Meditation is so fashionable right now that it is the punch line in State Farm ads. A rival broker, caught accidentally lighting a towel on fire in the bathroom, claims to have never gone to the bathroom. How does that work? “I meditate, it goes away.”
Previous meditation streaks in my life maxed out maybe with two consecutive days. After reading Sam Harris’ Waking Up book on meditation I tried one or two of the podcasts or services previously out there, but it didn’t take. As a venture funded start up, it is no surprise that the leading apps, Calm and Headspace deliberately cater to consumer expectations — with very transactional meditations (“meditation for sleep”, etc.) If meditation means anything more than “stay cool,” this seems to miss the point. So I lost interest.
However, given free access to the Waking Up course as a podcast supporter I thought to give meditation another shot. It’s only ten minutes or so a day – perhaps 1/10th the amount of time I’d spend surfing twitter on many days (more on that in another post.)
Sunday I hit day 27 — of 29. Save for a gong sound for your own self-timed meditation there are no sound effects beyond Harris’ measured, clinical, voice. Design of the app is nothing to write home about, but the content hits the right spot for me of a secular philosophy and justification for the work you’re going to be guided to do.
The Waking Up course has three parts, that work together:
1) fifty guided meditations, listed as days. Each slowly builds on instruction from previous days.
2) an (ever-increasing?) series of additional lectures by Harris that cover some of the philosophic and neurological underpinnings of meditation.
3) a self-timer for unguided meditation.
I’ve exhausted #2 but have only done #3 three times. I hit over 25 minutes Sunday in the latter, through the fortuitous accident of missing the end of session gong.
That is, if one counts my very distracted mind over that period. I just sat in a park, eyes mostly open, trying to as the course recommends first sharpen attention on the breath, then let it go and widen consciousness, noting that even awareness is itself an object in consciousness. The Yuval Harari’s and Sam Harrises of the world (not to mention Ray Dalio’s, etc. etc.) supposedly often hit two hours in a given day. That feels as unlikely for me as hitting a major league fastball out of a ballpark. But hey, baby steps.
I mostly stared at this scene:
Perfectly tranquil in 45 degrees (and warmed from the walk there), with only mild traffic and an occasional train noise. Just three people came through the park during the time, none coming close to my bench. At least half of the time my mind was fighting to make conclusions, build on thoughts “appearing in consciousness,” think about infinitesimal anxieties or anticipations…Harris points out there is a field of vision even when your eyes are closed. I found watching the ever so gradual changes in sunlight on the scene to be both relaxing and a meditative challenge simultaneously.
Late fall conditions showed clearly the maple (?) tree in the center of a different kind than the surrounding white ash (?) trees. I had never noticed this planting arrangement before. It was strange to both have increased awareness of things I would not normally pay attention to (though again, seasonally assisted by the more stark color contrasts) and to simultaneously try to let the conceptual categorization (even tree, much less type of tree) go.
I had set the timer for 15 minutes – I had only done 10 minute sessions twice before – I would anxiously wonder “is the time up?” while fighting myself to see if I could make it to the fifteen minute mark I set. I’m pretty sure an incoming text stopped the timer, or it was my bluetooth headset foiled the closing “gong” sound, and I went into overtime. The exact thing I was (ever so mildly) anxious about – would I miss the final timer? – happened. Yet, everything felt good afterwards, clear and rested. I had indeed gone over time.
But the twenty five minutes or so was…hard…and increasingly hard with time. One of the lectures discusses the need for practice in meditation like anything else to build up a skill and that point was driven home today. Hard to keep the concentration. Even ten minutes is hard. But after almost a month…five to seven minutes was not hard, when it was at the beginning.
Experiencing this difficulty underscores the utility of overcoming it. Unlike other self-improvement projects there is no travel time, warm-up or down, and always ten minutes a day that can be found.