Well, the first official Raptitude experiment has come to an end. I just got up from my final meditation session. As far as I can tell, I am not enlightened. I can neither hear the mountain stream nor make the sound of one hand clapping.
But I will never be the same.
If you’ve ever had trouble meditating, you might appreciate this account.
I have wanted to try meditating on a daily basis for a long time and I am glad I did it this way, accountable to you, the reader. Because let me tell you, if I didn’t tell anybody I was trying this, I would have quit in the first week. I’ve left detailed entries in my experiment log, but I’ll recap the highlights here.
That first week was rough. I could not decide on a method, so I tried a few, with discouraging results. On Day 5, I decided to settle on a (seemingly) simple and well-known method called vipassana. I think I even announced in my progress log that my confusion about methods was over, because I’d found plain instructions for a tried and true method. Hah!
When I actually tried it, I just could not get past the fact that I wasn’t sure I understood the directions. Sitting down with a mind full of doubts makes it difficult to believe that there is any constructive purpose to what you’re doing.
This confusion mounted and soon became frustration. I began to dread my sessions. It began to feel like I was just “putting in time,” and had lost interest in actually meditating. My entry for Day 8 captures my frustration well, and served as a catharsis for the whole experiment:
An unfocused, frustrating session. More indecision and doubt about methods again. I just don’t know where to put my damn attention. There is just such a broad variety of techniques, and each seems to present itself as the way to do it. Some literature says to “Observe bodily sensations as they arise,” but my body has about four hundred sensations at once. What am I looking at? How did I ever do this comfortably before? Also very common is, “observe the breath.” Some say to observe it at the tip of the nostrils, others say observe a point on the abdomen above the navel, others say to focus on the rising and falling sensation. The rising and falling of what? Sometimes I know the answer to that. Right now I don’t.
I came to the mat with fear today, and it consumed me the whole time. The most persistent thought I had today was “I don’t want this. I don’t want to look at my breath. I don’t want to observe the feeling of not wanting to look at my breath. I don’t want to witness a point above my navel. I don’t care.” Certainly not a new one, but I had not yet experienced it with today’s level of intensity.
I think that this is the juncture where most people up and say “Meditation is just not for me. I can’t do it, or at least I don’t want to.” I felt that today, and hard. But I don’t trust those thoughts. This is the juncture where I get intrigued. I want to unravel this.
I seem to have this intense aversion to trusting a particular book or website. Why would there be so many different techniques, with such specific instructions if one is just as good as the other? With most of them I just feel so overwhelmingly uncomfortable or bored. I want to examine the discomfort and boredom, see where they’re coming from, but if I examine them, then I’ve lost sight of my breath or whatever the hell else I’m not supposed to lose sight of, as prescribed by my method du jour.
This turned into a rant. Good. I need to get these thoughts out. I was just going to post something short and vague here; I didn’t want to explore these feelings openly. But I’m glad I did. I feel growth. Tomorrow, I will choose another method, and see what happens. Even if I end up posting twenty-two more rants like this, I will have discovered quite a bit.
A Free Approach
Trying to adhere to traditional methods made me feel like I was subjecting myself to something I knew I didn’t like, just to get to the results. And that didn’t seem like the right thing to do. Attempting repeated sessions of vipassana meditation when I knew I didn’t want to felt a lot like that spring I spent running in the early morning when I secretly hated running and early mornings, all just because I wanted to look fit.
Salvation came when I went with my heart. I adopted my own method, a frankenstein of other meditations and relaxation techniques I had tried and liked:
I’ve taken a free-form approach. I do not concentrate on any one phenomenon. I just sit and watch. I watch my body, to see what it’s doing. I watch the texture of the sensations of my body, the texture of the sounds around me, the air around me, the texture of my thoughts. I just kind of feel them out. When I notice I’m thinking, I look at the thought.
Most importantly, I’m not trying to do anything. No active concentration. Far easier and calmer. I make no effort to keep my gaze in one place, both visually and mentally. I look around the room if I want, but usually I don’t feel a desire to. Whatever my orientation is, it’s enough; no modifications necessary. If I feel I need to change something, I look at that need and see what happens to it.
I continued with this method for the rest of the month, though I did end up splitting my 20-minute sessions into smaller ones. I was surprised at how much my ability to relax and pay attention varied. I ended some sessions in pure, unbridled bliss, and in other sessions I was not able to step out of my thinking for even a moment. Towards the end of the month I stopped timing the sessions, and even found myself doing them at work when I had a minute or two. A few minutes can last a long time when you’re not doing anything.
So even after this whole month, I have not adopted a regular, scheduled practice. And I’m fine with that. I used to think I should meditate precisely when I don’t feel like it, but I don’t any more. I didn’t like the bitter results I got when I tried to mix duty with meditation. Now, I do it when I want, and I find myself wanting to a lot more.
What I Have Learned
- I need a teacher if I want to fully commit to traditional meditation methods. I don’t believe I can teach myself. I am excited at this idea, but my homegrown method is meeting my needs at the moment.
- Frequent, shorter sessions did a lot more for me, in terms of bringing me to a mindful state, than long ones. I would like to eventually get into longer sessions, but I will wait until I have a teacher. I like having a few 5-10 minute sessions throughout the day, and occasionally a longer one.
- Sleepiness is a huge obstacle. When I came to my session with an upset stomach, or an upset mind, I was still often able to observe my lackluster physical and emotional states for what they were. But I was never able to observe sleepiness without it taking me over. I did most of my meditations with my eyes open, but I’d still find myself slipping away so easily. It did make me aware of the fact that I wasn’t getting enough sleep though.
- Wants arise all the time, and most often I just react to them without even realizing that a desire actually occurred. This is the current state of humanity, for the most part: constant reaction with no conscious awareness of why. Even while I wasn’t meditating, I was much more aware of the sensation of a desire arising, and the tendency to lean towards it. If suddenly I felt any kind of anxiety, I knew it was because a thought triggered a want. In my clearer moments, I could easily identify the source of the want, observe how it feels physically, and dismiss it. There is a lot of personal power to be found in this, and I’m excited to look into it further.
- Meditation makes it obvious how I’m neglecting my body. I mentioned how obvious my lack of sleep became, but I also noticed a not-so-fit texture to my breathing. I’ve let my cardio slip, and I can’t deny it. When I ended up coming to the mat with some caffeine or alcohol in my system, I really noticed how much they interfere with concentration and mindfulness. As well, after overeating I noticed that my body felt profoundly drained and sluggish, feelings that I would otherwise just distract myself from.
- The purpose of fidgeting was revealed to me. This is one of the most interesting revelations I had. While I was in meditation I began to notice the occasional impulse to bite my lip, move my toes, or tongue the backs of my teeth. It was quite a weird sensation to just observe a fidgeting impulse without following it. And then I started to notice the impulse when I wasn’t meditating, and I was alarmed to find how often I did it, and how many forms it took. Any time I felt self-conscious, or I was being intolerant of someone else’s behavior, my body would unconsciously do something: I’d bite my lip, play with my pen, or my jaw would tense. I realized that fidgeting is an attempt to distract oneself from the reality of what’s happening. When I cease the fidgeting, I cease escaping from the moment. I think this discovery has some huge implications, and I’ll explore them in a future post.
- There is a direct correlation between my mind’s clarity and my apartment’s cleanliness. When my mind was clear, I seemed to place much more value on keeping my space in order. I had a genuine desire to clean up, and I loved it. I have also found it far easier to stay organized when I meditated regularly. This is having a significant positive impact on my productivity. You should see my desk at work.
- Acceptance must start with the physical, not just include it. This is the most potent discovery I made, without a doubt. To my mind, total acceptance of the moment is happiness. I have learned a lot about how to achieve that state by putting my thinking into perspective, but I found it very hard to do this when I was, say, exhausted, or in a stuffy room. Physical distress really makes it hard to get your mind to agree with what is happening. I already knew that, but I did not realize how subtle physical uneasiness can be and still prevent total acceptance. The fidgeting I mentioned is an example of physical resistance to the moment. Meditating taught me that acceptance begins with a physical “acceptance reflex.” In other words, I’m training my body to accept situations first. If there is any tension anywhere, such as in my jaw, or in my breathing, that resistance is enough to put a ceiling on how comfortable my mind can be with the moment. Resistance short-circuits happiness. I have a new-found awareness for how finely-tuned my body is to the mental terrain of each moment, and I want to hone that acceptance reflex. I’ll clarify what I mean by this in its own post, soon.
My 30 days did not exactly revolutionize my life or my state of mind, and I would not call myself an experienced or skillful meditator. In fact, formal sitting meditation is something I almost feel like I’ve gotten worse at. But do I know that I’ve opened the doors to a major quality-of-life skill with that last bullet point. I will continue with these sessions informally and without a schedule. I didn’t become a Buddha, but I have made progress I will never lose.
Anyway, as for Raptitude Experiment No. 1, that’s a wrap. Not what I expected, but I am definitely a happy camper.
Experiment No. 2 is coming up soon, and this time I’ll be exploring the physical realm, with the help of an ancient Russian implement. Stay tuned.