100 Day Meditation Challenge

Day 15 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 015One of my meditation students, Janette, wrote saying that doing a body scan meditation had helped her with pain:

I have tried the body scan twice and love it ! I suffer a lot with arthritic pain and felt I was floating above all this during the scan. Really felt the breath flowing through the body and then there was only the breath and I was absolutely pain free and so at peace.

Sometimes when we have pain we focus on it in a rather “obsessed” way, so that it fills the whole of our experience. I suspect that what’s happening in your Janette’s is that she’s experiencing all the things that are “not pain” so that her pain becomes just one part of her experience. Experience becomes a large “container” which includes the pain as just one of many sensations.

Having connected with the larger space of experience, we can also turn back and gently approach your pain with kindness and curiosity. There’s a danger that we try to “escape” pain by “fleeing” into the non-pain space around it (i.e. paying attention to everything but the pain). And that’s not entirely mindful, because we’re excluding something that’s important (pain is important). So, ideally we allow the pain to be part of our experience. We can breathe with it. We can offer it our love (it needs love, as we all do when we’re hurting). We can even look deeply into it to see what the various components of this pain are, noticing the coming and going of various experiences of pulsing, throbbing, heat, tingling, stabbing, pressure, etc. And sometimes when we do this we may even find, for a time, that our pain has dissolved.

It all becomes less scary when we turn toward our pain, and so there’s less of a need to flee it. We also find that we tense up less, and so our pain is reduced. We learn to fear our pain less, and our pain, in a way, learns to fear us less.

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Day 14 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

Stuart Valentine, who’s participating in the 100 Day Challenge, wrote about how fear of other’s judgements can stop us from getting started:

Being a born pessimist, one of the first things that occurred to me about the 100 Day Challenge was that if I did it, I would have to do it PERFECTLY. And this was clearly impossible, so there was no point trying.

‘Scoring’ just 99 out of 100 would be a disaster. I would feel irritated with myself, embarrassed, would have let myself and others down… and many other negative emotions I projected on to this ‘awful’ event.

If I ended on 90 out of 100, or heavens forbid 89 out of 100, then my life as I know it would be over, surely. Dharma ridicule would follow me the rest of my days. I could see it all in glorious detail.

If I missed a sitting early enough into the 100 days, I might even have to give up straight away! Why continue, now that perfection is out of reach?

Clearly, I concluded, the best option was to not start in the first place.

Despite knowing intellectually that this was a very shoddy way of thinking, I couldn’t shake the emotional conviction of it. So I took to the cushion to thrash it out. One order of mindfulness of body please.

Clearly there was a huge amount of negativity in all this, and unskillful thinking, But I also realised this sort of ‘all or nothing’ mentality is something I’ve been guilty of more times than I can count, almost always to negative or even disastrous effect.

Meditating revealed to me the aversion to making a ‘mistake’, the egotistical craving for the ‘glory’ of having done 100 out of 100 sittings, and the fierce aversion to the pictures I painted in my mind’s eye about how other people would look down on me for missing even a single sitting. I could feel it not just in the intensity and unpleasant nature of the thoughts which kept obsessively cycling round and round, but more importantly in the unpleasant bodily sensations that came with those emotions.100 day meditation challenge 014

Mindfulness of those body sensations gradually took the sting out of them as equanimity slowly won the battle, and the emotions slowly subsided. Sanity was slowly restored.

I could now see the sense in just trying every day, and not being too attached to success or failure to sit that day – just like when doing mindfulness one should keep persistently trying to be mindful, but should try not to be frustrated or demotivated when our mind wanders. The analogy struck me powerfully.

What came through most clearly was that my biggest fear by far was what others would think. I was telling myself all sorts of crazy stories about how ‘everyone’ would think less of me if I missed even one sitting. These stories had a life of their own, and I had so much aversion to them that my constant reactivity kept feeding them, much like a hurricane gets stronger and stronger as it crosses rough warm seas.

I decided to take the plunge, and to face it head on, with as much equanimity as I could manage. Don’t run, don’t suppress, don’t ignore, don’t fight – accept it. Accept the maelstrom, the sensations, the negativity. Accept, let go, equanimity, don’t give up, don’t give up…… deep breath, don’t give up!

It wasn’t fun, but it slowly worked, over the course of several sittings. The calm after the storm is always beautiful. For now at least, I can face the prospect of missing a sitting with something like a genuinely balanced mind.

No doubt the aversion to making a mistake will return. Old habits die hard. But next time it does, I’ll be better prepared.

And I have a quiet confidence that next time it will be that little bit weaker, too. Progress… however small, I’ll take it! Maybe the ratchet away from suffering just got moved another notch.

If nothing else, working through all this has gotten me to 10 sits out of 100! And the reduction in tension and stress from weakening these negative ways of looking at the situation means that I am now less likely to miss a sitting.

But if I do miss one, or WHEN I do, I think i’ll be able to take it my stride, and not let it stop me completing as many of the rest as I can.

Thank you for sharing your wise advice, Stuart!

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Day 13 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 013Brendan Lawlor is participating in the 100 Day Challenge, and in fact he was one of the catalysts for it. Brendan’s part of Wildmind’s Google+ Community, which is a place for people to discuss their practice, and he mentioned that, according to the meditation app on his smartphone, he had meditated for 100 days straight. Another group member suggested that we could turn that into a challenge for the new year. And so here we are.

Brendan wrote something about beginner’s mind and the 100 Day Challenge:

I speak fluent but deeply compromised Italian. When I was in the earliest learning phase, I acquired new words and structures very quickly but I had to work very hard indeed. Most of my processing went into the parsing and production of grammar rather than the actual content and meaning of the conversations I was having. This meant that I was working furiously but neither expressing myself very well, nor understanding deeply what was being said to me. This was frustrating for me, as in my mother tongue I am a good communicator and (it has been said) good company. I felt like a fool in Italian. Worse – a boring fool.

In my hurry to express myself, and impress others, I started to care less about the form and more about the content of my spoken Italian. And with some amount of success. I could crack a joke occasionally, and certainly understand one. But I was riding roughshod over the grammar. I wasn’t paying much attention to the details of pronunciation, to the intricate elegance of the subjunctive voice (very important and very widely used in Italian) and I constantly forgot whether nouns were masculine or feminine. Many many years later, matters are still very much the same. I have a greater vocabulary, I’m comfortable and confidant when I speak, but I make constant errors that, while they don’t impede understanding, they must certainly jar the listener’s ear. I will never be mistaken for a native speaker (though my pasty white face would have seen to that in any case). And I regret that I didn’t take a more steady approach to learning. I regret I didn’t stay longer in Beginner’s Mind.

According to a Japanese martial art concept, learning happens in three phases called, in order of appearance, Shu, Ha and Ri. (I’m not a martial art student – I learned these terms when they were applied to software programming languages, of all things). To summarize:

  • The Shu phase entails obedience to the teachings. We follow the instructions – what could be simpler?
  • The Ha phase represents the beginning of digression – we start to find our own meaning in the teachings and tailor them to ourselves.
  • Ri is separation or transcendence – we have achieved such mastery of the subject that rules are irrelevant.

When we begin to learn a new skill, we dream of Ri, but feel imprisoned by Shu. Those of us whose personality types tend towards arrogance or excessive individualism ‘escape’ Shu almost as soon as we start. We tell ourselves we’re being creative, but if we’re really honest we just haven’t developed the discipline or courage to rein ourselves in.

The 100 day challenge offers a chance to Dhamma Pirates like us to put the uniform back on, to return to the ranks of Beginner (which in reality we never really left) and put in our time, under the watchful eye, if possible, of our sangha. The continuity of daily practice allows us to chart a steady course through the basic techniques, over and over until we really do get the basics under our skin. The sangha provided by Wildmind obliges us to stay that course.

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Day 12 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 012Almost everyone is going around making judgments all the time, about others — and about themselves. It’s hard to remember to be compassionate, or to actually be compassionate if we remember. Here’s one perspective that helps me.

Behind every negative emotion, there’s a positive intent or valid need. So when we’re grumpy and unpleasant to people, for example, there’s a need and an intent to defend ourselves (our feelings being fragile and easily provoked at that time). When we crave something it’s because we’re short on happiness, and see the object of our craving as a source of the happiness we need. When we’re worrying about something we’re looking for a solution to something we find threatening. And so on.

Negative emotions are strategies for achieving happiness. The problem with them is that they don’t work! In fact they cause us further problems, which we then try to solve using more negative emotion. This is the vicious cycle that the Buddha called samsara — the endless “Faring on.”

Mindfulness and compassion are more effective strategies for dealing with those same needs. So our feelings are fragile and we mindfully and compassionately pay attention to them so that we don’t bite people’s heads off; we notice our craving, realize we’re in need of happiness, are mindfully aware that the thing we crave isn’t going to work, and seek a more skillful way to bring a sense of well-being into our lives; rather than worrying about change we learn to accept what we can’t change and focus on changing what we can change, etc., etc. The underlying needs, and the intent to meet those needs, are the same. But the way we go about meeting those needs is different. And more effective.

And it’s interesting to realize that all those people who annoy us by not being the way we want them to be (often by acting unskillfully) are themselves blindly trying to find happiness, pursuing failed strategies for the umpteenth time. They’re acting out of suffering, and as a result seek happiness but only end up creating further suffering for themselves and others. Because they don’t know of any alternatives.

When you realize this, it’s easier to be compassionate.

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Day 11 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 011It astonishes me how much time I spend making judgements about people, but the truly surprising thing is that although it makes me feel bad, I keep doing it. And it leads to unfortunate interactions with people which ends up causing them suffering too.

One thing that protects us against this kind of self-imposed suffering is lovingkindness (metta) practice. Lovingkindness is an important complement to mindfulness practice.

To cultivate metta we can do something as simple as repeat to ourselves, “May you be well; may you be happy” as we see others. We can do this while walking or driving, for example.

We can take a more reflective approach to cultivating lovingkindness. I often consider the truth of the following statements:

  • I want to be happy;
  • I don’t want to suffer;
  • I often find happiness elusive;
  • I find suffering hard to avoid.

I drop these thoughts in one at a time, giving myself time to feel their reality on an emotional level. And then I allow the part of me that wants me to be happy to wish myself well — basically allowing a sympathetic attitude toward myself to emerge. Somehow recollecting that it’s a difficult thing to live a human life allows me to be more tender, and to be more caring and appreciative of myself.

Then I can apply the same thoughts to another person: This person wants to be happy; he/she doesn’t want to suffer; he/she often finds happiness elusive; he/she finds suffering hard to avoid. I find that quite naturally I want to “root for” this person as they do this difficult thing of living a human life. I want them to be happy.

This might sound a bit complex, but it isn’t really. The important thing is to give yourself time to let the thoughts have some emotional reality. With a little practice these reflections can be done in a few seconds, and having been thought about in a conscious way, they can then remain in the back of our minds, having a positive effect on our attitudes to others without needing to be consciously articulated.

This is something that I do at the start of each stage of my lovingkindness (metta) meditations. It’s also something I do during my daily activities. It makes lovingkindness practice much more real and effective for me.

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Nimittas: Day 10 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 Day Meditation Challenge

Yesterday I wrote about samapattis, which are slightly strange, and often a bit disturbing, experiences that can arise in meditation. They’re often a bit hallucinatory, and it’s not a good idea to pay much attention to them.

Nimittas are another kind of unusual experience we can have in meditation, but they’re more useful. The word “nimitta” literally means a “sign” or a “hint.” These are experiences we can have that let us know we’re making progress in meditation.

Nimittas, like samapattis, come in different forms. They can be visual, or kinesthetic, or even auditory.

In one classic meditation text, the Vimuttimagga, the arising of nimittas is described like this: “the nimitta arises with a pleasant feeling similar to that which is produced in the action of spinning cotton or silk cotton. Also it is likened to the pleasant feeling produced by a breeze.” These are kinesthetic nimittas. They can be auditory, like a subtle sound accompanying the breathing that’s not heard through the ears. Visual nimittas might take the form of a stable image, or just a stable perception of light.

It’s worth paying attention to these nimittas. They are “signs” or “hints” that we’re on the right track. The Vimuttimagga says: “If the yogin develops the nimitta and increases it at the nose-tip, between the eye-brows, on the forehead or establishes it in several places, he feels as if his head were filled with air. Through increasing in this way his whole body is charged with bliss.” He’s talking here about kinesthetic nimittas, but the same applies to the other forms. It’s not that you abandon the perception of the breathing, but that the sensations of the breathing are complemented by the nimitta.

I have a theory about nimittas, which is that they can be a form of synesthesia, which is where data from one sense is experienced in terms of another. I suspect a lot of people are potential synesthetes, but they don’t experience synesthesia until the mind is very still and quiet. Presumably the synesthetic sensations are present all the time, but are drowned out by the normal chatter that goes on during normal activity. So we quiet the mind, and find that we experience calmness as light, or the flow of the breathing as a particular “shape” felt in the body. Just a theory.

Anyway, both nimittas and samapattis are experiences that you may have. Hopefully today and yesterday’s posts will help you know what to do if that does happen.

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Day 9 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 009Someone in Wildmind’s Community asked the following question:

During my sit I saw a bright white/yellow circle shape flash of light in between my eyebrows (closed eye meditation). The light came rushing at me and filled my vision then vanished. While very interesting, it actually freaked me out a bit. Is there a name for this experience?

I replied, “It’s what we call a samapatti. There are various kinds of these, and some of them involve light, although they can be tactile, proprioceptive, auditory, etc. They usually arise as the mind is starting to settle, and they’re more common in people who are relatively new to meditation. They’re nothing to worry about (they’re common) nor are they something to get very excited about (they’re just “noise” in the system).”

“There are more stable sensations that are similar but more conducive to mindful concentration, and those are called nimittas.”

I see samapattis as arising in a few ways: They’re very similar to experiences that people have when they’re exposed to sensory deprivation, which makes me think there’s an element of that going on; the mind is getting quieter, but we’ve not fully tapped into the richness of our experience — especially of the body — and so the mind starts trying to make sense of random neuronal “noise.” One of the most common samapattis is the perception of “swirling lights.”

Samapattis can involve exaggerations of actual sensations. Someone else recently wrote: “I just started meditation, and today while I was meditating, I felt like I was being pulled to the left, and felt like I was stuck leaning significantly that way, even though when I opened my eyes I was sitting perfectly straight. Do you have any thoughts on what that might be about?”

Quite possibly she was actually leaning a little to the left, and because the mind was quieter, those particular sensations were sensed much more strongly than usual.

Sometimes people feel that their hands or lips are huge, and this actually reflects the rich sensory input that those parts of the body have. If you’re familiar with the image of the sensory homunculus then you’ll have an idea of how disproportionate the body can feel. In this particular case I suspect that some part of the brain that’s responsible for convincing us that the hands and lips are actually proportional, despite the fact that they’re sending huge amounts of data to the sensory parts of the brain, has gone “offline.”

Samapattis tend to be a bit distracting. So we just notice them and keep on with the practice. They’re not a sign that you’re going crazy, nor are they a sign of impending enlightenment. They are a sign that the mind is starting to quiet down, but also that you’re learning to adjust to the reduced level of inner quiet.

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Day 8 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 Day Meditation Challenge

Our 100 Day Meditation challenge is going very well. It’s not possible to know how many people are joining in, but there are lots of people commenting in our Community, where the idea originated, and lesser numbers posting on Facebook and on our blog.

I thought this might be a good time to mention some of the resources that we have available on this site for learning meditation. The following list is copied from our home page.

Generally I suggest that people establish a good basis of mindfulness of breathing and of lovingkindness meditation as the core of their sitting practice — using the principles of good posture as articulated in our posture workshop.

Walking meditation helps us take our practice more into the world.

Mantra meditation can be both a sitting practice and something we can do during other activities.

The six element practice is a good way to dip into insight meditation. It’s probably not best done daily, except perhaps on retreat.

postureOur posture workshop is where we suggest you start if you don’t already have a meditation practice (and perhaps even if you do). We’ll take you step-by-step through the process of setting up a meditation posture that will allow you to be both alert and relaxed. Learn more »

mindfulness of breathingThe mindfulness of breathing is a fundamental meditation practice that everyone should know. The benefits? You’ll find that this practice helps you to calm your mind so that there’s less inner chatter (especially the stuff that makes you unhappy). You’ll find also that you’re less distractible and better able to pay attention. Learn more »

metta bhavanaThe development of lovingkindness (metta bhavana) works directly on our emotional habits, helping us to become more emotionally positive. You’ll learn to be kinder to yourself: more patient, more understanding. You’ll find that you’re more considerate to others and that it’s easier to forgive. You may even find (as others have) that others around you mysteriously become easier to be around. Hmmm.. wonder why that is? Learn more »

walking meditationWalking meditation is a great way to bring more meditation into your daily life; it’s a practice that can be done even in a busy city street. In this form of practice we develop greater mindfulness of the body, but we also become more aware of our thought patterns, our emotions, and even of the outside world. It’s a calming practice. Walking meditation can also be a lovingkindness practice, especially when you’re walking in a public place. Learn more »

mantra meditationOur mantra meditation section is the most popular destination for our visitors. Mantras are simply phrases that we repeat (usually internally, but they can also be chanted out loud). As well as occupying the mind and thus calming it by preventing it from getting up to the usual mischief that causes us pain, mantras also have a symbolic value that evokes spiritual qualities. Learn more »

six element meditationThe six element practice is a profound reflection on interconnectedness and impermanence. It’s a very beautiful form of meditation. It not only helps us to calm the mind and give us a reassuring sense of our place in the great scheme of things, but it can be unsettling and challenging as well. Yes, I know. Reassuring and unsettling. That’s Buddhist practice for you! Learn more »

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Hit the ground sitting! Day 7 of our 100 Day Meditation Challenge

timer appBrendan Lawlor, who’s participating in the 100 Day challenge over on Our Google+ Community, wrote:

I see that the Wildmind blog on the 100 day challenge is concentrating on reminders and other tricks for establishing a practice. So I wanted to suggest to +Bodhipaksa Dharmacari that some meditation timers for smartphones include widgets that give you immediate feedback on your state of play, so to speak. I’m including a partial screenshot of my device to give you an idea.

The upper number gives the current number of consecutive days. The lower number is your personal best. The bar on the right is fills up (with blue) according to how much of your daily minimum you have done so far.

So every time you look at your phone, you get a reminder, or an affirmation.

The particular app pictured, Meditation Helper, is available for Android and is soon to appear on the iPhone.

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Hit the ground sitting! Day 6 of our 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 006The 100 Day Meditation Challenge is designed to help us establish a strong habit of meditating daily. This is something that’s been a struggle for me, and it’s taken me 30 years (yeah, I’m a slow learner) to finally feel that I have a solid habit of meditating daily. It was the affirmation I discuss here that really did it for me.

Now I did have one “failure” when I completely forgot to meditate one day that I was unusually busy with childcare, but in the end I regarded that as an interesting test of the weaknesses of my affirmation. What had happened was that I’d felt less need to remind myself “I meditate every day, it’s just who I am” because I was meditating every day! So this skipped day was a valuable way to discover that I’d been premature in dropping my affirmation. I restarted dropping that “mantra” into my mind each day, and now it seems my habit is much more strongly established. But I’m not going to get cocky, and will keep watching for the signs of my habit of meditating daily beginning to slip. Warning signs I’ve noticed are that I start leaving my meditation until very late in the day, or meditate for less than 30 minutes, or decide I’m going to meditate lying down. These are not necessarily bad things to do, but if I notice those trends appearing I find it’s best to pay more attention to my meditation, since it’s in danger of being “squeezed out” of my schedule.

Incidentally, someone (I can’t remember who) blogged the other day about how impressively effective my affirmation seemed to be. But at the same time she said she wasn’t going to use it because (if I remember correctly) it is “cheesy.” A thought that occurred to me later was the it’s like you’re in a prison cell, and you receive a message saying “hey, there’s a hidden red button in my cell, and when I pressed it the door opened and I escaped.” And you look and see the button and you think about pressing it but you think, “Nah, I don’t like red.” The thing is, if you’re not going to try something when there’s evidence that this thing might work, perhaps the voice that says “Nah, that’s cheesy” is the voice of doubt — the voice that doesn’t want you to meditate because it’s afraid of change. And why would you want to listen to that voice and follow its instructions?

Here’s the button; try pressing it:

Repeat often, “I meditate every day; it’s what I do; it’s just who I am.”

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