Struggling Practice

My meditation practice has really been a struggle lately. I’ve managed to make time daily for 69 consecutive days for meditation, but the practice seems to be getting more difficult. I’m not sure what to make of this or what to do to bust through the wall. Maybe I’m being too impatient and hard on myself. I didn’t expect to see a bunch of positive effects at this point, but I guess I didn’t expect things to get more difficult with time either. I thought the act of sitting and mindfulness would get steadily smoother and come more naturally.

I’m going to keep with it and start going to a meditation class that is offered at Wilmington Yoga Center. I’ve never gone to one and am kind of nervous (as I always am in a new environment) but one of the books I’m reading (Everyday Zen) pretty strongly argues that a group setting is necessary for a strong practice. Hopefully, it will help. I don’t want to give up, this is one of the first daily practices I’ve ever stuck with (even my blogging goes through weeks of nothingness) but I’m a bit disheartened.

Maybe this is all just part of the journey.

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Joy

I bought a lawnmower a couple weeks ago and I love it. It is a super, sweet $40 push mower that doesn’t require any gas or electricity. Instead, it is powered by calories and it is perfect for our small yard (1,200 square feet is small, right?). I could have opted for a more advanced lawn mower, but that would have been crazy. Why would I spend more money on an object that reduces my pleasure? Particularly one that is going to have continued costs like gasoline or electricity?

What it comes down to, I guess, is that I get joy out of mowing the lawn. In fact, I get joy out of all of the yard work. Trimming trees, raking, sweeping the driveway, planting a garden, etc all bring joy into my life. Not only do these activities get me outdoors into the sun (get that D!) and fresh air, it provides an opportunity for me to meet my neighbors. If I was pushing some loud, gas-powered beast or paid someone to mow my lawn then I wouldn’t be in a position for small talk and neighborly bonding. Yard work provides an environment to meet people without it being super awkward.

It is also pretty good exercise. It certainly isn’t an aerobic exercise, but there are health benefits to neglecting automation and getting your hands dirty. Cooking, cleaning, and house maintenance can all be accomplished more quickly with advanced technology, but they also create missed opportunities to become more healthy. Little micro-exercises of chopping and cooking my own food, cleaning my house, and working in the yard burn a few extra calories and keep me up and active throughout the day. Instead of sitting at my computer all day and letting machines do my chores, I have an excuse to take a break from the screen and get moving.

Now, I’m sure for some people the idea of getting out into the yard a few times a week sounds worse than rusty razor blades being pressed into their gums. So, where does this difference come from? Is it something that we just chalk up to the variety of humans and how our experiences (including joy and sorrow) are objective? Or can we learn to get joy in things that we used to hate?

Personally, I think we can train our minds to get pleasure from things that we used to hate, and that is actually something we should pursue if those things create a healthier life. One of the things that struck me about the individuals in “Born to Run” is how often they described 100-mile runs in almost child-like terms… they felt joy and excitement, it was a fun activity. I’m sure we all remember running as fast as we could when kids and ecstatically screaming in joy, but somewhere along the way we lost that. I don’t really know why, but I hope I can get that joy back for things that make me healthy.

Fresh fruits and vegetables, meeting new people, exercise, and yard work can all be sources of joy… not just because of the result, but actual joy in the moment. We can practice mindfulness during these experiences in a way that enrich our lives and make us better people. At least I hope so, I’m going to try and reset my views on things that I “hate”. Instead of saying “I hate running” I’m going to try and find that childlike feeling of running as a form of play. That type of negative mindset limits my life options, and I like to have lots of options. I don’t think dislike or pleasure in a particular act is something that is determined for us by our genetics, our minds (and all the emotions that come with it) are within our control. I can learn to love running, just like I now love Brussels sprouts and yard work.

I wonder what else I “hate” I can learn to love… maybe I should give pickles and Seinfeld another chance.

Micro Moments of Mindfulness

The “meat and potatoes” of the Headspace meditation app is the multi-day series programs that it offers (I’m in the middle of a 30-day focus on creativity right now and I’m really enjoying it), but there is more to mindfullness than that. The app also offers one-off topics on a variety of subjects and I noticed one on eating. The idea of mindful eating has crossed my path from time to time, I even think I saw a weight loss program based on it advertised on tv at 3am once. After listening to it, I am becoming convinced that the real meat of meditation isn’t when you are sitting on the mat for 20 minutes each day, it is in your moment to moment living.

Take eating, for example. I am so often on autopilot when it comes to my meals. I have Netflix on or I am working while I shovel food into my mouth. I’m not really paying any attention to what I’m doing and I’m just trying to satiate my hunger. Eating takes on a whole different dimension when you shut off distractions and start to pay attention to the sensations. One bite at a time you can focus on the flavors and textures in your mouth and the feeling of the food going down your throat. Instead of pushing more food into your mouth before swollowing you focus on living in the moment. For me, it is a realy pleasant experience.

Eating is just one example of how I can take a few seconds out of a normal experience and try to be mindful of what is happening. Instead of my mind wandering while riding my bike I can scan down my body and check in with each joint and muscle or I can look around me and really try to take in the beautify of the world. When I’m peeing I can leave my phone in the living room and while sitting on the toilet I can focus on the change in pressure and how little muscles in my body tighten and release as the fluid leaves my urethra. Instead of chugging my morning coffee I can savor the flavors, drink slowly, and appreciate the magic of such a wonderful drug.

Our minds wander all too often from the here and now. Whether we are eating, exercising, cleaning the house, or having sex, our minds are not fully with our bodies. I’m not saying that every moment must be focused on the immediate sensation (that would be an impossible task), but I think it is beneficial for me to bring my mind back to the moment when I realize it has drifted. Instead of worrying about what may happen when a shitty president is elected or what I did in 7th grade (something out of my control) or what I plan to do when I start work (something I can control later), my mind could be in the moment and feeling the sensations. You can’t let life pass you by while thinking about a life that might never be.

It isn’t the time spent at meditation retreats and during morning rituals that bring about mindfulness in today’s world, it is shifting into the here and now during your normal life. It is paying explicit attention to all the sensations that our brain does such a good job filtering. It is really savoring the taste, smell, and feeling of the world around you and appreciating the life you have. I guess the old cliche is right, you gotta stop and smell the roses once in a while.

Meditation on My Mind

I’m really geeking out about meditation and the effects emotions have on our physical and social well-being. Between just finishing “Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama” and taking a Positive Psychology class on Coursera, my life is being bombarded with research on how the mind and body are connected, and how meditation and our emotional state can affect our health. So, here are some random things on my mind…

  • Being stressed out fucks with your immune system which increases the likelihood that you will get sick, and can even prevent vaccines from being as effective
  • There is the positive feedback loop between practicing meditation and cardiovascular health. When people practice lovingkindess meditation they improve their interactions with others, which improves their cardiac vagal tone, which increases their ability to connect with other people, which improves their cardiac vagal tone… and vice versa. Meditation helps improve relationships, which improves health.
  • Improving the cardiac vagal tone is linked to better regulation of your heart rhythm, glucose, and inflammation, as well as improved attention, emotions, and recognizing social cues
  • The mind is part of the body and requires just as much care as our muscles and bones.

But, how does meditation compare to other practices that encourage love and connection? Can we study how secular meditation benefits the body and social relations, and compare that to highly religious people who don’t practice meditation? Or maybe people who volunteer a lot or play team sports?
If practicing lovingkindness benefits cardiovascular health, do negative emotions damage cardiovascular health? Do we see the same benefits in other types of meditation? What would happen if we started implementing mindfulness and lovingkindness meditation as part of our educational system? Or our workplace? Or covered meditation mentorship with health insurance? Could we see a decrease in health issues and social issues?

I don’t think meditation is a panacea to social and individual problems, but it certainly can’t hurt to encourage people to take a few minutes each day to focus on love and live in the moment.

 

Emotion is my middle name…

While biking today I found myself in a situation that I’m sure many people can relate to. I was stopped at a stop sign at an intersection where the cross traffic does not have a stop sign. Basically, in order to turn left, I had to wait until there was a complete break in traffic, or at least a break in traffic on the right while the traffic on my left was turning right. Anyway, there was no traffic at all on my right but a flood of traffic on my left. As the cars approached they all turned right without using a turn signal. Car after car turned without signaling. If just one car used the signal I would know I could cross traffic safely… but it didn’t happen and I felt anger boiling up in my body and I muttered under my breath “I hate people who don’t use their turn signal”.

But that isn’t true, for a couple of reasons.

First off, hate is way too powerful of an emotion to explain my feelings. By mentally using such a strong word to describe my feelings I have watered down what that word means. I’ve removed a word from my vocabulary to accurately express my feelings when/if they actually reach hatred. It is dishonest and intellectually weak. I don’t “hate” people who don’t use a turn signal.

In fact, I don’t even dislike “people” who don’t use turn signals. That one action completely devoid of the intentions of the driver does not provide me with enough information about whether I like them or not as a person. So, without real information about their personality, behavior, and goals, I must default to liking them… maybe even loving them. My default position with people should be to see them in a positive light.

So, a much more accurate statement would be “I don’t like when people don’t use their turn signal”. I didn’t like the situation I was in, both because it caused me inconvenience (a very, very, very small 30-second inconvenience) and because my reaction to the situation was one of anger and frustration. I didn’t like how I reacted, but that is hardly the fault of the driver.

What does a negative response like that get me? I don’t arrive at my destination sooner. Hell, the person who is frustrating me doesn’t even know. They aren’t punished for their behavior, but I punish myself again. My anger only hurts me, it forfeits control to someone else who doesn’t even want it.

I’ve recently come across a lot of talk on emotion. Coincidentally, both the book I’m currently reading (Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama) and the Coursara Course I’m taking (Positive Psychology) discussed the structure of emotional response. Situations generally go like this:

Step A: An event happens (someone doesn’t use their turn signal)

Step B: An emotional starts (Frustration)

Step C: My body and mind respond to this emotion (Body tightens, pulse increases)

Step D: I respond to emotion

Step D is where we have control and can take many forms. Maybe I realize what is happening and try to evaluate Step A (what event started this, is the response appropriate, how can I prevent it in the future), or maybe I react towards whatever caused Step A (I cuss, I scream, I try to fight). I can also try to calm the emotion through meditative techniques or change how my body feels through deep breathing and focus on other things. The goal is to eventually prevent Step A from turning into Step B (at least when it comes to negative emotions), but that is a big ask. Our emotions are a result of millions of years of evolution and simply aren’t fit for a post-hunter/gatherer society (much less a post-industrial one). It takes a lot of hard work to rewire the brain and overcome the deep emotional grooves that have been made. But, I’m going to try.

My first step is to try and remove negative language from my vocabulary (unless it is accurate) and to properly articulate how I feel. Instead of “I hate people who don’t use turn signals” I want to start thinking “I find it inconvenient when I’m delayed because of the actions of others”. Instead of saying “I would kill for a slice of pizza” I should think “I am really craving pizza and would pay a high price for it”. Exaggeration and hyperbole has its place, but not with internal dialogue. Our mind should seek truth and an accurate view of the world, we should attempt to see and respond to things as they truly are. Hopefully, taking the hyperbole out of my internal dialogue will help with that, hopefully, I can cut negative emotions off at the knees and prevent them from even starting… but at the very least I hope I can intercept them before Step C.

In The Moment

One of the goals of meditation is to experience mindfulness all the time, even when you aren’t on the mat. Nearly every moment of our waking life is spent thinking about a potential future or mulling over the past. There is certainly a need for planning in life, but most of our thoughts are not really about planning. The wheels in our head are spinning but we are going nowhere. Meditation brings us back into the moment and, ideally, that enjoyment of the “now” (which is all that truly exists) can enter our everyday life.

In a lot of ways, meditation is a lot like MDMA for me.

When I take Molly I am truly in the moment. I feel my body, connect with my loved ones, and enjoy reality without concern over the past and future. This is a truly revolutionary feeling for someone who is kind of introverted like me. Usually, I live in my head, I live in the past and future. With Molly and meditation, I live in my body, the here and now.

I’ve often wondered if introverts tend to prefer Molly while extroverts tend to prefer psychedelics. That hypothesis kind of makes sense to me, though I’m not sure if it can really be tested… maybe someday.

I’m trying to take my meditative practice off the mat, but it is really difficult. Hell, it is still difficult for me ON the mat. But I trust the process and believe meditation will improve all aspects of my life. I just gotta stick with it and take moments each day to breathe and consciously bring myself back into the moment. Instead of showering and thinking about what my day might bring, I can shower and enjoy the feeling of the water, the music on the radio, the joy of being alive. When I drink eat breakfast I can admire the flowers and enjoy the sensations of eating instead of my mind wandering to something embarrassing I did in middle school (god, I hope nobody else remembers the stupid shit I did….)

Living in the now is important. It is all we have. Trapping ourselves in the past and future is a waste of life. I’ll keep working towards “the now” and use all the tools at my disposal, meditation, MDMA, and other practices that appeal to me. Maybe I’ll get back into fire dancing, that had a lot of flow.

Kindness

Yesterday, I finished the foundational 30 meditation exercises in the Headspace app and I am now free to pick any of the 10-session packages they have. There are about 15 packages that cover a wide range of topics to help with your health, relationships, and performance. I decided to start with “Kindness”.

I know that I am not always as kind to people as I could or should be. I don’t think I am cruel, but I do have a hard time feeling empathy or sympathy for other people. I want to enhance my emotional intelligence and stop being so logical. I wasn’t always this way, I used to be a hopeless romantic who wore his heart on his sleeve, but not really anymore. After my time in the military, an emotionally abusive relationship, and working in politics in DC, I had a hard time seeing people as humans or relating to them on an emotional level. I’m not as bad as I used to be, but there is still plenty of room for improvement and healing.

The first meditation lesson for Kindness focused only on being kind to myself. This surprised me at first, but maybe it shouldn’t have. One of the concepts discussed in one of the books I’m currently reading (Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama) is how the Tibetan and Western views of compassion differ. In Buddhist view, you cannot be compassionate towards another person if you aren’t compassionate towards yourself, while in the Western world compassion is generally focused only on someone else. My meditation practice isn’t religious but there are eastern philosophical views that run through it.

I don’t think that I am particularly unkind to myself, but there is a little bit of guilt that comes with taking care of myself or showing compassion to myself. I used to be much, much harder on myself though. When I was still coming to terms with my sexuality, relationship preferences, spiritual beliefs, and political viewpoints I was very hard on myself. I was still breaking out of religious conservative brainwashing and saw myself as a weak sinner who had no value and would be better off dead. Because I didn’t match what my family wanted I was a failure and had let down everyone. I don’t feel that way today, not by a long shot, but I still have trouble being kind to myself. I see so much potential that I fail to reach and occasionally beat myself up over it, or I look at myself in the mirror and wish I was more attractive or fit and think how my partner would be better off with someone else. These moments of unkindness to myself are rare, but they happen.

Hopefully, the meditation practice will help me continue on a path of growth and healing. I hope that it can help me become more kind to myself, and as a result more kind to others. It is hard being in a new city without a lot of friends… making friends is hard as an adult, particularly for two introverts like us. We aren’t big partiers and I am awkward at conversations because I want to discuss taboo things like sex, drugs, politics, and religion. Maybe kindness can help open some of the doors that have been closed to me in the past and allow me to make the world a better place.