On Meditation: Three Ways to Handle a “Brick Wall”

climbing brick wall

When we sit down, relax and bring our intention to present moment awareness, some days it’s quite pleasant and effortless, but other days it’s one brick wall after another.  There’s three basic ways to handle this:

At times, it can be useful to actually stop meditating—if, say, we’re just falling asleep in a sitting position, it might be more worth our while to take a nap instead.  However, if we just quit every time there’s a brick wall, we don’t learn anything, we don’t develop, we don’t realize our deeper sincerity.

Secondly, we can use sheer willpower to force ourselves to keep sitting and endure, pounding our way through the sit.  We could power through with the aid of a tool, a “meditative sledgehammer,” like mindfulness of breathing, mantra, counting thoughts or whatever else.  We could also just psych ourselves into an attitude of intensity and determination.

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The Importance of Ready Position

During my middle school baseball days, I would run from the dugout, glove in hand, over to second base to play defense.  Every time the pitcher hurled the ball to the batter, I would lightly bend my knees, hunch forward with weight on the balls of my feet and ever so slightly sway side-to-side.  This body positioning wasn’t my invention—it was what the coach spent hours training us on during practice.  He called it “ready position.”

There’s baseball ready position, but there’s also kindness ready position, generosity ready position, patience ready position, and just about anything else you can imagine. Continue reading

Serious vs. Sincere: Experiences of a Meditator

During a stretch studying yoga in Southern India, another student and I went on early morning philosophy walks with a local holy man.  I felt in his presence a deep centeredness that I had rarely found in anyone on my multi-year spiritual journey.  And, so, even though the spirit of our walks was a light conversational dialogue, I would generally come prepared with a few elaborate questions on Indian spiritual practice.

One morning, as the dawn sun was glowing over the palm trees, I asked him, “if inner freedom is the goal of the Yoga Sutras, why does the text overwhelmingly talk about a single method of attaining that goal (samadhi), when that’s just one method among many?”

He made like a politician and talked around my question for about 10 minutes before asking if we had any other curiosities.  I forcefully interjected, “but you didn’t actually answer my question!”

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Formal vs. Informal Meditation

formal vs informal meditationFormal vs. Informal Meditation

This post will discuss the difference between formal and informal meditation, and the different nuances within each of those.

Before we start, here’s a metaphor to chew on: the difference between formal and informal meditation is like the difference between “lab science” and “field science.”

One of them is in a special room, with perfect conditions and all sorts of precise tools.  The other is out in the messy world, where nothing is controllable.  In spite of those obvious differences, at the core, they are both just doing science!

In other words, while formal and informal meditation have clear differences on where/when they’re done, they are actually the same practice—a relaxed awareness of the present moment.

Here are more specific and practical descriptions:

people meditating in parkFormal Meditation

This refers to taking a period of time, at least five minutes, where our sole focus is meditation.  This is an opportunity to get rid of all external distractions and work directly on our meditation practice.

Usually, it’s done in total physical stillness, like sitting or lying down.  However, it could also be done in motion, like walking back and forth, or even activities like Yoga or Qi Gong (assuming we know the routine so well that we don’t have to think about what we’re doing, and can put all our focus on awareness).

A special case of formal meditation is retreat.   Here, meditation is our sole focus not just for 20 minutes or an hour, but for a stretch of days.  For those who want to really deepen their meditation practice, a classic recommendation is to spend at least a week a year on retreat.

informal meditationInformal Meditation

This is sometimes called daily life meditation, and it means meditating throughout the day.  There are two basic types:

1) Micro-hits.  These refer to little spaces, ranging from 5 seconds to 5 minutes, where we take a pause in the day to make meditation our sole focus.  It could be while waiting for something, taking a minute before or after a meal, pausing before transitioning to a new activity, or just going into stillness anytime we find we have a few minutes to spare.

2) Background.  This is when we are meditating while doing many different activities throughout the day.  We could roughly say there are “easy” situations to have a background meditation, like cleaning, cooking or driving; and, there are “difficult” situations to have a background meditation, like socializing, reading or doing computer work.

meditaiton relationshipThe Relationship between Formal Meditation and Informal Meditation

My teacher, Sayadaw U Tejaniya, entitled his most recent book, “When Awareness Becomes Natural.”  What this title suggests is that the more a person does formal meditation, meditating for periods of time each day, and going on occasional retreats, then it becomes easier and easier to do informal meditation.

More specifically, it’s as if our “baseline state of mind” becomes more and more hardwired to meditation.  The impulse and desire for micro-hits comes naturally.  The background meditation happens all by itself, and it’s not difficult to maintain. It’s as if the momentum of our practice has a life of its own, and it can keep going most of the day.

Remember, even though formal and informal meditation happen in different contexts, and they feed each other, they are actually the exact same thing: a relaxed awareness of the present moment.

Want to try out a 20 second micro hit?  Bring your attention to the contact point between your feet and the ground.  Feel the body sensations happening there for the next 20 seconds.  That’s a micro hit!

Working with Impulses in Meditation: The Rule of Three

One thing people often ask about in formal, sitting meditation is what to do with impulses?

To scratch an itch.
To sneeze.
To adjust some part of the body.
To use the toilet.
To change meditation objects (shifting from, say, the body sensations to a visual object or a mantra)
To consciously think a thought.
To turn on/off the lights.
To close a window.
To write down a quick note.
To stop meditating.

This flow of impulses is more obvious in formal meditation; but, it’s the same thing across the day. If we sit down to read or write for an hour, or whatever else, we’ll notice that if we aren’t highly engaged, there will be a constant flow of impulses to distract ourselves. This is the nature of the human mind.

In meditation, we aren’t so much trying to overpower these impulses (or even be extremely engaged in every task) as we are trying allowing them to flow through, gently, softly, gracefully.

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On Mindfulness: Dogs vs. Humans

I was at a friend’s house and we were watching her dog run excitedly from the couch to a chewing toy to pretty much everywhere in between.  Just minutes earlier the dog was pouting in the corner of the room.

My friend said, “I really admire just how present dogs are—when they’re sad, they’re sad; when they’re excited, they’re excited.  They don’t sit around ruminating about things.  And when they’re with you, they’re fully with you—not thinking about all their problems or things to get done.”

“Well, in a way that’s true,” I said, “but remember just a couples hours ago when she was with us and the second she smelled food in the other room, she started frantically barking and ran over to the counter, oblivious to anything happening in the world other than your roommate fixing lunch.”

Mindfulness practice is about much more than being “present”.  For example, just consider how crucial it is to be mindful of our intention.

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Rethinking Progress in Meditation

1. Progress in meditation does not mean less getting lost in thought; it means being more aware of how often you do get lost in thought.

2. Progress in meditation does not mean being less angry; it means being more aware of how often anger happens.

3. Progress in meditation does not mean being able to overpower your feelings and emotions; it means more being more aware of their experiential textures and nuances.

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The Inner Voice vs. The Ego

I was recently talking to a friend who was laboring over whether or not to move in with her boyfriend.  She had previously lived with a partner and it didn’t go well.  She had much apprehension at the thought of doing it again—especially after less than a year of dating.

After listening to all her nervousness, I said, “then don’t do it”.

“But he’s so wonderful”, she said, “we have such an amazing connection… and, logistically, it just makes a lot of sense”.

“Well, then do it,” I said.

“But I told myself I wouldn’t do this again unless I was 100% sure he was the one—and I guess I’m not totally sure yet”.

Sound familiar?  Maybe for you it’s not a relationship decision, maybe it’s related to your career, a big journey, what kind of communication to maintain with old friends or perhaps something as simple as where to eat for dinner.

At some point or another, we all have an inner conflict similar to my friend.  Some situation where voices inside us are pointing two opposing directions.  What to do?

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Mindfulness-based “Stress Reduction” vs. “Wisdom Cultivation”

The basic difference between Buddhist meditation (BM) and secular mindfulness practices, like Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is the objective of practice.

In both practices, the foundation is present moment awareness; however, in most secular mindfulness practices, awareness in and of itself is the goal—a sort of mental stability and groundedness.  When we are aware, we are not lost in mental-emotional chatter (aka the proximate cause of most stress).  In turn, we are able to stay more focused and in alignment with our deeper values.

Inversely, BM uses goes beyond mental stability and uses that awareness as a foundation to learn about the nature of body and mind—for example, when anger arises, what does that feel like?  What sorts of thoughts and sensations are connected?  How long does it last?  What precedes it?  What follows it?  Is the experience of it pleasant or unpleasant?  Most importantly, what are its roots?  These are not questions to analyze with thinking, they are questions to explore with awareness as they are happening.

The effect of all this learning is the development of understanding or wisdom.  When, on a very deep level of mind, we know that McDonalds isn’t good for us, we simply stop eating McDonalds; likewise, when we know to a similar depth that anger is not good for us, or that indulging in mental-emotional chatter is not good for us, we simply stop doing it—stress reduces and positive mental qualities increase.

The base is the same, but the difference is that the aim of Buddhist meditation is a bit grander; when the weeds of mind arise, MBSR cuts them off above the soil, whereas BM yanks out the entire root.

If the Buddha spoke in the contemporary lingo, he may very well have named his system mindfulness-based wisdom cultivation.

GDP and the Limitations of Personal Growth

After taking seven semesters of economics, I left the university with a clear understanding of GDP—it stands for Gross Domestic Product and basically means how much an economy produces/consumes every year.  It’s a standard measure of success for an economy—although, the measure isn’t so much about GDP itself as it is GDP growth from one year to the next—as in, if country X produced 1,000 apples last year, they’ll only be satisfied if they produce at least 1,040 apples this year (a 4% increase).

What I found remarkable in those classes is that never once was I taught the underlying reason of why growth was so great.  It was just assumed that growth was success, that producing more and more every year meant wide-spread happiness.

When people first wake-up to the fact that “there’s more to life than this”, they generally test out the spiritual and self-help marketplace.  Yoga.  Tai Chi.  Detox Diets.  Meditation.  Mindfulness.  Christianity.  Buddhism.  Affirmations.  Exercise.  Therapy.  Energetic healing.  The list goes on and on.

When I set out on my journey back in 2012, I head a deep underlying sense of not being okay with myself.  On the outside, I seemed happy enough and I was relating to life with energy and enthusiasm; but, on the inside, something was off.  In the previous years, I’d already tried a number of things to attain enduring happiness—all of them were unsuccessful.  So, this time, I pursued spiritual practice and dove deeply into yoga and buddhism, climaxing in a 21 month meditation retreat.

Somewhere during that retreat it struck me that the basic cause of unhappiness is the belief that we can be more happy.

This came shortly after attaining a very high level of meditation practice, when I still saw a background voice that said, “well, my practice is good, but I can do even better!”  I saw so deeply that even if I got enlightened, that voice would still be saying, “well, the first stage of enlightenment is nice, but now lets go get even more enlightened!”

I see so many friends and modern citizens caught in that same cycle—endlessly pursuing “growth”, trying out those different practices in the marketplace, endlessly looking to be a better self, never relaxing, never allowing themselves to contentedly have a cup of ice cream and watch a tv show.

Of course, it’s all a balance—no one would tell country X that next year they should produce 0 apples and allow everyone to starve.  Instead, maybe they figure out the amount of apples that everyone needs to feel nourished and contented; and, rather than constantly try to get more apples, just stick with that—whether it be 50 apples or 2,000 apples.

Basically, the constant pursuit of growth, of trying to get more in order to be happy is a great downfall of our times; oh how I wish everyone from suit-wearing politicians to spiritual seekers could figure out that it’s actually about balance and contentment.