adventures in meditation/mindfulness part 1 – (aka: AM I DOING THIS RIGHT?!!!)

photo of the pool
photo of the pool…

So… meditation.

This was another topic I wasn’t going to discuss here but then I got this quote in my email from Martha Beck:

There are words waiting for you to write them, and they are alive. Let them push you past your self-doubt. Let them speak to people you may never meet.” – Martha Beck. 

So I figured I would go ahead and talk a little bit about meditation, just in case there’s someone else out there working with it. I know I struggle with it.

I’ve meditated before. And I’ve talked a lot about mindfulness and meditation and… blah blah blah. But to be completely honest, meditation has always been super tricky for me. I have done a lot of it, but it always felt like I was trying so hard, and that even when I did it extensively, it never really set in as a natural state for me. Unlike swimming and gardening and painting or whatever, I never felt like I got the “knack” for it.

I knew via neuroscience that it can have a TREMENDOUS benefit on a person’s overall sense of contentment. I felt it calming me, changing the way I reacted to things, helping settle me down a little bit, but it wasn’t enough to make it essential, like swimming or making art or having cats, etc. is for me. I respected it, and sort of believed it worked for other people. But I didn’t think that I had what it took to make it work for me. I just couldn’t make it “click”.

Anyway, I signed up for the first of a four-year (!!!) round of Buddhism courses at Srarvasti Abbey and part of the prerequisites were sitting in meditation for at least twenty minutes a day. And I think a part of the course work is writing reaction papers on insight experienced during meditation.


So I started meditating. Again. Both because I knew it was good form practice-wise as a Buddhist, and I wanted to be able to genuinely tell my teachers at the Abbey that I did indeed meditate.

I did a lot of research on meditation before I started, both as part of the Foundations of Buddhism class I’m taking and because I wanted to understand what the proper practice is. Listening to guided meditations is all well and good, but the traditional way to do it is without assistance. So, no buffer, no hand-holding.

I read a lot about walking meditation as an alternative to those who had issues with sitting for long periods, and that sort of appealed to me, but since I have the whole Spina Bifida thing, walking is something I *have* to think about. I don’t have a tremendous amount of physical balance so I have to literally think about every step I take or I basically go off the rails. I start shuffling sideways (even backwards) if I don’t pay attention. This dismayed me when I was younger, but the older I get, the more humorous I find it. Another thing is that if my family (and even most of the cats) see me walking across the floor, they know it is imperative NOT to step in front of me because I cannot physically stop walking. It takes a few seconds for my brain to get the message to my legs to stop moving. It’s like I set a course for myself in my brain and I go for it, and there’s no “split second” stopping or turning or evading anything. It’s a joke around here, but, anyway, the walking issue is very real. No walking meditation for me.

I decided to meditate in the pool, instead. I have been swimming laps and distances for so long now (every day for the last 25 years- more than half my life) that swimming is literally muscle memory now. I get in the pool, I swim. I don’t think about breathing or moving my arms or legs or even keeping in the lane, I just go. I pretty much feel more at tease in the pool than I do anywhere else, so I felt like that would probably be the perfect place to meditate.

So I started meditating for 10 minutes at the end of my swims. No music, no guided meditations, no stopping for breath. Just straight swimming for the time I’m meditating.

The first few times I did it, I was BORED and restless. I usually spend my hours swimming by thinking of things and entertaining myself and listening to music on my waterproof iPod shuffle. I fill my mind with whatever is interesting at the moment and sustains it: art, music, movies, fiction I’m writing, random patterns, weird science-y ideas. Always with music in the background. Always always. I have swam without music before, but only in dire straits- like, waiting for the battery to recharge on my music device. And it’s been grueling. I give mad props to anyone who can swim hours without music, because I can’t do it.

The one thing I have always noticed about swimming is that if anything is bothering me, it always comes up. And comes up over and over again until I work on it.  There’s nowhere to hide from your thoughts when you are swimming. Since I’m stuck in the pool with nothing to really look at or focus on, the issues work themselves out. I have had a lot of amazing insights about myself and the world in the pool, and I don’t think I would have had those same insights if I hadn’t been swimming- I also work out on a recumbent elliptical machine and when I’m on there, it’s NOT the same as when I’m on the pool. The pool is like mind soup. So I guess, in a way, I have been practicing a lower level of insight meditation for years in the pool, but I always had an out- if a better thought came around, I’d go ahead and ride it away from my emotions. With meditation, you can’t do that.

When you meditate, you’re not supposed to shut your thoughts off because that’s completely impossible. Instead, you are supposed to just be AWARE of your thoughts as they come up, and then try and not linger on them. Just try and focus back on something immediate (like your breath or a bodily sensation or a mantra or something else) to sort of “zero out” your mind- as James Baraz says, it’s like pushing the “clear” button on a calculator. All the while, you get an opportunity to observe what sort of thoughts arise and how they make you feel, and you learn something about yourself in the process- that’s the “insight” part of meditation.

And that’s freaking hard. Seriously. Anyone who says it’s easy is either a master meditator or a liar. For me, at least, if my mind was actually a calculator, the “C” button would be worn out and broken because of all the times I have had to clear my mind during meditation.

From the first few days meditation, I realized that my mind is very much like an over-eager hostess. When she sees my “brain plate” is empty, she immediately offers me something she’ll know I’ll love or take an interest in. “Here’s some art I know you love. How about this beautiful wash of colors? You know you are a sucker for a cute cat! Remember this funny story from your childhood that you forgot? Hey, here’s Tom Hiddleston! Is there any position in the universe that’s actually FIXED since everything in space is always in motion?”

I have learned through various neuroscience classes that shutting down my mind in a rude way is a disservice, because I will adapt that behavior as a way of handling myself. So I am trying to be gracious. That system has worked much better than the “WILL YOU KNOCK IT THE F*CK OFF BECAUSE I’M TRYING TO MEDITATE HERE’ attitude I had at first. Which is bad because it makes your brain associate meditation and mindfulness as negative, aggressive things. I am trying to work out a deal with my sweet, well-meaning “hostess mind” that if I need something I will come to her first. And every time she offers me something I tell her “no, thank you”.

The biggest issue that I have is that I think a lot about meditation and mindfulness and Buddhism WHILE I am meditating, which feels like a trap. It’s all “I’m swimming, I’m paying attention, swim swim swim, I’m being mindful…” and then 30 seconds later I realize I’ve started thinking about the Buddhist qualities of mindfulness and a dharma talk I heard about it and that’s *still* getting lost in thought.

And, always always always always “AM I DOING THIS RIGHT?” which is a constant thought. 100000x times a minute, that question pops up. Any time anything shifts, any time I feel anything, it’s always “WHAT IS THAT? IS THAT A MEDITATIVE STATE OR IS IT A DISTRACTION? OKAY, LET’S GO THROUGH EVERYTHING I HAVE EVER LEARNED OR HEARD ABOUT MEDITATION AND MINDFULNESS AND FIGURE OUT IF THIS EXPERIENCE IS LISTED.” And then *that’s* a whole train of thought.

So I have no idea if what I am doing is “right” or not. But I have had some interesting experiences that I haven’t had before, so I keep coming back, every day, and trying again.

The key thing to remember is that meditation is JUST practice. It’s not the *actual* event. Real life out of the meditation is the actual event. You are training your mind to function differently in everyday life- you are training your brain to function differently when you’re NOT meditating. So what happens during meditation doesn’t matter very much, push comes to shove. I mean, it does in higher levels of Buddhist practice, but right now my focus in Buddhism is not on cosmology or accessing a higher realm via my meditation, it’s the here and now.


As far as things and feelings I have noticed:

–  After a few days of the swimming meditation, my thinking mind slowed down a little. When the thoughts came, which they did, I was able to recognize them and then pull my focus back to the movement of my arms, the feel of the water on my skin, the reflections of light on the bottom of the pool.

– Then a bit later I started noticing little tiny moments of time in between everything in which there was no thought arising, no reaction to things- just open clear space. And it was quiet and calm. But these moments are flashes, and not a constant. And as soon as you notice them, they disappear, because you start an active process in your brain because you start cataloging and analyzing them and you miss the next moments.

– I started noticing that I could go several laps with my focus on one specific thing- the sound of my arms cutting through the water, the feel of my body balanced right on the edge of the water, the feel of the cool air on my back. I could hear the thoughts sort of rumbling away in the background, but I was so focused on the one specific part of my body or sensation that my thoughts didn’t articulate or pop up.

– Then I started noticing I was able to focus on weird things *inside* my body- a weird “float-y” space in the center of my chest that moved along with my arms and my heart (it reminded me of that floating thing in the Magic 8 Ball or a floating compass), A spot in my lower back that shifted a bit with every movement of my legs. One day, I had cramps and spent a bunch of time just feeling them- not really having a judgement on them.

I started wondering if these physical sensations and “focus” was not me actually being mindful but completely zoning out, and what the difference between the two is. I mean, I know that even though you’re calming the mind, you can’t zone out- you have to stay alert. It’s a very weird paradox, and there’s sort of this super thin line between alert consciousness and a still mind. But it’s a little like riding a bike- you have to get going a little bit and then you just sort of hit the sweet spot of balance and you *know* it when it happens. But with meditation, once you lose the sweet spot, it’s not quite as easy to find it again. At least not at the level I am at.

– A few days ago, I had a the weird sensation that my body was standing still, but the water was moving around me. It was *intense*. I told Tom about it later that day and he said it sounded like what happens when you drive through a car wash- where you get that feeling that the car is moving when it’s not. That’s *exactly* what it was like, but I’d never experienced it from meditating or swimming. I actually got goosebumps and got dizzy, so I shifted to paying attention to the reflection of light on the bottom of the pool. A few seconds later, I got the feeling like I was swimming *into* the reflections, not above them. Plus the dizziness and goosebumps again. It was *not* unpleasant, just sort of otherworldly. I was dizzy the rest of the day.

I have not been able to recreate those circumstances, but I also know I’m not supposed to because that’s a form of grasping and it’s the biggest issue with meditation (and even life)- you experience something cool, even super briefly, and you grasp on to it and are desperate to find that feeling or clarity or insight again. And as you start grasping and craving, your intentions shift from wholesome to unwholesome and the process sort of disintegrates.


So, what I am finding is that meditation is a constant process of accepting the moment, recognizing and seeing all that’s in it, and then letting it go RIGHT AWAY so you don’t miss the next moment.  It goes by incredibly fast, and the moments are broken down into little bits of stuff that happens and changes constantly, so it’s very hard to find the way to observe that without grasping to it or trying to categorize it or catalog it or react to it.

One thing I have come to realize is that we, as humans, miss a TREMENDOUS amount simply by all the activities our brains do judging and categorizing everything. I mean, that’s a function of our bodies and brains, we can’t shut it down. But we can notice it and slow it down. Recognize those tiny tiny pauses with stillness and just experience them as they pass. Life in those moments is so … different. I’ve only experienced a brief tiny bit of that, but I sort of understand why people who are experienced in meditation and skillful at reaching those states would commit themselves to this practice.

I *get* it now. But it’s still freaking hard. It’s 30 minutes (or whatever) of concentration and 30 minutes of trying to walk a tightrope between attention and scrutiny, and even finding that tightrope is extremely difficult, not to mention trying to stay on it.

But I’m going to keep trying for ONE reason- it has made my life outside the pool richer. A few days after I started meditating, I started finding humorous things *much* funnier than I did before. Like, I started noticing myself cracking up again, which I don’t think I have done in a long time. That was really odd. Really odd. I felt myself laughing so much more easily, like I was just letting myself enjoy the humor and not scrutinize it.

I also noticed myself noticing little moments more- the other morning I was pouring myself some tea and all the sudden I started thinking “that’s beautiful! It looks like liquid amber flowing!” and being REALLY in awe of it. Then I rolled my eyes at myself (which is not a great reaction) because I have poured myself tea in the morning for the last 20 years. What was the big deal? I just realized a quality of it  that hasn’t affected me before.Or maybe I wasn’t in a place where I could appreciate something like that. Or even catch it as it happened. I don’t know.

I just notice a lot more, and those little things affect me in a good way. It’s like the volume and saturation has been turned up a bit in life.

My mood is a little more forceful, to be honest. I feel more rooted in who I am and what feels right. I don’t dither as much. I am aware of when I’m feeling good and feeling crummy and unproductive and avoiding that stuff a little more. Indecision is the worst feeling ever, and I get stuck in it a lot, especially with making art, and I suddenly recognize it when it comes up and immediate understand how much I hate feeling it, so I am able to shut it down more easily. Even with making art, I’m feeling “so what if it’s good? Just make art.” That’s a BIG shift for me.

I guess the point of all this is I feel like I *recognize* more things for what they are. I don’t know if it’s meditation or just where I am in life, but I’m not going to lie and say that I don’t think the mindfulness practice isn’t shifting things, at least a little bit.

Who knows? In a few weeks I may decide it’s not working. I may not stick with it. But right now, I’m going to keep going with it.