Raptitude Experiment No. 1 — Sharpening the Mind

Little Buddha

Little Buddha says, “Chill out.”

In my About section, I mentioned that experimentation is important to the spirit of Raptitude.  From the start, this blog has been about improving humanity through improving yourself, and improving yourself primarily by developing mental skills.  Most of the skills I’ve talked about already, namely  keeping life fresh, investing your attention on purpose, and enjoying the mundane moments are contingent upon one’s ability to direct their attention to where they want it.  I am conducting Raptitude’s first public experiment to help to develop my ability to do that.

I exercise mindfulness in my actions every day, but I’m much less consistent with sitting meditation.  These days I never really sit down to actively practice the deliberate rendering of attention, whether it’s onto my breath, my body or some other foci.

If I were to define meditation I would call it “the art of directing one’s attention.”  The human mind is so flighty and fickle it’s actually hilarious how difficult it can be to keep it in one place.  Civilization does a good job at distracting us 24-7.  As I type this I’ve got four Firefox tabs open, TweetDeck keeps popping up, and I’ve already answered two phonecalls.  Shutting them all out seems like the most obvious response, and I will do some of that (ok TweetDeck is closed.)  But I am more interested in improving the other end of the equation: me. 

The meditative mind is ‘like water,’ as the ancient adage goes.  It is receptive, unfettered, lying still in the cool valleys rather than being blown around by the oft-changing winds of the world around it.  My mind is has been more grabby and windy these days.  I’m having lots of fun, but I’ve been doing too many things at once.

I used to meditate fairly often.  Not daily, at least not for long stretches, but often enough that it did not intimidate me.  But I haven’t done it much in the last year or so.  As an excuse I’ll say I’ve been very busy and productive in all sorts of other areas, but I’ve definitely let the formal mindwork slip for no real good reason, and that’s a shame.

So, under your watchful eyes, it’s time for me to once again sit down and be still.  Everyday.  For a month.

Why I have strayed from regular meditation is not a mystery to me.  I’ve made a lot of excuses for myself, but the honest reason is this: I got scared.  Not scared of sitting still, or scared of my incessant and insane thoughts, but scared of getting discouraged.  This is the phenomenon I discussed in Protect Your Dreams From Contamination: often I will avoid doing something that I know is important to me because I can’t bear to do it badly.  After having a few disappointing experiences, I developed a bit of an aversion, even though I’ve had many wonderful and revealing meditation experiences.

Somehow, regular meditation slipped behind me and receded into the distance, and now it’s become unfamiliar and scary again.

The Meditation Paradox

All of us come to meditation because we are seeking something, whether it’s a clearer head, some sort of insight, a ‘special feeling’ that does occasionally arise when one is meditating, or maybe just to do what someone else is raving about.  And alas, we quickly encounter meditation’s paradox: the goal is nonattachment, acceptance, and presence.  Yet we would not be doing it if there was not some difference we wished to effect in ourselves.  When we come to sit in stillness, we must have an incentive or we would not do it, so expectations invariably arise, and attachment and disappointment can come with them.

I know that being focused purely on outcomes, in any endeavor, leads to impatience and ineffectiveness.  The doing is important.  Or, in this case, the being. Yet I do undertake meditation with my mind on outcomes.  I just have to remember to let go of those thoughts while I’m in the middle of it.

All of us who take to the cushion have our reasons, we have to admit.  I guess we just have to keep all of our lofty goals and incentives in the background, and simply engage in meditation for its own sake.  When the rewards come, they come.  If they don’t they don’t.  The most I can lose is twenty minutes a day for a month.  I’m willing to gamble that.

Methods Abound

The other obstacle in forming a daily practice has been my indecision about a method.  There are hundreds of ways to meditate, from traditional Zazen meditation, to audio-recorded guided meditations, to lovingkindness meditation.  Some teachers recommend meditating on an idea, some recommend meditating on the breath, others recommend just a gentle scanning of all sensations that arise.  “How to meditate,” according to Google, has 3.8 million answers.  Information overload, in the worst possible place.

Clarity is ultimately what I’m looking for, and the vast palette of meditation flavors and textures offered by the information age seems to have short-circuited my attempts at achieving it.

Very often I would choose a method, and be persistently distracted by thoughts about other methods that would surely suit me better.  Often I would just abort the session and resolve to try something new.  And not now, but later, when I don’t feel like I’m trying too hard.  Because I was afraid of that feeling of ‘grasping’ at the perfect method by repeatedly changing my approach, I never really settled on one.

I’ve sat down to meditate many times, and delved very deeply quite often, but the aborted sessions were too frequent for me to establish a regular practice.  Some sessions went well, some not well at all, some unclear.  The impression I was left with varied correspondingly.  There were times when I rose from the cushion thinking “sitting meditation is just not for me,” but at least as often, I was convinced that meditation was absolutely essential to my development, and that I would never be fully myself without doing this kind of work.   Most of the time I had mixed feelings: vaguely encouraged and vaguely disappointed at the same time.

The missing ingredient was really persistence.  I just need to sit down to meditation practice every day, rain or shine, distracted or clear-headed, no matter how my last session went.  I have to be willing to be ineffective, if that is the outcome, so that I do not quit at the first whiff of discouragement.

The Experiment

For my experiment, because of my history of aimless self-talk during meditation, I’ll start with a guided meditation CD that I have had for a long time but never really experimented with.  I will run through each of these tracks at least once, and after that I may choose one method and stick with it for the remainder of the experiment.  I’ll see what my mind says in a week, once it’s not so Twitter-addled.

The CD has six tracks:

Breath Meditation (20:30)
Meditation on Hindrances (20:27)
Meditation in Emotions (19:26)
Walking Meditation (27:36)
Meditation on Body Sensations (25:50)
Metta Meditation (27:07)

Now that the internet is watching me, I have some public accountibility to work with.   So I’ll start making promises.

I will meditate for a minimum of twenty minutes daily and log my experiences, good, bad or ugly.  I won’t report the results here every day, maybe every five to seven days.  Day 1 will be Tuesday April 7, 2009 and I will continue through to Day 30, Wednesday May 6, 2009.  If I miss a day, I miss a day, but I will be careful not to let that happen.  I will be honest, and I will not abandon the project no matter what happens.

I encourage any of you who are interested in meditation to join me.

If you are looking for a simple method, try this one: A Simple Meditation

Or for more options, explore Meditation is Easy.

If you’re indecisive like me, just pick one and try it at least three times before you try something else.

I would love to hear your results in the comment sections of this post and future updates.

Go.

Sit.

Be.

Follow David’s progress here

Photos by Jayel Aheram and 00HCaffiene

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{ 21 Comments }

Lisis | Quest For Balance April 7, 2009 at 1:31 pm

I’m intrigued to see how this works out for you. Back in my Yoga-teaching days, I was very much into purposeful meditation: I would make it a point to sit and be at one with the universe and myself (and maybe a candle and some music.) I aspired to a ritual like the Dalai Lama’s, waking up at 3 am to meditate for 4 hours every single day of his life. But then I realized, that’s HIS life… he’s a Buddhist monk, with certain traditions and responsibilities.

So I thought about what meditation should look like in MY life? Here’s what I came up with: in MY life, meditation doesn’t happen in 20 minute or 3 hour intervals. In MY life, meditation is a 24/7 practice of mindful DOING: being fully present in each thing I do while I’m doing it. Layman Pang-Yun once said:

” My daily activities are not unusual,
I’m just naturally in harmony with them.
Grasping nothing, discarding nothing.
Supernatural power and marvelous activity
Drawing water and carrying firewood.”

That is not to say that purposeful meditation won’t work for YOU. But if you find it doesn’t, don’t get discouraged… just look within and find YOUR way of being at one with the universe and yourself.

David April 7, 2009 at 1:49 pm

Hi Lisis,

I do practice mindfulness through my day. But I have experienced tremendous gains from formal meditation in the past, and it’s clear to me now that daily mindfulness is no substitute for sitting meditation, and vice versa. Of the two, mindfulness is more important to me.

Among other things I’ve found that a short sitting meditation facilitates daily mindfulness considerably. I’m able to shed persistent thought patterns that I didn’t know I was having until I say down to look at my mind. Certainly it will improve my moment-to-moment mindfulness as well.

I don’t expect I’ll ever spend hours a day on this : )

I’m not worried about being discouraged this time. I’m willing to be disappointed every single time if that is what happens. This time I’m bringing a more mature mind to it and I’m confident it will be worthwhile. In any case, I’ll post my direct observations soon.

Roger | A Content Life April 8, 2009 at 6:50 am

David,

I’ve meditated everyday for about 8 months. Some days I want to meditate and other days I don’t, but I do it anyway. I’ve found that has made it easier to be mindful at other times during the day.

I practice a variety of meditations within my single meditation session: gratitude, loving-kindness, counting the breath, and lightly following the breath. My mind gradually quiets as I go through various meditations.

I’m interested to see how this works out for you.

David April 8, 2009 at 7:57 am

Me too, Roger. The first session was strange, but certainly worthwhile. I’m going to add an experiments page where I can post daily updates for those who are interested.

Nadia - Happy Lotus April 8, 2009 at 8:28 am

Hi David,

Your post reminded me of the old days when I spent time with many monks. One monk used to say that the mind was like a mad monkey, jumping from place to place. (BTW, I wrote more about that experience in an old blog post.)Anyway, I have been meditating for 12 years and one of the biggest misconceptions that people have is that meditation means having no thoughts.

Actually, the key to meditating is to observe the thoughts and have no judgment about the thoughts that come to mind. I also think that each person has to find a way that works best for them. Lisis does have a point about mindfulness becoming a way of life. One of the end results of meditating is that it effects your entire life and therefore, you do become more mindful. That is its goal…it betters your way of living life. Look at the Dalai Lama…that man glows!

I look forward to see how your journey with meditation develops! :)

David April 8, 2009 at 8:46 am

Good to have such experienced meditators around!

I assure you I don’t harbor that common misconception. I don’t want to eradicate my thoughts; I like them. :)

Could you link to your post about the monks in a comment here? I’m sure other readers would like to see it too.

David April 8, 2009 at 8:46 am

By the way I added an experiments page with a log of my progress. Look up top.

Nadia - Happy Lotus April 8, 2009 at 8:52 am

Hi David,

Thanks for telling me about the experiments page again. I will have to take a look at it! BTW, are you sure you don’t want to eradicate your thoughts? What about bad thoughts? I am just kidding. :)

Here is the link to that post on my blog. It is called “The Monkey Mind”: http://happylotus.com/2008/09/06/the-monkey-mind/

Positively Present April 8, 2009 at 9:25 am

I’m very interested in meditation and mindfulness, though I’ve yet to really get into the whole meditating thing. I appreciate your insights on the topic.

You might find the post on my blog today interesting. It’s about getting to know yourself and just being with yourself. While it’s not directly related to meditation, it ties in with the idea of just being.

Stephen - Rat Race Trap April 8, 2009 at 6:58 pm

Great article David. I’m currently trying to figure out how to meditate. I read about two kinds, mindfulness and loving-kindness, in the book “Positivity”. It has some short instructions that I may try. I”ll look at your link above. Thanks for the information!

Amanda Linehan April 8, 2009 at 9:26 pm

Hi David, Like you, I also meditate off and on. It’s something that I’ll do for a few months regularly and then for a few months I don’t. But I do find that when I do it regularly (I’m usually doing a mindfulness meditation where I focus on my breath) my ability to direct my attention in my daily life is so much better!

David April 9, 2009 at 2:16 pm

@ Amanda — It’s been a while since I’ve done this. I want to see what happens when I make it strictly regular. I’d like to hear other people’s experiences with meditation too.

@ Stephen — Hey Stephen. I’m going to try loving-kindness meditation during this experiment for sure. Stay tuned!

@ Positively Present — I will check out your post!

Alik Levin | PracticeThis.com April 10, 2009 at 7:25 am

Thanks for the pointers. Simple meditation seems like to work for me.

Ching April 10, 2009 at 6:35 pm

Another great post! Everyone needs to learn how to quiet their minds in this chaotic fast-paced world most of us live in. I also find that when starting out, guided meditation works well.

I listen to a CD which has a 5-10 minute meditation. Without guidance, what I do is breath awareness and I find that it helps keep my practice focused.

Meditation is great. This reminds me – I have to go meditate!

David April 10, 2009 at 7:34 pm

@ Ching — Hey Ching. I’m probably going to try out a more free-form meditation for this next session. Just sitting in a chair, with my eyes open, observing my thoughts and bodily sensations. I’ll report on the experiments page later.

@ Alik — Hi, welcome to Raptitude. I’m still experimenting with methods right now, but yes, simpler seems to be better, for me anyway.

ann elise April 14, 2009 at 4:51 pm

David, I am touched by the humility you show in your willingness to let us watch you in this experiment. To make oneself that transparent requires a depth and strength of character that few will achieve, some may reach for a brief period, and a mere handful of us humans can sustain. May you find yourself in the latter category.

I am also excited to see this experiment as such honest openness is something I have noticed to be lacking among personal development blogs. This makes me want to come back frequently and check on your progress, but it also gives me a new perspective from which to approach your other material. Someone who was a failure but now has a life full of successes seems fake and shallow. I am more likely to be impacted someone whose life is like mine – with ups and downs – but has found an inspirational message along the way.

Regarding meditation, I began meditating almost 20 years ago. I love sitting meditation, but for me it is a means to a different end: living life as a meditation. Sitting gives me the strength to observe my feelings in the pulls of a busy day, and then to let them go, to be free to make other observations and be present in the moment. One of my favorite examples of this was when I meditated in a traffic jam. I began to realize that the other cars were not driven by idiots conspiring to keep me from getting to my destination. I began to feel connected to my fellow drivers as I became aware that they probably had loved ones and important appointments, just like me. Instead of being my enemy, we were in this snarl of freeway congestion together, moving forward as one. I slowed down and had more regard for my fellow drivers’ safety.

I look forward to more reports on how your experiment goes, and how it changes you.

David April 14, 2009 at 6:09 pm

Hi Ann Elise. I recognize your name from Yaro’s forum. Welcome to Raptitude. Thank so much for the in-depth feedback. I’ve also found a common lack of upfrontness when it comes to personal development blogs. The standard doctrine in blogging is “be authoritative,” and I think that sometimes leads people to a lot of exaggeration and fronting in order to appear valuable to the reader. Just look at the number of Twitterers who use the word ‘guru’ in their own bio.

In the short time I’ve been blogging, I’ve really begun to reveal myself with much more honesty and transparency than I’m used to. It’s a bit scary, to know that there is a permanent record of my thoughts (and my meditation experiments) out there on the internet for any friend or stranger to see. I think it’s definitely good for me, and I think my readers appreciate it too.

That’s some great insight you have, about the traffic jam. I remember one day suddenly making the life-changing realization that other people’s lives are just as complex as mine! It was such a revelation, and today I’m amazed that I ever didn’t know that. It really made driving (and a lot of other things) much less stressful.

I just checked out your blog and I think it’s great. There is a rare clarity and ease to your writing. Welcome to the blogging world. I say that like I’ve been a part of it for a long time :)

Thanks again for stopping by, hope to see you back soon.

Mara January 20, 2011 at 3:07 am

love the post :) i have manged a way that really works for me and i thought its a good idea to share. i meditate immediately after i wake up. still in bed once i open my eyes, before thoughts start popping up in my head i turn on my meditation mood, and stay like that for 20′. it a great way to start your day. as you said there are lots of meditation types, I’ve tried several but the ones that really work are those i have tried in workshops, 16 hours in group meditation really can make shifts and easy for personal practice. i also do sitting meditation in afternoons, another 20′. My favorite ones are the awareness ones, awareness in the third eye and breath. sometimes the experience may be great, absolutely no thoughts, sensing my body and motions, and others not that great, thoughts come and go etc. but since the meditation has effect not only when you meditate but also generally on your life and perception i promised myself that i will stick to it since i have experiencing amazing changes, start being present at the moments more often and be aware of my body and mind, but the most amazing is the creativity with which i have difficulties to keep up lately :)

Big Zen September 13, 2011 at 3:34 am

Hi David, I just came across this. I think your idea of experiments is a great one. Sometimes there are so many things we want to master that it can seem daunting. Experimenting for a fixed time allows us to get an experience and decide if its something worth pursuing more. It’s definitely something I’ll be using!

Dave Goettsch May 21, 2013 at 8:09 pm

I really appreciate your candidness in this article. So many people who undertake meditation either make it significantly too complex, or take it too lightly. When i first committed myself to a life with meditation, I meditated consistently every single day for over a year. I also logged the results for the first few months. It is a very interesting thing, the paradox of the human mind. We know that it is healthy for our minds, but it still feels like such a burden. I had some of the most centered and pleasant experiences in my life after a great meditation session, yet there are still days I come up with excuses and don’t do it. The secret for me was using the zen counting meditation. The traditional zazen type meditation is too frustrating to the western mind to begin with. The idea that you count your breaths to 10 and if you get distracted you start over already makes us feel like failures, like you mentioned. Which ultimately leads to us not following through. The zen counting meditation is a much easier way to ease into daily meditation without feeling that discouragement. I’m sure you have heard of it, but if not check it out on my page, its under the title 10 minutes to a better mind. Very great article, I’m glad I found this blog, your work is very in sync with my beliefs on personal development.

Heather November 5, 2013 at 9:34 pm

I just discovered this blog and this post, thank you! It is funny how tough it is to commit to meditation for the long haul as being a part of your life, even just 10 minutes a day. I find it very easy to be able to justify slipping out of practicing for awhile, even suddenly after being super dedicated for a long while, even if, now that I’ve been meditating for a few years, I can see some inkling of a shift accumulated from perhaps super subtle effects over the long term. I would find it even more challenging to keep it relevant if I wasn’t tapped into a certain lineage or community. Like you say, it’s ultimately not about outcomes…but then we also relatively really need a good reason to inspire us to continue. Having “teachings”, community, or something to fall draw on for this I find is super key. So kudos for the drive to take this on solo!

By the way, about method: here is a short video about the importance of having a teacher and the reasons behind meditating that I find super refreshing, by one of my favorite teachers:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81CwkZOK_18

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