Mindfulness and Meditation (Finding benefits despite a distracted disposition)

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Meditation has been “in” for awhile now. But it seems 2014 has produced an even greater surge in the practice’s popularity and with those who tout the benefits. In his book, Waking Up, Sam Harris addresses meditation and mindfulness in lucid detail. Waking Up proved effectual for me in many ways, so much so that I emailed Harris expressing my appreciation for his work in the volume. Much to my surprise, he promptly responded — which was pretty freakin’ cool. I was particularly influenced by his knowledge regarding Vipassana meditation. The practice, as presented in the book, is fairly straight forward, and Harris demystified the contemplative approach for me by grounding the concepts firmly in the language of science and overall intelligibility.

In the past, I have mostly approached meditation with skepticism. This is not to say I doubted its potential benefits, I simply struggled sitting still and thought myself incapable of the necessary patience and commitment. Hearing a lot of misinformation and some of the peculiar rhetoric from committed proponents of the practice also contributed to my reticence. My own biases were certainly hedging up the way. Concluding that there was just too much weirdness surrounding the concept and practices of mindfulness made it far easier to be dismissive. “I’m a self aware dude, I don’t need this esoteric jibbery jabber. Meditation just isn’t for me.”

It remains my opinion that meditation is not very well taught or explained because it is more often being proselytized. What resolved my doubts, or rather frustrations, was having the discussion brought into the realm of secular understanding; learning about the real and proven effectiveness of contemplative rituals. Not only this, but reading about and pondering the theories of mind as well as the neuroscientific principles at play when it comes to meditation. What became clear was that I was knowingly denying myself, and remaining ignorant of, a distinctly powerful aspect of human experience; one that didn’t require much effort to partake in if I could merely discard my stubborn preconceptions.

Here are the myths that needed to be dispelled for me:

1. Meditation is about relaxing

Meditation is often work, or effort, or whatever word you’d choose to describe a not entirely comfortable experience that requires training the mental faculties. It is work making myself sit down and do it; something I still frequently struggle with. It’s often strange getting settled, consciously disengaging with the activity of the day, to only sit and breath and do little else. It’s initially discomforting. For me, the use of guided meditations helped significantly for engaging something so novel and outside my normal realm of experience. It provided some structure. I used Sam Harris’s on SoundCloud (9 and 26 minutes depending).

Fair warning, when looking for guided meditation audio, just know that you will find funky ones. This became clear while looking for some other options on youtube. I don’t like the accompaniment of floaty music or poetic instruction that tries to guide my thoughts towards imagining sensation as a fire that represents the force of my being. This kind of esoteric approach might appeal to some folks, but it is not my particular cup o’ metaphysical/contemplative tea. What was important for me was having a voice prompting and reminding me to bring my thoughts back to breathing, for helping me engage the immediate sensations and contents of conscious awareness.

2. My mind can’t wander during meditation, if it does I fail.

This isn’t true, although it is part of the challenge when meditating. What becomes interesting, once feeling less frustrated by a wandering train of thought, is discovering what made the mind wander in the first place and what patterns emerge when learning how these distractions occur. When disciplining myself to notice thoughts as they arose, and acknowledging them as thoughts and potential distractions, the moment grew easier to stay in. This keener momentary awareness also afforded more patience, comfort, and with time, a desire to meditate longer…the length became less and less important. It wasn’t a fight with boredom or restlessness anymore, although this ease only comes when the habit is being kept to steadfastly. It’s a tool that requires constant use, or the mind gets quickly reoriented to the more distracting nature of everyday life.

3. Meditation is going to blow your mind and expand it into the multiverse

While I’ve had some meditation sessions that I came away from feeling pretty damn good, I’ve never noticed a third eye on my forehead or come away from it sensing that I was floating on a new plain of existence. I can attest that my later and longer sessions led to a more distinct and welcome calmness — both of mind and body. The “spiritual” or “mind expanding” quality of meditation I would more appropriately describe as gaining an understanding for the workings of ones thoughts. With meditation, we can learn what habits of thinking try incessantly to tear us away from the moment, and develop a capacity to guide our awareness back, or rather stay in the present; so much so that the experience in meditation becomes something of a thoughtless state, where guiding and redirecting ceases to be of necessity because the mind is literally in a state where what is being thought is immaterial to the mere sensation of present experience…as it has been described, this is what pure consciousness is. This is the more difficult but rewarding quality that meditation can provide.

Humans are really bad at being able to sit and embrace a calming sense of everything being okay just because it is okay. We always seem to believe we need reasons for it, or that we need to be working to achieve a better situation for ourselves, a situation that likely does not exist. This immediate moment that I am in right now CAN be okay and I CAN feel okay about it being okay.

4. That I should “know” when it’s working
Although meditation works, it isn’t something that must be or even can be made/forced to work. Certain conditions are more conducive to having an effective session, but thinking too hard about whether I’ve done it correctly or deliberating with myself about whether I’m in the proper mindstate will basically defeat the purpose of the practice. Just by making a habit of meditating, I was able to slowly get past the nagging concern of whether I felt like it was working or not. It was indeed weird for me to just sit in a room and breath and do very little else. That awkwardness also dissipated as I continued to just do it, and do it daily. Know, within yourself, that sitting still for 4-5 and later 10-20 minutes is quite impressive for a modern human being in a consumerist society. Later on, the “working” quality — the benefits — become apparent without having had to think about it very hard.

5. That I could not sit still long enough to succeed at meditation

Yes I could, and I did. I just simply had to do it.

To sum up my sentiments concerning meditation: it’s been quite the departure from what I normally participate in, but it’s that very foreign quality that was probably essential for me. I needed to be shaken from my normal frame of mind, from my normal day to day scrambling — and scrambling is often what I am doing. Although, with new habits taking shape in the area of exercise and mindfulness, scrambling has been less of a problem for me. But recently Caitlin and I packed up and moved from Lakewood, WA to Emmett, ID, and I’ve let the meditation habit grow more sporadic. It is something I’ve seen benefits from if and when I’m committing myself to doing it daily, and regardless of any anxiety or a busy brain. Writing this blog is my manifesto for declaring the goodness of meditation as well as my recommitment to making it a daily habit again. Here are some resources for getting started if perhaps you were interested at giving it a shot:

The full text and audio of Waking Up Ch. 1, of particular relevance being the section on mindfulness

Guided meditations:
9 Minute
26 Minute

Further information:
Dan Harris and Sam Harris talk mindfulness and meditation
Wherever You Go, There You Are
http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/14096.Wherever_You_Go_There_You_Are

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Quality of Life With Other Non-Humans (A VO Review of Living with a Cat)

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Pet owners — or fellow folks who live with a species that is accustomed to domestic life — may be familiar with this scene: a visitor comes over, cozies up on the couch, and your domesticated animal friend approaches the visitor. But they recoil or are at least display hesitance towards the level of affection and contact the animal entreaties. In the past, I have been the type who could have this sort of uneasiness around house broken animals. I wouldn’t say it’s a disgust reaction, but that a foreign and unusual feeling is evinced. What is this furry thing? Why is their so much hair coming off of it? What does it want from me, it doesn’t know me? Likely, there is an evolutionarily ingrained response, a subconscious concern that an unknown creature might carry disease or pose some other threat.

My family had cats when I was younger, and I don’t recall being pet averse back then, but our cats were outside most of the time. I didn’t think about them very much. We had a brief stint with a cocker spaniel named Adam, of which I was not prepared for even though it was my idea. In my youth, I recall a pet dog requiring more of an adjustment when it came to issues of cleanliness. That experiment was short lived, but there was a grateful family willing to give Adam a home.

The cats we had while I was growing up basically kept to themselves. We called them all “pooty” as in “I tawt I taw a pooty tat”. They had real names — Powder, Mittens, Autumn, and Spice — but we didn’t use those names much. For a good stretch of my adult life, however, I’ve lived in petless homes. Living with Caitlin now, I’ve had to reacclimate to pet proximity with her lovely cat Raelyn. It’s been an enjoyable and rewarding experience.

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That’s not to say there wasn’t an adjustment period. I think more for her than me. I was the foreign and strange thing. I stomped around the apartment helter skelter like. I banged the pots, dishes and pans around…and I was the apocalyptic agent of the monstrous vacuum. I would sing made up songs or shout things randomly in weird voices, the frequencies of which caused her ears to flip back in an effort to block out the sonic disturbance. I’ve learned to resist the urge to wrestle and scoop her up in my arms in hopes of squeezing out all the cuteness. Slowly I’ve adapted and become more gentle; increasingly mellow in my various commotions. Raelyn has basically trained me.

She is often now my reading buddy. She will knead the lap blanket and cozy up. She also likes towels. I’m usually first up in the morning and she awaits the slightest stir, following which she announces her presence to be sure I know it’s time for breakfast. I head out to the cabinet under the sink, scoop up some dry food as she follows, does a loop around my ankles, and goes back into the room en route to her food bowl. This is the morning ritual.

I didn’t think I had it in me to be a pet/animal lover. But I truly see her as a part of a small family in this little studio apartment that we inhabit. I believe it’s made me more patient and considerate, certainly less spastic. Her little yowls and meows to me have a twinge of existential angst, as if like me she’s also wondering “what does it all mean”…these vocalizations probably just mean “pay attention” or “I’m bored”.

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Cat’s sleep most the time so I wonder if they think their waking life is actually the dream. So asides from assuaging loneliness and refining my temperament, Raelyn in unexpected ways enriches my intellectual and philosophical thinking — even if all I’m really doing is irrationally projecting my emotions onto her via anthropomorphism. Caitlin and I are constantly snapping photos of her with our phones. There seems to be no end to her funny poses and at times it seems Raelyn is willing to ham it up for the lens. With these photos, I occasionally post to Instagram with captions of kitty contemplations on life.

I understand now the claim that pets help relieve depression. It’s rather subtle, but humans have a tendency to associate living and human qualities to a variety of things (both animate and inanimate). While Raelyn might not actually know what I’m thinking or saying, my brain is wired to respond and assume there is some level of communication occurring. This is by its nature healthy for human beings. Even seeing her slink along the ground from the corner of my eye is probably enough for me to subconsciously feel like I am less alone. When she reacts to the opening of a can, scurries across and perches on the edge of the couch by the countertop, an understanding has been reached. It’s not always something she’ll be inclined to taste, but if it’s tuna, or if I’m cutting chicken breast, she’s in for a tiny treat that I know she appreciates.

“Breeeowwwww.”

“I know it!”

“Grreeeowwwww.”

“It’s a tragedy.”

“Mrreeeaawwwww.”

“I agree, babe.”

“Preeowww.”

“I feel exactly the same.”

“Meow.” Flops on side, rolls onto back…exposes belly.

All around, living with a cat gets a perfect 5 * out of 5 from me!

Quick Hits:

Observation so far from rewatching Lost: A decade later, writers seem now to do better not only using female characters as a means for making the leading men more interesting and complicated. Kate in season 2 is poorly written and merely used as a device to create tension between Sawyer and Jack…and that’s basically her purpose. Lame!

Current reading: Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other

Random Occurrence for the Week: Bullet hole being shot through our building 10-15 below where I was reading the other night

Thing to be bummed about: The waning of autumn colors

On the Forming of a Habit (The Sorcery of Delayed Gratification)

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The other night Caitlin brought to my attention that I had been jogging daily going on a month now. Initially that fact seemed inexplicable to me. Not because I didn’t believe I’d done it, but I couldn’t account for more than 30 days of jogging in my head. Well, also because it was hard to believe I’d established the habit. I’m no couch bum, but building routine in my life has been a nagging and sometimes debilitating struggle. I might even suggest that I’m a professional and skilled half-asser.

The concept of delayed gratification in many ways does not compute in my head. It feels like faith to me, and I possess very little faith. This might come across as depressing or color my character in some other negative light; but I do not mention this as if I am at confessional or admitting to my deepest character flaws. Whether I’ve established this bad habit of not building habits through my own volition, or if it is more a function of my predispositions is mostly irrelevant. What is important is that my brain has internalized and recognized the goodness of a new habit without me even really having thought about it. That is habituation.

I am not a reformed man, I did not wake up one morning and decide that things would be different. I just started jogging one day. Slowly, the jogs got longer. I recognized that podcasts and audiobooks weren’t enough to keep me out of my head, and when in my head I become more keenly aware of my boredom and discomfort. So I started listening to music instead, along with running different routes every few days. This seemed to keep a certain freshness to it, and the rhythm of tunes kept me in my body and out my thoughts.

I quietly noticed I was feeling better mood wise and that my days were becoming more evenly structured. Things were just sort of happening and now a month has past.To my conscious and often scattered mind, this almost feels like magic. I don’t even know how to fully describe it, but the best way I can think of would be to say that my mind works in bursts of frenetic thoughts and observations, what most people seem to possess in the way of “motivation” and sustained commitment has at times in my life felt utterly foreign and otherwise fleeting. I’m aware that this may be some narrative I’ve constructed to excuse the manner in which I’ve skillfully half-assed my way through life. Either way, it is what it is. I have a relative non-judgement in recognizing this about myself. But the unassuming way in which I tricked myself into jogging daily while hardly even thinking about it is a significant breakthrough. It might be good for me to accept it as some sort of sorcery so that I might put faith in the doctrine of habit and delayed gratification. It’s a small thing, but I’ve been encouraging myself to celebrate “wins” when they come along.

As I said earlier, however, this is not a rebirth or reformation. Too many times in my life I had it in my head that I had turned some kind of corner. I prefer to think of this right now as a revision of a script that I had been playing out in repeat for much of my life. A very minor revision, as I will reexamine some of this progress months down the line and see if further magic has been cast upon my person.

Let’s see if I can trick myself into writing that book I always talk about. But I’ve been told it’s kind of insulting to writers to just nonchalantly talk as though you want to write a book. It is no easy task, and is certainly more involved than forming a month long jogging habit. But, I REALLY don’t consider myself a dreamer, so I’ll allow myself to have this ambition even if that irks a more seasoned and accomplished writer out there somewhere. The next task is to use the mysticism of habit forming in an effort to build a daily routine of writing.

<<<<Quick Hits>>>>

Habit I encourage others to form in full recognition of the hypocrisy I posses in asking others to do what I am bad at:

Read daily and begin saying of art (music, film, etc) that it is more than merely GOOD or BAD.

Albums that must be listened to:

-Alt-J ‘This is All Yours’

-Sylvan Esso ‘self titled’

-Kate Tempest ‘Everybody Down’

-FKA twige ‘LP1’

-Sharon Van Etten ‘Are We There’

-Killer be Killed ‘self titled’ <<<<<side project supergroup w/ Max Cavalera and dudes from Mastodon and Dillinger Escape Plan…nuff said

Deep thinking books that can be read on the crapper:

-The Accidental Universe by Alan Lightman

-You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney

-Straw Dogs by John N Gray

Pseudo-events that serve to distract and not to enlighten:

-IPhone 6 bendgate

-Whether or not Roger Goodell gets fired

-Underpants that make your flatulence smell like mint <<<<like seriously, #DYSTOPIA, stop this nonsense

Words and concepts to know for maintaining your status as a quasi-intellectual:

-Predicate

-Quasi-intellectual

-Concern troll

-Difference between correlation and causation

-Loss aversion and sunk cost (you don’t even have to understand these completely, just throw it in your comment and you’ll sound smart)


PEACE!

A Personal Meditation (Mindfulness Reminders)

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I wrote this over a year ago at a time of serious self reflection. Questioning, doubting, and working towards more patience and compassion with myself (something I think we all struggle and face with regularity). I wanted to share it here as many of my friends at the time that I wrote this said that they had found the words comforting and helpful. I know I haven’t revisited the words enough and that is what they are designed to be for. So, I hope they can resonate with another as they had and continue to have deep significance for me.

Petitioning the Deepest, Authentic, Inner Self

Allow me to give of myself that I might find myself

Help me see more the good around me, and in myself

Turn away from any secrecy in my actions,

and the hiding of my feelings and thoughts

Be present

Accept the past

Have curiosity, not despair for the future

Remain patient when hope ebbs

Realize that someone is there to listen

Reach out if someone else is struggling

Understand the power in sharing our human experience

Remember that I am never alone

Help me be diligent in offering and acting with natural goodness

Find where my talents can be beneficial and edifying for others

Give freely and do not revel in praise or recognition

Maintain vision,

And if I lose sight, call to mind where that can and has taken me

Let go of what I cannot control

Embrace and have reverence for mystery, ambiguity, the undiscovered

Being ever aware of that uncertainty,

But inviting towards the possibilities of each new day