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Post image for The Value of Practicing Awareness

Last week I sang the praises of the countless tiny, private experiences that enrich our day: the stripes of sunlight that fall on the staff room table, the steam billowing from your coffee machine, the warmth of the cat in your lap.

We all love that stuff, and it’s happening all day long, even on “uneventful” days. Every day contains potentially unlimited objects of gratitude, but connecting with them requires a somewhat persistent awareness of the present moment.

This persistent awareness doesn’t come naturally to us. Typically, for 21st century adults, any free attention is usually captured by habitual thinking—an ongoing, meandering inner monologue about things that will happen later, or have happened already, or should happen. Worries, rehearsals, diatribes, imagined conversations.

Maybe it sounds dramatic, but I see this the great tragedy of the modern human mind: we miss the moments that make up our lives because our attention is dominated by remembered or imagined experiences—hypothetical moments we’d like to have, or more often, avoid having.  Read More

Post image for 15 unexpected side-benefits to living in the present moment

Keeping your attention in the present is the world’s most useful (and underrated) skill. Last week’s post on shutting up your mind throughout the day was a big hit, but it only hinted at the benefits.

The presence habit does much more than make for a peaceful walk to the store. There are actually hundreds of practical applications to practicing everyday mindfulness, even if you have no spiritual aspirations at all.

Here are just a few:

1. Cravings become obvious and easier to overcome.

All you have to do to quit smoking is notice when you’re having a craving, and respond to it by doing anything other than putting a cigarette in your mouth. That is the entirety of the goal, and it’s small enough to be achievable any time. If you lose sight of that, you might misunderstand quitting as some big, abstract goal that can never be done now, such as “Maintain perfect self-control for the rest of your life.” It works the same with anything else.

2. It takes the edge off physical pain.

It’s the last thing you might think, but turning your awareness towards the feeling in your stubbed toe or aching stomach makes it much easier to bear. If you’re turning away from a sensation of pain, it gets mixed with resentment, wishing, blame, and other kinds of mental neediness. This is what makes pain into suffering. When you put your attention right onto the pain, it’s remarkable how it takes the edge off. It’s still pain, but you know you’re handling it.

3. Working out gets a lot easier.

Your workout might sometimes seem like a big, long grueling thing, but that’s only when you’re thinking about it. When you’re actually doing it, you’re never required to do more than a single moment’s action. You never have to actually “do” a whole workout at all, or even a set — and in fact you can’t. At no point do you have to do any more than complete the current rep. Keep your mind there.

4. Big projects stop being scary.

For the same reason that you can’t actually do a whole workout, you can’t actually do a whole project. All projects consist of single actions, most of which are no tougher than dialing a phone, explaining something to someone, Googling someone’s contact info, or sketching up a model. Once you have a plan, it’s easy to make progress if you stay zoomed in on the requirements of the moment, and only zoom out in order to figure out what they are.

5. Food tastes better and you eat less of it.

Try paying full attention to all the sensations of eating a bite of food. Put your fork down between bites to remind you. For most people this is a much more intimate and involved eating experience than they’re used to. It takes longer, it tastes better, and for some reason you become satisfied sooner. It’s also easier to negotiate that moment when you decide to stop eating, because you’re not already leaning mentally towards the next bite.  Read More

In this experiment I challenge Pascal’s claim that the human being cannot sit quietly in a room alone.

For seven days, I’m going to meditate for increasingly long periods, sometimes employing the tradition of aditthana, which means staying perfectly still throughout any discomfort that arises.

Day 1 is Monday, August 19. Day 7 is Sunday August 25.

Here are the planned sits:

Day One – 60 mins, no intentional movement (aditthana)Day Two – 90 mins, minimal movementDay Three – 75 mins, no intentional movementDay Four – two hours, minimal movement (using a recorded guided practice from Shinzen Young)Day Five – 90 mins, no intentional movementDay Six – two hours, minimal movementDay Seven – 3 hours, no intentional movement (if possible)

I’ll report after each sit how it went and what I learned.

What I’m interested in finding out:

Can I actually do the long sits at the end of the week? I have no idea.How the increasing tranquility and increasing discomfort/restlessness that tend to come with long sittings interactWhat else happens when I sit for long periods during a regular workweek

If you have a meditation practice and want to experiment with longer sittings, I’d love to hear how it goes for you in the comments. Don’t hurt yourself though!

The Daily Log

Day 1

60 Minute meditation — no intentional movement

So sixty minutes isn’t an especially long sit for me these days, but I normally allow myself to adjust my posture, shift and resettle, and scratch itches most of the time.

Today I didn’t, I just sat.

For some reason I was quite tired this morning. I’m usually well awake and alert by the time I get to the cushion, but I didn’t get the greatest sleep last night, and so I was groggy. Standard doctrine is to work with whatever is present, so I did. Throughout the hour I tried a number of different techniques — noting, choiceless awareness, breath concentration — to try to figure out what practice was best suited for my dull state.

I never reached the point of actually falling asleep, I just calmly worked with the fatigue and dullness the best I could. Gradually some concentration developed, and mental talk quieted a bit. I didn’t voluntarily move during the session, and I could see the benefit in this — in those moments when I had the impulse to move but instead just became aware of the body’s current position, I felt a whiff of equanimity come on. I guess when you move the body, you train the mind to subtly reject its position, and expect relief from this. When you refrain, you train the mind to accept it. I could feel the wisdom in that as I sat.

I also decided to keep the timer visible during the sit, and did peek a number of times because the grogginess made me wonder what I was in for exactly. I peeked with 49 minutes remaining, 27, 14, and 6 minutes. I’m not sure whether I should or shouldn’t do this for future sits. I think it’s better to have it visible, because then at least I know where I’m at. I will try to peek less often though. But there’s something unsettling about having no idea if the timer is seconds from going off, or if you’ve got another 35 minutes, and the longer the sessions are the more likely that is to be a factor.

So far so good, although I hope I’m less tired tomorrow.

Day 2

90 minute meditation, minimal movement

No grogginess today, which was great. I woke up with some significant anxiety, however, which I sometimes do. I just sat with it and it quickly fell into the background and then faded to almost nothing.

By the end of the session I was experiencing many of the interesting effects of long sittings:

There was some decent concentration (a.k.a. samadhi, a.k.a. indistractibility) which is always a pleasant and calming quality. There was a lot of equanimity, even with the butt-soreness, and the physical remnants of the anxiety. Mental talk slowed quite a bit, which always has the effect of apparently magnifying the peaceful neighborhood sounds of birds chirping and leaves blowing. My visual field (behind my closed eyes) had brightened and become easy to pay attention to, which is an interesting side effect of concentration. There was also some disidentification with the body, which sounds alarming but it’s a good thing — essentially it’s what happens when you start to recognize that your experience of your own body is only a parade of changing sensations, not fundamentally different from external sensations such as sound and light. The awareness of all this remains, however, you aren’t caught up in the mental model of “I am a meditator noticing all this.”

Now — the session was supposed to one with “minimal movement” but I did encounter an issue I hadn’t thought of: the need to go to the bathroom. So I went, and practiced the monastic tradition of continuing the meditation technique throughout the process. I don’t think this trip downstairs was hugely disruptive to the flow of the practice, and I don’t think it’s good for the body to hold it in. I will try to go before each long session, but sometimes it can’t be avoided. I wonder if this will come into play on Sunday’s three-hour session. There is a reason movies as long as Titanic often have intermissions.

Getting up to use the facilities (at about the halfway mark) did give my butt a break from the persistent pressure, so I don’t know how it will fare for an uninterrupted 90 minutes. Tomorrow is 75 minutes, with strong determination, so I’m sure I’ll get a clue.

Day 3

75 minutes, no voluntary movement

Today was a little rough, even though it was shorter than yesterday. Concentration did not come easily, and I wasn’t in a great mood.

Mood is an unpredictable thing, and sometimes a bad one is present when it’s time to meditate. So that’s not unusual or necessarily problematic. You work with what’s there.

But a low mood often amplifies physical discomfort, and one form of discomfort I experienced today was being too warm. I sit upstairs in an attic-like space, and it was cool this morning but I didn’t open the windows. So it was slightly stuffy. Expecting it to be cool, I made the fatal mistake of not removing my hoodie before settling in. After that, I had made a vow to not move, so it was too late.

It wasn’t hot by any means, just slightly warm. I kept experiencing recurring urges, many dozens of them, to shed my hoodie. This is something I would have done without a second thought in any other sitting. But I couldn’t. So I had to work with the discomfort of a steamy torso, because my attention kept getting drawn there. I tried to allow and study this discomfort, the attachment to the slightly-improved circumstance of not having that layer.

Several times I noticed that I was wishing the session would end, which rarely happens in my hope practice. I’ve had that experience many times on retreat, when you’re sitting with others and it’s perfectly silent and you feel some social pressure not to even swallow. Everyone who’s ever gone on retreat knows the feeling of sitting there, completely fed up, dying to hear that bell. I wasn’t quite dying but I sure was happy to hear the gong.

The whole experience illuminated the value of this project. Being slightly too warm is a kind of discomfort I would have normally just alleviated — what’s the harm in removing the hoodie and carrying on? Well, maybe none, but there is value in working voluntarily with the discomfort, and the aditthana vow is what enabled that. Despite the difficulty of the session, I know I got some very productive work in that would not have been achievable under normal circumstances.

Tomorrow is two hours, but I have the luxury of my teacher guiding me, which makes things easier and somehow more comfortable. Sunday’s mega-sit looms in the distance.

Day 4

2 hours, minimal movement, with audio guidance

Today’s sit was a completely different story. I began by listening to a 2-hour pre-recorded home-retreat program from Shinzen Young. He conducts home-based retreats, which students can listen to live, or listen to the recording later. (This is called the Home Practice Program).

Anyway, I practiced with the guidance for the first… 40 minutes? (I didn’t look at the timer today) then turned it off because I wanted to practice a different technique. I was able to settle in and generate some pretty strong samadhi. I hadn’t experienced anything quite as strong since my last residential retreat, last June.

I did move and shift a fair bit, more to kindly bring circulation to the numb parts than as a direct response to discomfort. Two hours of strong determination would have been a lot more challenging, but probably even more fruitful.

Tomorrow is 90 minutes of adhittana practice, which I’m looking forward to. I want to practice straightforward breath concentration practice, which I seldom do.

Day 5

90 minutes, no voluntary movement

Another relatively easy and fruitful session. I did compromise my “no movement” vow very early on, rationalizing it because it was so early into the session. About 5 minutes in, I had an idea for an article, and toyed with the idea of letting it go. This is something I’m sure many people who both meditate and write struggle with. Good ideas are notorious for striking in the middle of a shower, or a 5-mile run, where you have no hope of capturing it without counting on your memory. While meditating, you do have a choice — interrupt this session to jot down the idea, or use this as an opportunity to let go, trusting that you will have enough ideas later, even though this one may be lost forever.

I decided to jot it down, knowing that I would still be sitting 85 minutes without moving. And I did. I’m not sure it was the wrong decision. (Now that I think of it my original plan was to tack 5 minutes to the end of the session to bring it back up to 90 but I forgot.)

Anyway, the session felt like a good one. By the end, butt-numbness was quite strong, and I did my best to fully let it go. However some part of me kept thinking, “Do I know I am not harming by body by ignoring this discomfort?” And even though I was pretty sure it was safe to ignore, and have felt the same thing many times with no ill effects, some part of me could not quite let go into it. It was quite interesting internally, to be releasing, releasing, allowing the sensations to come and go, the familiar precursor feelings to tranquility lapping at the edges of my awareness. I was completely okay with the intensity of the discomfort, but I was just a little too hesitant to let go into tranquility (or passadhi).

This brings up an interesting point about our evolutionary heritage. We’re programmed to see pain as something to get away from — if it hurts to do X, stop doing X. If you feel pain when you go to Y place, get away from Y place. Same thing the other way with pleasure. This algorithm is crude, however. There are times when it makes sense to release our resentment for pain, and to renounce pleasure. Our difficulty in doing that is why we harm ourselves with consumer debt, poor eating habits, drugs, destructive relationships, procrastination and so on. We do have a rational faculty that potentially allows us to determine if this is likely to be one of those circumstances. And if you deem it is, then you have the option of renouncing the tempting thing, or opening to the unpleasant thing, for your own betterment or the betterment of someone else. Part of mindfulness is developing those particular skills.

Having got up from my sitting with no ill effects, I now know my butt wasn’t in any real danger, so if I experience that level of soreness again in the next sitting I will go ahead and let myself settle fully to it. But it is fascinating to watch the mind contending with unpleasantness — it’s so habituated to go “get away, get away!” But it is possible to relax that reflex to the point where you can actually know pain with absolutely no suffering, which is what happens when you completely let go of aversion. The ability to cultivate equanimity in the presence of strong displeasure (or temptation) is an incredible human capacity and it is such a fascinating experience to have.

Day 6

2 hours, minimal movement

Today the cumulative effects of all that meditation became quite obvious. I was very equanimous with all the discomfort I experienced throughout this session, and I experienced a certain brightness to my outlook that I associate with being on retreat. I feel closer to other human beings, less afraid of the future, and willing to experience the future in whatever form it comes.

This effect on outlook is a little different than being in a good mood, although I am in a good mood too.

The session went smoothly. I can tell my body is adjusting to the longer sittings… it takes longer for discomfort to arise. Towards the end of the sitting, I wanted to see if I could completely let go of resistance to the discomfort. I looked for the most intense point of sensation in the area where my body was pressing on the cushion, but I couldn’t quite release it all. There was a small bit of flickering unease with it, which wasn’t difficult to be with but clearly there wasn’t perfect equanimity. This is such interesting territory.

Day 7

Sunday I felt even more mindful and equanimous than Saturday. However, I had a lot of trouble sleeping Saturday night — I attended a pot-luck event and my food choices left me wired (chocolate too late in the day :().

The result of this was that I didn’t begin my sit until mid-morning, and then time became an issue — three hours is a lot of time to do anything, and I didn’t like the idea of it being afternoon before I finished my morning routine. I was feeling really equanimous and peaceful and was eager to use my day, so I decided I’d sit for two hours and see if I wanted to continue. In total I went about 2:19, although I had to get up to go to the bathroom during that time.

So I didn’t sit for the length of Titanic, but I learned what I wanted to learn, and definitely improved my practice, in a lasting way I think. By the end of the week I was much better at attending to the less interesting and less pleasant parts of my sessions. I became more patient with sub-optimal mind states — like anyone, I prefer to meditate when I’m really well rested, and not experiencing difficult emotions. But this experiment taught me that I had little ways of avoiding sitting when I wasn’t very sharp or enthusiastic. For example, I’d cut a session a little shorter when I was tired or felt kind of blah, creating a pattern of never really being mindful of those states.

The sessions really did take a lot of time. Two hours is a big time investment for anything, but it sure did a lot for me in a short time over my usual 40-60 minute sessions. I also found that for the most part, strong determination sitting seems to amplify the benefits of a given period of practice, because you end up bringing mindfulness into some more elusive corners of physical and emotional experience.

I want to keep the momentum going, although I don’t need to spend quite as much time. I’m going to sit for 75 minutes on the mornings I can — that extra 15 minutes makes a big difference, and do strong determination sometimes. I’d love to have a two-hour sit every weekend.

Well, it was a worthy experiment, all told. One day I’ll do a three-hour sit, when it’s less like a circus sideshow feat and more like the next logical step in my practice.

***

Photo by Sam Austin

Post image for Gratitude Comes From Noticing Your Life, Not From Thinking About It

Every gratitude exercise I’ve ever done asks you to think about what you have to be grateful for. In other words, you brainstorm reasons you ought to feel grateful, whether or not you do.

You’ve probably done one of these before: writing five things you’re grateful for every night, recalling past good luck during difficult moments, or trying to remember, as often as possible, your privileges and advantages in life.

These exercises might be worthwhile on some level, but most of the time they don’t create much of a real-time, felt sense of gratitude. They just remind you of certain encouraging rote facts: on paper, your situation is pretty good; many parts of your life would be enviable to others; things could be worse.

As you might have noticed, simply making the case to ourselves that we have reasons to feel grateful doesn’t necessarily make us feel grateful.

Gratitude, when we do genuinely feel it, arises from experiences we are currently having, not from evaluating our lives in our heads. When you feel lonely, for example, simply remembering that you have friends is a dull, nominal comfort compared to how wonderful it feels when one of those friends calls you out of the blue. Reflecting on the good fortune of having a fixed address is nice, but stepping inside your front door after a cold and rainy walk home is sublime.  Read More

Post image for It’s Time to Put The Internet Back Into a Box in The Basement

My first online interaction, circa 1992, fascinated but also terrified me. I should have taken it as a warning.

At the time, computers were just machines you had in your basement. They had programs in them, and you would sit in a chair and use those programs for a while, then go do something else. The whole time you used this machine you remained, both physically and psychologically, in your own house.

Nobody had the internet yet really, but there were Bulletin Board Systems. Your computer could phone another computer, presumably in someone else’s basement, and access a virtual space for posting messages, designed by that computer’s owner. No images, just bare text. Only one person could visit at a time, because it occupied the owner’s phone line.

One time I was using a BBS, believing I was alone in my basement, when some strange text started appearing on my screen, letter by letter. Someone else was typing—on my screen, in my basement. The text asked if I was enjoying his BBS.

My heart pounded. What was happening was impossible. Seeing that alien text crawl onto my screen felt like a seeing ghost appear before you inside your locked bedroom.

I did not yet have any sense of what it meant to be “online.” At the time, everything was offline. Life consisted of physical objects in physical locations. (We had TV and phones of course—which must have similarly amazed and unsettled those who were alive when they were introduced—but in my case they were an established part of the universe from birth.)

Still, for years afterward, going online was something you did in one place—at the home computer, or more likely, at the one in the school library—for a small part of the day, if at all. The online world was a novel and small part of life, and you almost never thought about it when you weren’t sitting in a computer chair.

Twenty-some years later, the internet seems present in almost every room, vehicle and public space—and I want that old feeling back. I want life to once again feel like it takes place in an immediate, local, physical world.

While living in this physical world, you can, if you choose, occasionally use a special computer device that allows you to look things up, learn a bit of news from afar, entertain yourself, and send important messages.  Read More

Post image for The Long Lost Thrill of Doing Nothing

Many text messages between my friends and me take roughly this form: “Are you busy tomorrow? We should do something.”

That something often isn’t defined at the time. But when we arrive in each other’s physical presence, after we’ve caught up, eventually one of us has to ask: “So… what do you wanna do?”

Then we have to decide. We could for a walk, go eat, play a board game, check out what’s happening in the city, just chat, or something else.

One of my friends—and only one—sometimes throws me a curveball here, and suggests that we don’t do anything, at least not yet. We can just lounge here in the living room. Or not quite lounge, but just relax and do nothing.

I’m struggling to pick a verb for it. “Laze” and “lounge” both have moral connotations, as do “chill” or “veg.” “Hang out” is too general, and could mean switching on the TV, opening a bottle of something, or catching up.

I’m talking about just being in the room and not doing anything in particular, usually while reclining your body in some way, with no regard for the time and no idea of what to do next. Real idleness.  Read More

Post image for The Alternative to Thinking All the Time

One evening last week, I was sitting on my front stoop waiting for a friend to come over. I brought a book out with me, but instead of reading I just sat there and let my senses take in the scene.

I didn’t look or listen for anything in particular, I just let the details of this particular moment in the neighborhood come to me: the quality of the air—heavy and warm, the incoming summer storm kind; birds; two couples having a conversation down the sidewalk; the clinking of dishes coming from inside the house to my right; distant hammering from a construction site somewhere in the blocks behind my house.

There was also a scent that I only recently learned has a name: petrichor. It’s the earthy scent of rain having just fallen on soil after a dry spell. You definitely know it. It was a big part of the overall flavor of the scene.

I engage this kind of receptive awareness often, particularly when I’m waiting for someone, and there’s something very satisfying about it. Every scene in our lives—whatever’s unfolding at any given time in a front yard, a living room, a doctor’s office, a grocery store—has its own unique tone and emotional signature, which you can notice if you’re not talking in your head, which we usually are.  Read More

smiley scrubby

In November, an article did the rounds—entitled “Actually, Let’s Not Be in the Moment”—in which the author describes, hilariously, a failed attempt at mindful dishwashing.

It’s quite relatable if you’ve ever tried to force yourself to “be with” some unpleasant domestic task like sorting recycling or scrubbing a drip tray. Even if you’re attracted to the idea of mindfulness, actually trying to commune with tedious or objectionable experiences often proves to be neither enlightening nor fulfilling.

The piece is mostly an exasperated rebuttal to the New Age tenet that we should force ourselves to “live in the moment”. It’s an understandable rant, and I think it represents an increasingly common sentiment in the self-improvement world: mindfulness is annoying.

At least, it’s annoying to try to be mindful all the time, and it’s annoying to be told to be mindful all the time. I receive emails expressing similar frustrations, from people who are tired of trying to find peace in the folding of laundry or the raking of litterboxes, even if they still believe it is somehow possible.

As the author, Ruth Whippman writes, “Mindfulness is supposed to be a defense against the pressures of modern life, but it’s starting to feel suspiciously like it’s adding to them.”  Read More

Post image for Goodbye Booze, For Now

Happy New Year everyone. So I’m starting 2017 by not drinking any alcohol for four months.

The decision wasn’t made in the throes of a January 1st hangover. I had committed to an extended teetotaling break a few weeks before, the morning after attending the staff Christmas party of my former employer.

It was a rather restrained night, as far as get-togethers at the pub go. But the next day I remembered a detail that made me realize I’ve been making a huge miscalculation the entire eighteen years I’ve been drinking.

There seem to be three basic relationships a person can have with drinking. There are drinkers, dabblers and teetotalers.

Teetotalers never touch the stuff. Dabblers may have a glass of wine or a beer now and then, or even regularly, but they only occasionally have enough that they’d have to call a cab. They see drunkenness as an accident, a morally salient line one should avoid crossing. Drinkers get drunk on purpose, and obviously believe it’s worthwhile.

I have always been in the drinker category. Throughout my adult life, I’ve regularly gone out with the intention of having six or more drinks, sometimes many more. This is socially acceptable where I come from, but only recently has that begun to seem strange to me.  Read More

Post image for Life Gets Real When the TV Goes Off

I don’t remember when they changed it, but Netflix no longer asks you if you want to watch another episode. Instead, it tells you you are going to unless you take immediate action. You have the option, if your drive to get on with your life is strong enough at that moment, to spring to your feet and stop the countdown before it’s too late.

Back in 2008 I quit putting the news on first thing in the morning. I had noticed that I didn’t really watch it, it was just comforting to have on, and that made me suspicious. So I stopped. The effect was strangely jarring—my breakfast-making routine seemed unnervingly quiet. Suddenly it was just me, my kitchen, and creeping thoughts about my job and my boss and whatever troublesome project we were on at the time.

For some reason just having the TV on seemed to soften the reality of those mornings, and turning it off seemed to intensify my problems. It was like life finally had room to square up and confront me directly, whereas with the TV on it could only make glancing contact.

You might have noticed this phenomenon too. Even when the TV has only been on in the background, life and all its responsibilities suddenly become a lot more vivid the instant it plunks off. And that can be a strangely uncomfortable moment, to be in a quiet room once again, suddenly quite aware that the rest of your day and the rest of your life is undecided, and you’re at the helm.

Often we already have an impending obligation somewhere else, and that’s why we turn it off in the first place. But without another vine to grasp the moment we let go of the TV, shutting it off reintroduces a certain existential weight to our experience.

One of the least-acknowledged peculiarities about human beings is that we can scarcely bear being in the moment we’re already in. It’s rare for us to truly be at ease in an ordinary present moment, if we’re not being entertained, gratified or otherwise occupied by something. We’re always planning better moments than this current one, or at least trying to soften or improve it with entertainment or food, or anything else that delivers some predictability to our experience.

Just letting life flow by, without adding anything to it, distracting ourselves from it, or fixating on the future, is strangely excruciating for us. It should be the easiest thing in the world to do, just to let time unfold at its own pace, but we’re so uncomfortable with that.

The present moment is seldom good enough. We’ll do anything to avoid experiencing the moment unadulterated, even useless things like biting our lip, reading the sides of cereal boxes, or thumbing the seams of our jeans.  Read More

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