Header Image - Meditation

Week 1, Day 7: Looking Back and Ahead

This is the last day of the first week of meditating morning and evening for one hour each sit. I’ve had fairly regular meditation practice since I began in 2007, but the sit length usually ran between 30-45 minutes.

One hour is a commitment. Those 15-30 additional minutes make more of a difference than I knew to anticipate.

One way a full one hour makes an impact is in the depth of inquiry. I wrote about this Day 4. I’ll summarize here. Early in any sit, something usually arises in awareness. A thought about the day, some leftover emotion, an ache or pain. If the sit is short (20-30 minutes), mindful awareness of that something usually comprises the meditation. Extending to 45 minutes, there’s time to explore it further.

What is the content, pace, tone of the thoughts associated with this experience? What emotions arise? Where am I feeling this in my body?

Sitting for a full hour gives time to be aware of the changes in what’s arising. Noticing the space around it. Understanding the experience more fully the longer we spend together. That’s one difference in sitting for an hour twice daily.

Another difference is that longer sits make meditation a commitment. Previously, 30 minutes could be sacrificed to an important email—it was only 30 minutes after all. Or 30 minutes could be reduced to 15 in a pinch, if I’d overslept and the rest of life seemed more pressing, for example. Similarly, 45 minutes could be shortened to 30 or 20, and from there skipped altogether on occasion.

Before, I squeezed meditation time in, bookending my days with it in short, small ways. Now meditation holds a central place, reflective of its importance to me.

Because a full hour is clearly distinct. A block of its own, not to be broken. Short-cutting becomes apparent, and missing it altogether is an obvious choice. An hour in the morning invites me to wake up early so meditation can happen un-impinged upon by the morning’s upcoming events. Waking early requires intention around bedtime the night before.

An hour meditating, morning and evening, has made clear this commitment. The priority being placed on this act of self-care.

In the past several months, I’ve prioritized other passions. Moving them from the sidelines—where they may or may not have received time or effort—to center field. At the same time, I’ve removed non-nutritive activities or reduced the time they receive from me, making room for the true priorities I hold.

What is one passion that can use more of your time and resources?

What is one outdated habit you can exchange, to give its time and energy to your passion?

Week 1, Day 6: Metta and Life

Week 1, Day 6: Metta and Life

On the sixth day of meditating for one hour, morning and evening, I continued to practice Jack Kornfield’s approach to loving-kindness meditation in How to Do Metta. Last night I changed it a little. Recall that his instruction is to offer all four phrases to a loved one, one phrase at a time. Then all four phrases to another loved one, then receiving those cued feelings as you imagine them lovingly offer the phrases to you.

Instead of that, last night a more direct exchange took place. It began as usual: I imagined a loved one and offered him the first phrase of loving-kindness (“May you be safe.”).

Then the meditation took its own turn.

He offered me the phrase back. It continued like this. Sitting with the experience of offering metta followed by experiencing receiving it back. A true dialogue. These shortened cycles of exchange shifted the meditation from imaginal to real. With each person who entered my mind and heart, the reality of our connection created more and more grounding.

Along with this practice (six days in now), I’ve noticed several times when I simply haven’t felt uncomfortable around new people and in new situations. This is so different from what I’m used to that it’s taken me off guard.

Is metta working more deeply than I’ve been aware?

Tara Brach speaks of a false sense of separation that can creep its way into our lives—causing the perception of otherness between people and within ourselves. Perhaps opening to receive loving-kindness from others provides a salve that some parts of the self have needed. Receiving their birthright of care during metta, they stay calm as I proceed through daily life. The illusion of separation is losing some of its strength.

How is loving-kindness meditation working for you?

Week 1, Day 5: A Little Bit of Botulism

At the turn of the century, I spent a lot of time staying and then work-trading at a raw-food retreat center outside Austin, TX. There I learned some habits that healed the chronic migraines I’d suffered throughout my 20s. I also learned how to make fermented sour kraut without using salt. That last part is key, as the conventional wisdom is that if you make a ferment without salt, life-threatening microbes will emerge. No-salt is key as well, from the raw food perspective, because salt is considered problematic to a natural diet.

These days I cook my food, but I still make sour kraut without salt. Each time I open a new batch, after giving it three-plus weeks to build all those wonderful, gut-healing flora, I give pause. I begin by examining the top—ideally I want to see clear liquid—no cloudiness and no chunks. Just to be safe, I skim off the top layer of liquid. (As if the liquid is not getting mixed with each dip of the spoon.)

My next step is to lift out the top layer of full cabbage leaves. These leaves are another raw-foodist’s trick. If anything rots, it would be these top leaves because they were at the top and therefore most likely to have been exposed to oxygen. Ostensibly, the chopped veggies below the full leaves will be preserved in a perfect ferment.

After removing the leaves and smelling the product (if you’ve ever smelled a rotten ferment, you’d know this is a valid test), I take the plunge and try a taste. Piercing a mere three shreds of the cabbage, I take a deep breath and bite in.

Somewhere a part of me must believe that botulism is okay if I only ingest a little bit of it.

It makes me wonder: what else am I willing to risk a little of? A little passive aggression from co-workers. A little sexism or classism. A little genetic modification. A little bit of off-gas from a fluffy new pillow (maybe they don’t seep through the pillowcase…)

With all the toxic substances, experiences, and people we’re exposed to that may not be in our control to interact with each day, why am I willing to invite any thing else—on purpose, by choice—into my system? Even just a little?

Meditating daily, morning and evening, I’ve become more attuned to the effects of these “little bits of toxins” I allow. Particularly television. After a few days of starting this 12-week meditation project, it became clear that the evening meditations were qualitatively different than the morning meditations. In the morning, I wake relaxed and therefore primed to dive deeper into mindfulness practice. In the evening, much of the time is spent winding down from the day.

This makes sense, intuitively. After rising, I’m likely still in slow brain wave states shared by stages of sleep and meditation. After a day of stimulation, of being in alert beta states, logically it would take some time to shift to alpha for meditation.

But nights I watched television were even harder to recover from. Meditation on those evenings was being used up recovering from what I’d subjected myself to during the day. If it’s my choice, why decide to ingest something I know is toxic?

What’s your little bit of botulism, and what new choices would you like make about what and how much you ingest?

Week 1, Day 4: The Body Teaches

This is Day 4 of meditating daily—one hour in the morning and another in the evening. This first week, I am following instruction from Jack Kornfield from his article in The Lion’s Roar called “How to Do Metta.” The first half of the article has been my focus: you cue the feelings by offering the phrases to two beings that you love, then shift the direction of the feelings toward yourself.

As I was offering the phrases last night, I was distracted by my body. The usual complaints ensued. If only I could stop being so focused on [fill in the blank], I’d be able to meditate. After a while of this, I remembered (again, for the millionth time in eight years of practice), that experiencing what I am experiencing is the meditation.

Doh.

I offered my body the attention it requested. A pattern emerged. As I imagined a loved one and offered each phrase, my head would become tense and tight. After observing and feeling this sensation for a while, I’d offer the phrase again. My gut would then feel twisted and tense.

I continued to offer the phrases to my loved ones, watching with curiosity the body’s pattern of reactions. With each new cycle, it taught me more about them.

The head’s tension, I became aware, came from wanting change for the person I was thinking of. “May you be safe,” I would offer. Then the head would tighten and a litany of thoughts and concerns about that person’s safety would arise. This continued as I offered each new phrase. “May you be peaceful and content.” …

The gut’s tension had its own message, also regardless of the phrase. Twisting and tightening in response to a previously unconscious belief that I could digest whatever might keep my loved ones from being safe, peaceful, healthy, at ease.

The beauty of meditating for an hour at a time is that the inquiry can cycle deeper and deeper.

Had I been meditating my previously usual half hour, I would have noticed the patterns of tension—head and gut. Then the meditation would be over. If I stopped at 45 minutes, I would have also recognized the wantings that came with the tensions. Then the meditation would be over.

Sitting for an hour at a time, I can explore these experiences even further. So, I invite myself, when the head tenses, to first watch and feel the tension, then watch and feel what happens when I shift my intention behind offering the metta phrase. “May you be safe” changes from the head-tensing “I need you to accept this offering and make sure you are safe” to “Here is what it is like in this moment as I think of you and offer the phrase ‘May you be safe.’” The head slowly loosens as sensation in my chest warms and expands.

Again, I try this approach as I notice with the next phrase my gut is tightening up. What is it like, I wonder, to change the offering “May you be peaceful and content” from the gut-wrenching “I will do anything to remove the suffering that keeps you from peace and contentment” into “In this moment, here is what it is like to genuinely place a plateful of peace and contentment at your door, then walk away not needing to know the outcome.”

The intention feels intentionally forced at first. Yet with each new cycling, things shift. The automatic responses of the head and gut remain so for now. I’ve tapped into some lifelong conditioning here. But after the old thoughts appear, I’m now also aware of them. And in this awareness, they’ve shown me what they mean. And through this understanding, I now have choice in how I proceed.

What would it be like if you made the choice to sit a little bit longer than you usually do?

What inquiry awaits?

Week 1, Day 3: With My Full Strength

Week 1, Day 3: With My Full Strength

Last night I went to a horse therapy event at Unbridled Possibilities. Each month they have a women’s connection evening in which we meditate together and work with the horses. I had never been.

I’ve only been around horses twice before. One was on a college friend’s ranch, and I made the mistake of approaching the horse head on. Thankfully I was on the other side of the fence, but the horse’s great size and strength was not lost on me. About five years later, on a trip to Belize in my 20s with a friend, Cossie, I rode a horse.

Cos is the absolute master of vacation planning—she arranged a canoe trip down a river, several days on an island, and horse-back riding through the rain forest. The horses were well-trained. Well, mine was.

Initially I thought Cossie chose to break out in full stride after hitting the open road. I wanted to catch up! I squeezed my legs, pushing down and forward with my hips ( as the trainer had taught us) to urge my horse into stride. I was laughing wildly as I neared Cossie at the apex of a tall, windy dirt-road hill. I turned smiling to greet her, saw the look of horror on her face, and quickly realized it was her horse, not Cossie, who initiated the break away. The trainer came up behind us and brought Cos’ horse to heel. That day I once again felt in awe of the power of these great animals.

Last night, twenty years later, I was around horses for the third time in my life. The event was down in Annapolis at 7pm. To avoid traffic, I left at 4:30 and ate dinner in town. When I arrived later at the arena, the trainer let me know there was a large birthday party forming most of the group that night.

As introverted as I am, in a new place, doing a fairly new activity, this brought most of my mindfulness skills to bear.

The women in the party arrived gradually and were very welcoming. It was a true pleasure to sit in circle meditating and sharing as part of their warm and connected community.

The trainer taught us how horses communicate and then invited us into the arena in groups of three to interact with her. My group went third. We stood together at the far side of the fence and waited for the horse to invite us to have contact. She circled near us a couple of times, made contact with the woman to my right and some stomping gestures, then positioned herself in the center of the fenced circle. Was that it? Had we been horse-therapied?

The trainer then invited us to approach the horse, and we did. I was drawn to pet her shoulders and down her back. I was tentative at first; her weight and size—and my prior experiences—intimidated me. With each new stroke, though, the more I felt her strength and solidity, the more I felt my own. I leaned more deeply into each successive pet, feeling my own power more fully and being met and held by hers in return.

The horse stood in her strength so unapologetically, showing me how to do the same with mine. The experience made me strongly aware of how much of my day is spent attenuating what I have to offer. And how much I long to stop doing that.

In meditation last night, I offered the phrases of loving-kindness to loved ones with my full strength. I then opened fully to receive their love and kindness in return.

I invite you to try this as well.