Experiment Log No. 1 – 30 Days of Formal Sitting Meditation

Original blog post: Raptitude Experiment No. 1 — Sharpening the Mind

This experiment was announced April 6, 2009. It commenced on schedule on April 7, 2009.

Objective

To observe regular sitting meditation’s effect on my moods, stress levels, and capacity for mindfulness.

Method

I will meditate for a minimum of twenty minutes, daily, for 30 days. I’ll begin with recorded guided meditation for the first week, then choose a non-guided method for the remainder of the experiment.

Observations

Day 1

Used a recorded guided meditation, entitled “Breath Meditation.”

I was quite physically uncomfortable during most of the session.

Just before it I did several chinups, which might have been a mistake.  Sitting on the floor on two small cushions, my back was quite stiff throughout the session.  Not unbearable, but uncomfortable, and there were a few instances where I felt an intention to quit the session early.  But I didn’t.

I also felt two other forms of discomfort.  The first was hunger.  I had not eaten in a while, and had that ‘empty bag’ feeling in my stomach.  This was the least intrusive form of physical discomfort I experienced, I know how to observe hunger pangs without attachment.

Much worse was a strange disorientation I felt.  It felt very much to me like I feel when I drink too much coffee.  With my eyes closed, my head was swimming and I felt slightly nauseous.  In fact, caffeine may have actually been what caused it.  I did drink too much coffee this morning, and felt the same feeling earlier.  I will cut it down or eliminate it tomorrow and see what the difference feels like.

In about the middle of the session, I lost touch with my sense of how my body was oriented.  One moment it felt like my head was leaning left, and the next it felt like I was leaning right.  I had a hard time believing I was vertical.

The voice on the CD advised me to open my eyes for a moment if I felt distracted, and return my attention to the breath.  I did, and was surprised to find myself perfectly upright, not bent like I had felt with my eyes closed.

I lost track of my breathing constantly, as expected.  The CD advised me (as have many books and other meditation resources) to keep the breath natural and uncontrived, and breathe to a natural depth and pace.  But I was struck with how unhealthy-feeling my ‘natural’ breath was.  It came in fairly shallow inhalations, and short, quick exhalations.  I felt out of shape and kind of fat.

Several times during the meditation, I wanted it to be over, to relieve the array of physical discomforts I was experiencing.  But I dutifully returned my attention to my breath for the rest of the session.

When the meditation ended, I opened my eyes, and the first thing I noticed was that I need to vacuum.  But I also noticed a familiar sense of clarity and stillness, despite my sore back and swimming head.  I am pleased I did not abort the session, and as I type this I feel quite balanced and deliberate.

Day 2

I’m trying not to judge today’s session, since I figure each one is a learning experience, but ‘poor’ is the world that comes to mind.  I began with the guided breath meditation recording again, and shortly after beginning I decided I would rather not listen to it again.  The voice comes on every few minutes with more instructions and I find it quite distracting and sometimes startling, particularly since I’ve heard it once before and I know when the voice is on its way in a minute or two.

So I sat without the recording.   As has happened in the past, I became indecisive about where to put my attention.  I kept it on the breath for a while, but arbitrarily switched to sounds around me, my still-stiff back, and the tingly feeling of my bodily tissues.  Once again I was disturbed at how unhealthy my breathing felt.

My back stiffness was worse today.  I realized it was not from yesterday’s chinups but from sitting in an office chair all day.  I’ve been doing office work all day every day this week (often I spend time in the field) plus I spend a few hours writing and working on my blog when I get home.

I began to doze off a few times.

Overall I got the sense that I am not adequately taking care of myself.  Too much time in front of the computer, not quite enough sleep, and my exercise routine has become spotty at best this past few weeks.  I will sort out these issues on the coming long weekend.  Volleyball tonight, dinner with friends tomorrow, a serious kettlebell workout on Friday.

After ending the meditation I feel only a hint of the stillness I felt yesterday.  I did not cultivate my attention very well at all this session, but it left me with an important clue about my physical state.  I’ll take this lesson to heart.

Days 3 & 4

Both days I did the same meditation, and both times I felt much more relaxed and receptive. I sat on the couch this time, instead of on my unforgiving floor. I decided to begin by observing the arising sensations in my body. Aches, pressures, pains, tension, the warmth of my tissues and my breathing. I was not so strict with where my attention went, and it helped me to stay present. I set up a mindfulness gong to go off every five minutes, using this online Mindfulness Bell. It kept returning my attention to the moment, though it didn’t wander much. I was encouraged, and I can see great potential in doing this for three or four minutes, several times a day, in addition to my regular 20 minute session. Tomorrow (Day 5) I will select a method arbitrarily from Meditation: the Complete Guide .

Day 5

Well, I have settled on my method: traditional vipassana meditation.

As prescribed by Meditation: the Complete Guide :

1. Sit in a comfortable posture, spine erect, and relaxed.
2. Examine the body for feelings of tension that your current posture may cause. See if you can allow the tension to subside, if not, adjust the posture until it can be maintained with minimal tension.
3. Allow thoughts to arise, and watch them without identification.

Though I did get caught up, several times, in my meandering trains of thought, for most of it I was able to observe them objectively. There is a distinct difference between watching my thoughts and being my thoughts, and I spent some time doing both. While I was able to simply observe, I was struck with the ghastly and schizophrenic nature of some of my thoughts. Often they resembled the desperate cries of someone who wanted badly to be heard and understood.

There were a few moments of clarity where I was able to hold my whole body as well as my thoughts, in unattached awareness. In those moments I did not feel like I was any more related to my body than I was the sounds I was hearing. I am excited to explore this method further.

Day 6

Another session of vipassana meditation. Today was a little more disjointed. Again, my method was a little too ambiguous. I was attempting to observe all of my bodily sensations and thoughts at the same time, and ended up thinking of my thoughts and bodily sensations much of the time without realizing. I see great potential in this type of practice though, and will continue with it for the rest of the experiment. I will peruse a few online vipassana how-to’s tomorrow before my session so I can be more decisive about where specifically to direct my attention.

Day 7

My first missed day.  For shame!  I left it too late, and by the time I was done my new post, I was too droopy-eyed to meditate.  Lesson learned: do it when you are awake.

Day 8

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?   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 think the positive experiences I’d had before must have all happened while I was just experimenting freely, without the self-imposed structure I tried to enforce today.  In previous meditation sessions, I would try something, and after a while, begin to feel clarity and lightness.  My thoughts would settle.  But other times that did not happen.  I certainly never stayed with any one technique for very long.

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, with 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.

Days 9 & 10

Ok, total change of style, and it’s much better.  I realized that I do not feel confident in written instructions for the traditional meditative practices.  There is too much I feel I ‘m assuming.  I will take a class some day to learn these methods.

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.  Not 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.

The other major change I’ve made is that I split the sessions into two 10-minute periods.  I like this better; there was certainly some substantial mental resistance to the prospect of a longer session.  I can renew my settled state twice as often, and it makes it much easier to be mindful for the rest of my activities.

This I like.

Days 11-14

Ah, things are cruising now.  I’ve found a great groove, and I’m experiencing some very positive secondary effects.  My apartment is markedly cleaner, I’m more productive, I’m neglecting fewer things.  And I’m happier.  I’ve not felt a need for daily updates because I am no longer trying new methods, or encountering new problems.

In the beginning of the experiment I became quite confused and agitated with my inability to follow a traditional technique.  I am not comfortable with written or prerecorded instruction.  For me to delve openheartedly into vipassana, zazen, or any other traditional method, I need a teacher.  A flesh-and-blood presence, at first, to show me. I will enroll in a retreat, or a local meditation class, when I choose to take that path.  But for now I’m striking out on me own, and it seems to be paying off

The technique I’ve settled on is quite simple.  Twice a day I sit, in a chair, for ten minutes.  I begin by resting my attention on my hands.  Not in the tactile sensation of their exterior surface, but on the tingling ‘aliveness’ within them.  This is something I learned in an Eckhart Tolle book, as a suggestion for bringing your attention back to the present.

Once I sense that aliveness feeling, and lose any image of what my hands look like, I spread that same ‘feeling tone’ to the rest of my body.  Once I’m able to ‘rest’ on this feeling, I let my attention wander to the outside world, or at least what I can see of it.  I just observe the spectacle of my living room, without comment, and I find my mind is much less verbose than usual.

Thoughts do arise, but I notice them right away, and slip back into watching mode.

When the ten minutes is up, I stand consciously and go about my business.  Mindfulness in my actions just comes naturally after that.  The mind doesn’t run away as often.  A little stillness goes a long way.

I will post a full update for my next post, which will explain my findings at the half-way point of this experiment.

Day 21

As you may have noticed, I’ve stopped the daily updates.  The experiment is still going strong, I just don’t have much new information to report on a daily basis.  I’m happy with my practice now; it suits my current lifestyle and level of mental skill.  I described this practice and its effects in my Day 15 post.

I now find it much easier to be mindful when I’m not meditating, and I’ve discovered a potent new mental skill that I will share with you in detail once the experiment concludes.

So far I’m very pleased with the results of this experiment, and I feel like I’ve made irreversible progress towards my goal of living with acceptance and equanimity.

Day 28

Nearing the end, and I see where this is heading.  I’ll save my specific findings for the blog post I will make on Wednesday (Day 30), but I’ll let you know that this experiment has not at all turned out like I had pictured, but I’m thrilled with the results.  Something great is on the horizon.  I’ll explain soon.

Day 30

It’s all over!  And I learned a lot.  Thanks for following my experiment.

Conclusions

My conclusions are posted here.

{ 4 Comments }

kara April 16, 2009 at 8:28 pm

Insightful experiment. I though I was the only person that had difficulty meditating. Everyone makes it sound so refreshing!
I worked up to 10 minutes but then suddenly became too busy…A typical excuse I sure.
Look forward to reading your conclusions.

{ Reply }

David April 16, 2009 at 11:26 pm

Hi kara,

I am having difficulty too, so don’t worry. The last two days I split it up into two ten minute periods, and it is so much better. I am less intimidated now. 20 minutes can be excruciating when you just don’t want to be present.

{ Reply }

Char May 30, 2009 at 10:03 pm

Many things in life that require us to slow down to see them; walking in the forest, snorkeling, getting to know a person. We have the opportunity to step out of our comfort zone in order to experience something amazing~ yet so often we hesitate.

Who would of thought that you could dance on the edge by sitting still…? As always, small steps first…

{ Reply }

Rich June 24, 2009 at 4:39 pm

I successfully used Holosync to learn to meditate. It’s expensive, and I HIGHLY dislike their marketing methods; they’re just…icky. But the binaural beats put me into a groove which I can now replicate with or without the audio. With the help of the audio, it doesn’t take long at all before you can meditate, seriously, for an hour, no problem. (Before this, I’d last 5 minutes, constantly cracking one eye open to peak at the clock.)

Has it changed my life? Meh. I don’t know. I *can* say that I am more aware when feelings pop up, which allows me to nip a potential bout of anxiety or depression in the bud rather than wallowing in it.

{ Reply }

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