100 Day Meditation Challenge

Day 25 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 025One quarter of the way to 100 days :)

Sometimes we see signs of progress in our meditation, like times the mind becomes much calmer, or when we feel an unusual level of joy. It’s good to have these “road signs,” but it’s best not to grasp after attaining anything. Sometimes the mind is like a toddler asking “are we there yet?” We have to remind ourselves to be grown-up drivers; the journey takes as long as it takes, and so we just stay focused on the bit of road we’re driving on now.

Progress (unlike driving) isn’t linear, though. We’ll tend, over time, to see these signs appear, and we’ll have more sits where it all starts to “flow.” But there will also be bad days, and weeks, and sometimes longer periods. But the commitment to practice pays off, so stick with it. That’s the point of this challenge.

We’re also often not conscious of the progress we’re making. Much of it is happening below the threshold of consciousness. (Sometimes even other people notice it in us but we don’t see it ourselves.) When you’re meditating you’re doing things like growing new neurons and developing new pathways in the brain, and those things may not have any tangible effects for a while. But then you find that you’re calm in a situation that would normally make you angry or stressed…

Changes sometimes happen quite quickly, though, because we’re learning to use resources we didn’t know we had at our disposal. For example there already are regulatory pathways in the brain that allow us to moderate our emotional states of fear, anger, craving, etc., but until we learn to use them they’re not of much use to us. Then we discover that being mindful (which is employing these regulatory pathways) allows us to be calmer and more self-possessed — quite quickly.

So I’d encourage you to trust the process, which you probably already do to a large extent, if you’ve started meditating. Enjoy and appreciate the signs of progress when they’re present. Even seek them out, because sometimes we overlook the positive. But when they’re not apparent, accept that that’s OK.

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Day 24 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 024We’re almost a quarter of the way through the challenge!

One thing I’ve been working on is cultivating more lovingkindness in daily life. I find that if I don’t deliberately do this, then my mind often has a bit of a hard and brittle “edge” to it that can come out in irritability and even in anger.

Lovingkindness meditation helps, but it’s not enough. There are still live, unexploded reserves of anger inside my being, and they need to be defused.

Practicing lovingkindness in daily life is like sending in the bomb squad.

So as I’m driving, or walking, or standing in line in a store, and even often when I’m working on my computer, I’ll be cultivating lovingkindness. Sometimes I repeat the lovingkindness phrases — things like “May you be well; may you be happy” — and sometimes all I have to do is to bring my awareness to the heart and remember to be loving. Often that’s all it takes.

There are times I forget, but that’s OK. If I forget to connect with lovingkindness while I’m walking to the post office, but remember on the way back, then at least some of my time has been spent cultivating lovingkindness. Any effort is better than none. I am setting up some “mindfulness triggers” to help me remember to connect with lovingkindness. Walking now triggers this action more often than not, as does driving. I find it a little harder to remember when I’m working, but that’s becoming easier as well. Often when I’m working I’m writing to someone or writing for a particular audience, and I find it enjoyable to connect with lovingkindness for those I’m communicating with.

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Day 23 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 023A lot of energy is wasted in considering whether our meditations are “good meditations” or “bad meditations,” especially for relative beginners.

For most people, a good meditation is one that is easy. Things go according to plan, or better! The mind isn’t hard to work with. There aren’t too many distractions. We don’t feel any strongly unpleasant mental states such as anxiety or resentment. We may positively enjoy the meditation. A “bad meditation” is the opposite.

And we can end up feeling a bit demoralized when we experience these “bad meditations.” We create stories about how we’re not good at meditating, or the meditation practice isn’t the right one for us, or we need a better place to meditate in, etc.

With a bit more experience (assuming we don’t give up in the face of all those judgments!) we may start to think that it’s the effort we put in that defines what a “good meditation” or “bad meditation” is. The conditions we’re working with change, and sometimes they’re easier to work with and sometimes they’re harder. Imagine you were training in running. Some days you’re running on flat ground with the wind at your back. Sometimes you’re running uphill against a stiff breeze. The first of these runs is going to feel more pleasant (it’s a “good run”). But which of these runs is going to help you develop more fitness and stamina? The second one, right? So maybe it’s the meditations we struggle in that are really the “good meditations.”

But these days? I think any meditation you turn up for is a “good meditation.” Sure, there are some days it’s easier than others and there are some days you put in more effort. But for beginners I’d suggest that you regard the meditation you do as being infinitely better than the meditation you don’t do. So every meditation is a good meditation — as long as you do it. Remind yourself of that before, during, and after a sit, just to drive home the message that meditating is a valuable thing to do.

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Letting meditation happen: Day 22 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 022Have you ever had the experience that you’ve been experiencing distractedness in meditation, and you return from a distraction only to find that — in your absence — a state of joy and calmness has been created for you? That was my experience tonight. A state of joy and calm had been created without my doing anything consciously to bring it about.

At the same time I noticed this I found that, as has been happening a lot lately, an urge appeared to “just rest.” I needed to get out of the way, stop trying to do anything, and allow the meditation to happen.

I see this as a teaching on anatta (not-self). It’s interesting so see “not-me” being so much better at meditation than “I” am. There are parts of my mind that have internalized the skills of meditation, and those parts function better the less they are “owned” by the part of me that thinks it is “Me” (very much with a capital M).

It’s not as mysterious as it sounds. Think about walking. Or don’t. When you’re walking you’re best not to think about exactly how to move all the individual muscles in your legs. If you did, walking would be a lot of effort, and not very effective. The whole thing would be painful and exhausting. But that’s not what you do. Instead you just let “not-you” do the walking (which it does very well, on the whole) while “You” — or the alleged You — get on with something else. It’s exactly the same in meditation, although it seems to be easier to learn to trust “not-you” to walk than it is to trust “not-you” to meditate. I wonder why that is? Is it because we learn to walk so young?

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Access Concentration: Day 21 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 021You know when you’re counting your breaths in the Mindfulness of Breathing, and you manage to keep the numbers going continually and follow the sensations of the breathing, but you also have a continuous stream of thoughts going on? You probably get very annoyed by this. But you shouldn’t.

The continuity of awareness that accompanies the counting is valuable, and it’s part of what we call “access concentration,” which is where you’re on the verge of a “flow state” in meditation where everything becomes much easier and distractions fade away. So this “multitasking” stage (noticing the breathing, counting, thinking) is actually a helpful thing. We just need to take it a step further.

What you’re lacking in that access concentration state, and what you need to bring about, is just a bit more calmness. I’d suggest trying to pay attention to the breathing more fully. Notice what it is that you’re actually paying attention to when you’re “noticing the breathing.” And then notice what sensations connected with the breathing you’re not paying attention to. Start adding them in, to the point where it’s becoming a slight “stretch” to notice so much, but not where you feel actually stressed. That “stretch” will bring your mind to a point of quietness. So you’ll have the continuity you’ve already established, and you’ll have calmness to go along with it.

I just want to say one more thing, which is although I’ve mentioned the potential for “states” arising, we just need to stay with our moment-to-moment experience and engage and work with it, and not grasp after the arising of any kind of state in meditation. Grasping after happiness in meditation is the best way to make sure that you achieve unhappiness.

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Day 20 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 020The other day when I was meditating, I was really beset with thinking for 35 minutes, because of being tired and being overwhelmed at work, and probably also because it was late in the evening. I don’t freak out about that kind of thing, but it did feel like a struggle.

And then for the last five minutes, something really interesting happened. I just gave up — in a very positive way. Out of the blue, I found I just wanted to let the mind rest. And I was able to just sit there, in what seemed like a slightly low energy but calm and content state. It felt absolutely right.

Sometimes these creative impulses just come up, completely unexpectedly.

The tension between freedom and discipline, effort and rest, is an interesting one, and some people experience this in relation to whether to sit. A writer I know recently wrote to me saying that it was a real struggle sometimes to stay on the cushion. She’d keep looking at the clock and having a desire to move. After one turbulent sit, she too had an out-of-the blue revelation:

When the bell sounded, I decided to sit for a few minutes longer. I wasn’t forcing myself to meditate; I was meditating because I was choosing to, and I could stop whenever I wanted to. I was struck by the difference in the quality of this “free,” rather than compulsory, meditation. It felt less pressured, more open, more relaxed. Now I’m wondering how to bring that feeling of freedom into my daily practice, given the fact that I *know* I need the structure of a time goal each day.

If you have trouble getting on the cushion, I think the thing to do is to choose to take the freedom out of the situation completely. It’s when we’re not quite committed to sitting that we end up in a will-I-won’t-I struggle with ourselves. I was stuck like that for the longest time (to be a bit more specific, most of the past 30 years!) until a few months ago when I decided that what I need to do was redefine my sense of self. And that led to this post which was a complete game-changer. In the last 100 days I’ve missed one day, and having seen how that missed day came about, I’m absolutely sure I won’t miss one in the next 100 days.

Once you’ve decided that meditating is just what you doit’s part of who you are then you have a different kind of freedom. You have the freedom of not having to make a choice. You just do it. And “doing it” is a self-chosen minimum commitment, like five minutes per day. Five minutes is your fall-back position for those DEFCON 1, one-step-away-from-the-loony-asylum types of days, but hopefully you’ll average more than that.

And then there’s how to deal with the thoughts — although hopefully by now they’ll no longer be thoughts so much about whether you’re going to stay on the cushion or not. Suzuki Roshi said that if you want to tame a wild horse (or maybe it was a bull) give him a big field to stand in. Try to confine him and you have a fight on your hands. But in a big field, he just stands there quietly. So you can create a big field of awareness by really noticing the space around you. Really notice the light, and space, and sound in front, behind, and to the left and right. Feel, if you can, like your mind is filling that space. Feel a slight stretch as your attention goes in many different directions at the same time. And keeping that sense of spaciousness, start to notice the breathing. The mind has freedom, and you’re sitting in a committed way.

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Day 19 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 019There’s a lot of sickness going on at the moment, this being cold and flu season, so the question arises, what should you do about your meditation practice if you’re sick?

It’s tempting to “take the day off.” After all, that’s what we often do with work when we’re feeling under the weather.

But that’s not the approach that the Tibetans take. When they’re sick they do more, not less, meditation. The reason is that they assume, rightly or wrongly, that the illness is the result of previous bad karma, and they want to offset that with karmically healthy activities. So they meditate more. And actually meditating has been shown to boost the immune system, so it’s a wise move, even if you doubt the story about karma.

And it’s possible to meditate while sick. We can meditate lying down. Lying on the back tends to lead to a rather sleepy experience, but it’s better than nothing. However, you can also lie on your side, which is a very traditional, although little-used, meditation posture.

And even when you are sick, you’re still breathing, so there’s no reason you can’t focus on that. There may be a degree to which you’re doing mindfulness of sniffing or mindfulness of coughing, but it can still be done.

However, you might want to do lovingkindness meditation rather than focus on your breathing, because we tend to get into self-pity when we’re sick, and focusing on your labored breathing can exacerbate the wallowing. You can do metta bhavana, or even turn it into a compassion meditation practice. The only real difference between the two is that in lovingkindness we wish that beings we happy, while in compassion practice we are aware that beings are suffering and wish that they be free from suffering. Compassion is lovingkindness meeting an awareness of suffering.

And since you’re suffering when you’re sick, the first stage of self metta can easily become a self-compassion meditation. This doesn’t mean we wallow! Self-compassion is not self-pity. In self-pity we’re caught up in the story that says “I’m sick! This is horrible! Poor me!” In self-compassion there’s just a recognition of physical or emotional discomfort, which are observed impartially and from a slight distance, and we wish ourselves well. So if your throat is sore, wish it well. If your lungs are full of mucus, wish them well. If you feel tired and achey, wish yourself well.

And in the other stages of the practice, a compassionate recognition that others are suffering too, and often much worse than we are, is a good way of feeling better about our own situation. You have the flu: someone else has just learned they have cancer and have months to live. Someone else has just lost a child. Your own suffering is real, but it’s less catastrophic than we tend to imagine.

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Day 18 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 018Sometimes people have trouble wishing a person well when that person has done or said something they disapprove of, or that was downright wrong, because it seems like they’re “rewarding” that person. But not cultivating lovingkindness to a person you find difficult is, to use an old expression) cutting off your nose to spite your face. Our lovingkindness helps us to be happier.

It’s worth remembering that the lovingkindness we send people isn’t a “reward for good behavior”. It may help them indirectly or directly, or it may not help them at all, but we always benefit. Our lovingkindness may benefit the other person because we’re no longer as angry with or disapproving of them, and that, from their point of view, is probably a welcome thing. But often it’s mainly we who experience the benefits.

Rather than experiencing the stress and irritation of resisting something that can’t be resisted (you can’t make the other person be who you want them to be, no matter how much you grit your teeth or glare daggers at them) we experience the freedom of non-reaction and the pleasure of love and empathy.

Sometimes the other person isn’t even in contact with you. But you still benefit. Sometimes the other person isn’t even a person! The other day I was meditating, and I was sending lovingkindness to my little robot vacuum cleaner (it’s a Roomba, and it’s like a disc-shaped beetle that lumbers around the floor eating dust and dirt). It was busy doing its thing upstairs, directly over my head. It was making a lot of rumbling and bumping noises, and would sometimes whine when it got stuck under furniture and was trying to free itself. It’s not even sentient (as far as I know) but I felt happy sending it my lovingkindness. There was no irritation or tension around the noise at all. In fact the noise helped remind me it existed, and so the Roomba’s bumping into the furniture and walls became the support for my meditation practice rather than something that undermined it. The Roomba has not idea I was cultivating lovingkindness toward it, but I benefited.

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Mindful listening calms the mind

100 Day Meditation Challenge

Day 17 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

A common problem people have in a challenge like this is the “inner narrator” who keeps up a running commentary on how your meditation is going. This is particularly a problem when we’re going to be reporting on our practice to others, as we do in Wildmind’s Google+ Community (now defunct, and replaced by a new community website that’s part of Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative).

One thing that I find very effective is saying “It can wait.” This is what I’ve called “The Mantra for the 21st Century.” This statement affirms that the commentary might be useful, but also affirms that the present moment is not the appropriate time for it.

See also:

Listening helps. It’s not possible to listen to what’s going on around you 100% and also keep up an inner monologue. So try doing “mindfulness of listening” where you’re paying attention to the 360° of space around you. See if you can get a feeling of your attention stretching in all directions at once — with just a gentle effort, like tugging a sheet from all directions at once in order to flatten out the wrinkles. The sounds around you are not distractions. They’re your object of meditation. Don’t judge them (you can’t fully listen to them and judge them anyway!), but just allow them to be.

Then you treat inner chatter as a mindfulness bell. The chatter only starts when you let this full-on 360° listening slip, so its arrival is a gentle reminder to return to mindful listening.

I find this approach to be very powerful. It can’t really fail, because it’s self-correcting. Thoughts are a reminder to come back to listening. Listening prevents thinking. So you keep oscillating between the two, with no judgement, which isn’t really a problem since the thinking isn’t a “failure” but part of your “mindfulness reminder system.”

Day 16 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

Day 18 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

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Day 16 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 016I encourage my meditation students to set up “mindfulness triggers,” by which I mean reminders to practice mindfulness. One of my mindfulness triggers is walking toward a pedestrian crossing, when I remind myself to have no expectations that the approaching cars will stop. Another is closing my car door and walking to my office, when I remember to walk meditatively in order to arrive at Wildmind’s World Headquarters mindfully and in a state of lovingkindness.

But some of us need mindfulness triggers for our mindfulness triggers, meaning that we read about these kinds of pracices and even plan to set them up, but then in the heat of daily action we forget to follow through.

If that’s you, then here are a few ideas to do right now. Stop everything and just do at least one of these things, otherwise you’ll forget. Habit is a very strong thing…

  1. First, change the ring tone and text message alert tone on your cellphone. When you hear the different sounds, you’ll be jolted into an awareness that they’ve changed, and this will remind you to take three deep breaths, and to notice what your current experience is before you answer the phone. So go grab your phone and do that now. I’ll wait.
  2. Second, if you spend much time on a computer, go to this site and set up a bell to ring randomly. When the bell rings, you’ll remember to take three deep breaths, and to notice what your current experience is. (There are mindfulness apps for smartphones that will do the same thing.)
  3. Third, put a band-aid on your finger. You’ll notice it throughout the day and it’ll remind you to take three deep breaths, etc. If it’s night time now, then set out a bandaid with your work clothes so that you remember to put it on tomorrow morning.

The more mindfulness we can bring into daily life, the better the quality of our awareness will be, and the more benefit we’ll be to others.

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