Meditations on meditation

{ I wrote this in February 2020 – firstly just for myself, then a limited “audience” of a few friends – but now for anyone that is interested… }

I’ve been a dabbler, an infrequent sitter, for ten years or more. I’ve been a semi regular for two years. It’s been a proper daily thing for what my meditation app tells me is now 233 straight days.

This is all relatively unimportant, especially the whole gamified notion of a “streak” which seems so at odds with the gentle, always-there nature of the practice.

But. I’ve taken a bit of a journey, and the regularity in the last period is, I’ve come to understand, deeply significant.

Firstly, the regularity creates habit. Reading the web, there’s all sorts of stuff out there about how long it takes to create a habit, ranging from 18 days to a year or more – and of course the nature of the habit is important in this. I can say for sure that if I were to not sit for a day now, I’d feel pretty weird about it. This is presumably what would be recognised as a habit. Secondly though, there is a genuine “breaking through” into daily life which happens after a while when the practice has been regular and longer term. They talk about this a lot in meditation books and other places – the choice phrase being something like “you’re not practicing sitting on a mat, you’re practicing life” or something similar. In other words, meditation and a mindful way of thinking is ultimately a thing that changes your life, not just the x minutes each day you’re doing the practice. At the two retreats I’ve been on, the former has been called passive practice and the latter active.

I’ve had two quite striking separate experiences of this “breaking through” in the last 6 months and a longer term, more gentle effect. The two experiences have revolved around a (fairly regular) “black dog” sadness which hangs around me fairly often, and in particular at this time of year (I’m writing this in February – it’s very dark, very rainy and we seem to be in the middle of a non-stop set of storms: this weekend we welcome the not-very-threatening-sounding Storm Dennis). Normally this time of year – November to February, really – is a time fairly often punctuated with mild depression.

These breaking through experiences are easy to articulate – I woke up on both occasions and immediately knew it was “one of those days” where a sense of bleakness was likely to remain in place all day. But on these two occasions I found myself looking at the “I’m in a bleak mood” narrative from another place – somewhere more balanced and able to be objective, and I found myself able to look all around this narrative and examine it. And then the strangest thing – I simply stopped feeling that way. My mood lifted, almost immediately, and I spent the rest of the day in a kind of wonder that I had this ability in myself to change something which I had always assumed was hard wired in me. 

I always feel a slight apology or disclaimer is due here. I’m in no way suggesting that proper, deep, crippling depression can be conquered this way, but it is also true that I (like most people) have a narrative in my head which is about who I am as a person – and I constantly reflect my experience against that narrative. So for example, up until recently I would have said I’m an insomniac or I suffer from bouts of sadness / black dog– both of which are true from one angle. But confirmation bias is a heady, strong beast, so fitting my black mood into the “yeh, well, that’s just me” is incredibly easy.

Challenging the narrative is what’s at play. From a deep point of view, this is Buddhism (everything is change, everything ebbs, nothing is constant, there is no self) – but more trivially, I’ve found a meditative practice to be a powerful way of stepping outside of that narrative, giving me an ability to be more objective about the self. Eventually of course this may become a journey towards understanding the philosophy which suggests a total lack of self. I’m not there yet, but I see a powerful set of arguments to support this view, ranging from the obvious lack of agency we humans really have (see Sam Harris on luck, genetics and free will) to fairly structural discussions around the lack of “us-ness” that happen around our biology, to the “where is the you located” question when considering fascinating cases like “split brain” syndrome. 

(Here I haven’t even started on consciousness or the location of consciousness (see this insanely interesting or possibly just …insane… article about “panpsychism” for example!) – arguably the biggest question of all…)

Above I said “I spent the rest of the day” – in fact, and this is connected to the “breaking through” thing, I’ve changed (or am changing..) on a more regular, gentle basis too. Daily, I find I live my life in the same way I always did – thoughts rushing, work ideas and family thoughts and to-do’s and All The Things – but on a regular basis during the day, I find I am aware. This awareness pops into my head now probably 10’s of times a day. By “awareness” I mean I suppose an ability to stop, to look at me, to be “in myself” without being overrun by thoughts – the very thing us meditators do for the 20 minutes or whatever each day. But – it’s here actually in my day, breaking in without asking – and this is fascinating, and not something I expected in the slightest. Not least of all, it is powerful to realise how much of our lives we’re asleep at the wheel, but I find it also allows the aforementioned objectivity to come through, too. I’m less cross, calmer, more able to settle after a mental upset. I think maybe I’m nicer, too.

There is an apparent banality to “just sitting” which is easy to overlook – either on the one hand to make this a streak-based game of cheesy Calm/Headspace/10%Happier American accented-ness where you simply clock up the time and check the box each day, or on the other to consider a regular practice for what it is – 20 or 30 or more daily minutes simply sitting. I mean, to an outsider, this is insanity – “what, you just sit? Why? Personally I’ve got shit to do”…

The fascinating thing about this particular activity is that on the surface, it is nothing. It is literally, and absolutely – nothing. What’s even more fascinating to me is that doing (apparently) nothing on a regular basis creates such profound, long term changes in one’s outlook and life.

I’m still learning. I’ll be learning for as long as I do this practice, and (this is interesting, too!) I’m fairly certain that I’ve found a thing I’m going to continue to do for the rest of my life. 

The conundrums that seem so opaque at the beginning of this kind of practice do slowly become more untangled as time goes on. I’m discovering for example (as I read Mindfulness in Plain English that some of the experiences I’ve had while practicing are themselves not to be grasped at, however pleasurable. Feelings of bliss (a state that happens reasonably often for me now as I practice) are to be considered alongside feelings of sadness, feelings of nothingness, or feelings of frustration. As a human being, craving is what we do – all the time – so although it’s easy to leave behind a feeling of sadness, it’s no so easy to not seek or crave a blissful experience.

When I started off, this kind of twisted knot (don’t chase the pleasurable) was so at odds with our modern, Western way of thinking that it seemed completely intangible – now it increasingly makes sense with a backdrop of meditative practice behind it. 

Make no mistake, “making sense” doesn’t mean “easy”. As all the books and all the apps say – this apparently simple practice is not simple in the slightest, but it holds a depth to it which is endless and potentially life-changing.

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