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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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.

Meditation Is a Doctor

For minor issues, like a light cough or abdominal pain, a doctor might actually be able to cure you in a single session.  However, a doctor’s true purpose comes out more on the major issues.  For that, their job is to identify the root causes of what’s wrong and, perhaps, offer a direction towards wellness.

Similarly, thirty minutes of meditation can indeed remove minor anxiety, apathy or stress.  However, all our minor mental-emotional issues are just like weeds in the farm field—you can chop them off a million times, but unless you get to roots, to the core causes, they will come back again and again.

In other words, the truer purpose of meditation is to reveal those roots to us, clearly and precisely, and to tune us deep enough into our intuition that we have a strong sense of direction.

An intensive retreat is a good way to reveal these root causes—it’s sort of like a surgery for the heart-mind, and at times is absolutely crucial.  Although, just as the best medicine is a good diet, consistent exercise, sufficient sleep and a balanced lifestyle, so too does the best heart-mind wellness program unfold over the long term.

It will unfold as meditation becomes a foundation of your life.  As you naturally want to do “formal” meditation every day.  As you naturally find the meditative mind just sort of happening all by itself, whether you’re driving, eating, talking, pooping or whatever else.  As you naturally start to make more intentional and skillful choices, both in the little things like what you have for lunch or choosing complements rather than complains, and in the big things like what job you take or what friends you keep.

In this sense, meditation definitely isn’t your standard western doctor, just looking for quick, superficial fixes—rather, it’s like a wise integrative doctor, using steady practice to bring awareness into your entire life—from your subtle inner reality to your life situation—showing you to yourself in order that you can conduct your days with a deeper sincerity.

Where to begin?  A doctor’s visit, of course!

On Sincerity and Doing Whatever You Want

The Path of Sincerity does not suggest treating yourself like a child.  If you are in the grocery store and you want a candy bar, then put a candy bar in your shopping cart.  Unless you are about to do something outrageous, it’s best not to restrain yourself.

The way to work with desire on The Path of Sincerity is to cultivate enough self-awareness to know what you truly want.

Yes, there may be a superficial impulse to grab a candy bar, but there’s probably also a deep inner yearning to live healthily and prudently, only consuming what is necessary.

When present moment awareness is strong, there is a felt sense of the impulse to grab the candy, but there is also a felt sense of the deep inner yearning.  Early on, even after checking in, it might seem as if you do actually want that candy bar—then grab it!

Just keep observing what you do and how you feel on those deeper levels.

When you grab that candy bar, do you feel any inner dissonance (or resonance!)?  How about after you eat it?  Totally at peace?  And how about when you abstain from grabbing the candy bar?

Just keep up with that for a few years and you might suddenly realize that your sense of what you truly want is quite different than what it used to be.

Gentle self-inquiry goes a long way.

How do you feel about how you have spent the past hour?  What does that tell you about how you’d like to spend the next 10 minutes?

Peace of Mind in Three Levels of Quietness

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig discusses how peace of mind comes in three levels of quietness: physical, mental and value.

It generally takes some physical quietness to produce mental quietness, and some mental quietness to produce value quietness.  However, there’s also many levels within each level, and as we go on, we begin to work on all three at the same time.  Anyhow, my interpretation of these levels looks like this:

1. Physical quietness means a relaxed body.  Initially it’s helpful to train ourselves in not moving the body—a fun experiment is to see how long you can sit still without needing to adjust your leg, shift your spine, move your tongue or even swallow.  Initially, you won’t last much longer than a few minutes (if that), but over time, your body will learn how to let go of tensions and relax itself, which translates into even more relaxed movement across the day.

2. Mental quietness means having no compulsive thinking.  Most people who get their body settled soon notice that their mind is wildly thinking all day long, like a butterfly in a meadow, going from one tangent to the next.  No compulsive thinking does not mean that thoughts do not happen.  Instead, it means becoming instantly aware of our thoughts as they pop into the mind; and, from there, either consciously choosing to explore them (rather than doing it out of compulsion)—or, more likely, letting them go instantly as like 99% of our thoughts, we recognize they serve no real purpose.

3. Value quietness means living truthfully.  This means living our duty or purpose without wavering or being pulled aside by temptations, distractions or anything at all.  Initially, this means behaviorally, as in not acting on the desire to check facebook, eat a cookie, have an affair or make frivolous purchases.  Its deepest level is where we’re so fused with our truth that the desires to go off course don’t even arise anymore.

Sometimes the most powerful thing we can do is be silent.  Occasionally, that actually means not talking.  But more profoundly it means going about our day-to-day with these three levels of quietness infused in our every action—an absolute embodiment of sincerity.

The “Inner Gravity” of Sincerity

In 2009 while living on a farm, I was sitting in the community house on my off day, just trying to grab a quick snack before heading off to write.  However, before I could get out the door, someone else came in and we exchanged pleasantries for a couple minutes.  Just as I was about to leave, he asked, “hey, I need some help moving my canoe down to the river, do you mind giving me a hand?”

Ahhhh!  Even though it was only a 15 minute task, inside I absolutely did not want to help.  I had a plan.  Not just any plan, but a plan I was really stoked about.  Even though my body was in the kitchen, my inner gravity was already at my desk with pen in hand.

Noticeably conflicted, I stuttered out, “sure, I guess I can help”.  He very clearly noticed by discomfort.  In the 15 minutes that followed, we lifted the canoe but there was a real disharmonious energy that both of us could feel.

Life doesn’t feel good like that.  I call it “shame-based helpfulness”, when we do good things based out of what we think we should do rather than what feels true.  Let me emphasize: helping others is important, but the path is about cultivating a very genuine sense of wanting to help.

In 2016 while living on a farm, I was leaving the community house on my off day, having just grabbed a quick snack and on my way to write.  However, I was intercepted at the door by someone else and we exchanged pleasantries for a couple minutes.  Just as I was about to leave, he asked, “hey, do you think you could grab a load of firewood and bring it to the house?”

It was roughly a fifteen minute task, but I had a plan.  Not just any plan, but a plan I was really stoked about.  However, my inner gravity was very much where I was—not lost in ruminations and not already at the desk.  I reflected for a moment and I said with great presence, “yeah, sure, I’d be happy to grab it”.  We parted with a warm smile and over the next 15 minutes, I felt the satisfaction of harmony.

Life feels good like that.  I call it “sincerity-based helpfulness”.  It comes easiest when we have no other plans or agenda or desires; but, let’s be honest—most the time in life we have some of those.

The distinction is that while our inner gravity might be moving some other direction, like towards an afternoon of writing, it’s still stable enough in the present that at the snap of our fingers we can very genuinely and purely shift ourselves, like towards the wood shed.

This is just a little example, but it has big implications.  A friend asks you to help them financially or, perhaps, implicitly asks for emotional support by way of your time.  Your boss asks you to take a bigger role on a work project.  Your partner asks you to increase your commitment to the relationship.  Life asks you to care for someone in need.

If your inner gravity is a “clear no”, like I was in 2009, then saying “yes” to those requests probably actually will do more harm than good.  You will likely feel off-center and out-of-harmony even though you’re helping out—that’s because it’s coming from shame.  The most sincere thing to do is to just say no.

However, as our inner awareness deepens over the years, we realize we actually have a fair amount of control over our inner gravity—and, if some part of us purely and genuinely wants to help, we find we can do that quite effortlessly, without any resistance and with a sense of centeredness and sincerity.

If the above examples seem too trivial, consider this experience a close friend recently shared with me:

My friend already had a busy schedule with a job, a marriage, friends, hobbies and a leadership role in a weekly group, among other things.  However, a friend of hers was diagnosed with lung cancer and the outlook was bleak.  In the three months from diagnosis to death, my friend spent nearly every day at the hospital—shifting her inner gravity from her own concerns to supporting her friend.  The shift was not out of shame, out of feeling like she should be there; rather, it came from a very sincere place of wanting to connect and help and support.

In other words, everyone knows life is richer when we’re connected to others; but, what’s understated is just how important it is to do that with sincerity rather than shame.

In doing this, the key thing is to tune into our inner gravity; to honor it, to say no when we feel no and yes when we feel yes—and, just as importantly, to learn about it, to see how it changes, to know it so deeply on an experiential level that we realize how at the snap of our fingers, we can very sincerely shift it.