How I started meditating--with thanks to Dan Harris
-my prefrontal cortex needs high intensity interval training, too, I realized. Here is the story:
When I tell people now that I meditate, I often get, "oh, I should start doing that! I am going to do that someday!" I laugh to myself because that's what I used to say. I completely understand. I was always going to do it someday too.
I would never push it. And I certainly don't think anyone has to do it, either. I just like to share that it has helped me. I have no idea what helps other people. I don't want to be one of these people that tells other people how to make their lives all better because if I find them irritating, odds are I am not alone.
I also am not at all sure that I have any clue what is right for other people. I can only affirm that for me, meditating regularly has changed my life, and I have only been doing it since April 2013. I am about three percent better as a person. I just made that number up, but it feels about right.
Like the other I-am-going-to-try-it-someday people, I'd heard about meditation's benefits. I frequently ran across research evidence supporting the notion that regular meditation changes the brain. Regular meditators were supposed to be happier, and live longer lives. They may even keep longer telomeres on the ends of their chromosomes! This means your cells, and thus you, are biologically younger. It visibly changes the anatomical and functional picture of the brain over time. I'd been accelerating my study of the brain in my own quest to understand my lifelong synesthesia, which I took for granted and thought everyone had, most of my life until my 30's, when I realized that most people don't see text as colored or hear sounds as textured, colored shapes.
As a chronically fearful person, someone who has struggled in childhood with fears as disabling as not wanting to leave the house, and in teenage years, to drive, or pick up the phone, it was obvious a regular meditation practice might help me out. And how could it hurt?
I knew this, so I always imagined my Future Self doing this. I put it off for years. My Super Duper Future Self just was so elusive! My Future Self was not even tomorrow. Future Meditating Self was so distant.
I feared being bored. I feared discomfort. I did eventually have a revelation a few years back, doing some cognitive behavioral therapy on myself, that being uncomfortable or bored is not the worst thing in the world. It is usually temporary. And I have had worse things in life, like extraordinary physical pain and emotional suffering--who hasn't? I now find it helpful to compare a fear of future boredom or discomfort with a memory of real excruciating pain, for perspective. Still, this revelation that boredom and discomfort is temporary and not equivalent to dying was not enough to get me meditating at the time.
Also, I worried, how would I know I was doing it right? Well, I still don't know, but that does not matter so much to me now. I just keep trying. I notice a difference in myself, so I surmise something is happening.
It is not like weight lifting, I thought, which gave me visibly toned arms and abs that I could show off and feel smug about. If I looked in the mirror after meditating, would I look like a better person? Would I even detect anything in order to feel that I was better and thus congratulate myself? Part of the reason I could continue with other good habits was that I could see the physical results and congratulate myself after performing them. It is important, I think, to congratulate yourself in order to keep motivated to do some positive new habit like this. Meditation just seemed so abstract. Abstract things are hard to trust.
This was frustrating to me. Why couldn't I just start doing it? I was already at the point of exercising aerobically for at least half an hour every day for years, (I can not recommend aerobic exercise enough for any sort of brain related issue, as in everything) learning to relish a nutritious, plant-based diet, cutting way back on things that are bad for me, like alcohol, and developing a frank distaste for anything with sugar, and processed foods. I'm not perfect in any way, but my habits have dramatically changed over the years. I was not always so disciplined. So, three cheers for me in the exercise and diet realm! Now why was it so hard to develop just one more healthy habit? I knew I was putting it off. I could do A, but not B, but A was similar to B, thus that did not compute.
People who write books on habit and willpower say that there are "keystone" habits; once you develop one positive habit, it becomes easier to develop another. If you start exercising, you will find it easier to balance your checkbook, for example. So I was waiting for this keystone effect to kick in, but it was not happening.
What pushed me into it at last was a podcast. I can still remember listening to it first running down my lovely street along the shore of Lake Michigan in the springtime. Then again walking in our woods. Then again playing it for my husband to listen to in the car on a road trip, wanting to share it with him to get his take on it.
The interview can be found on the Internet if you can find Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, and it was recorded on April 16, 2013. (I recommend their series of interviews. The host, Kelly Brownell, has a respectable sense of the perilous nutritional landscape of our country, and what to do about it.) The interview was with ABC news anchor Dan Harris, who I was only peripherally aware of off and on in my life.
Unlike their usual topics on social nutrition policy, like taxing sugary beverages and changing kids' school lunches, this one felt like an outlier. It was called "Mindfulness, Happiness, and Eating". I learned about how Dan Harris had unwillingly taken an assignment as a religious correspondent, and in doing so, learned about meditation practice by figures such as Eckhart Tolle. That name grabbed my attention as someone my grandmother was once excited about.
I often feel guilty about not listening more to my grandmother while she was alive. Neva Daniel was a retired professor-turned workshop leader, bursting with New Age ideas and traveling the globe late in her eighties to seek out the latest guru's notions to incorporate into her classes. Although I'm intrinsically skeptical, I find it useful to select some of these ideas to load in my hopper, and churn them around to see what I think about them. Maybe some ideas are helpful. Meditation seems compatible with any belief system, including atheism. (I don't have enough data to possess any belief system, but reserve the right to remain stupidly optimistic about it all. What else can I do?) She was trying to get the rest of the family to read Tolle's works before she died, so to fulfill my grandmother's wishes belatedly I thought I'd listen more closely.
I sympathized with Mr. Harris at once, because he came across as naturally skeptical. He was not interested in "crystals, robes, and chanting". His scientific, experimental approach to the topic pulled me in. He also described dreading meditation, which I also related to. I identified with his statement of being a "lifelong hypochondriac", as well. He began experimenting with five minute daily meditations for the health benefits he uncovered in his reporting.
Certain ideas stuck in my mind. Meditation is like bicep curls for the brain, he said. Now there's an image I can picture! Of course there are molecular patterns in your brain that cause awareness, or lack of awareness, that cause happiness and loving thoughts, or cruel thoughts. These physical processes are patterns that you can facilitate like wearing ruts in road that you travel, if you travel it frequently enough. I have long believed this, but for whatever reason, it finally stuck that I could experiment with this deliberately on a small scale, daily.
For whatever reason, we tend to dismiss feelings and thought processes as purely abstract, and that is wrong. They are physical processes. Teeny, tiny, real physical objects (molecules) create cause-and-effect mechanisms behind our thoughts and emotions. They are no less real than the engines in our car, but we can't see them, so we think they are hairy-fairy. The remarkable thing is that we can strengthen or weaken these mechanisms with mental effort. Just as we strengthen muscles by exercising them.
Dan Harris suggested that you are not trying to empty your mind of thoughts (thank goodness!). You are just watching your thoughts. He described three steps:
1. Find a comfortable place to sit.
2. Focus on one thing. Since your breath is with you all the time, you can try focusing on your breath, but really, it can be anything you choose.
3. When your mind wanders--because it will!--gently, lovingly bring it back to what you are focusing on. In his words, you "forgive yourself", and then re-focus. That is the exercise.
You can add to this "mindfulness" exercise loving thoughts, directed to yourself, to others, to others you don't like. Now that was something that had intrigued me for years. "It's like Valentine's Day with a gun to your head," he joked. I think there are obvious health benefits to exercising the seemingly abstract sense of feeling love. I've theorized that this might be why having pets or children around, who-hopefully!-automatically inspire this loving feeling in us, is good for our health. It is not hairy-fairy. Once again, if you have a thought, there must be a physical process behind it, carried out by real, physical objects that are just really, really small and hard to detect.
What sealed the deal was that he said you can just try five minutes a day. I could do five minutes, I thought. He said that he started with the intention to do no more than five minutes "in perpetuity".
I searched on the Internet and found a meditation timer--there appear to be many online free ones--and set it for five minutes. These timers have customizable bells or sounds that go off when you like.
At first I decided to focus not on my breath, but on a sound. I can't remember why. I found a very long recording of cat purrs on Youtube. Then, because I was trying to tame a feral cat that I had rescued from our harsh Wisconsin winter, and because she needed as much company as I could possibly afford her, I decided to sit next to her and try this every day. At this time Cupcake (so named because she ravenously stole a stale cupcake that my husband did not finish, off our back deck, which I had put out for the birds), a little grey tabby, was in a large cage in our heated garage, and still quite jumpy and inclined to hiss at everything. She was freshly spayed, and I am sure she thought I was going to eat her any day. Besides doing my regular yoga routine in her company, and exercising, I now added the routine of sitting down next to her cage, turning on the purr sound on my laptop, and the five minute timer.
I think I chose to focus on purring because it is a beautiful sound. It is an irregular strobed light, of golden light and dark black-brown bands continuing on in waves, forever in a line. (Sounds are hard to describe as they not static like a painting, but more like a movie. If you want to read more about my colored hearing and how it works, you can go to my synesthesia page.) Why these strobed waves should be beautiful, I don't know, but it is. I also wanted to play purring sounds because I thought it might signal good intentions toward the frightened Cupcake. This cat was so petrified, I was convinced she was blind at first, as she would not move an inch. No catnip, no toy, no sound could budge her forlorn, empty gaze. I had tamed dozens of feral cats and never seen anything like it. Returning her to the vet repeatedly, Carrie the vet assured me that Cupcake could see perfectly well. Freezing is how some animals survive, Carrie explained. Cupcake was literally paralyzed with fear. I can relate to that! The least I could do was try to spend as much time with her as I could, and assume some part of her was taking it in. So I meditated with her every day.
During the meditation I would focus in and out, watching my brain go back and forth, watching the beautiful strobe light purring, and then thinking about what to make for dinner, what to write in my diary, who to email, and then oh! Back to focusing on the sound...and then is Tim out of milk and should I go to the store? and then back to the sound so on. Back and forth, back and forth. The five minutes were usually up before I knew it, and I would have the feeling, wait! I could do better than that. I could do another minute.
So I would increase the time, and then went to ten minutes. Now I am at twenty. I can't say that I am very good at it, but since I notice a difference in my daily life, I keep at it. I still feel like I am just scratching the surface what is possible in this new form of exercise. I feel I know so little.
Right away I started noticing my mind changing. I felt myself watching myself, in more of an objective, third party sort of way. Instead of having automatic fearful thoughts about travel, about socializing, I would feel myself kindly watching them in a third party sort of way. There's that funny thought again, I would notice, and feel calm about it all. Being able to watch the thoughts from a distance, objectively, somehow made them have less power on me.
The other thing I noticed right away was I felt less need for distraction. Years ago I had heard the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron describe our minds as constantly seeking "either numbness, or intensity." Even though I knew that to be true, it had not stopped me from seeking both all the time! We have no end of supernormal stimuli around us, to provide intensity, and no end of distracting stimuli, to lead us away from ourselves, into numbness.
For years, as soon as I would get up, I would flip on the radio and listen to Wisconsin Public Radio throughout the day as I did chores around the house. Whether I was listening or not, it was on, in the car, in the shower, making dinner, and so on. When the radio was not playing something I liked, I would have my trusty ipod and headphones to listen to archived shows of my liking. I liked the sense of learning something while I worked, but a lot of the time, I was not even listening. I was just looking for something to take my mind away. There was something about this activity, however, that felt anxious, that bothered me.
I still do this a lot, and love Wisconsin Public Radio, but frequently just turn it off. This is new. I don't always need my mind to be carried away, away. I want to be here. I want to hear what is happening around me. It feels good! This is completely new. I have changed. I want to be here now.
At least now, I am better able to notice that my mind is seeking to run away from itself. That is because I am now trying to train it to stay still! I have learned that you will not die if you just stay still for a moment. It can actually be the most lovely thing. It can be deeply rewarding, to give yourself the gift of the moment. The other day I noticed myself feeling the deepest surge of gratitude for just being able to put on clean cotton socks before my run. What a sensation! Why not take time to enjoy it?
I also find myself surprised to have far less interest in the intensity, the supernormal stimuli than I used to. I used to reflexively and nervously reach for the second glass of wine at a party, the third hors devours. I found myself thinking, hey, I don't even want this! What am I doing? And instead enjoying sparkling water a lot more, which is an usual beverage to consume at Wisconsin parties, given the strange looks that I get.
Besides physical mindfulness, I often bring in thoughts of gratitude and love. Thinking loving thoughts toward others, even people I dislike, was not as hard as it was to love myself. I was surprised at how difficult it was, at first, to direct loving thoughts toward myself. I have gotten much better at it and--should I be ashamed to say it?--I now relish it.
It has been fun to think up new things to focus on. The hard thing is to keep it to one thing, but that is why it is an exercise. Sometimes I focus on the atoms in my body, marveling that they are older than the Earth. That the ones heavier than hydrogen came out of some ancient star (or, according to my stepson Jeremy Belluci who is a postdoc in geology in Stockholm and studies extraterrerestrial elements, stars, plural) that is no more. I marvel at my ancient atoms. I would like to thank you all for being here today.
Why not focus on a lovely mental image? There is a world full of potent symbols out there to contemplate! (My grandmother tried to get me to do this when I was young. She was always telling me that symbols are the "bridge to the unconscious", and got me to keep a dream journal that I keep to this day. I think she had synesthesia too, with her adoration of words, her thesis on Korzybski, her work with Ira Progoff, and her fascination with symbols and language. I have all her old journals, and am mining them for evidence of her synesthesia, which runs in my family. I guess I just don't want to feel alone, there.)
So, I'd randomly pick some ancient symbol and focus entirely on it. One day I would try to fill my mind with the image of the silver crescent moon, and on another day, the life-giving golden sun. Or I would focus on a color. One day I might choose to alternate every two minutes between focusing on each of the four directions, and their traditional associations. I just made all this up.
Lately I find myself riveted by trying to find the source of my consciousness, my awareness. There is something in there, I think, yoo-hoo! Well looky there at that! What the hell are you! Your existence and memories are so absurd, in this body! What the hell! And I am so glad you are there!
About comfort: to scratch itches or not to? I scratch itches if I need to, and I don't know if this is wrong. I don't care. I actually rarely have them. Perhaps this is something I will worry about later.
I learned a recent trip to Portland to see our movie score composer and dear friend Vince Frates, who has meditated for years, that something called a "gomden" is awesome. I respect Vince tremendously and was eager to get a smidgen of his take on my taking my first steps into a larger world.
We were camping out in his recording studio for a few days, going through our movie, The Emissary, minute by minute, and I found this handy thing to sit on, intended for meditation. Immediately I felt it like the perfect fit; it is a little cushioned stool with no back, but just the right height to sit comfortably and attentively.
I don't have an official gomden, because the official ones are expensive, although they are very pretty. I just use a little step stool that I put a cushion on. It is awesome. I started joking with Vince that he should also buy the official jingalings to hold your pinkies, and woobeedoos to keep his shinbones straight. I don't think Vince was amused; is he a serious meditator. He is one of these people who stands out in a crowd with this impressive calm, warm, wise, attentive demeanor that makes you think, what is his secret? Maybe it is all the years of meditating. I have also witnessed Vince and my husband spend hours playfully ridiculing each other like eight year olds, using the filthiest, most juvenile language and making me laugh so hard I cry:
Caution: This video contains a naughty word! Observe how Vince drives his point home with one of our household's abundant cat toys, the weapon of the spiritual warrior.
(Vince also recommended a book for me called Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism which looks daunting--I am a slow reader--and I have not obtained it yet. I thought Vince said it has something to do with not using your practice as a way to brag to others about your spirituality. Something about the ego and arrogance. What does it mean when someone recommends to you a book on this topic?)
Eventually I decided to focus on my breath, and ran into an issue that I found was common with other meditators after I did an Internet search on the topic for help. The remarkable thing about breathing is that it is automatic! You don't have to think about doing it! The problem, for me, is that if I think too hard on it, I start involuntarily controlling it a bit, and then the sensation of breathing becomes uncomfortable and I get almost breathless.
Disturbed by this sensation, I tried focusing on other things. I eventually learned that I can focus on my breath if I do it gently, and now I can do it without distress. One curious thing about focusing on anything is that the stronger I try to hold it in my mind, the harder it is for me. If I hold the thought gently, and I am not sure what that means, I can focus on it longer.
Meditation is supposed to improve your ability to turn on your parasympathetic nervous system, the rest-and-digest part of your automatic nervous system. This is contrasted with our other automatic part, the sympathetic, fight-or-flight system, which we turn on all too easily. Its excessive activation is linked to disease and distress. We do need the sympathetic nervous system of course, but most of us turn it on more than we need to. "Vagal tone" referring to the vagus nerve of the PNS, and is something that you can measure. Your heart naturally speeds up as you breathe in, and slows down as you breathe out. The greater the difference in these speeds, the stronger your vagal tone is. Better vagal tone is associated with better health.
It is the contrasting inputs from the PNS and SNS that create the curious sensation of a lump in your throat, the kind you get when you are very sad and want to cry. When I first started meditating, I would occasionally get this curious and strong sensation of a lump in my throat, which felt odd, since I was not feeling sad. I eventually decided it was a consequence of this conflict between my PNS and SNS working itself out. It went away, and I have not had it since.
What surprises me now is how un-boring meditation is. When else during the day do you have any time, any chance, to watch to your own precious thoughts? To say, Hi, mysterious consciousness! Hello, you darling and utterly absurdly living inner self! Creator of all my memories! Did you know how much I love you today?
The funny thing is, I find the whole getting-ready-to-sit process harder than the actual sitting practice. Just like it can be harder to lace up your running shoes than it is to actually run. Once those shoes are on and you are on the street it is easy. Yes, it is work, like going to the gym is work. There are many times I don't want to do it and put it off. The sooner I do it in the day, the better, I find, because it just gets harder and harder during the day to find time. There are many days where I am sure it went badly, and I could not focus, just like days when I go to the gym and have trouble moving my body. But even on those days, a little exercise has to do something, right?
I have also found that it helps for me to do my daily journal writing first. I write down my dreams, if I remember them, my--what I call "dream music", which is usually two measures of music my brain composes as background music for my dreams every night (I know it is original because it is pretty bad but I'd like to put some examples on this site because I am so curious now about what on Earth my brain is doing there, and I have hundreds of examples of these boring little ditties), I write down whatever daily thoughts, chores, and more scientific or philosophical ideas that have lately occurred to me. I call it "brain dumping". Otherwise my brain is still wanting to write, and it is composing, composing. It helps clear my head, clarify my intentions. If I don't do this first, I will meditate, and I have to tell my brain repeatedly to "stop writing!" I mostly think in images, so when I get what I think of as my "translator", which puts words to the images, in motion, it is hard to get that translator to stop, and I end up feeling exhuasted. So I find it helps to write first. Perhaps other people may find it helpful to create something first, in a mode they are comfortable with, like art or music. For me it is writing.
My meditating became something Cupcake got used to me doing next to her daily. She gradually started moving her head under my hand, and I could feel her relax subtly. Tim and I celebrated the day when we saw her using her little white-socked legs to walk around in front of us, for the first time.
Somehow she had found the courage to walk over to some food to eat in front of us, something else that she had never done before. For months I continued with her the garage, and then we moved Cupcake into my office (where she is today) because she started becoming slightly mobile and I felt she needed a bigger area to move around in.
At first she resisted movement of any kind in my presence, and would not emit any sound. I would enter the room and she would magically be in another place, proving she could in fact move. I could pet her rigid body, and she would relax a hair, but I thought she was incapable of purring. I even did Internet searches on "cats that can't purr" to see if that was her problem.
Then one fine day, during my meditation, with my hand resting on her little head, I heard a rumble! I could not believe it! She was finally purring! Now she has blossomed into a happy cat who loves to be petted. She's thrilled to play with toys and can't get enough of them. She walks around and is mobile, enjoying the close contact with of our other cats, although she remains skittish about anything resembling being picked up or held, and does not want to leave the safety zone of my office. She can even issue faint squeaks (these are tiny white football-shaped flashes in my head), her first meows. Now when I meditate next to her, she knows what I am doing somehow. She purrs and purrs the whole time I sit. I don't need a recording anymore. I hope I learn to be as brave as Cupcake the cat.