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,
Last night, I ate my dinner too hungrily, and I burned the roof of my mouth. Now it’s eight in the morning, and it hurts to drink my tea. This is what I get for succumbing to my cravings. It’s nice to get feedback this instantaneous and clear! It’s not always so easy to see the harm in succumbing to animal desires.
That’s because the harm isn’t always so personal. It doesn’t always come right back to us. It flows downstream.
When you cut someone off in traffic, you get a little jolt of feeling, and then you refocus on what’s in front of you: your destination. The person you cut off, though, is staring at the back of your head as it recedes into the distance and wishing they could shoot lasers out of their eyes.
When you make a joke at someone’s expense, some people laugh with you. You all feel the pleasures and joys of scintillating conversation, and you move onto the next topic. But the person who was the butt of the joke might remember that shame for the rest of his or her life.
When you live an affluent Western lifestyle, you experience delights and comforts through goods made by the hard labor of others; you spend leisure time in fantasy realms while others mine the metals needed to make the devices that take you there; you choose what you want to eat from all the world’s delicacies, and they fly in a refrigerated airplane to you, while the atmosphere warms, the ice melts, the seas rise towards the homes of unknown, distant others.
A hundred years from now, what will people think of our generation if we just keep obeying our appetites?
Meditation seems to lead me towards an ever more universal perspective on human life. The more I sit with myself, the more I encounter a radical individuality that actually undermines my sense of distinctiveness.
When I remove the distractions of the details of my life, it reveals this crazy panoply of things that are always going on underneath — way more than what’s happening on the surface. And it frequently occurs to me that everybody has this. This is just what having a human brain is like. What’s going on for us all, at the root of everything, is mostly the same. All that varies is levels of awareness, plus some minor details.
This is what’s frustrating about this era’s political, religious, and otherwise tribal upheavals. There is some threshold of scale at which human beings — from their default perspectives enmeshed in worldly concerns — will consider a problem important enough to fight about, and that scale is not nearly big enough.
In a given day, one could make a long list of contentious issues that have erupted into conflict, halting progress towards solutions while people fight about them. On one end of this list, some issues threaten the entire world. But because of this infernal threshold in the default human mind, people spend whole careers on inconsequential problems at the other end of the list and think they’re doing good.
Human civilization could be wiped out while people — operating at the individual or small group end of the scale — squabble about things that only threaten those small-scale identities. But my point isn’t even that extreme. There’s so much work to do on alleviating underlying suffering and alienation that would benefit individuals and groups vastly more than fighting little territorial battles with one another. It shouldn’t require universal love and understanding to see that. If we could just take better care of ourselves as we really are, that love would arise on its own.
Caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, cannabis. Anti-depressants. Painkillers. You can learn a great deal about a society from looking at which drugs it proscribes, which it prescribes, and which it sells at every grocery store and gas station.
I’m obsessed with this amateur sociological analysis of mine. My favorite history book of the past few years was Blitzed by Norman Ohler, which is an assessment of Nazi Germany through this lens — and man, were the Nazis on drugs! Reading this book as an early-21st-century American, I recognized it as different in emphasis… but not that different in degree.
My society discusses drug use as an “epidemic.” It also wages “war” on it, so it’s a mixed metaphor. The point is, our language treats drugs as really bad, but we use them a lot. Doesn’t seem like a hopeful situation.
There’s a philosophical question that motivates my inquiry: What is the nature of the suffering we’re treating with all these drugs? Taken individually, it seems easy to trace: Caffeine? Exhaustion. Nicotine? Too much caffeine. Alcohol? Too much nicotine and caffeine, plus a bit of sadness about what we spent the energy of those drugs on today.
Well, that one is tougher than it seems, isn’t it? Is everyone suffering in the opioid epidemic in pain? Maybe not the way doctors mean, but… arguably!
So what kind of pain is everybody in? When you add up all this drug use, the diagnosis looks much more complex. But some things can still be plainly said about it. On a mass scale, people are in unsatisfactory mental states. The easiest ways out make them dependent on drug pushers.
What if there’s another way out, and it’s always available and never runs out?
I never get up from a meditation session and think to myself, “I wish I hadn’t done that.” Even when I’ve spent the entire sit in a distracted fog of neutral-to-unpleasant thoughts, I still have a sense that I’m better off than if I hadn’t sat at all.
What is the redeeming value of an unpleasant sit? Actually, I think sitting practice retains most of its important qualities even when you’re not into it. It still reinforces the discipline and intentionality it takes to sit down in the first place, instead of weakening it by skipping. It still reminds the body of the posture and its timing in the rhythm of the day.
Personally, I find great mindfulness and clarity in the first few minutes of whatever I do after I meditate, no matter how well the sitting went. Even if I didn’t do much meditating on the cushion, I do some while making tea or writing Grind Well posts.
The quality of the meditation itself is almost beside the point. Deep concentration can convey everything it has to offer in one moment — it doesn’t have to be today. On any given day, the most important element of the practice is keeping it going, reinforcing meditation in the pattern of one’s life.
After all, if meditation were only something we did while nothing was going on in our minds, we wouldn’t be practicing for anything! The skill we’re developing in this practice is to come back to mindfulness in any situation.
Here’s an exercise: When practice is unpleasant, imagine that the mind is trying to help you prepare for life’s realities. Anything can be turned into fuel for the practice.
After working on it for a month and a half, I finally finished writing the full story of my meditation retreat this summer. Writing the story is an important part of my process of integrating an experience like that. It accomplishes three things: it records the memories in a form that will always vividly evoke them for me, it ties this chapter into my ongoing life story, and it helps me identify what I learned.
The learning is the most interesting part to me. I tend to come out of a long adventure like a meditation retreat with some key points. The way I write the story of what happened — and you’ll see, it’s a long story — is by outlining it in terms of those key points and what brought me to them. I don’t write about everything that happened, just the moments, events and experiences that brought me to those discrete realizations, and I state what they are in the story. It’s really the story of what I learned, not the story of what happened.
That has interesting implications for the memories I’m recording and the “life story” I’m stitching together. Memory is weird; it’s not like I can control which experiences I’m going to remember, so surely I’ll remember things that didn’t make it into the story. But I’m still framing my memory of the retreat in terms of learnings that mattered to me at the time. Will those still be the important takeaways in 20 years? And as for the story of my life, that’s clearly something I’m constructing as well. These long essays I write are trying to make me into someone who did this and learned that. Will these still be the stories I tell when I’m looking back?
This weekend in traditional Judaism, there was a lot of talk about animal sacrifices. We read the regular daily offerings, the additional offerings for Shabbat, a Torah portion that gets into the topic, and the services for a new lunar month — it involved a lot of slaughtering. In the lunch line, two vegetarian boys in the Bat Mitzvah’s class raised strenuous objections to the prevalence of animal sacrifice in our tradition. “It’s God,” one of them said. “If He wants animals so bad, why can’t He just kill them Himself?”
There are not enough words ever spoken by humankind for me to express how much I loved this question. What surprised me is that I have an answer now: The core of that practice was not about the killing or the animals — both of which would have been easier to handle in their cultural context than they are for us. What was hard for ancient Israelites about sacrifice was offering up the choicest parts of their livelihoods in service of the Divine.
In our era — even for farmers, I would suggest — there’s something much harder for us to sacrifice now: time. That’s why the rabbis were able to successfully convert the ancient sacrifices into the lengthy prayer services we now do instead. Our spiritual practice asks us to give up a daily portion of our most precious resource in service of things beyond ourselves.
Daily meditation is a time offering. That’s one of the hard parts. But I think that’s also what accounts for the qualitative difference between sitting for 20 minutes and sitting for 30. That extra push beyond what might feel comfortable helps us get used to going beyond the bounds of our own desires. That’s great practice for living life in service to the world.
For mindfulness to have any ethical weight, it must involve looking out at the world. It’s not enough to just sit there and be concerned with oneself. Some teach that the practice won’t even work if that’s all you do. It’s a beautiful teaching: Yes, you can liberate yourself, but the catch is, there is no liberation of self without the liberation of all beings. Justice is a precondition of enlightenment.
But, to my Western-conditioned mind, it’s harder to deal with the outside than the inside. I may struggle mightily with my habits and tendencies, but at least I can generate an illusion of comprehending them. Even if I’m only fooling myself into thinking I can grasp my own problems, that gives me confidence to keep facing them, and that’s all it takes to make a breakthrough.
But the world’s problems? It’s hard to even try to understand those. Right now, California is on fire, my friends’ houses are burning down, and apparently police think one of these fires was deliberately set by a crazy person. How can we sympathize with that?
I guess the point is not to comprehend the actions or motivations, but to identify with the suffering. The desire to “burn it all down” could describe precisely this frustration with the inability to comprehend the world. The thing is, as the Buddha said, everything is already ablaze. Striving to set it on fire is useless. All we can do is avoid getting burned, so we can do the work to put it out.
When practicing mindfulness, enjoyable mental states can be just as challenging as unpleasant ones.
On the basic level, there’s grasping and attachment. Something feels good, and you don’t want it to end — pretty understandable. But this is a practice of deeply understanding and accepting that everything ends. The way to practice that is to let it happen, even if it hurts. After all, in your life off the cushion, it’s going to happen whether you let it or not, so exploring that feeling in meditation is practice in the truest sense.
Sometimes mental states aren’t just pleasurable, they’re productive, and this brings the challenge a level deeper. Letting go of a nice feeling hurts, but another one will come along soon enough. Letting go of a state in which you feel like you’re accomplishing something or getting somewhere can feel downright destructive.
When I get into a creative state of mind, it’s like a magician pulling multicolored handkerchiefs out of his sleeve; each idea pulls out another idea, and another, and another. Sometimes it gets ridiculous. There’s often one or two good ones in there, though. It takes every fiber of my being to let them flutter away while I’m meditating. I live on having good ideas. Letting them go feels like dying!
Occasionally, I simply must write down an idea during meditation, so I can calm down and sit again. I forgive myself for that. But the trouble with ideas is, not all ideas come to life, and being creative requires accepting that. This practice has got to involve letting some creative darlings die. When a good feeling goes away, it takes faith to believe another one will come along. Creativity requires that same faith in good ideas. Practice ideas during productive time. Practice faith during contemplative time.
I had to take my car to the mechanic at 7 AM this morning, which threw off the ol’ routine. I could have just let it go, but I sensed an opportunity to keep my daily exercise and meditation intact in a creative way.
The exercise part was easy: It was still early enough that there would be shade on one side of the street, and I’m always up for a bit of an urban hike. I’ll walk home.
As for meditation, that seemed trickier. I wouldn’t have much time between getting home and starting work. Maybe I’d take half an hour at lunch, or maybe I’d just have to find five- or 10-minute chunks wherever I could.
Meanwhile, there’s an hour left in my walk, and I have no idea what’s been happening for the past 15 minutes of the podcast I put on without a second thought the moment I left the mechanic. I was too distracted by worrying about meditation to pay attention.
This irony sunk in pretty quickly. Clearly, I have not been cultivating my Just Walking practice as much as my Just Sitting. I thought back to the walking periods on my last retreat and remembered how beautiful each step felt. I noticed each bone and muscle and tendon and ligament collaborating to make it happen. Meanwhile, walking in the city, I’m just like a floating ghost of pure information processing while my body runs on autopilot. Time to put the AirPods away and listen to the world!
I wouldn’t say walking from Santa Monica to West LA on Pico Boulevard at 7:30 AM is the most calming meditation I can think of, but it definitely reveals truths about human life.
The first meditation instruction is almost always to bring attention to the breath. Sometimes it’s framed as a way of settling in. You can use the breath to slow down, to lower the heart rate, to relax the body, to open up the posture and get comfortable — after all, you’re going to be there a while.
Once you’re settled in with the breath, the next instruction might redirect you elsewhere, but sometimes there’s one last reminder about the breath: You can always come back to it. The great thing about the breath is, no matter what happens, it’s always there.
I might have undervalued this reminder. It has struck me in the past as a beginner instruction — like, if the practice gets too hard, don’t worry, you can always run away and do baby meditation until you feel better. I’m way too arrogant for that crap. Give me the hard stuff!
Well, that’s an easy attitude to swing around when you aren’t being challenged — that is to say, when you’re an overconfident beginner, as I have been — but this stuff gets pretty hard sometimes, even when the instructions are simple. You don’t get “the hard stuff” from the teacher; you bring that in yourself.
Sometimes, whatever’s coming up is so powerful and all-encompassing, it takes you all the way away. While sitting this morning, I was so swirled up in the challenging emotions of a looping, vivid memory that I forgot where my breath was. I stopped breathing! I was snapped out of the trance by my body’s insistence that I breathe, and I had to consciously remind myself of that fundamental instruction: “The breath is always there.” I only found it once I remembered to look. One mindful in-breath, one mindful out-breath, and there I was again.
On one hand, I want meditation to be a mundane, routine health activity that fits unremarkably into my life, like chores or exercise. This attitude is actually pretty hard to cultivate, since meditation is so weird and intense. But if I treat it accordingly, the practice is freighted with significance that leads me to overthink it and fret about it. It seems more stable and sustainable to get used to meditation in an ordinary, lifelong way, so it’s suffused into everything I do.
On the other hand, I want meditation to be a sacred spiritual practice. I want to treat it with reverence and awe, because I am in awe of what it has produced in my life. The practice always brings up profound gratitude — to the teachers who taught it to me, to the people around me who support me in my practice, and to myself, for giving myself this gift of time each day to be still and listen to the pulse that enlivens this life. I want to recognize how special meditation is, so I can bring its quality of specialness along into everything I do.
This feels like a tension, but the tension doesn’t manifest in my actual sitting practice. The tension is playing out in my behavior surrounding sitting time. Do I wake up, work out, shower, meditate, have breakfast, and go about my day? Or do I frame the sitting practice with ritual washing, donning sacred garments, praying the morning service, and learning words of Torah? Forgive me for uttering the Western Meditator’s Cliché, but there’s only so much time in the morning. How should I spend it?
I’m sure these distinctions between ritual and routine are just category errors in a confused, transitioning world. But how do we make ordinary life sacred again?
This morning, I did something I usually bend over backwards to avoid doing: I looked at my phone before meditation.
I’m ordinarily repulsed by the very idea of seeing my notifications before I have to. I think what got me today is that I didn’t look at it last night after Shabbat was over, so it had been about 40 hours since I got a notification. The horror!
I allowed myself to think picking up the phone on my desk would put me at ease. I’d see a few trivial notifications, feel relieved that I didn’t miss anything, put down the phone and have an absolutely blissful sit. Oh, the stories we tell ourselves in order to give in to our cravings!
You can imagine what happened instead. I was finally able to snap out of it after 10 minutes, put the phone back down, and go sit, but “blissful” is hardly the word I’d use to describe it.
Here’s what I observed: Breaking the notification seal in the morning creates a pinprick-sized stress vortex in the center of my brain that feels identical to the one I get when I drink too much coffee. Maybe it’s adrenaline. There’s some tiny but insistent voice saying, “Go. Move. Run. Get out of there.” I don’t know about you, but I do not want to start my morning that way unless I’m being stalked by a wild animal, which is exactly what this mental alarm system feels like it’s designed for.
In our high-tech society, that ancient stress signal doesn’t correlate with actual danger. Whatever it’s about, it can almost always wait! Waiting to look at the phone should be considered part of the daily meditation practice. The inevitable deluge of information should be contained by the practice, not the other way around.
I have something big coming up in a couple weeks, and it’s bringing up a flood of distracting thoughts. A big disruption to my routine looming two or three weeks out, ticking closer, feels almost radioactive to me. Four weeks out, I start to detect the faintest whisper above the background noise. By three weeks, I can feel it heating up. Next week at this time, if my well learned pattern holds, I’ll be sweating bullets.
What is this heat, or radiation, or whatever dangerous metaphor I choose? Like any emotional state, I don’t think there are precise words for it. Anxiety is one component — runaway thoughts about what it might be like, what I might have to do, what might be difficult or unpleasant about it. Some of it is positive, though! There are things to look forward to. Excitement, anticipation, nervousness — it’s all there. All of that, radiating at me from a fast-approaching point in the near future, is pretty constantly distracting, especially when I’m on the cushion with my eyes closed.
This is a tricky one. I can hear Rav James’s voice telling me to locate the feeling in my body, to be curious and open to what that’s like, to watch the sensation arise and recede and realize the thoughts on which I’ve been fixating are just turbulence riding on transient waves of sensation. That’ll get me as far as it goes before the next wave is totally different. But I think the real insight comes when the long-dreaded experience actually arrives, and it has all the depth and color and richness of reality, instead of the monotony of some repetitive thought. The way out of this cycle is probably to realize you can never anticipate what some future present moment will actually be like.
The last couple days, I’ve been getting sleepy by the end of my morning sit. I don’t know what to do about it other than examine it, so I have been, and I am starting to learn some things about sleepy mind.
When it’s starting to kick in, the thought patterns seem like ordinary, distracted trains of thought about whatever, so if I catch them quickly, I can snap back into concentration. But if the thoughts get a long enough leash, they suddenly become much more vivid and absurd, more like night dreams than daydreams. Those are also more captivating, so it’s hard to get out of the spiral once that happens.
Before I know it, my head nods, or my hands slip from my knees, and I’ve entered a dozing cycle that I might not be able to break without standing up. There’s a common instruction, short of standing up, to open the eyes slightly to let some light in to wake you up, but by the time I’m nodding out, that never works for me; my eyes just close on their own.
On retreats — at least the friendly, Western ones I’ve been on — the teachers often give permission to stand up in front of your cushion if you can’t stay awake sitting down, but that’s an extreme intervention that seems more called for on an intense retreat. At home, I’d rather push through and experience sleepiness, which is, of course, one of the Five Hindrances, and so needs to be fully understood.
Sleepiness is a real obstacle in life, and it seems worthwhile to work with it. Clearly, though, it′s also a sign with plain meaning: Get more sleep!
I find it useful to think about spiritual practices as responses to our animal instincts. Very early in human history, it became necessary to sublimate many of our instinctive, evolutionarily adaptive behaviors, so that we could start living together and cooperating in more complex, constructive ways. This was no mean feat; we needed technologies to support this transformation, and that′s what I believe spiritual practices are.
Today, we’re so far from our instinctual state in every conceivable way, we flatter ourselves that we don’t need to sublimate it anymore. We’ve reached a neo-mythological state of modernity. High-tech consumer life is nicely set up for us to take care of those pesky animal instincts before we even notice them. Powerful appetites and drives — food, sex, violence — all of this can just be bought now in safe little packages. Meanwhile, religious practices that make you work for your sublimation are no longer so popular.
Of course, the consumer approach doesn’t sublimate the instincts at all; it just represses them, which stresses our psyches to the breaking point. That’s why I believe the acceleration of modern life actually makes spiritual practice more important.
These conditions also make establishing a spiritual practice harder, though. The world is so incoherent that it’s hard to accept any faith claims about what does or does not work. After years of back and forth, I’ve realized I actually need two spiritual systems: Judaism to redirect animal instincts through storytelling and ritual, and Buddhist-style meditation to quiet them through atomization, exploration, and non-attachment. Sure, it’s more work than watching mixed martial arts while eating processed meats, but I daresay it’s healthier.
It’s so important to remember how negative emotions provide inspiration for practice. There are so many counterproductive ways one can use negative emotions — dwelling on them, obsessing over them, getting angry or sad about them. Every once in a while, it occurs to me I can transform them into the desire to meditate, and it’s such a relief!
But how is that done? Sitting in a stew of negative emotions and just dealing with it seems rather unpleasant, which is bound to bring up some aversion. Meditation might not alleviate the feeling one is in right now, but it can transform associated feelings — like fear of a difficult or painful thing happening again — and realizing there’s a way forward can lift the spirits.
One of the negative emotions I’m working with right now is embarrassment. This feeling arises when I’ve done something inappropriate to a situation, and I either notice in the moment or reflect on it later. If I had been more mindful — more aware of my thoughts and feelings, more in control of my actions — in the fateful situation, perhaps I could have avoided the embarrassment. Perhaps I’d have a clearer, more objective memory of what happened that would give me some perspective now, so I wouldn’t feel so badly about it.
By tapping back into my practice, I can prepare for the next situation. No matter the cause or the particular difficult emotion, mindfulness offers readiness that can dull the blow or dodge it entirely. When dwelling on negative feelings, the key is to remember impermanence — this negative feeling will end, there will be a next time, I’ll get another chance. Wanting to be more ready next time, so it isn’t so difficult, is a fine motivation for practice.
Airplanes are great places for meditation. It may seem difficult at first, between the noise, the cramped space, and the myriad anxieties travel tends to introduce, but those challenges make for great practice.
That’s just the beginning, though. I think being up in an airplane has unique benefits to meditation practice.
Have you ever noticed how a movie you thought was sappy and boring on the ground can move you to tears on a long-haul flight? It’s not just you; this is a well known phenomenon. Maybe it’s related to the Overview Effect. High altitude puts things on the ground into perspective, generating empathy and compassion for everything and everyone below — and these effects can last a long time after returning to earth.
The transitional aspect of travel is also good for meditation. It’s easy to notice impermanence while traveling — you’re coming from an experience that has ended and going towards one that has not yet begun.
It can be harder to experience impermanence in the “This, too, shall pass” sense when one encounters the inevitable stresses of disrupted travel plans, but, of course, that’s a great practice opportunity. And what better feeling is there for a traveler than finally settling into your assigned seat after crossing hell and high water to make your flight? When I finally make it to that moment, I instinctively close my eyes, take a deep breath and say, “Thank you!”
I’ve heard it said by many teachers that sitting down to meditate should feel like coming home. That is, if you think about it, a simile of travel. And if it’s good practice for meditation to have a sense of travel, how much moreso for travel to have a sense of meditation?
I’ve been on an island for the past five days, and it’s doing something to my mind. The more I relate to the sand and the waves, the birds and the bugs, the fish and the crabs, the wind and the rain, the sun and the clouds, the stars and the full moon and the close approach of Mars, the less I have to say about it all.
No teaching seems more appropriate than the greatest hit from the Shurangama Sutra treasured in Zen Buddhism. To the Buddha of this story, the truth is a finger pointing at the moon. When we’re overthinking it, we look for the truth in the flesh of the pointing finger — more real to us than the luminous and distant moon. Words for what I’m feeling out here on the island seem like tiny fingers pointing pointlessly at the moon. Raising my arm and extending my finger separates me from that heavenly reality.
The teaching is not that the moon is the truth, though; the truth is the relationship between the finger and the moon. The moon has always been up there, as far as we animals are concerned. But every month, we still point that full moon out to one another because it’s awesome to behold. The beholder and the beheld are brought together in the act of beholding. We point out the moon because it is a relief to share an experience with another.
Islands are not alone. They are linked by air, water, light, and life. I don’t need to tell you what happened on this island in words. It’s the difference between pointing at the moon and gazing into your eyes.
Meditating every single day seems really daunting if you imagine it as 30 (or so) minutes of inflexible time. If that seems unmanageable in a given day, there can be an impulse to just throw up one’s hands and not sit at all.
But it’s easy to reframe the practice to get around that impulse. As Rav James said at the end of the retreat I just got back from, “you can always find five minutes.” I don’t think I’ve ever had a day so busy that I couldn’t squeeze any part of it by five minutes. For me, that′s the minimum amount of time it takes for sitting practice to feel like meditating and not merely relaxing, but it’s enough time to feel like I’ve “done it” today.
As someone who has tried to do something as epically long as Jewish daily prayer every day, I’m grateful for the flexibility of meditation practice. I also know from all that experience with ritual that the sense of having “done it” today — or not — is a discrete part of inculcating a spiritual practice, and it works whether I meditate for five minutes or 60 — as long as I kept stoking the fire of my practice today.
I still wonder whether this implicates the quality of my practice, though. Is “doing it” for five minutes as beneficial as “doing it” for 30? I think the only possible answer to that question is, “it doesn’t matter.” It matters whether one practices today or not, but not because of how many cushion-minutes one racks up. It’s not even that one more sit matters — it’s keeping on sitting that matters.
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