“I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.” — Henry David Thoreau
This post is my attempt at sharing what I’ve learned during my brief history with practicing meditation. I hope it’s helpful to people who are curious about the topic and ready to explore it. I’m certain it will be helpful to future-me when I return to this post to read about a unique season of my life.
I’ve practiced some yoga, a little mindfulness, and most recently, a lot of meditation. I first tried yoga around 2007. Despite my persistent inflexibility, I enjoyed it, and practiced it sporadically. I got deeper exposure to yoga in 2013 during my time at Dev Bootcamp, where yoga instructors worked with us regularly. I practiced yoga regularly on my own in 2014. Later that year, I picked up on mindfulness through reading Search Inside Yourself, which also introduced me to the science of meditation. While yoga and mindfulness were wonderful, I found myself wanting something more focused.
In 2015, I started regularly using a seven-minute guided meditation called Noticing, recorded by my friend Alex Harms. Noticing was the gateway to my meditation practice getting more serious. In late 2016, I decided to try out The Cutting Machinery, an app created by Vinay Gupta and the Future Thinkers. The Cutting Machinery practice is an hour of sitting in silence, and changing your focus every ten minutes. You can also toggle some commentary by Vinay, and listen to a bunch of his mini-lectures that unlock as you progress.
The practice progresses twice through ten-minute segments of:
- Mantra: Simply repeat a word each time you breathe. I use “sunflower”.
- Open Awareness: Open your eyes and meditate on the full input of all of your senses.
- Feel Your Emotions: Focus on what emotions are happening for you, particularly any negative emotions.
That last segment was very difficult for me. In fact, the first time I tried it in late 2016, I couldn’t get through it. I was eventually able to handle it a month later, but only after I had resolved the issues that were blocking me.
Practicing this meditation over the past 10 months, I’ve been able to feel my actual feelings much more consistently. As someone who is adept at avoiding and denying difficult feelings, this has had a profound impact on my life.
While on vacation in June, I practiced meditation every morning, watching the sun rise over Rainy Lake in Ontario. I’ve continued this daily practice ever since that trip. In fact, today marks the 100th consecutive day that I’ve practiced this hour-long meditation. I’m using this 100-day milestone to share what I’ve learned so far.
Psychotherapist as meditation guide
I’ve met with my psychotherapist every week or two for the past year. Our work together has flourished with the integration of my meditation practice. Sometimes my therapist has simply asked me what I had learned during meditation this week in order to kick off our time together. Most of the hard personal work I’ve done recently happens during meditation. My therapist plays a guiding role, and has created a safe place for me to discuss and process what I’m learning.
Better diet unlocks your body’s voice
Once I started meditating more regularly, I became more aware of my body and how I was feeling. I was able to physically feel how my diet was holding me back and silencing my feelings. At my therapist’s advice, as well as the advice of a diet-focused friend, I started changing my diet.
The first thing I dropped was coffee and caffeine. Living without caffeine can be a real challenge in our hard-driving society. There have definitely been seasons of my life where it’s hard to imagine surviving without it. For now, I want my body to feel tired when it naturally feels tired. I still sometimes grind through long days at work, but instead of chugging coffee all afternoon and feeling artificially energized, I just let myself feel exhausted. Then I go to bed early that night. I have found that caffeine silences my body’s suggestion that I’m tired, which inevitably leads to my utter exhaustion. I’d prefer to shorten the feedback loop, feel tired immediately, and address it through rest and sleep.
One of my mouth’s favorite things is sugary food chased by coffee. Having dropped coffee, it naturally cut down on my sugar intake. But I really attacked sugar via going on a keto diet for a couple weeks. I’ve never paid much attention to food or nutrition, and learning how to avoid carbohydrates was educational. I mainly just wanted to eat more deliberately. I’ve backed off from my initial keto push, but still focus on eating mainly meat and vegetables. I had to replace my belt with a smaller one, so I assume I’ve dropped some weight this year.
Possibly the most drastic change to my diet wasn’t about what I ate, but when I ate it. I had a bad habit of binging on sugary food at night. When I stopped eating food after dinner, it became quickly apparent how important that night food was for self-comfort. I missed those cookies, cereal, and ice cream as I was left with my typically-silenced feelings to deal with.
The side effect of all these dietary changes was that breakfast became very important to me. I woke up hungry from not eating the night before, and became even hungrier after an hour of meditation. My morning hunger has created a positive feedback loop where I eat a big, protein-rich breakfast (typically 3 eggs with veggies mixed in) which makes me less hungry for my later meals. I also usually have 100% control over what I eat for breakfast, whereas my lunch and dinner can be tougher to plan out due to busy schedules. Hence, my biggest meal of the day tends to be my healthiest.
“Everything in moderation, including moderation.” — Oscar Wilde
I should be clear that I still drink alcohol occasionally when I’m hanging out with family and friends. And I definitely eat after dinner sometimes, usually some ice cream with my kids or my son’s homemade cookies. Because these are the exceptions and not the norm, I’m more mindful of their effects than I used to be. Recovering from these dietary excursions means bringing my body’s voice back into my mental foreground as soon as possible.
Meditation can “replace” sleep
When I started my one-hour meditation practice, I wondered how I’d ever increase my frequency. Who can afford an hour to meditate every single day? As I gradually practiced more often, I began to notice that I could go to sleep around 10:30pm, wake up around 5am, meditate for an hour, and feel refreshed. Most of the time I don’t need to set an alarm. My body tends to wake up early automatically because it’s excited for breakfast and my brain is hungry for meditation practice. I’ve kept this rhythm going daily and it’s working well. When my practice is unfocused, I’ll feel sleepy in the afternoon. So I’ll try to power-nap when I can, or just go to sleep earlier that night.
Sitting on the floor can be a workout
I mentioned above that I’m inflexible. Sitting cross-legged for an hour was challenging at first, and it still isn’t easy. (I’m very slowly and carefully working my way to the lotus pose.) Leg flexibility isn’t the only challenge, though. Just sitting up straight with no back support for an hour is a core workout.
The beginning of my practice was a challenge. As I got tired of sitting up straight, I wanted to lean on my legs for support, but my legs were so stretched that it hurt to lean on them. So I ended up sort of pulling on my legs to balance and relieve the stretch. Over time, my core strengthened because I don’t struggle to sit up for an hour anymore, but I still have a long way to go on my flexibility.
Note: I always sit on something softer than just a bare hard floor. Depending on the circumstances, I’ve used carpet, a piece of cardboard, or a towel.
Meditation is fitness for your mind
It is surprising how unspiritual my meditation practice is. I’ve found that it is just as spiritual as anything else I do with intense focus, though it is often more meaningful. The best way to describe its effects on me is to compare it to physical fitness. Similar to a body that gets in shape from exercise, my mind is stronger and clearer due to this practice.
I find these fitness-like techniques helpful to my practice:
- Counting breaths. When my mind is especially chaotic or noisy during my practice, I simply count my breaths. I started by repeatedly counting to four. Eventually I worked my way up to ten, and then twenty. Now I’m going back to four because I’ve noticed that my mind can wander as it goes into autopilot with larger numbers.
- Slower breathing is another helpful way to slow down my mind. I don’t hold my breath or make myself uncomfortable, but I practice taking fewer breaths.
Embracing the present can be blissful
“There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands.” — Henry David Thoreau
While there have been moments of tearful sadness and pain during my meditation practice, there have also been moments of bliss. It’s hard to put these moments into words. Sometimes the bliss is so intense I just let myself fall over and laugh for a minute, and then resume my posture.
My moments of bliss are when my mind is at peace, feeling light and untethered. My moments of sadness are when my mind is clinging to something, images of the past, or concerned about the future. One way that I remind myself not to “cling” is to keep my palms open while I’m practicing.
Embracing the present can be painful
“Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.” — Henry David Thoreau
The dark side of my natural optimism is that I can easily fall into wishful thinking, avoidance, and denial. These are all coping strategies for handling some sort of painful reality, and none of them are sustainable. Fortunately and uncomfortably, my meditation practice has hampered my ability to use these coping mechanisms.
One of my go-to avoidance mechanisms was using my imagination to transport me to the past or the future. A couple months into my daily practice I noticed that my time-traveling imagination wouldn’t cooperate when I was having a hard day. I was left to deal with the hard day as it was. This was a painful and also important experience.
I did find two different coping strategies that I believe are healthier:
- Gratitude. After struggling with painful feelings for a while, I try to find something to be grateful for. This isn’t hard to do, it’s just hard to remember to do. I’ve found gratitude to be healing and energizing.
- Reaching out to family and friends for support. This can carry its own set of problems if some of these relationships turn into a form of avoidance. So I try to focus on my oldest, most stable relationships, such as my grandmother, my parents, my siblings, and the friends I’ve known for at least a decade. Collectively these people know me at least as well as I know myself, and have been instrumental in helping me work through the present reality.
The dark side of prayer
“Pray to God, but row toward shore.” — Old Russian sailor’s proverb
While my theology has been evolving over the past few years, I still consider myself a Christian. Prayer has been a big part of my religious experience from an early age. As I became more aware of my feelings through my meditation practice, it occurred to me how often I had used prayer as a way of avoiding reality. There’s a fine line between trusting a Higher Power and living in denial. Even as we reach out to a Higher Power for help, we should face the reality of our lives and work hard to improve it.
When thoughts pop up, write them down
While meditation involves quieting your mind, thoughts inevitably arise. Sometimes these thoughts are just noise, but other times they can be insightful and/or important. As someone who often struggles with memory retention, I find that it’s helpful to jot down important thoughts that pop up. Writing them down also lets my mind release the thoughts and refocus on my practice.
Sunrises are the best
As someone who is now typically meditating when the sun comes up, I’ve fallen in love with sunrises. I’m also more aware of the sun’s movement throughout the day.
Some enlightening books that I’ve read this year
- The Calm Technique: Extremely straightforward guide to meditation.
- Autobiography of a Yogi: Incredible stories told by the Indian man who brought Yoga to the United States.
- Walden: One man’s poetic account of living deliberately.
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