For each of the past 36 days I have consistently meditated for 20 to 30 minutes. Usually I do this while walking although I sometimes meditate sitting in a chair.
The method I employ is simple. I focus my awareness on the present moment. In a sense I actively abide in the gaps between thoughts in a state of pure awareness that is not overlaid with chattering thoughts or judgments. That is the intention anyway. It is easier to describe what it is not than what it actually is. For example, it is not thinking or evaluating. I can usually capture it in a pure state for only a few moments at a time. Often I can capture it while my mind is commenting on it but I can sort of marginalize the commentary or allow it to exist in the background. When this happens, I am aware of the commentary but I am also in touch with the present. Sometimes my focus on the present involves observing the blueness of the sky or keying into the sound of a bird chirping or the gurgling of the stream that runs along my walking route. Sometimes I can expand this awareness to take in a wider appreciation of my surroundings. The point is that I know when I am there when I am there. I recognize it.
When I meditate I become aware of three internal minds at work. The first is “the commentator.” Some people refer to this as “monkey mind” but I personally find that term to be annoying. This is the mind that comments on everything (often it comments on the mechanics of meditation) or it flashes pictures of memories and the like. I like to think of the commentator as the mechanical brain. This brain takes in information, stores it and repeats it. It is basically a mechanical function and in a sense is “mindless” ironically. The second mind is “the evaluator.” Some people might refer to this one as the ego. This mind judges, categorizes and assigns value to things. This is the part of the mind that is critical of the self and others. It is also the part of the mind that strives to become better, sets goals and becomes jealous. The final member of the mental trinity is the observer. This is the presence of awareness that sits in the background. It is able to observe the other two minds at work. It is also able to observe itself. This last mind is the one that I try to maintain contact with while meditating. This mind is essentially passive and tends to become dominated by the other two minds if I do not actively try to keep it awake.
The main pitfall of meditation is a wandering mind. Typically, I get lost in the chattering commentary and I forget that I am meditating. When this happens and I become aware of it I simply bring my awareness back to the present moment. Similarly, I might find myself evaluating something I observe or think about. I treat this the same way. I simply bring my awareness back to the present moment. I try not to judge myself when this happens. To do so would just be another distraction. In the same way, I try not to congratulate myself when I am successfully focusing on the present. Again that is another distraction. These distractions, however, are not bad things. In fact they are they are the means by which I deepen my practice. Every time I become aware that I am distracted and I bring my awareness back to where it belongs I am flexing my “meditation muscle” which is how it becomes stronger.
Every meditation instructor or book I have read on the subject seems to shy away from discussing the benefits of meditation or goals associated with meditation. I understand this is because thinking about the benefits of meditation or setting goals to become better at meditation simply becomes the content of distraction. This does not mean that it is necessarily bad to think about these things when not meditating. However, when actively meditating these thoughts become distraction and should be treated as such. That said, there are many benefits of meditation including improved concentration, strengthened will power, the ability to not be swept away by emotion, a relaxed mood, greater awareness in general and many other things. I have found that the more I meditate consistently the more an indescribable mystery sort of unfolds inside of me. It is as if my general state of awareness is akin to being asleep and meditation is a means of waking. This is difficult to describe to someone who has not experienced it for themselves.
A final insight that I would like to talk about is the concept of the self. I think of it this way. I am not really my body or my mind. I inherited those things and I am grateful for them but I cannot really take credit for them. I had no say in acquiring them (that I am aware of anyway). Similarly, my thoughts and emotions are all products of experience. They are external in origin. This is particularly true with memories, facts and figures and anything I learned. This is also particularly true with the feelings I associate with prior abuse or praise. So I really cannot take credit for those things either (even though in my normal sleeping state I tend to take credit for them). So what part of all this is actually me? The conclusion that I have come to based on my experience meditating is that the only real part of me is that part of me that can choose where to place my attention. I suspect most people (myself included) most of the time squander their attention in the sense that they allow the commentator and the evaluator to run the show. They allow the observer to fall asleep. When I think about it, the ability to direct one’s attention is a very precious thing because it is the foundation for the experience of life. Perhaps it is the most precious thing there is.
We start out thinking that all our actions and ideas are our own. Over time, however, this belief begins to erode under a mountain of evidence about which it becomes increasingly difficult to remain in a state of denial.
The best example I can give to illustrate this point is the remnants of shame a I feel on a daily basis. When I was young I thought this shame was a defective part of my personality. I had a low self esteem and this was essentially my fault because I felt that I am responsible for my thoughts and feelings. This belief is reinforced by the general attitudes of society and by the beliefs propagated by social institutions. This system seems to make sense on the surface but the more it is probed the less convincing it becomes. At a certain point in my life I came to realize that the reason I felt shame was because my parents felt that shame and I adopted on a very basic and unconscious level their energy. They in turn adopted this energy from their parents just as I have to some extent passed this energy down to my own children. But if this energy has been passed around from generation to generation I cannot very well say that this energy is me. The best I can say is that I am a vessel who is currently holding that energy. So then, if these feelings are not me (even though most of the time I feel like they are) what part of me is actually me?
Another connected example is addiction. When a person is addicted the addiction will think for the person who is addicted. The person believes or feels these thoughts to be his own but in reality it is the parasitic addiction generating these thoughts in order to feed itself. Like the energy of shame the pull of addiction is a foreign entity disguising itself to its host as the host himself. But despite the fact that at times the feeling that the addiction is the host can be very convincing, it is not the host.
I suppose it is reasonable to ask if there even is a me in the first place? In other words am “I” merely a vessel who thinks I am what other forces have poured into me? If true, then everyone else is also a vessel who thinks he or she is what other people (other vessels) poured into them. In other words most people in this world are walking around and interacting with each other under the illusion that they are something they are not.
But surely the vessel of self has some intrinsic qualities unto itself. For example, it has the ability to hold thoughts and feelings, it has the ability to think on its own to some extent, and it has the ability to believe certain things are true (whether or not they happen to be true). It then becomes a question of ratios. How much of me is composed of my intrinsic qualities and how much me is composed of these foreign elements which have been put into me? There is no way to measure this but it seems to me that the vast majority of what I consider to me is not really me.
One consequence of this realization is its twin realization that most of the crimes my shame accuses me of are not really my (i.e., my true self’s) fault. This is dangerous territory because it undermines our whole system of criminal justice and morality. Perhaps it is easier from a societal standpoint to continue on with the belief that all these alien, parasite thoughts are our own and our responsibility. The alternative seems highly susceptible to the malfeasance of bad actors.
The last thought on this subject I have is that meditation seems to be the means by which a person can get in touch with the real self. The simple technique of watching the thoughts swimming about in the mind and returning the mind to center when one realizes that he as identified with these thoughts brings about a separation from these thought. Whatever is left behind is the true self.
Feeling stuck comes from the desire to move forward from one phase of life to another but (for what ever reason) not being able to do so. The perceived reason could be any number of things including fear, other people or situations. Regardless of the reason, it is my contention that dealing with the feeling of being stuck has to be a subjective process with subjective solutions. In other words no one else and no situation can make you feel stuck without your consent. Certainly some situations are more extreme; an abusive spouse or incarceration for example. But even in these examples it is possible to deal with the feeling of being stuck internally. Here are ten methods:
- Take Action – In many ways the feeling of being stuck comes from the inability to take action. As such, taking action by pushing up against your comfort zone fights against or acts to disprove that this inability is in fact a reality. Depending on what you think your reason is for being stuck, take action to counteract this reason. If (for example) you feel that unemployment is the reason for being stuck take action and look for a job. You need to put yourself out there and address whatever your fear may be and by doing so you will cultivate courage and strength. Other forms of taking action might be cleaning your house. I find getting a haircut shifts my feeling of being stuck for some reason. Creating a check list of things to do can be helpful when feeling stuck because it takes the initiative off of yourself and puts it on the list. This at least is a good temporary solution. Ideally you want to act under your own volition.
- Cultivate Spirituality – Spirituality means many things to different people. At its core it addresses humanity’s belief or longing for there to be something more to existence than material reality. Feeling stuck is very much a feeling rooted in the material world. As such cultivating spirituality is a means of rising above this feeling. This can be done in many ways and here are a few: (a) Meditation – sit still for ten minutes, be quiet and focus on your breathing. When you find your mind wandering bring your attention non judgmentally back to your breathing. It works. I don’t know why. (b) Prayer – directly address the divine honestly with your whole heart. List the things for which you are grateful. Ask for help. (c) If you have the opportunity I highly recommend going on a retreat for a structured spiritual experience. (d) Simply try to be aware and recognize that inner voice who whispers the negativity in your ear and reinforces this feeling of being stuck. When you recognize it, name it so that you diminish it and separate yourself from it.
- Move – Remove yourself from your present situation and negative people. This may be difficult because the reason you feel stuck might be because you feel you cannot move. I have found that moving from one location to another always brings about a feeling of renewal initially. However, be careful you don’t just take your baggage from one place to another. If you find yourself repeating negative patterns after the newness of a move wears off then therapy is probably a better option. If you cannot move at the very least get out of the house and go to the movies or simply take a walk until your mood shifts.
- Therapy – Caveat Emptor: There are good therapists and bad therapists and different types of therapy works better for some people than others. I have found that Gestalt body centered therapy was the most effective therapy I ever experienced to address the feelings of shame that had kept me feeling stuck for so long.
- Wait it out – All things change; especially moods. The feeling of being stuck feels like it will never end but it will. Simply knowing this can be helpful to combat hopelessness. While you are waiting you can focus on any other item on this list.
- Read – There are many helpful advice type books out there. The simple action of reaching out for one of these is therapeutic because when you do this you are taking action. In terms of content, I highly recommend Choose Yourself and The Rich Employee by James Altucher. Both have been very helpful for me.
- Exercise – It is important to exercise, eat well and sleep well when you are feeling stuck because these actions increase your energy and ability to shift from being stuck to being unstuck. By contrast, avoid or restrict alcohol and pornography as these things tend to have the opposite effect.
- Write – I have found writing about my experiences has given me the ability to see them more clearly. Blog, keep a journal or write a book and self publish it. I have self published twice and both the experience of writing and the experience of actually publishing were both therapeutic. Self Promotion: My books are Shame and Internet Trolling (non fiction) and The Book of Bud (a $.99 novel) are both available on Amazon.
- Establish Boundaries – If your feeling of being stuck is associated with another person you need to establish boundaries with this person. This means saying “no” when you don’t want to do something this other person wants you to do. You must say “no” even if it feels bad. It will feel bad at first because you will feel like you are doing something wrong. But what you will also feel soon after is a lightening of your mood. Any prior resentment you had for this person will begin to evaporate. It is quite dramatic and unexpected how powerful this technique is.
- Stop Judging – You might equate judgment and morality but this is a false association. When you judge other people you judge yourself with equal intensity. That is because both forms of judgment come from the same place: a wounded ego. When you make the conscious effort not to judge other people the force of the wounded ego weakens. You will find that you will stop judging yourself as well and from this place you can begin to cultivate compassion both for yourself and other people.
I keep a checklist of the things I want to accomplish every day. Once I perform a task I check it off my list. The idea of the checklist is to motivate me to perform each task on a daily basis and it worked well in the beginning. One of the items on the list used to be “prayer / meditation.” I put this on the list to remind me to exercise my “spiritual muscle” on a daily basis. In the beginning this worked well as a reminder.
Eventually, however, this stopped working. It stopped working not because I refused to exercise my spiritual muscle. It stopped working because this item became another item on the checklist. The fact that I had this on the list negated some of the power of my spiritual practice. I found myself approaching this item motivated to check it off the list; to have it accomplished. I found that my spiritual practice does not work this way.
I firmly believe it is the nature of spiritualism whether in the form of prayer or meditation that it must be performed whole heartedly. Return to me with all your heart. (Joel 2:12). If not, then I am only going through the motions and any spirituality drains out of it. This is true because spiritualism by its nature deals with the nature of my heart, with truth and not surface level appearances. Render your heart not your garments. (Joel 2:13). To the extent I can keep a spiritual practice on the check list and maintain a wholehearted expression towards the task the checklist serves its purpose. But the point at which spirituality becomes a task to compete is the point when it needs to be removed from the checklist. In other words, if I am not approaching spirituality with my whole heart then I am not being spiritual. Whatever I am doing has become an empty gesture (in terms of spirituality). In the same respect, religious ritualism serves to remind of truth. To the extent ritual stops reminding me of truth because I am not approaching it with my whole heart then it becomes empty and is not serving its purpose. In a sense I am checking something from the list that I have not yet completed if I do not pray or meditate whole heart.
The spirit is truth. Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar render unto God the things that belong to him. (Matt 22:21). Checklists are for items I want to accomplish because I want them accomplished and not because I want to experience the performance of the item. Certain things can be put on the check list because they do not require whole hearts to perform. These things belong to Caesar. That is, the physical world. For spiritual things, prayer, meditation, being grateful, these things belong to God and must be performed whole heartedly. These things belong to God (if you like).
So I removed this item from my checklist and I found that I still perform the task. But now the quality of my performance is different. The checklist served me well to begin the practice. But to maintain my spiritual practice I had to eventually take it off my checklist.
I have been practicing scales on guitar as a meditation technique for the past few weeks. For twenty minutes a day I typically play one scale over and over up and down the neck of the guitar. My intention is to simply play the scale as best I can. Of course my ego pops in from time to time with thoughts of how my technique will improve if I keep doing this every day. I have, in fact noticed improvement in my technique and my ego is always quick to take the credit. Sometimes my ego dwells on the question of whether this practice ultimately benefits me in any way. My ego tells me I am bored and suggests new ways to liven things up, typically by encouraging me to play other scales or licks. My ego does not seem to want me to be free to do something pointless for twenty minutes a day. It seems my ego thinks everything I do must serve a purpose and create further improvement towards some future goal. My ego keeps checking the clock to see how much time remains and worries that I will not have the endurance to stick it out for the full twenty minutes. My ego judges me when I make a mistake and (illogically) becomes frustrated when I give in to my ego’s distractions. When there are outside distractions in the form of noises or people coming in and out of the room. My ego wants to become angry or irritated.
In a way, this practice is a trap I set for my ego to get it to come out from hiding so that I can observe it in action and maintain awareness of it. But I also intend to lose myself in the playing. This can only happen when my ego recedes into the background. I do not think my ego recedes through any effort on my part except to focus my attention on what I am doing. When this happens I feel I abide in my true self and there is a sense of peace and release. Perhaps my true self is allowed to emerge in this environment. Of course my ego tries to make the emergence of my true self a goal as well but when this happens I simply try to non judgmentally observe my ego in this effort. If distractions arise that is simply my experience of what is happening. I do not need the world to be a certain way. I can let it be what it is. That requires less (or no) effort. If distractions do not arise that is fine as well.
My ego wants me to think about the future consequences or comparisons with my past or future self. My ego wants me to evaluate my performance. Following my ego (although easy in the short term) ultimately drains my energy. In the face of this I simply try my best for twenty minutes and concentrate on playing the scale. There is no goal other than that.
A Facebook friend posted this article entitled 18 Spiritual Teachings That Will Alter Your Mind and Improve Your Life. The seventh item on the list reads:
Learning the metta meditation technique at a spiritual conference in Palo Alto in 2004 was transformative. Metta is loving kindness. The basic technique is to send good wishes to ourselves, our loved ones, strangers, enemies and ultimately every sentient being without exception. I have introduced it to countless yoga students over the years. Metta is powerful and can be used in formal meditation as well as on-the-spot.
At first glance this exercise seems easy and innocuous enough. What could be wrong with extending loving kindness? But then my mind (my ego more specifically) dwells on the following two problems. First, must I really extend loving kindness to the people who have hurt me? Second, what possible benefit would I receive by doing this?
To address the first problem, I must admit that it is really difficult for me to send loving kindness to those kids who bullied me when I was young or to other people I hold resentments towards. I can sort of force myself to do it but then I sense a layer of protective sarcasm develop. This feels inauthentic to me and not what this exercise is about.
To address the second problem, I begin with the proposition that those lingering resentments are an energy drain that would be to my benefit to plug up. This of course is a selfish reason for wanting to perform this exercise. I suspect the real purpose or value of this exercise has nothing to do with selfishness. After all, loving kindness by definition is not selfish I would think. It seems reasonable to say that in order to truly extend loving kindness it must be done selflessly. It must be a gift with no strings attached. Otherwise it is merely an investment. It is akin to lending money at interest. Not that investing or lending money at interest are intrinsically evil activities. They are just not authentic extensions of loving kindness.
But maybe I am getting too caught up in labels and definitions and categories. Perhaps I am looking at this from an egocentric perspective. Maybe it is better not to look at this in terms of who benefits from it or my motivations behind it. Maybe it is good enough just to extend loving kindness and that is it. Let the benefits and motivations be there or not be there, in other words.
The mere experience of extending loving kindness without concern about who benefits or what motivates me is the exercise in and of itself. It is its own reward in other words. I should treat any thoughts about benefits and motivations as any other examples of my mind wandering while meditating. When this happens I merely bring my mind back to center without judgment or recrimination. In this case, bringing my mind back to center would be to return to extending my loving kindness out there. Anything else is a distraction.
A Facebook friend posted this article entitled 18 Spiritual Teachings That Will Alter Your Mind and Improve Your Life. The sixth item on the list reads:
All meditation is good meditation.
And another thing: it is perfectly fine to meditate for 30 seconds. If I meditate for half a minute, then take a little break (because, damn, that was tough!), then start again—that is A-OK. Some days it may be 30 minutes, others 30 seconds. The key, I’ve found, is to pause regularly throughout the day. In this way, I integrate meditation into my life and not just as a part of my formal practice on the cushion.
I sometimes I wonder if meditation is doing me any good. I cannot quantify any benefits I have received from meditation. I really just have a hunch that it is doing me good. At the very least when I meditate it is time I am spending alone and not in communion with electronics or hearing ideas from other people. I do have to contend with my wandering mind which is similar to hearing ideas from other people but while meditating I can pay special attention to that and rise above it (so to speak). So it is a little different.
Meditation does make me feel more peaceful and sort of resets my mood. It also does sometimes give rise to inspiration and creativity although that is not its purpose. It really does not have a purpose because having a purpose implies some future reward or goal which is in contradiction to the idea of rooting myself in the present moment.
The centering prayer technique suggests that meditation is a window when God or the Holy Spirit can come into me. In other words meditating clears out the rubbish that may be blocking my communion with the divine. I suppose the divine, if it exists, exists in a timeless realm so whether I meditate for 30 seconds or 30 minutes doesn’t matter on that level.
Meditation is a break from doing and a conscious act of being. I like the idea that there is no bad meditation. Sometimes if I am not vigilant my ego will tell me that I am meditating wrong. Meditation is a state in which I can observe my ego and say, “I know what you’re up to.” When I hear my ego telling me that I am doing it wrong and at the same time am aware that my ego is telling me this then I know I am doing it right.
Like all this spiritual stuff when I begin to try to quantify the benefit or measure it in someway it is probably my ego that is doing the thinking. My ego labels, it judges, it defines. These are all useful functions in their own place but should not be used exclusively at the expense of every now and then experiencing the whole of reality and the present moment in all its vast complexity. This is what I do when I meditate.
Labeling is a function of the ego’s desire to categorize, define and otherwise put everything in its proper place relative to everything else. At its essence this desire arises out of the ego’s fear of its inability to appreciate reality as a whole. When a thing has been labeled the ego feels like it has a certain power over the thing. The thing is now confined by its label. However, labels are not the thing that they label even though the ego tends to proceed as if the thing and the label are one.
Despite their inaccuracy, labels can and do serve useful functions. For example, labels can diminish fear. When a fear is labeled it seems to become something less than what it was. The labeler now seems to become (in a sense) more powerful than the fear. The fear thus becomes less scary. Another example is that labels allow for the communication of information from one person to another. The transmission of information is less than one hundred percent accurate but effectively more information is communicated with labels than without them. Labels serve these useful functions by digesting reality into usable chunks. As such, even though they are not perfect they make reality more understandable than it would otherwise be if left unlabeled.
Understanding reality is the chief function of the ego which has taken on the task of making a livable space within reality. Two paths an ego can take to understand reality are science and religion / spirituality. Science seems to rely heavily upon labels. It defines things and in doing so it makes them less than what they actually are. But by doing this it allows scientists to work with the information and arrive at answers. Theories and equations (for example) are labels. This is the language that science speaks. Religion and spirituality, by contrast, while using labels symbolically also attempts to appreciate at the whole of reality itself. This is its language. As such science and spirituality don’t speak the same language. Because of this they tend to become dismissive of each other.
The ego is an ally in that it seeks to navigate the vast ocean of reality. But unchecked the ego can run amuck. An unchecked ego does not lead to happiness. There is a balancing act between the ego and the truth of reality. The ego desires to make truth understandable. But by doing so through labels the ego makes truth something less than what it actually is. At the same time this function is necessary because without it there would be much less understanding or perhaps no understanding at all.
The self comes to understand that labels are not the truth through observation. Under normal circumstances the self thinks of the label as the thing itself. This is perhaps the best the self can do under the circumstances. Meditation seems to be a way to take in the whole thing or perhaps to take in something more than just the label. But for most people life cannot be lived in a state of meditation. As such labels are useful and necessary but perhaps should be appreciated for what they actually are from time to time.
Sometimes when I meditate and I do not achieve the levels of peace and centeredness that I desire. I expect to not get what I want all the time in waking life. I want to more interesting job. I want more money. I want to do more interesting things in my free time. But I meditate (at least I think this is in part why I think I meditate) so that I can take refuge from the disappointment of waking life. When I do not find this refuge there is the sense that I have failed or am wasting my time.
The obvious solution to this problem is to treat the desire and disappointment as just another thought or feeling and that when they pop into my consciousness I observe them non-judgmentally and return my mind center. But returning my mind to center does not necessarily always bring me happiness or satisfaction the way I want it to.
I can treat this as a question of discipline. To maintain a meditative practice takes effort and sometimes it is difficult. Dissatisfaction can be seen as just another stumbling block. But there is the space within this where the question arises why am I doing this at all? If meditation does not bring satisfaction, why do it? What is the point of abiding in the present moment if it does not bring me peace? Of course this sense of pointlessness can also be viewed as another stumbling block. Just bring the mind back to center again in the face of it.
Because it is the mind and ego that wants a point to all this. It is the mind and the ego that feels disappointed when it does not get what it wants. The true self is whole and complete already. Or so I have been told. I cannot know that for certain. But I can be certain that thoughts and feelings are temporary. They change so quickly and easily and for reasons that do not seem to entirely warrant them changing. They elude rationality. To hang my identity on thoughts and feelings seems a little like playing the lottery and even if I win the lottery the next moment is another spin of the wheel.
In this context, bringing the mind center seems to be a rock in the midst of a stormy sea. It is not defiance because that is ego. It is not putting myself above the stormy sea because that is ego. All labels are ego. All judgment and comparison are ego. And there is nothing wrong with ego. Judging ego is also ego. Bringing my mind back to center and abiding in the present is akin to coming home to myself or simply being myself and not being tossed about by thoughts and emotions. It is choosing not to play the lottery. If I do not feel at peace or centered when I do this I can take refuge in the knowledge that it is a temporary situation.