fitness · meditation

Catherine’s meditation retreat: stillness, energy, love and hope

Meditation has been good for whatever’s ailed me during the pandemic, and it continues to be so. About 14 months ago, I restarted my off-and-on meditation practice, doing a four-day zoom meditation workshop at my local yoga studio. I wrote about it here and here.

For the general public, meditation has a significant PR problem. But even for those of us who have tried it, meditation can seem serious and heavy– another burden to carry rather than a way to make our lives lighter. Witness this email I got recently:

Recent newsletter from Tricycle: the Buddhist Review. This week's topic: Contemplating your own death. Party on!
Recent newsletter from Tricycle: the Buddhist Review. This week’s topic: Contemplating your own death. Party on!

To be fair, the Tricycle folks cover the waterfront of human experience in their teachings, and other newsletter topics include laughing at our own minds, living the creative life, and cultivating intention, concentration, focus, compassion, etc.

But, staring into the abyss of the truth of existence is a thing that meditation promotes. There’s no way to get around that.

Or is there?

Well, yes and no. Meditation teacher, author and (in his words) meditation-making machine Jeff Warren led a weekend-long meditation workshop called “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics” (also the title of his co-authored book with Dan Harris) at the Omega Institute near Rhinebeck, NY. I went with my friend Kathy.

It was, well, uh, transforming. Yeah, that.

At this point you may be thinking, uh, what does Catherine mean by “transforming”? Is her life different now? Is she a different person? Did she make contact with the sublime? Is she now dedicating her life to silent contemplation?

Short answers: Yes, yes, yes, and most definitely not.

The oh-so-quotable Inigo Montoya, saying "let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up."
The oh-so-quotable Inigo Montoya, saying “let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.”

This retreat, which was Friday night through Sunday noon, was a mixture of listening to Jeff, sitting with Jeff as he led us through various meditations, and a combo of Q&A and sharing our experiences and struggles with meditation.

Here’s an earlier version of Jeff’s 4-part approach to meditation practice, which he says (and I can attest) translates into life.

Hand-drawn illustration of Jeff Warren's meditation basics, emphasizing concentration, equanimity (acceptance of what is), clarity, and friendliness (now updated to be caring). From his instagram page.
Hand-drawn illustration of Jeff Warren’s meditation basics, emphasizing concentration, equanimity (acceptance of what is), clarity, and friendliness (now updated to be caring). From his instagram page.

After 17 months of all-online-everything, being in the same (very large) room with 100 or so other people (all masked and vaccinated), all being still (or fidgety), all listening to sounds in the room, their own breath and Jeff’s voice– it was overwhelming. I thought I’d be too distracted by all this stimulation to get quiet. I was at first. The first meditation session was, for me, a whirring blender of thoughts and emotions.

But then came Saturday. We did a combo of sitting meditation, individual nature walking meditation, and then one of my favorite meditations that Jeff calls (can you tell I’m kind of fan-girling here?) “Welcome to the party”. It involves becoming aware of any annoying or sad or angry or other parts or thoughts or feelings, and inviting them into your consciousness. Hey there, social anxiety– welcome to the party! Sadness over recent family loss? Welcome to the party! Resentment over not getting promoted at work? Hey there, can I get you something to drink? Have a seat.

You get the idea.

I’ve done this meditation many times, and keep coming back to it. But this time, something different happened. Everything got quiet, even in my mind. Quiet. Stillness. I never ever experience this. I have a serious case of what the Buddhists call “monkey mind”. But not this time, in this room, during this sitting meditation.

I sat, noticing the quiet. I wondered about it, and kept breathing, trying not to attach to it too much (another meditation thing). I figured it would change, as things always do. And it did. Into the quiet space entered something that I can only ineffectively describe as like it was shining, like it was golden, like it was warm, like it was round, and it was like it was inside me.

It was like it was something sublime. And it was good. It was goodness. It was love. Big love.

I noticed this, too, and wondered about it. Then it just filled me– the love/goodness, and I was experiencing that. Okay– just keep breathing, just keep breathing…

To sum up, I had something that was like a transcendent experience. Quiet, energy, love. And when the meditation was over was added a feeling of hope.

Through the rest of the weekend, that experience stayed with me. Not to be repeated, but to be added to my sense of self and sense of the world.

I cannot imagine a better and more unexpected gift. Thank you, Jeff. Thank you Omega Institute. Thank you, Kathy, for sharing the weekend with me. Thank you, universe.

If you’re interested in more information (by this I mean links), here are a bunch of them:

My meditation aid of choice has been the Ten Percent Happier app. You can get 3 months of FREE access to it by clicking here on meditation teacher Jeff Warren’s linktree page, which is also below.

https://linktr.ee/jeffwarren

Jeff also runs something called the Do Nothing Project, where they host live youtube Sunday night meditations. You can find them here: https://jeffwarren.org/event/do-nothing-project/

Readers, this was a much harder than my usual blog posts to write. It’s about stillness, not movement. It’s about changes to my inner self, not outer self. It’s personal in a way I’m not used to being personal. But I wanted to share this with you. Why? Because I want you to know that such things happen, and that they happen to people you know or know-in-a-way. And, if you’re thinking about bringing a little more intentional quiet into your life, maybe reading this will support you in moving in that direction.

If you’d like to share or ask questions or anything, I’m here and will listen and respond.

ADHD · dogs · fitness · meditation · mindfulness · walking

Christine and Khalee Try Walking Meditation

Ok, full disclosure: *I* was doing a walking meditation.

Khalee was just walking and sniffing everything and deciding where to pee…which is being really in the moment, I guess so she’s got this mindfulness thing sorted already.

I usually set out for my walk with one earphone in, using my walking time to hear some cool podcast stories that I would forget to make time to listen to otherwise.

Today, though, my mind was busy and I didn’t think I could focus on a story. So, I decided to try a new walking meditation that I bought last week.

Image description: Khalee, a medium-sized, light-haired dog on a neon yellow leash is standing on an asphalt path and looking back toward the camera. Christine’s feet in black and​ white sneakers can be seen at the bottom of the photo.
At this point, Khalee was doing a ‘waiting for Christine’ meditation practice. She has to do that one a lot. Image description: Khalee, a medium-sized, light-haired dog on a neon yellow leash is standing on an asphalt path and looking back toward the camera. Christine’s feet in black and white sneakers can be seen at the bottom of the photo.

I’ve tried to do walking meditation before, figuring that the movement would help me focus, but I found it was the opposite. Trying to make myself think about how my feet were landing, over and over, was enough to make my brain want to crawl out of my skull.

(Note: I have only tried two walking meditations before and they were both really foot-focused. Perhaps that was an unfortunate coincidence and most aren’t like that.)

Last week, thanks to a tweet from someone with ADHD requesting ideas for meditation, I came across a walking meditation from Anna Granta, an ADHD Coach from the UK.

I figured that a meditation from an ADHD coach would be a bit more tailored to someone with ADHD, and I was right!

For starters, she has a great voice. Lots of meditation leaders have voices that grate on my nerves but Granta’s is sensible, even, and friendly.

The meditation is short – less than 5 minutes from start to finish, including instructions.

And it’s very practical – leading the listener to tune into what they could see, hear, smell, and feel while they walked.

And once it was done, I kept my podcast off for the rest of my walk, noticing the sounds, smells, and the details of the sights around me.

It was a short practice but it was really refreshing. And it would be easy to do in the future.*

I returned from my walking feeling like I had untangled a knot in my brain.

Neurotypical people or those with an established meditation practice might find this practice too short or too quick but my ADHD brain loved it. It was short enough to feel doable, long enough to calm down a bit, and clear and inviting enough that I could keep practicing even after the audio finished.

I’ll definitely be using this meditation in the future. Not for every walk, because sometimes hearing a story is exactly what I need in a given moment, but I love having it close at hand for when my brain needs to smooth out a bit.

Khalee’s walking meditation was also successful. She left the house untroubled, returned the same way, and just walked when she was walking and sniffed while she was sniffing. She’s a mindfulness expert, really.

Image description: Khalee, a medium-sized, light-haired dog on a neon yellow leash is walking away from the camera while she sniffs the ground. She is standing on some grass and there are large decorative rocks a bit further ahead. Part of an asphalt path can be seen on the right side of the photo.​
Here’s Khalee during the sniffing part of her meditation practice. Image description: Khalee, a medium-sized, light-haired dog on a neon yellow leash is walking away from the camera while she sniffs the ground. She is standing on some grass and there are large decorative rocks a bit further ahead. Part of an asphalt path can be seen on the right side of the photo.

*Her instructions are clear and now that I have followed it once, easily done on my own even without the recording. I will still go back to it, though, to help me ease into the process.

habits · meditation · mindfulness

Day 999 of My Meditation Streak: When the Mind Chatter Surrenders to What Is

Tiny seated Buddha on a green leaf
Samuel Austin on Unsplash

I sit down on my meditation cushion for day 999 of my current meditation streak. This particular cushion is a stack of two stained decorative pillows on a day bed in an Airbnb in Montreal, where I’m staying with my mother, the first time I’ve seen her since the beginning of the pandemic. The mind chatter starts right in:

Why do I never get any credit for my accomplishments? I’m so tired of these people who tell me that their daily activities are “meditations”—running, gardening, whatever. Last night it was counting stitches in knitting and something about watching sports and managing frustration. Meanwhile, here I am putting in the work of sitting down every single solitary day. Oh right, you call that work? Okay, yeah, it’s most often only for 10 minutes. Exactly, I don’t know what you are even pleased with yourself about? Can everyone just stop taking my meditation away from me with all their fake-itations?! Whoa. Hold on a minute. Who’s the fraud in this scenario? That’s a lot of me-me-me-notice-me about a meditation. Holy antithesis. Is that why you meditate, for the credit? Also, when did you become the Académie Française of meditation, the anointed-one-from-on-high who gets to define what counts as a meditation? Also, also, who the fuck cares what other people are doing? What does that have to do with your meditation? When did meditation become a competitive sport? Also, also, also, juvenile!

Time out. Can everyone take a breath? I hear all of you. But if we pause, can you feel how it doesn’t matter? Can you see how people might be talking about their meditative practices to connect with you, not to diminish you? And, news flash, you do a good enough job diminishing your own self. You don’t need anyone else’s help with that. Plus, a reminder, tuning into this chatter and letting it flow through and away is your practice. Good job. I mean it. Well done.

Just there, did you feel that moment of peace? The way it arrived like a comforting weighted blanket? Aah. That feels good. Let all people call whatever they want their meditation.

Fine.

Wait. Wake up. Enough with the I’m-so-zen, have you forgotten what’s happening today? Oh man, what the hell am I doing with my life, starting a new 10-month training course in Non-Violent Communication? It’s too late. I’m too old. I’ll never finish. When will I be a grown up? I’m in way over my head. How about the monthly travel to Canada from the US? All the documentation. Every time. For what? No one is ever going to hire me. Why are you even doing this? And don’t even give me that over-earnest answer, to make a contribution. Cue the violins. It’s the same as with your meditation. Do you really want to contribute or do you want to be seen to be contributing? Grandiosity.

Okay, I’m calling a time out again. This is not advice, just a suggestion. Surrender. Seriously, I mean it. You know (know-know, in that cellular way) that this course is the right thing for you, for how you want to be in the world. That’s enough. You don’t have to waste time doubting yourself. I know you feel like you need to fight this with doubt. But you really don’t have to. You can just be with what is.

 …

Did you hear that?

I felt it—silence resonating in my mind-body. It was only a few seconds. That’s enough, isn’t it? Yes.

 …

The gong sounds, bringing my meditation to a close. I open my eyes and look out at the green hill of Mont Royal, visible from my aerie. I was running up there not more than an hour ago, enlivened with the joy of movement. Spaciousness fills me again. I am light, yet grounded, centered, fluid and strong. I am ready for breakfast with my mother and then back-to-school. How fitting. 

Also, I did make it to Day 1000 of my meditation streak the next day–this is the log on my Insight Timer app
fitness · meditation · rest · sleep · yoga · Zwift

Sleep, stress, and exercise: Sam’s vicious cycle

I’m the Nap Queen. Sleep is my super power. I prioritize rest. These are some of the songs I sing on the blog.

La La La.

La la la la

But lately it feels more like…

Blah. Blah. Blah.

I have a very stressful job and lately I haven’t been sleeping that well. I’m worrying a lot.

So I have been tired and also some days, not feeling much like hard exercise. I mean, I’m still working out. I still bike commute. I still throw a little yoga in here and there. I walk Cheddar and I do some rowing on the erg. But my passion for big. heavy lifting or long efforts on the bike? Nope. Nada.

That’s very not me. So I’ve been listening to the voice that says ‘more rest.’ I’m going to bed early.

But it hasn’t really been helping. I’m sleeping but I am not sleeping that well. Stress and heat are both factors but also without the serious exercise, I’m just not that tired.

One thing that’s occurred to me that is that I use exercise to burn off stress and it makes me tired. The combo makes for an excellent night’s sleep. I slept my best during the pandemic when I was zwifting 5 or 6 nights a week. If I’m too tired to work out, I don’t exercise in the evening and then I have a crappy night’s sleep.

Listening to your body doesn’t always mean more rest. Sometimes the message is more complicated than that.

I’m going to try exercising even when I don’t feel like it, knowing I’ll feel better after. I’m usually the sort of person who uses exercises as a reward. It’s a fun thing that I do. I might have to change my thinking a bit.

I’m going to also look for some non exercise stress relief. I’ve got Adriene’s Find What Feels Good app on my phone and I might see what night time yoga and meditation do for my sleep.

What helps you get a good night’s sleep?

fitness · meditation · mindfulness · motivation · new year's resolutions

What’s your Word of the Year? Here are ours…#WOTY

Word cloud of the bloggers’ #WOTY

We didn’t all blog about it but most of the bloggers at Fit is a Feminist Issue have chosen a word of the year.

Why do it? Sometimes people choose a word of the year to guide them instead of a new year’s resolution, and for others it’s part of the resolution. It can mean different things to different people but the basic idea is to name an area for concentration, focus, or exploration. Sometimes it’s what you want more of in your life and sometimes it’s more general, to give a flavour to the conversations you’re having about your prupose, direction, and plans.

But with no further ado, here are our words for 2021:

Mina’s is ENOUGH

Christine’s is CONSISTENT

Sam’s is FLOW

Cate’s is STEADFAST

Nat’s is REST

Tracy’s is MINDFULNESS

Martha’s is HOLD FAST

Nicole’s is STEADY

Susan’s is PERSIST

Catherine’s is AWAKE

What’s your word of the year?

Let us know in the comments if you’ve chosen a word for 2021, what it is, and what it means to you. Thanks!

fitness · meditation · motivation · new year's resolutions · self care

Go Team! January 14: Multitask

Exercise is one of the few areas when we can actually multitask effectively.*

If you find it hard to fit exercise into your day, if it is a challenge to lure yourself into getting started, or if you find exercising a little dull, you might find it useful to multitask.

That might mean walking to complete some errands. (Or parking further from the store and then getting a burst of activity as you walk/run/gambol to the entrance.)

Or doing a few reps with each can as you put the groceries away.

You could use voice dictation to create a rough draft of something while you do some stretches.

Maybe the promise of listening to a podcast, a radio program, or a TV show would help you ease into starting your exercise routine.

Perhaps some exercise purists would say that your exercises will be less than perfect** if done while you are distracted, but who is trying to be perfect?

We’re building habits here, we’re not creating shrines to exercise.

This process is supposed to serve our needs and if listening to a podcast helps you get moving, then why *wouldn’t* you listen to it?

Today’s gold star is not only for your movement and self-care but for considering how multitasking might help you fit your wellness plans into your days.

A  person’s hand holding    a lit sparkler   that is generating star shaped sparks all around its top half. The background is blurred.
This sparkler is not a star, per se, but it’s star-like and definitely celebratory.

*Usually, multitasking is actually rapid task switching which our brains are not all that fond of, really.

**This might be the point where you say ‘But what about Yoga or meditation, Christine, I can’t multitask those.’ And I guess that’s true, in a way. Both of these things are about focusing in the moment.

However, yoga poses done while watching TV are better than not doing them at all. You won’t get all of the same benefits in front of the TV but you won’t get ANY benefits if you don’t do any yoga. And you can work up to the focused, on-the-may, type of yoga when you’re ready.

As for meditation: Again,you won’t get all of the same benefits if you sit quietly and breathe while listening to a podcast but you won’t get ANY benefits if you just avoid meditation entirely.

You could also try meditative doodling or painting if the idea of doing two things at once appeals to you but you can’t erase your mind around multitasking your meditation any other way.

Book Club · meditation

40 days later: FIFI book club meditation update

Hi readers– a lot has happened since we finished reading and blogging about Sharon Salzberg’s 28-day guide to meditation practice, called Real Happiness. In short, it’s been mayhem within and without.

I found this on a coaching website. Dunno if screaming is the malady or the cure. Feel free to pick either, or both.
I found this on a coaching website. Dunno if screaming is the malady or the cure. Feel free to pick either, or both.

Just to insert a moment of levity here: when I googled “mayhem” and checked out images, it displayed this, which I adore. It has forever rehabilitated the word “mayhem” for me, and I hope it does the same for you:

High street in Hanoi, Vietnam, with little kids driving little motorized vehicles every which way.

In the midst of mayhem, can we find a little peace and quiet? Maybe we can. Sharon Salzberg thinks so, and provides some tools through her explanations, stories and exercises. Some of us have been meditating off and on (some mainly on) for years, and others are newer to meditation. Yet others were curious about how using some meditation techniques would enhance their own contemplative or therapeutic regimens.

If you’re curious about what we had to say about the Real Happiness book, you can check it out. Here’s the most recent one, and there you’ll find links to all previous posts.

If you’ve read the book, or read some of our posts, or been meditating in the past 40 days, how are things going? What is your relationship with meditation these days? Let us know in the comments.

And now, 40 days later, here are our reflections on where we are. Let’s start with Tracy:

My main goal in doing the Real Happiness Book Club with the bloggers in September was to get back on track with my meditation. I can honestly say that I have managed to stick to a daily practice consistently ever since.

Most days I use the Insight Timer meditation app, for either a guided or timed silent meditation, depending on what I feel like. After my session, the app tells me how many days in a row. Yesterday it said I’d hit 50 consecutive days of meditating with the app.

Since September when we started I have missed one day of meditation and I’m feeling grounded. It’s partly because meditation itself is grounding. But also because, for me, routine is grounding. Even the kittens have a routine around my meditation and usually, by the end, they are sitting quietly nearby (sometimes one will end up on my lap). Amidst the uncertainty of COVID and the seemingly endless amount of time spent in front of the computer these days, meditation has become a cherished part of my daily life again.

Here’s me (Catherine):

It’s not an overstatement to say that meditation has been a lifeline for me these past few months. I’m honing my new-found tool of neutral identification of emotions, sensations and thoughts that arrive around the clock, sometimes blamming into me with intensity.

What does this tool do? It allows me to feel, and be aware that I’m feeling. That last part always strikes me as miraculous, every single time it happens. It’s not a knee-jerk denial or rejection of feelings or thoughts. No, it’s a method for seeing them without their stories and associations and self-judgment PR campaigns attached. And what a relief this is– to feel what I feel, and let the feelings do what they do, which is come and go.

There’s another tool I’m learning how to use, courtesy of meditation: viewing the world (including and especially me) with full-on compassion. What do I mean here? Sometimes (I’m working on increasing the frequency…) when I encounter something or someone that provokes judgment– oh, that’s stupid! what was I thinking? argh, there they/I go again!– I take a beat. Then I think, oh, poor them/poor me. That’s hard. Just a little sympathy– for myself or others– enlarges my capacity to love and understand the world and myself.

Even though I’ve been developing and working on these tools for a while now (for many years, in fact), I’ve felt a pressing need to sit daily, sometimes twice daily, in the last 40 days, for obvious reasons. And doing so has made these last 40 days more meaningful. Have I gotten more work done? No. More exercise? No. More sleep? Maybe. More peace? Yes– in moments. And moments of peace are good.

Here’s Martha:

I am not good at meditating. I read the book and enjoyed much of it. I even took away a number of good tips. Did I implement a daily practice? No.

I realized I’m someone who likes to “do and be mindful” and I’m not someone who likes to “sit and meditate.” I do have a routine where I gather my thoughts at the end of the day and also at its start. Is this meditation? I don’t know.

What I do know is that I am aware of how my body feels at different times of the day. I am more mindful about what I am doing and that has slowed me down, and that is good. I’m more reflective, but in a productive way and not in “let’s go spiraling and overthink all the things” way.

I’m glad I read the book. I will likely read it again and try to implement if not a daily practice, perhaps a weekly one to get started. I would also recommend the book because I did change my approach and I grew my understanding of what a meditative practice would look like.

Here’s Christine:

Despite my best intentions, I have not added meditation to my days.

I enjoy the process, I see the benefits, and I *want* to do it but I don’t.I know that my challenges arise from some combination of my uneven schedule and the task initiation issues that plague people with ADHD. It’s really hard to switch off what I am doing and choose to be still.

Yet, I feel like a solution to when and how to fit meditation into my life is only just outside my reach at the moment.

So I’m going to keep switching tactics and keep trying to fit it in.It may work, it may not, but I won’t be too hard on myself about it either way.

Meanwhile, if you can, read Salzberg’s book. It’s an encouraging, helpful read, whether or not you end up with a meditation practice.

And Mina wraps it up for us:

This morning I meditated for 10 minutes, because I felt the weight of all I had to do in the day crowding around my meditation time. Really though, there should be no because in that sentence. That’s my usual amount of time anyhow.

During the period we were reading Real Happiness together, I was inspired and upped my minimum daily sit from 10 to 20 minutes. But as soon as the book was done, so was I. I didn’t gradually reduce my meditation time. I cut back from one day to the next. Whether or not the day’s agenda feels pressing, I only sit for more than 10 minutes once a week. Initially, I was disappointed with myself for not sticking with the longer sits. Then I reassessed. Did I feel like I’d gotten more benefit from the 20-minute sits? No. For me, the benefit is the daily-ness, more than the length.

And there’s this—one of my personal takeaways from Sharon Salzberg’s book was that meditation is not the one and only source of the benefits she talks about in her book. She didn’t write that. This is my personal, anecdotal observation in my own life.

I’d go further. Meditation and mindfulness are just one of the three central sources of the benefits Salzberg describes—benefits such as emotional and psychological resilience, ease and peace of mind, focus etc… Other sources of introspection and growth are important for me.

For example, I’ve recently been doing a lot of training in Non-Violent Communication techniques. My new skills support my meditation practice and my meditation practice supports my learning the new skills.

Another important source of the benefits Salzberg talks about is movement. In addition to all the shared stressors we face in this moment, I’m also in the midst of moving from my home of 27 years. The change is my own free choice. But it comes with heartbreak, grief and a whole wasp’s nest of logistics. While my meditation practice is one part of sustaining my balance and flow through this period, movement is as (or more) important. I need to literally sweat the stress away some days, not just OM it away.

So, in a paradoxical way, reading Salzberg’s book gave me permission to accept these particularities about what feeds my soul and to use that knowledge to support myself. Instead of being disappointed by my 10-minute meditations, I’m happy to have the resource of meditation and to have the extra time when I’m not meditating anymore to devote to another mode of support. I didn’t fall off the wagon when I cut back my meditation time after the book club. I recognized that the wagon had more wheels than just meditation and I am taking time to keep them all rolling smoothly.

meditation

In need of meditation? Sharon Salzberg free session tonight

Some of you may remember that we did a series of FIFI book club posts on Sharon Salzberg’s book Real Happiness, about how to get started on a meditation practice, what meditation is for, and why you might find it useful. You can start reading about it here.

In advance of the US election, Sharon Salzberg is leading a free online meditation Monday night November 2, 7–8pm Eastern Daylight Time. Here’s the link. And here’s some information about the session:

On November 2, the day before election Tuesday, renowned meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg will offer an hour long program including two short, guided meditations. The first will focus on mindfulness of the breath to cultivate calm and stability. The second, on lovingkindness, will aim to help restore our connection to ourselves and to one another. In this one-hour event, Sharon will also offer words of wisdom and encouragement as we navigate this difficult time.

“We practice in order to cultivate a sense of agency, to understand that a range of responses is open to us,” Salzberg writes in her book, Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and Our World. “We practice to remember to breathe, to have the space in the midst of adversity to recall our values, what we really care about—and to find support in our inner strength, and in one another.”

I’ve registered and will be there tonight.

One more thing: it’s been 30 days since our last FIFI book club post, and we promised to update you on how reading the book has influenced our relationships with meditation. We’re going to save that until next week. So stay tuned, and we will be back with you then.

In the meantime, be well. And if you’re worrying about the world (and who isn’t?), sitting quietly for a few minutes and breathing can’t hurt.

fitness · meditation

What 101 days of meditation does (and doesn’t do)

On July 13, I started meditating (again). Meditation has been an off-and-on thing in my life for the past 30 years. I got started courtesy of an MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) course I took in graduate school. We did eight weeks of skills development for using mindfulness to reduce stress and tolerate pain (in case of those with chronic illness). I have to say, it didn’t take. To say I was a bit resistant is an understatement. Maybe this illustrates it better:

One person walking upstairs, against the downstairs flow.

But something must’ve wedged itself in my subconscious, because a mere 10 years later, I took the course again. This time, I was wide open; I had just been denied tenure and was trying to figure out what I was going to do– apply for academic jobs, leave the field, run away… Nothing was certain. But, I discovered stability and grounding in sitting and breathing. That’s it– just sitting and breathing.

Fast forward a bunch of years, and I’m in an academic job I love (mostly), living in a place I love (completely, except for the traffic), and I’ve reintroduced yoga as a regular habit. Several of my yoga teachers use short meditations at the beginning or end of class, and I came to look forward to it. Sometimes I couldn’t settle– maybe I was hungry, or idly thinking about online shopping— but I got used to the quieting of my body, sitting, and focusing on the breath.

Still, meditation outside of class never made its way into my weekly schedule.

Until July 13, 2020.

I took a 4-day meditation workshop at 7:30 in the morning (which is the equivalent of 4:30am for most people) with yoga and meditation teacher Alex at Artemis, my beloved local yoga studio. I blogged about it here, saying what I learned in 10 days.

Now it’s day 101 of meditating every day. Really. I promised myself I would meditate each day, even if it meant doing a 3-minute meditation on the breath, or a meditation for sleep at bedtime (and in bed).

My life, post-100 days of straight meditation, is different. What has it done for me?

#1: When some emotion or feeling arises (sometimes feeling like a bus bearing down on me), I have some mental space between me and the feeling. That means I can now a) recognize that something’s happening; and b) take a moment and look at it to see what it is.

This is huge. Huge. HUGE.

#2: When I engage in the process outlined in #1, I focus on what this experience of whatever-it-is feels like in my body. I ask: a) where in my body is it? Throat? Belly? Head? Somewhere else? And then I ask: b) what does it feel like? Is it tingling? sharp pain? Pulsing or thrumming? Wavy? And then c) I take another moment to watch it, notice it. And what I notice is that it changes. Whatever feeling I have, it morphs, waxes, wanes, fades, dissolves, transitions to some other feeling.

This is really huge. Why? Because when I’m having an experience of, say, panic or shame or fear, I have somewhere to go, something to do. Which is:

  • Stop.
  • Breathe.
  • Notice.
  • Locate.
  • Identify.
  • Watch.
  • Then resume whatever I was doing.
  • Notice that nothing much happened.
  • But also notice that something tremendous happened.

Meditation isn’t a cure-all. It’s not even a cure-anything. It’s not about curing. Here is what it doesn’t do:

#1: Change me into a person who isn’t vulnerable to fear, panic, anxiety, shame, and other strong emotions that I struggle with.

I still experience strong feelings, and dealing with them takes time, medication, support from friends, family and therapist. Those activities are also important for self-care, and they’re not going away in this lifetime.

#2: Solve other behavior change aspirations I have and work on when I’ve got the oomph to deal with them. I’m not neater, more punctual, a better paperwork processor, or an everyday exerciser. Or if I am from time to time, it’s probably not because of meditation. It’s rather that I approach these aspirations and hopes and plans with a greater sense of awareness of my feelings around them, and self-compassion for the difficulties I have and have always had around them.

At the same time, I am happier, less judgmental of myself and others, and sold on the idea that daily sitting practice is indeed just what the doctor ordered. And that doctor is me.

Readers, if you meditate: what does it do for you? what doesn’t it do for you? I’d love to hear any thoughts you might have.

fitness · meditation

Finding a sitting posture during meditation: an experimental process

I’ve been doing daily meditation since July 13. It’s something I’m really happy about– I get to experience a lot of different emotions and sensations, and also a make some space to abide with them, as it were.

Below the neck, there are also issues to deal with in meditation, namely, how to sit. The aim isn’t maximum comfort, but rather stability, alertness and sustainability. To meditate, you need to be able to sit quietly, in a still way, for anywhere from 1 minute to an hour or more at a time.

These days my sitting periods are 10–20 minutes. That’s long enough for my knee to start aching, my foot to fall asleep, or my hands to want to change position. There’s no rule that says you can’t move during meditation (well, some meditation practices do have those rules and for reasons, but that’s not what I’m talking about here). In fact, one of my meditation teachers told us during an all-day workshop that if a foot or leg starts to fall asleep, feel free to adjust subtly. Good.

But, the question remains: how should one sit for optimal meditation performance?

Woman in a full lotus pose, legs crossed and sitting on opposite thighs. Totally not required.

The image above is one of the ways to sit in meditation, but there are lots of others. I’ve tried all of them, and make use of them depending on how I’m feeling, where I am, what time of day it is, and what else I’ve done that day. Below are some positions to check out.

In a chair. Sometimes this feels better than sitting on the floor, and works when floor space is limited (or there are dogs/cats about!)
Kneeling (hero pose, which I totally can't do), with support between knees (I still can't do it, but others like it).
Kneeling (hero pose, which I totally can’t do), with support between knees (which I still can’t do, but others like it).

The next two poses are pretty standard seated poses, both of which I like:

And then there’s the lotus family. Not comfortable for me, but they are for many others.

Thanks to this website for all the nice pictures of meditation postures.

You can also lie down for meditation. I don’t do this often, mainly because I have trouble focusing (read I get too sleepy) lying down. But YMMV, and again, experimenting is good.

Lying down meditation. I use a blanket or pillow under my knees; some use a blanket under the head.

If you’re still here and reading, you may be thinking, okay. But Catherine, which pose really is the best one for meditation?

The answer is: whatever pose helps you to sit long enough to meditate: in a house; with a mouse; in a box, with a fox! Whatever works for you is the right one.

Readers who meditate or have tried meditation: what positions work for you? Which ones definitely don’t work for you? Have you meditated with a mouse or fox? We’d love to hear from you.