The practice really does work one breath at a time. This is something I doubted before having a baby and getting my meditation routine utterly annihilated. I haven’t sat for more than five minutes straight since she was born over a month ago — and certainly not in any pattern for two days in a row — but my practice feels weirdly intact.
What am I doing right?
Certainly, I’m bringing mindfulness to all my interactions with her, especially when she needs something. I find it pretty much impossible to think about something else while changing a diaper, and that’s great for meditation.
But I’m also taking a minute here, a minute there, just to come back to the breath like every meditation teacher I’ve ever had has suggested. Funnily enough, I think I might skip over that part of the practice when I have a dedicated daily time for sitting. I think I might tell myself I’ve already meditated today, so I don’t need to do it again.
Clearly, that’s the wrong call, even if I’m only making it subconsciously. Now that I’m giving myself that gift of mindful breathing throughout the day (and in the middle of the night), I’m starting to think this might be the most fundamental part of meditation practice.
In seated meditation, we gradually learn that it’s fine for the mind to wander off occasionally. That’s just what minds do. The practice — the part that trains our strength as meditators — is the repeated effort of guiding our attention back. Coming back to the breath in moments of pause has exactly the same effect.
I’m sleep-deprived, I’m disoriented, I’m not taking the best care of my body right now. You know, baby stuff. Yet I’ve never been more sure that meditation is helping me get along.
I’m rocking in a rocking chair facing the window. The sun is streaming in. My wife is propped up on the couch with her laptop, notebook sprawled out beside her, taking a take-home test in her final year of rabbinical school. She’s streaming ambient piano music from the TV speakers, filling the room. The TV is covered with a red and orange tapestry. My feet are bare, and the cold air on them feels refreshing. It’s Sunday morning. I’ve had my coffee, done my reading, and now I’m writing on the tablet on my lap. Between my arms, held fast by a length of stretchy, gray fabric wrapped around my body, my daughter is asleep on my chest.
She’s been here less than three weeks. It’s been so amazing — so unprecedented — that I can’t believe I was able to anticipate anything about it, but I was right about what it meant for my practice. Caring for a newborn baby is not easy, but doing it makes spiritual practice the easiest thing in the world.
My daughter has become the avatar for holiness. She has annihilated any question of priority. The practice in its guise as seated meditation for 30 minutes did not always make clear to me that it was the highest priority in my life. The practice in its guise as caring for my luminous newborn daughter is my only priority. In each moment, I have a choice: Say no and be in hell, or say yes and be in heaven. Saying yes is doing the practice. Doing the practice is changing the diaper, washing the hair, putting on the onesie, giving her a fingertip to comfort herself while her mother is in the bath. I can’t even remember what the unmindful mind is like.
It’s time to put Grind Well on pause again for the moment, and it’s for the best possible reason. My wife and I are expecting our first child any moment now. When she is ready to come out into the world, we’re going to close up our world around her for a while and make our home into a quiet little nest. We’re both blessed with the freedom to do this for a few weeks. In California, paid parental leave is almost up to scratch with the civilized world! I’m putting most projects on hold for that time so I can be fully present in the baby zone.
Just like in the last pause, I’m not sure I won’t publish anything, but it certainly won’t be daily-ish for a short while. Given how profound things are about to get, if any of it can be put into words, I probably will, but maybe not for public consumption. Still, I think our daughter — Wow! Our daughter!! — is going to be the greatest spiritual teacher of our lives, and I look forward eagerly to the new lessons about life and the practice that she’s going to teach me. You’ll hear about it here, as soon as it’s time.
In the meantime, thanks for reading, listening, or both. It’s been a joy to hear from some of you and know you’re finding the site helpful. Feel free to keep getting in touch via any of the means on the About page. I’ll write back while the baby’s sleeping.
Talk to you on the other side,
Sometimes “mindfulness” and “productivity” seem like twin memes. The best illustration of this is that it’s equally natural to pair another meme, “Zen,” with either one. The demands of the high-tech Western world have colonized its spirituality so thoroughly that a desk or an email inbox can produce “Zen” feelings, while sitting and doing nothing can produce terrible suffering.
Much has been made of the way “mindfulness” as a meme, particularly on the West Coast of America, has really arisen as a form of compliant concentration to increase productivity. All the best-selling apps and competitive health-tracking metrics for meditation and yoga certainly contribute to that appearance. All the giant, profit-driven corporations providing mindfulness time for their employees must at least hope it will increase returns for shareholders.
It makes some sense, actually. It could be argued that the fundamental benefit of mindfulness is to integrate into the world as it is. One practices mindfulness because one believes there’s less suffering in facing reality than in struggling pointlessly against it. If your reality is relentless productivity, why not incorporate mindfulness into that reality? In the best case, you can hope for everyone’s gradual awakening to the fact that, hey, we might be more productive in the long run if we chilled out a little bit.
But this productivity mentality goes down to a very personal, moment-by-moment level. I spent most of my sit this morning resisting meditation because it felt spiritually healthier to get up and start planning my work day. The sense of getting things done has become emotionally important to me, and it does feel like part of my mindfulness practice. Honestly, I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. But I do know that any strength built in meditation comes from not giving up, and that strength of will benefits both “mindfulness” and “productivity.” So even though productivity seemed like a good reason to get up, I sat with it anyway.
It’s clear that the objective of meditation is to cultivate a stable state of mindfulness that can be carried out into daily life. But I don’t know of any traditions of meditation instruction that just leave you with, “Okay, kid! Now get out there and be mindful!” There are always at least some practical tips about how to find moments of practice in daily situations. Many traditions go further and teach additional, more lifelike activities as meditation, to introduce aspirants to the contrast in a controlled environment.
The best known example is probably walking meditation, which doubles as a nice relief for the knees during long days of sitting. Walking meditation is not taught in a way that at all resembles normal walking. You go through painstakingly slow, detailed movements of lifting the foot, placing it down, straightening the leg, feeling each part of the stride. It sensitizes you to the vibrant panoply of sensations available during walking, which makes it much easier to transfer that awareness into day-to-day walking. Sitting still and thinking about it doesn’t translate quite as easily.
There’s a rich Zen tradition of assigning practitioners to all kinds of cooking and cleaning duties as part of their retreat or monastic residence, so that mindful toilet-scrubbing is no different from mindful sitting. Judaism has a comprehensive system of blessings said outside of structured prayer times for elevating many mundane activities: eating, drinking, going to the bathroom, washing your hands. For me, writing this blog is certainly another mindfulness practice bridging my meditation and my daily work.
It might not be enough to just use mild mental affirmations while going about your day. It builds mindfulness muscle memory to complement seated meditation with other, more active practices.
Meditation can be a lonely practice. All that really means is that the mind can be a lonely place. It seems to come with a sense of isolation from other minds. Sometimes it feels removed from anything “outside” — like there’s a gap, or a glass barrier, that cannot be crossed.
This is why spiritual teachers insist on practice in community, so at least words, gestures, and facial expressions can be lobbed across the gap or pressed against the glass. If the path feels too lonely, it can be demoralizing to the point of giving up. Or, perhaps worse than that, one can get lost without the friendly guidance of others, wandering aimlessly, in circles, or in the wrong direction.
Most of us can’t take the express train to spiritual community and become monastics. Luckily, the local will still get you there. There are religious and secular meditation groups all over the place. I’ve sat regularly with a few over my years of wandering around looking for home, and they’ve been anchors in times of rest and sails in times of motion.
This kind of community, though, is hard to build while wandering. The work of this practice takes a lifetime, and so does the work of building the companionship required to support it. And these are wandering times. There are millions of people searching desperately for home, and millions more less desperate, but still searching. The prophets of our time point to the internet as the great layer of community that can connect us all, even as we wander. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether you believe in that. But even if one can’t build a spiritual home on the shifting grounds of these times, at least one can smile across the gap to the person passing by.
In order to keep meditating with commitment and intensity day after day, it helps to bring to it a sense of novelty. That’s a tall order. It sure looks like meditation practice is just doing the same exact thing over and over again. That’s why it’s critical to learn to refresh the perspective on it.
A sense of repetitiveness and boredom destroys the will, and that’s more than enough to shut down the cycle of regular practice right there. In my experience, grimly hanging in there past that point can actually make things worse. Layering self-judgment and masochism on top of the suffering of boredom can start to do lasting emotional damage. Sure, you could try to work with all those negative feelings in meditation, but it’s probably best to head them off before they start.
The thing is, it’s not a trick; there really is novelty in every situation, even on the cushion. The light in the room is always a little different, the position of your body is always a little different, and your mix of thoughts and feelings is always way different from one moment to the next. I know, it sounds too cute to actually use this, but it’s true, and it works if you let it. Every single moment is different from the last. They’re all novel.
There’s one mental quality that can reliably generate the sense of novelty, and it can be boiled down to one word: curiosity. If you can learn to locate your sense of curiosity and feed it with mental energy, your ability to go, “Huh. What’s this?” will refresh any situation with novelty. It works on the cushion, it works when I don’t know what to write about my time on the cushion, and it works out in the world, too.
This time of year — the perfect part of autumn before the infernal end of Daylight Savings Time — my long morning walk begins right at sunrise. When I walk out the door, I’ve done nothing other than wake up, brush my teeth, drink water, and sit in meditation for 30 minutes, so a sunrise walk sounds just right.
I live in a big city, so this walk is often not as tranquil as it sounds. There are already people driving like maniacs through residential neighborhoods to avoid mayhem on the main roads, and I’m dodging them left and right. Mainly, what I enjoy about these walks is the quality of the light — how the glow of sunrise makes human habitations and morning routines seem silly and holy at the same time. Today, though, I was struck by one particular vision. Today, I saw the tree.
This tree was literally highlighted by the sunrise, so I’m not some kind of genius naturalist for discovering its beauty. Still, I walk this same route every single morning, and this gnarly, stout, Western tree has always blended in with the neighborhood until today. This morning, the tree was practically singing with significance. It showed me what it looks like to thrive in the midst of the city.
To say this experience took place “in my mind” does not seem accurate. It took place on the street; every creature and car and garbage can in the area was involved. I saw a tree, a feeling arose, it stimulated a thought, I noticed the thought — that all happened in my mind. But what it all meant — why I thought it mattered enough to write about — was that the neighborhood is an ecosystem. Look around your neighborhood today. Is that how people are treating it?
I don’t think you have to be religious about mindfulness by any means, but I do think it helps. For those of us who haven’t already crossed over into a timeless state where all of life is deep meditation, I think there is a mood that supports the practice in the sense that it helps to be “in the mood” to do it. Of course, it is critical to strengthen the practice by doing it even when one is not in the mood, but it is also possible to cultivate the mood, and that’s where religiousness can help.
I’m very carefully not saying what kind of religion helps, but obviously it would stand to reason that Buddhism has some things to offer. I use an alchemical combination of Buddhism and my native Judaism, and I think anybody with religious experience can probably find a place for mindfulness in their life. All that matters is that it’s a superstructure of mythic narrative that feels like it applies to you, whether you think of it as religious or not. The mechanism of action here is a story about who and what you are that gets you in the mood to meditate on it.
The story is not the point; the mood is the point. This is the kind of thing that gets me into hot water with more traditionally-minded people, and this is why my wife is going to be the rabbi, and I’m going to be leading the “alternative” meditation group in the little side chapel. But I’ll say it anyway: I think religion might be for regulating mood, and that’s very important! We can use this powerful technology of mythic place-finding for putting ourselves in an expansive, contemplative mood. In that mood, we can open to insight.
I don’t always feel an immediate, tangible benefit after I meditate, but it’s not exceedingly rare, either. Nor is it quite comparable to the euphoric relaxation after a hard workout; it’s harder to detect than that. But there is a sensation I can feel sometimes after I sit — maybe just for an hour after, maybe for the rest of the day.
There’s a shift in my perspective. It feels like I’m wavering on the line between everything being its normal, boring self and being utterly new, different, dazzling and strange.
I realize as I say it that this might sound scary. To me, it’s the opposite — it’s what I live for. The sensation is intimately familiar to me. In fact, this sensation might be what drove me to meditation in the first place. Since I was very young, I got occasional peeks behind the curtain of my habitual states of mind, and I was tantalized by the possibility that I could pull it back further. That’s what meditation seems to do.
In Buddhism, there are different schools of thought about whether enlightenment is gradual or sudden. I can’t tell yet. This sensation and perspective shift I’m describing feels like wavering back and forth between unenlightened and enlightened states. I think they’re getting clearer, more frequent, and more stable over time, but I’m not totally sure. And either way, who’s to say it won’t feel like five gees of acceleration when — okay, if — it really happens? All I can say for now is, I believe the shift is possible, whether it happens all at once or bit by bit.
I frequently hear people — often in the midst of expressing how stressed out they are — utter the phrase, “I should be meditating more.” I’m sure I utter it myself sometimes.
It’s a classic Western-style cause-and-effect thing: “I am stressed out, so if I meditate more, I’ll be more relaxed.” It’s like a diet or an exercise regimen. It treats meditation as a health remedy.
But is that really how meditation works? Does meditating more often reduce one’s stress level? I don’t have clinical evidence, but it’s certainly not that straightforward in my personal experience. If anything, the causal relationship is reversed; being stressed out causes me to meditate less, and when I’m less stressed out, I meditate more.
The amount of meditation I’m doing doesn’t seem to determine in any way when or how often I get stressed out. It’s possible that I respond better to being stressed out when I’ve been meditating frequently — that I notice my stress enough to cool my reactions and be more forgiving of myself and others — but it’s also possible I just believe that because it’s what all my teachers and books tell me is supposed to happen. I can’t actually measure that and know it to be true.
So — it seems fair to ask at this point — what does meditation do, and why does it generate anxiety about not doing it enough?
Meditation reveals the mind’s true nature. I think it’s important to let that be all it does. Loading the practice with relieving all neuroses and anxieties and aspirations fills it with distractions from the task at hand. Don’t overcomplicate it; attending to reality is all there is to do. “Should” is anxiety, and anxiety obscures reality. Insight may indeed reduce anxiety, but “should” will never let you get there.
Meditators are so serious about the word “practice.” All its connotations seem to fit so well with what it is we do on the proverbial cushion. Meditation is a “practice” in the sense that it’s practical — that it’s primarily about doing it rather than believing in it. It’s also a “practice” in the sense of rehearsal, a focused time to hone a skill in preparation for deploying it in the situations of our lives.
Here’s where my faith in that word tends to break down, though: When you practice with your band, you play the songs the way they’re really played. You pretend with the full force of your imagination that you’re playing the real show right now, and you’re playing the music the exact same way. Later, when you’re up on stage, the performance feels familiar — because you’ve practiced it — so your body and mind know just what to do.
Isn’t that the opposite of meditation practice?
How often do you find yourself in a situation — hours or even minutes after a lovely, quiet, mindful period of meditation — where you realize that all that lovely, quiet mindfulness has gone completely out the window? It happens to me daily. Some mundane situation — even a completely minor one — gets me so spun up that I react in exactly the opposite way I’d want to if I were fully present. Well, that situation is usually the polar opposite of sitting cross-legged in a quiet room with my eyes closed. So where’s the practice in this?
Maybe meditation is really more like exercise than practice, at least in this sense. You work on fundamental skills, leading to incremental improvements and — crucially — to faster recovery. Meditation is not for rehearsing life; it’s for building strength.
On Sundays, I wake up at the exact same time and do the exact same meditation practice that I do on Mondays. Younger versions of me would be horrified at this, but it’s true.
I do this for two reasons. The first is to maintain routine, which inculcates the practice — and it’s just how I like my life to be anyway — but it also makes the launch into the work week much less jarring if Monday starts off just like the Sunday before it.
The second reason is scientific. I impose some rigor on my daily practice in order to control for variables, so I can more clearly see results in the ongoing experiment that is my daily meditation practice. If I meditate in exactly the same way on Sunday as I do on a weekday, any differences in the experience will reveal something significant about my mind and my meditation on the weekend versus the workday.
And it is quite different. In my Sunday morning sits, there is far less projection about what’s going to happen today. The near future feels quiet and spacious, whereas on a weekday it often feels cramped and loud and intense. But even though I’m less concerned with particulars of what’s going to happen today, there’s an underlying general anxiety about whether I’m going to spend my time well today that feels exactly the same.
There’s so much to learn here! The experiment helps me separate out which feelings arise from fleeting concerns and which ones arise from more ongoing, deeper mysteries in my life.
This is just one example from one Sunday morning, but it speaks to a general lesson about the practice: To really see the contours of our mental landscape, it’s best to look from multiple angles.
It’s been months since my last retreat, and the memories of what it was like have faded. I remember some events, some visions, some teachings, the food. I certainly remember sitting in meditation a lot, but the vividness and intensity of what really happened in those sits is long gone.
But I remember it well enough to know that this meditation at home feels different. On retreat, I was sitting with my own stuff — deeply engrained tendencies and thought patterns, lifelong themes — and I was untangling them, loosening them. Don’t get me wrong; it was painful and frustrating, but it felt like progress.
At home, though — especially by the time Friday rolls around — my mind is so much more boring than that. All the energy in there is consumed by the stuff I’m already spending time on — whatever domestic, social, financial, or professional micro-dramas happen to be swirling around. I mean, I count my blessings. I could be preoccupied with past trauma or present danger, but I am privileged to spend my endless mental rehearsals mostly on very dull things.
I’m not alone here. I frequently hear about this kind of boring, neurotic, repetitive thought pattern as people’s primary obstacle in meditation — even the reason they stop doing it. Clearly, this is our work, but what is there to work with here?
I don’t want to lob this one in with some “come back to your breath” shtick, because this bugs me a lot personally. How do we turn this endless repetition into forward progress?
Maybe the mind is rehashing these mundane thoughts because it’s looking for something — it missed something. Maybe when we’re only half present in a moment of our lives, the other half of it comes back to haunt us. Then the cure is not to let go of it on the cushion, but to pay more attention in the real situation.
Here’s a paradox in meditation that bugs me sometimes:
On one hand, human beings are basically slight permutations of the same exact thing. We’re made of the same materials from the same instructions with only slight alterations. Certainly, we have different life experiences, but we’re all working with pretty much the same stuff. It stands to reason that, over countless generations, we would have figured out some ways of using these tools we all have that more or less work. That’s what the teachings about meditation are, it would seem — tried and true methods for wrangling this steed that is the human body-mind complex and riding it through life.
On the other hand, each of us is the foremost expert on our own minds that has ever existed and will ever exist for the rest of history. The exterior life of every human being can be summed up pretty simply, but the inner life is outrageously complex in radically different ways. The phantasmagoria of mental forms that fills a single moment can feel more vast than an entire day of external experience. Sure, we share many common forms of experience — we share common forms of eyeballs, too — but we can describe our eyeballs down to the molecular level of detail, yet we can try for hours to describe the quality of our experience and still have no idea whether someone has any clue what it’s like to be us. Even our own minds will seem wildly different tomorrow. So how can anyone else know what it takes to be present with my mind?
We can’t be sure. “Just come back to your breath,” the teachers say, “and the insight will work itself out,” and all we can do is trust them.
Hey, wait. What if trusting is actually the part that works?
I don’t think it’s a good idea to make any spiritual practice into a really big deal. The tendency is understandable — spirituality deals with the pain and difficulty of life. But it seems to me that treating pain and difficulty as a really big deal gives them more power and makes them hurt more. The practice is to bring lightness to our experience — to be gentle with it — so it will be gentle with us.
There are levels to this. Judaism does tend to make things into a big deal — mostly the big, public rituals. The rabbis might throw in an adorable note at some point like, “Remember: you are commanded… to have fun!”, but, you know, that doesn’t make it sound super fun. These are rituals for a culture with a penchant for the dramatic, and really the drama is a kind of fun. But that’s the exterior level; the interior of Jewish practice is serious, to be sure, but the real wisdom of the tradition is found in teachers who hold that seriousness with lightness and joy. Think of Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof — you know, if that’s your best reference for Jewish culture — or the ecstatic smiles of Ḥasidic masters. It’s a core teaching to walk lightly in this life.
Buddhism obviously teaches this as well. The Dalai Lama and Thích Nhất Hạnh — who both smile through practically every sentence of every teaching — are the best known living examples, but the classic Zen stories read just like funny Ḥasidic tales, and even the Buddha himself is recorded as having a tendency to goof around. In Buddhist terms, considering something a big deal is an expression of grasping and attachment. Everything is impermanent, so nothing is that big a deal.
The morning is a tragically underutilized resource. People seem to want to see as little of it as possible. Some people use this funny colloquialism that they’re “not a morning person” to absolve themselves from participation in the morning — whether they sleep through it or just sleepwalk through it — and everybody just nods and goes, “Oh, sure, I understand. Me either.”
Surely, sleep is a major factor here. We work hard — or at least we work a lot — so work gets up as early as it can. To compensate, we play hard, which keeps us up late, too. We use caffeine to get up, and alcohol to go down — plus whatever else — so we’re locked in a cycle. Like everything else in our society, sleep is a fungible commodity, so that’s what we cash in for all this waking-life stuff, and consequently, we hate the morning.
Well, I recuse myself from that “we.” I’m not going to say “I’m a morning person!”, because in our vernacular that translates to, “I wake up early to do 70 emails on my phone while running on a treadmill drinking coffee with the news on TV in the background.” I am an evangelist for the long morning.
I’m ashamed to talk about how long my morning is, because I work at home and have all kinds of other privileges. I’m only advocating the difference between waking up startled, immediately getting dressed, and maybe eating while on the way to work; and waking up calmly in the dark, moving the body a little, meditating, and then going about one’s business. The non-obvious thing about it is, it reliably mellows the mood. It lowers the temperature on the whole day, which improves sleep, which improves the morning. Suddenly, you’re a morning person!
Even in a nice, long sit that feels really good, there’s still a lot going on. For me, it’s a layered experience. The metaphor that immediately comes to mind is an active volcano. There’s billowing steam and smoke at the top, swirling and mixing and following chaotic courses — maybe exploding forcefully once in a while. There’s searing fire and magma in the middle, coursing forth, destroying old formations and making new ones, throwing off smoke and steam as it hisses and seethes. And there’s ancient, solid, unmoving bedrock at the bottom, formed by processes far more dramatic than all this. It abides for eons.
What I want to say about that state of meditation — from this place of analytical writing-mind — is that it’s like having multiple experiences at once. That’s not skillful language, though; if meditation reveals those layers to experience, they’re probably present in all experiences, aren’t they? So it’s more skillful to say that there are multiple layers of awareness available throughout our human experience, and the active, survival-oriented lens of our attention sweeps through them constantly, but it takes effort and concentration to see them simultaneously. Usually, we’re too freaked out for that. This is why meditation can provide us with insight.
Naturally, it’s tiring to sustain that expansive attention! The posture is very important to enduring this experience, which is why I recommend a knees-down, three-pointed sitting posture if physically possible. That stable, triangular seat embodies volcano consciousness. The legs and core are the mountain. The heart is the magma flow. The head is the billowing cloud. Embodying this whole volcanic system shows how each layer interacts and affects the others, driving planetary changes.
When you get up from your seat, don’t forget: You aren’t some floating, disembodied mind — you’re a volcano that moves!
When I started this site this summer, I wasn’t thinking about the High Holidays. I knew better than to commit to a “daily” blog, but I wanted this to be as regular as my meditation practice itself. I wouldn’t be writing on Shabbat, so there would be six posts a week at most, but I didn’t think that would trouble anybody. “Daily-ish” seemed like a good enough description, since it also allowed for the occasional off day.
But then Rosh Hashanah took its two days, and then it was Shabbat again. Yom Kippur took its day, and then it was Shabbat again, and then it was Ḥag Sukkot. I had missed a lot of Grind Well days by that point! I sat my usual morning sit on the first morning of Sukkot, and then I considered writing a post anyway… but my heart wouldn’t let me! I’ve made observing Jewish sacred time — during which there’s a practice of not writing — part of the practice of Grind Well.
I’m not super strict about my religious observances, but blogging on holy days of rest just feels like something I should not do. It has been interesting to watch myself grow into adult Jewish life and learn that I don’t just get to pick and choose the parts that matter to me. They present themselves.
How does this fit into Grind Well? This site is intended for anyone who meditates, Jewish or not. But I think these religious instincts I’m playing with are key to my practice. They form the vessel that contains and defines it. Jewish community plays the role of sangha for me; it’s my spiritual family. Its customs are all mindfulness practices, and sharing them grounds us all in the presence of those around us.
Every time I meditate, I feel grateful to have this spiritual practice — and hobby, for that matter — that requires no money, no tools, no books, no drugs, no travel or meetings, nothing but my time. I’m wary of dependencies, and I already have so many dependencies in my life that it’s reassuring to have meditation as this one strong thread of independence.
It’s not complete, radical independence, which may not even exist. Indeed, I’m dependent on all kinds of people and things in my life just to have the one ingredient of meditation: time. And I’m not even talking about all the other people, systems, and forces that provide me with food, clothing, and shelter to survive. If it’s even possible to have independence from that in the world anymore, I don’t think that independence is worth having.
The independence of meditation practice is a simple freedom of choice: Am I going to pay attention to this moment or not?
I’m grateful to have that choice because not very many choices about consequential things are that simple. Life is mostly made of fraught, exhausting choices. Even basic survival choices — Am I going to eat this bread? Am I going to eat this meat? — are totally loaded. But there’s no risk — no downside at all — to choosing to take one mindful breath. We only resist because it seems harder than succumbing to some baser impulse… but it isn’t. There’s nothing easier.
When you start to think of it in big blocks of time, like the ones you make on your calendar, then the choice starts to seem hard. But that isn’t the real choice. The choice is: This breath — yes or no? Next breath — yes or no? You can say yes to as many breaths as you want.
There is one benefit to a break from regular practice. It may not outweigh the drawbacks — or the benefits of consistency — but it’s something. Coming back to the practice after a gap, there is a palpable sense of return. If cultivated sincerely and in balance with all aspects of the practice, that sense of return can be of serious spiritual benefit.
I realized this on Yom Kippur, the spiritual peak of the monthlong Jewish High Holiday season that’s now almost done altering my routine. Yom Kippur is an intense 25-hour period of purification, fasting, prayer, and teshuvah — usually translated in the West as “repentance,” though many Jews have come to prefer a more literal, less loaded translation of teshuvah: return.
Teshuvah is a return to what you are: a creation of the Divine. Mistakes and missteps accumulate along the way, and they form obstacles and distractions on the path. Western culture has coined the loaded word “sin” for those actions that knock us from the path. The Hebrew word for what we’re really repenting for, though — ḥet — doesn’t connote the eternal damnation that “sin” does. It means “missing the mark.” As in, “Pick up your bow, and try again. You’ll get it next time.”
That, I hope, reminds you of meditation practice. What is the spiritual practice of returning, whether in prayer or meditation? Picking up the bow and trying again. We know this feeling, even if we haven’t consciously felt it for months. We can always return.
And not just in prayer or meditation, but in all our conduct. Even during lapses in spiritual practice, we’re still taking aim — sometimes missing, sometimes hitting the bullseye — all day long. The confidence of taking aim is the practice. The joy of hitting the mark balances the despair of missing it. This is the essence of what we are!
As ugly and crazy as it can get, the beautiful thing about the human mind is that it can always come back to what it is: a vast, expansive awareness.
There are lots of reasons to do daily meditation practice in the morning. It starts the day off right, it separates between private and public time, it cuts off that morning cortisol spike. But for me, the big one is that it’s quiet in the morning.
Our society has not optimized for quiet. We’ve built these monstrous, concrete urban environments and adorned them with car horns and leaf blowers and jackhammers, and it’s giving the birds PTSD and the humans heart problems. Noise is the new secondhand smoke, and I have to meditate before 8 AM if I want to avoid suffocating on it.
Sometimes it occurs to me that this might not be the most skillful way to practice. The world does have noise — it’s probably best to learn to be mindful in a noisy environment. I’m going to great lengths to avoid the noise of my street, sometimes even sacrificing needed sleep in order to sit before the city wakes up. This feels like aversion, which is a fundamental Buddhist no-no. I know my teachers on retreat would say to sit with the noise, to let it be a reminder to come back to center, to be grateful for that. Wouldn’t that be nice.
I think this needs to be a both/and situation. It is important to practice mindfulness in noisy environments, because that’s the real world. But it might also be the case that the level of public mindfulness is so low that people don’t even realize how absurdly noisy the environment is — or what it’s doing to their physical and mental health. This could be a political issue for meditators. Protect our ears, hearts and minds! Stop polluting our world with distractions!
Imagine what might happen if everybody could finally hear themselves think.
Okay, I’ll admit it: I have a tendency toward emotional crash landings after prolonged stressful experiences. I can hold it together for 97% of the ordeal, but once we start getting close to home, I let go of my resolve a little early. I turn selfish, less willing to help or support others. I might lash out irritably if asked to do so. All I want is to curl up in a ball and not be bothered until I recover.
If I could make it to 100% — like, into bed with the lights off after the whole thing is over — I would get away with it; I might still feel this way, but no one would notice. I don’t think the meltdown is the problem, it’s the inability to hang on for that final three percent of the journey.
It seems like mindfulness practice ought to help with this. But there’s a catch-22: Prolonged stressful experiences often blow away the practice right when it’s most needed.
I’m talking about long travel days, big clean-up projects, insane work sprints, things that must get done above all else. I bet everybody has emotional triggers in that kind of situation. Isn’t that exactly when mindfulness training should kick in? It’s just like a distracting thought during meditation, right? You’ve cultivated the detachment necessary to see it, pause, and release it, instead of being swept away.
I still got swept away yesterday, though, and I don’t know whether I would have done better if I had meditated for 30 minutes beforehand. I certainly don’t think that single session would have undone my reactive tendencies. But maybe the state of mindfulness and receptivity would have been more available in memory. Maybe creating one good memory each day is what adds up to lifelong transformations.
Meditation practice is typically taught as a stable routine — something to do every single day in more or less the same way. This makes sense. We are creatures of habit, as the cliché puts it; we tend to do what we are used to doing. That’s why we spend so much time in states of distraction and anxiety — because we get used to it — and breaking up that time with a repeated, deliberate mindfulness habit is a way of getting used to something else.
For me, this rationale breaks down in certain times of year, during stretches of special time in which nothing can be routine day in and day out. September is always like that in my world; it’s festival time.
My understanding of the word “festival” comes from the Jewish tradition, where it refers to designated times of year for ritual celebration — part of a stable annual routine, if you will, but specifically intended to break up the daily routine. There’s basically three solid weeks of this every September.
That comes immediately after Burning Man — which lasts two weeks if you’re me. We say Burning Man is not a festival but rather a kind of temporary zone of alternative civics, but this is just to contrast it with the consumeristic, passive events to which the word “festival” has become attached by the entertainment industry. By the Jewish definition, Burning Man most certainly is a festival.
So that’s over a month straight of disrupted routine for me each year. How can I maintain my meditation practice through that? I could try my damndest to preserve 30 minutes of “normal” time in every 24 hours of festival time, but that feels too much like resistance. What I’m trying this year is to treat all festival time as practice time. I’m letting the awareness of special time become a kind of posture, so that every moment becomes enlivened with the deeper intentionality of festival consciousness. Meanwhile, I’m working my sitting practice in wherever I can, so it’ll be primed and ready when routine time returns.
We’ve reached an interesting juncture here at Grind Well. After a solid first month of posts, that big looming thing I wrote about a couple weeks ago has now arrived. At 6 AM tomorrow morning, I’m leaving for Burning Man.
Now, I have no intention of letting that disrupt my sitting practice, but I expect it will cause a slowdown in blogging. I’m not saying I’m not going to post from Burning Man — it’s actually my job to be one of the few people out there still on the internet. I don’t want to get into the weeds about whether or not it’s in accordance with the 10 Principles to blog from the playa; let’s just say for now that I’m going to be pretty absorbed in the offline world around me out there.
I’m always writing at Burning Man, though, so don’t be surprised if I do pop up, and if I don’t, I’ll have good material for when I get back.
Also, while I’m out there, my mom is going on her first multi-day meditation retreat! Isn’t that awesome? Maybe we’ll do some kind of micro-interview about it here.
This first month of Grind Well has been really fun and rewarding. Part of me expected I would still be scarred from the dark times of having to blog every day, but I’ve stumbled into a magical formula for this site. I’m actually a little sad my daily-ish blogging routine is getting disrupted at this early point. But it’s been enough time to establish the practice. Grind Well will be one of the things I’m excited to come back to at the end of what is always a rewarding but exhausting adventure.
Thank you so much for following along this far. It’s been amazing to hear from a few of you, especially to hear this is inspiring your own practice. Please do keep reaching out. Like I said in the first post building an online mindfulness community is one of my reasons for doing this.
And hey, if you’ll be at Burning Man, let me know. We should sit together! It’ll keep our brains on the rails.
Talk to you when the next opportunity arises,
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