point of focus – the thing we return to instead of following our thoughts into more thinking. If the point of focus is breath, then we’re focusing on a physical process. We’re constantly discovering and rediscovering our physical selves inside, or underneath the attention-consuming tangle of images and ideas that fill our mental stage. We are choosing again and again to anchor our awareness in the sensory experience of inhale/exhale. We’re not simply calming our minds, we’re calming our minds by returning to our bodies.

If thinking is a vortex that leads to disembodimement – an obliviousness to our physical selves – then breath-focused meditation is about re-embodiment. It’s about becoming physical, again.

It’s misleading to say that meditation is for geeks and yoga is for jocks. It’d be more meaningful to say that meditation is about channeling one’s inner jock. The kinds of calm we get from meditation and playing a sport might be more similar than they seem – they both include the calm of embodiment. Meditation’s magic is that it can help us find that embodiment anywhere, without needing the structure of a game – a field, a ball, an opponent – to bring it about.

Meditation, Personal Development

On Breath

When we think of our lives we might think of significant events: graduations, weddings, reunions, trips, and transitions. But why not consider life from the vantage point of something more basic: breath? We are born. We take a series of breaths – probably less than a billion of them – and then we die. 

Life is several hundred million breaths. That’s what we get.

If this breath-centric perspective casts life a simple thing – oversimple, a caricature – what still can we learn from that simplicity?

As fledglings, you and I both began drawing air into our lungs and expelling it a few moments later, and we never stopped. Breathing is one activity that each of us has been doing continuously since we were born, no matter our personalities, nationalities, ages, hairstyles, heights and weights, gender identities, spiritual beliefs — any attribute large or small.

Breathing, of course, is not the only constant process in life. Our hearts have been beating since the womb, but look at how we talk about that. We don’t say we’ve been “beating our hearts.” That’s because while we can influence our hearts to speed up or slow down, we can’t control the duration and character of each beat. But it is we who have been breathing: even though breathing happens automatically when we’re not thinking about it, we can bring it under our control simply by thinking about it. Then we can govern almost everything about it – the pace, the depth, the muscles we emphasize, even the sound.

When we’re frazzled, they say we should take one step at a time, put one foot in front of another. But we could step sideways, trip, or walk backward. They say we should live one day at a time, but we might struggle to keep our minds from thinking of the next day or the one before. But we have no choice with breath – all we can do is take one after another. It’s impossible to take two at once, or go back to redo a past one, or skip ahead to one we’ll take tomorrow. Our breath is a sequence – in the truest sense of the word – starting from breath number one and progressing through breath number one thousand, and one million, and so on. Right now, each of us is situated at some point in that extended sequence, and all we can do is move forward in it, breath by breath.

Our breath sequence connects us to our past and to our future. As we take our current breath, we are mirroring our infant selves, doing the same thing now we were doing back then, and we are being like our elder selves – doing the same thing now we’ll be doing in that time ahead. We change as we keep breathing, year after year: our lungs change, our memories change, our thoughts about breathing itself might change… but the basic process of breathing is still inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale – that doesn’t change at all.

You could say that whenever we take a breath we are progressing one closer to our last — sounds grim. But you could also note that every breath we’ve ever taken helped us. And every breath we’ll take from now on will help us too.

Barring a special context like singing or freediving, there’s no point in saving our breaths. And while a breath can be painful at times — when we’re sick, each inhale brings the annoying risk of a cough — the broader truth is that there’s nothing to regret or redo about our past breaths or to anticipate about our future ones. Every past breath gave us life and every future breath will do the same.

There are so many things we can do in life that admit multiple interpretations and that have simultaneous positive and negative consequences, but every breath is simply good.

Whatever situation we find ourselves in – no matter how fraught – we can remember that breathing carried us into the situation and breathing will carry us out.

If we think of our many breaths as a great long chain that supports us through life, we could write the links in that chain, the inhales and exhales, on paper as I and E, and a fragment would look like this:

…..I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E…

I’ve italicized a few sections to represent conscious breaths – the breaths we happen to notice, to feel, to hear, to tune into.

We can strive, in our lives, to have longer and more frequent stretches of conscious breath — to witness more of our breath chain. But even if we just have one moment to take one conscious breath before we return to the hustle bustle of it all, that one moment might be all we need. In one moment, we can behold the same enduring chain we’d behold if we had an hour or a day to concentrate — the same chain that supported us years ago and the same one that will support us tomorrow. Listen to your breath, once or a hundred times — that’s you — that was you — that will be you.

It seems too simple to say that life is just a sequence of breaths; but on the flipside, life, as we conceive it otherwise, often seems too complex. We can find simplicity in life, perhaps, in contemplating the simplicity of breath.

Meditation, Personal Development

On Stillness

If idleness is a state of lounging about, not doing much of anything, maybe resting, maybe killing time, then idleness can be active and stressful nonetheless.

When we’re “not doing anything” we’re usually doing something… daydreaming, browsing social media, watching TV. Relative to some more active, purposeful task, we may be idle now, but our idleness comes without that other, more elusive quality we may call stillness. What even is stillness? 

In 2005, the author and sound-recording expert Gordon Hempton asked a similar question about silence. What is silence? He defined it not as pure quiet, but as the sustained absence of anthropogenic or man-made sound – freedom from noise pollution – and he argued that silence is going extinct. We can travel deep into the wilderness inside a great national park or other vast protected space, but no matter how far we hike from the nearest road or trail, a jet will surely fly overhead, cancelling the silence for many miles around its path. Minutes later, another jet.

Likewise, if we search for stillness in our own inner landscapes – defining stillness as awareness without mental chatter – we may find that it exists… nowhere. As Hempton struggled to find “one square inch” of silence anywhere in the USA, we might struggle to identify any context when we’re truly still, awake but not thinking.

Even in those moments when we seek relaxation and refreshment –  a long, hot shower on a Saturday morning – our minds are still replaying past events and holding imagined conversations and beginning to write emails and trying to plan the day. Deep sleep is a time when our minds quiesce, but it comes without awareness, so we can’t remember the experience and learn from it.

We might think that to achieve conscious stillness, we’d need to go on vacation, travel to some far-away place and clear our calendar of appointments and obligations. But meditation shows us that stillness is in reach, no matter where we are or even how busy we are, as long as we can set a few minutes aside to breathe and – here is the hard part – to relinquish our attachment to whatever thoughts appear on our mental stage.

It might be that tomorrow, we’re leaving on a trip, or giving a high-stakes presentation at work, or attending a long-awaited reunion. We can still meditate now. Whatever is happening tomorrow only affects us now through the mechanism of thought. The trip, the presentation, the reunion cannot reach out from tomorrow into today and physically touch us in the present moment. The impact of future events on our present experience is realized only to the extent that we visualize these events, think about them, give them our attention. When we meditate, giving all our attention to our current breath instead of to the contents of “tomorrow,” those contents have no grip. Stillness is available if we practice accepting it, no matter what’s approaching on the calendar.

But we run away from stillness – our reflex is to avoid it – so the experience of stillness can be shocking when it happens. 

One time I was traveling in South India and I found myself in a home, a living room with eight members of an extended family, all waiting for a ceremony that was to happen a few hours later. As we sat together for what would be a good half-hour, I noticed that no one was talking, so I looked around, sure that someone would be reading a newspaper, someone would be using their phone, someone would be eating a snack. To my surprise everyone was sitting still, looking at the floor or out into the room, doing nothing whatsoever.

And no one seemed uncomfortable about it. No fidgeting, no attempts to break the silence? A group of people packed in a small space, letting time pass without words or distractions, and being OK with it? The closest experience I could remember might have been a dentist’s waiting room, but even there they’d be reading and checking their phones.

My host told me later, these moments are rare: to sit in silence is not really a norm for his family, nor is it a cultural norm he would identify. But when it does happen, he confirmed, his family doesn’t feel awkward about it or even give it a second thought. That’s what was new and interesting for me. In any group I’d ever been a part of — family, work, or social — if stillness like that had occurred, it would have been treated as an emergency like fire. Someone would have taken it as their responsibility to put it out.

So what is it like to achieve stillness?

Prior to 2020, the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Code (Title 27, Section 5.22) required that vodka should be distilled to such a level of purity “as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” By this definition, all of the fancy brands of vodka – Grey Goose, Ketel One – only tasted different because of their impurities. 

Stillness is similar to vodka in that if we ever achieved pure stillness it would have no distinctive character.  But we’re human, and as we progress toward stillness through meditation, there is usually some kind of “inflection” to the state we actually achieve.

In my own practice, I notice a difference between positively inflected and negatively inflected stillness.

Negatively inflected stillness is when we’ve slowed down our breathing and the pace of our thoughts and we’re feeling very calm in comparison to a typical waking moment, but within the calm there’s just a little edginess, a trace of dissatisfaction, a faint craving, an antsy feeling so subtle you might not notice it. But when you end the meditation session and get up from your chair, it comes as a relief to pick up your phone and start scrolling through the notifications. It comes as a relief for your attention to be captured by some external thing.

This is not to say that meditation was worthless or ineffective, just that on this particular occasion, it didn’t free you absolutely from little wants and cravings.

Positively inflected stillness feels almost the same as negatively inflected stillness, because the inflections we’re speaking about are so miniscule. But when stillness is positively inflected, it means you feel just a little bit good – not actively ecstatic – just calmly content. Breathing in and out feels ever so slightly pleasurable. Sitting in your chair feels just a little bit relaxing. And when you get up, mingling again with the many forces that would capture your attention, you don’t plunge into them as if to seek something you lack.

A positively inflected resting state – the experience of just sitting down, doing nothing but breathing — not thinking, not daydreaming – just being still, and feeling a little bit good: this is a remarkable situation. I’ve come to think of it as a foundation for living — the foundation we should cultivate — the foundation we need, but are never shown in school.

Meditation, Personal Development

When deep breathing doesn’t work

As soon as you get interested in mindfulness or general approaches to stress relief, it seems like there are throngs of people waiting to tell you you should practice deep breathing. What they don’t tell you is that it’s possible to try really hard at deep breathing and not feel very relaxed.

If you want to get the benefit of deep breathing, remember that breathing has two components: a physical one and mental one. Are you practicing both, or maybe only the physical one? Are you breathing with your mind and body, or just body?

What that looks like is, you’ve slowed down your inhale and exhale, you’ve deepened the inhale and you’re drawing it from the abdomen, everything about your technique seems “correct,” but mentally you’re somewhere else, thinking about your troubles – bills to pay, projects to complete – and you’re not actually practicing breath awareness. As your mind continues to buzz, you’re not listening to each breath, not noticing how it feels, not “tuning in” to the flow of it, not savoring the slow rhythm. Maybe you’re just waiting for the exercise to work, waiting to feel better as the self-help books guarantee.

Of course, you might feel better if you keep doing it, just like when you’re sullen but you go through the motion of smiling, it might actually brighten your mood. But it’s also true that when you’re really miserable, holding a smile for minutes on end while you keep thinking negative thoughts is unlikely to transform your condition. At some point, that smile veers into the territory we could call unnatural or inauthentic, even pointless.

Sometimes deep breathing itself can be artificial or “inauthentic,” in that we’re trying to manifest the breathing of some kind of glistening, blissful yogi at a time when we’re totally frazzled and distraught. We’re hoping the physical exercise is going to calm us down, but our attempted “breath attitude” is so far from our actual mental attitude that it just doesn’t click.

In these cases it can help to go the other way around, to start with the mental side of things, and let the physical do what it will. This means, practice breath awareness – just breath awareness. Try to listen and feel the way you’re breathing right now, without making any attempt to change it. As you pay more attention to your breath and really tune into what it’s doing, you might notice a subtle physical effect. Your breathing might naturally start to slow down and become calmer little by little, without any effort on your part to control it – as long as you keep tuning into it.

The challenge, of course, is that you might not find your breath very “interesting” as an object of attention. It might not be the kind of thing that you can easily stay focused on, especially if your breath is competing with worries in your mind, news updates, social media alerts, and the like. But through practice you can get better at “taking an interest” in how breathing feels. It helps to notice that while anxieties and emails and news items are ephemeral, you can actually feel your breath – it’s a group of physical sensations. What you’re trying to do is tune into sensation over thought. 

If you look at what people have written about breathwork, you’ll probably find the suggestion that you should begin a practice session with breath awareness, and then move into the more physically-oriented exercises. You might think you can skip the breath awareness part, the initial process of tuning in. You might think you don’t need or don’t have time for a warmup and you’d rather just get to the physical core of the practice. But that’s like skipping foreplay. You can. People do. But something’s lost, maybe the best part.

Meditation, Personal Development

How to feel better about mind-wandering during meditation

In my early experiences with meditation, I found it frustrating that my mind would wander. 

The “goal” of meditation, so I thought, was a calm, restful, empty mind; a wandering, busy mind was the opposite of what I hoped to achieve. 

It was no consolation to be told that mind-wandering was perfectly OK, natural, and par for the course. This reassurance seemed like putting a happy face on failure. And the idea that meditation should have no “goal” – that it’s not something you can fail or succeed at – didn’t help me either, because we live in a goal-oriented world. Why would I dedicate hours to doing something without expecting or wanting any specific benefit?

In the years since my first attempts, I have not relinquished all traces of linear, results-oriented thinking from my approach to meditation: I still have a goal in mind. The key has been to reframe the goal, and here’s the reframing that works for me:

When I meditate, I’m not trying to achieve perfect calm. I’m just trying to make my mind a little calmer than when I started. I’m trying to make a small difference. That’s the reframed goal.

And when you think of it, the ability to make a subtle, positive change in one’s own condition — without the aid of anything external to the self — is a remarkable ability. Take a person who’s full of worries and concerns and give them 20 minutes to sit alone in silence. It’s quite possible they’ll come away feeling worse, because the worries might echo and magnify in their mind throughout those 20 minutes. The skill of self-calming, even if it operates in small degrees, is a superpower. 

Start in an agitated state, take 20 minutes of silence, and emerge a little bit more relaxed? It is far from assured that this relaxation will occur. If you know how to coax it into occurring, that’s really useful.

The idea of meditation is if I’m having 10 anxious thoughts a minute and I can nudge that down to 9, I’m better off, so it’s good to practice the nudging. Ditto if I’m having 100 and I can nudge it down to 99. What matters is the direction I’m moving in. Am I becoming a little calmer relative to where I began? Success.

But what if I sit down to meditate, aiming to move my mind in a direction from active to calm, restless to restful, just a little bit – and even that little bit proves elusive? What if I don’t feel better at all — have I failed?

Of course, when I meditate, I’m practicing a skill. The true goal is to strengthen that skill rather than to achieve a specific outcome from that skill in my present attempt at using it. When we make a long-term investment in a skill we have to accept fluctuating outcomes as we apply the skill day to day. The most important thing is to maintain the investment.

Mind-wandering is only frustrating when you realize it has happened. As your mind is following tangents here and there, you might feel troubled by the content of a tangent, but you’re not troubled about mind-wandering because you’re not even aware that it’s happening. You’re oblivious. The frustration comes in the return to awareness, when you notice that your focus has strayed: “Oh! I’ve been thinking about bills for the past 5 minutes!” or “Oh! I’ve been imagining a conversation with the dentist!” 

But this realization – this “Oh!” — this meta-cognitive interrupt – is the very thing that allows you to keep practicing. This interrupt – this act of noticing that your mind has wandered – is the gift that allows you to return to your point of focus: your breathing or mantra.

You couldn’t meditate without these interrupts – mind-wandering would then be unstoppable. So these interrupts are precious – you want to cultivate them. It’s actually good to have some mind-wandering to work with, so you can practice experiencing and valuing these interrupts, or off-ramps, or escape hatches from endless thought.

If you feel frustrated when you notice that your mind has wandered, see if you can also feel thankful that you noticed the wandering: the digression was curtailed — lucky! You were given a path out of the wilderness; now you can return to the focal point.

At the moment of awareness, you might think “Oh! I’ve wasted 10 minutes. Meditation isn’t working for me.” But you can also think, “Oh! A chance to refocus. Good fortune! I’ll take it.”

Cultivating that thankful response to the interrupt – that’s meditation.

When you meditate, you can practice releasing your attachment to regret — starting with regret for mind-wandering and the time it consumes — and you can practice accepting every opportunity for recovery that comes your way.

When your mind wanders, your mind is revealing its power — the power to imagine, hypothesize, and reason. You can learn to acknowledge that power without letting it dominate you.

Meditation, Personal Development

When Meditation Feels Irresponsible

The popular image of meditation is that it’s a tranquil, virtuous activity, something monks and sages do, a path to wisdom, and not a thing that would ever be associated with risk or irresponsibility. 

But the feeling that you are being irresponsible is a sign that your practice of meditation might be growing deeper.

How can meditation trigger a feeling of irresponsibility? 

If you practice observing your thoughts and letting them pass, without clinging to them, or encouraging them, or following them down the paths they lead, you’ll find that some thoughts are like background noise, seemingly unimportant, and easy to let go of once you notice they’re occupying your attention. But other thoughts are unignorably urgent.

During meditation, you might remember you were supposed to call someone back yesterday but you forgot and they’re waiting and surely mad. Should you stop the session and call them right now?

You might remember a bill that you haven’t paid. Should you get up from your seat and mail the check before you forget again?

You might remember a medical test whose results are on the way. Should you see if they’ve arrived? Should you think through the possible outcomes so you can be prepared if your condition turns out to be serious?

In such cases, the thought or “interrupt” enters your mind and demands your immediate, absolute attention. Like someone shouting “Fire!” in a theater, it presents itself as an exception that you simply cannot ignore. The chance of fire is categorically more important the movie. The urgent thought seems categorically more important than the meditation.

While no one should ever ignore the word “Fire!” shouted in a theater, you can usually relinquish an urgent thought that occurs in the span of, say, a twenty-minute meditation session, trusting that if it’s really so important, you’ll be able to remember it and attend to it after the session ends.

When you do release the thought and bring your attention back to breathing, you might feel like you’re breaking an obligation or behaving in a reckless way.

Many of us are slaves to our thoughts – to one degree or another – and what perpetuates this enslavement is a feeling of responsibility. We take it as our duty to pursue troubling or urgent pathways of ideation in search of dangers that must be avoided, eventualities that must be prepared for, unfinished business that must be completed, and to never stop this pursuit lest we be caught unaware.

When you do stop paying heed to these mental exclamations of “Fire!,” even just for a moment, you might feel that you’re imprudently embracing danger. You’re being “bad” or foolhardy to pay no heed to such an urgent matter that’s presenting itself to your awareness right now – as if you were drunk or high and not in your right mind.

It’s true, when you meditate you learn to step out of your “right” mind – the mind where thoughts rule. And then a sense of obligation tries to bring you back. When you ignore the obligation, you feel irresponsible, but that’s good. It’s good because it’s a path out of servitude.