Sitting and Breathing: Day 8

Today I was antsy (I decided to throw a party, and then decided I needed to build a bar in my living room, so my brain is swimming with ideas), which inhibited my meditation’s beginnings, but I seem to be able to pull my shit together by about 2pm every day. The program recommends choosing a consistent time of day to meditate, so at least my nonsense is punctual. Today’s was a Walking Meditation, which started with an awareness of my stance, then moved to a gradually increasing awareness of the movements involved with propelling myself forward.

From the beginning of today’s practice, I couldn’t help but wonder who doesn’t do this on a regular basis? Doesn’t everybody slow-motion walk for funsies from time to time?! They should. Your body is telling you a lot if you’re willing to listen to it (thank you Erin Burch for that phrasing). Based on the verbiage in this section of the book, people clearly aren’t listening, so my mind wandered around trying to figure out exactly what got me listening in the first place.

I took martial arts as a kid, which is probably the first time I had to pay any real attention to the way I stood and why. “You need to have your feet angled like this so you can kick like this and return to your center of gravity like this.” Honestly, I don’t remember that lesson, though. I mainly remember my sensei allowing us to punch him as hard as we could manage in the stomach (he clearly had time-tested faith in his abs), and the blonde black belt (that in retrospect, couldn’t have been more than 14) who was so much older and more experienced, and who I had a very powerful crush on.

My first concrete memory of these lessons was in JROTC in high school. Military drill teaches you to stand and walk in a very particular way – heel-to-toe with your back straight, your shoulders back, and your head level with the ground. If you don’t do it right, you get yelled at, which acts as some pretty immediate, indelible feedback. Then I joined the armed and unarmed drill teams, and color guard, where I fine-tuned those marching styles. Then I lead those teams, and those techniques to other people in a way that maximized uniformity.

That’s about the same time that Erin (please check out her website here) came into my life, and taught me her reasoning for focusing so heavily on my gait and what it was telling me. Just by watching me walk, she was able to figure out quite a lot about the way I interact with the world, and advised me on how I might go about fixing things. Ever since, I’ve paid very close attention to my weight distribution, how long my strides are, where I’m holding tension, etc.

Anyway, back to today’s session. After the requisite rereading of the instructions, dog distraction five minutes in, and restarting the 11 minutes of audio guiding the meditation, I did a total of 16 minutes of walking meditation today. Most notable to me was the sensation of my feet flying through the air between steps.

As I lifted my heal to begin a step, all the muscles in my leg tensed to push my weight to the opposite foot. Then, as my toes left the ground, each of those muscles relaxed as my foot glided to its new position. I felt my weight shifting more fluidly the slower I walked, each small movement acting as a counter to the movement of the muscles in the other leg. I also felt the floorboards of my apartment pushing back on me with the same amount of force that I was exerting on them.

Once again, in spite of my initial reluctance, I am very happy that I made time for meditation today. Taking the time to be present seems to relieve a lot of the stress I’m waking up with in the mornings. I obviously still need to figure out why I’m waking up with so much stress in the mornings, but ya know… One step at a time.

Author’s Note: I was neither sitting, nor focusing on breathing for today’s practice.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 7

I did not start the day well. I woke up a little later than I anticipated, so I rescheduled my first free trial class of Jiu Jitsu at the gym I had found close by. The dog was getting on my nerves a little more than usual. I was upset about the trash and the lack of groceries and the tree outside (I just took down my Christmas tree, and it only made it as far as the fire escape). I started reading my meditation book, but I just couldn’t focus. I was hungry, and I hadn’t had coffee, and I was frustrated – my attention was all over the place.

I decided to get up and do something about all of those feelings before I began my second week of meditation practice. I walked the dog around the block. I walked to a local cafe I’d been meaning to check out to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee while just being present, a task I usually love, but today it didn’t work quite like I wanted it to. The music in the small shop was some sort of Ukrainian pop house music, which isn’t ideal for relaxation. Financial news was running on a TV at both ends of the place, with tickers and scrolling headlines and a general jumble of nothing but incredibly important information. The coffee was good, but they brought it in a foam cup, which to me negated the point of me ordering it for there.

In my haze of frustration, I decided to use Dr. Brené Brown’s voice and resonant worldviews to soothe me. First I looked up her bio and found out that she hadn’t even gotten her bachelor’s degree until she was 30, which immediately put me at greater ease. Okay, I thought, I can still do this. After settling into the first few minutes of her audio book and finishing my coffee, I wandered to the two stores I had to go to in order to get everything on my list, and a few extra things determined by whimsy (like strawberry jam cookies).

After I got back home, put away the groceries, and had a snack, I felt ready to pick up the book again. Like in Week One, I read all of the material associated with Week Two first, then went back and reread the meditation instructions for today – Body Scan Meditation. I set myself up on my yoga mat, reset myself up after my dog whined outside my bedroom door and I brought him in and put him in his kennel, then reset myself up a final time after removing the bones he was banging against the sides of the kennel.

I closed my eyes and mentally scanned from the top of my head down to my chin, then down the back side of my head and neck, then along the sides. I moved my attention down my arms and felt each finger tip individually. Then I went down my torso, all the way to my feet, where I primarily noticed the pressure of my heels against the mat.

That journey throughout my person wasn’t quite as straightforward as that, though. I spent what felt like a lot of time lost in my thoughts. I’m infatuated with a coworker, and I kept seeing her radiant smile. I kept enjoying my stored mental loop of her gait. I replayed little tidbits of what she’s said to me or in groups that I found funny or endearing. Then I’d spend time thinking about how I was going to tell all of you about those thoughts and their intrusion. Suffice it to say, I worded it better before I sat down at my computer.

My coworker appeared a lot today, but there were other distractions, too. Fantasies about the lunch I’d make for myself, confusion about whether or not the gentle water noises and birds chirping was the alarm I had set, or just the outside world, thoughts about when this lying down thing would be over. I was, however, able to continuously bring my focus back inside my body. Feeling my the contact points with the floor, feeling what was getting heavier and what was getting lighter after the 18 or so minutes I had been there.

Finally the alarm did go off. I opened my eyes and slowly rose form the mat. I will say that much of the stress inhabiting my body earlier has vanished. I am presently more relaxed and less heavy. I don’t think that any of my problems were solved in those 20 minutes – they’re still waiting for me now, actually – but I am able to consider them as truths, and let them stay there. The fact about most of them is that their existence doesn’t adversely impact this moment that I’m in, or the next.

I’m not going to ignore them because they all very much need addressing, but I’m also not going to let them ruin whatever I’m doing right now, and I’m pretty sure that’s the whole point. Or at least that’s what I’m getting from this experience so far. I look forward to upping it to four sessions this week. Until tomorrow!

Sitting and Breathing: Day 5

I’ve considered coming up with more creative titles for these posts, but meh…

Anyway, today went (in my opinion) really well. I felt sort of frenzied beforehand because I’ve imposed a lot of deadlines on myself for getting certain things done (planning to move to Europe and get an advanced degree apparently involves a lot of steps), and today was going to be my day to knock some of those things out.

Given that I work at a bar that doesn’t close until 4am, that usually means I’m not home until at least 5:30am, which means I’m not asleep until 6:30am, which means I’m not awake until 12:30pm. By the time I’ve walked and fed my dog, made coffee and breakfast (lunch) for myself, and settled into any kind of head space for getting things done, it’s already 2pm.

I put my anxiety about my to-do list aside (my realization that it was MLK Day, and many things are closed today helped), and reread the directions for the Letting-Go-of-Thought Meditation on my schedule for today. I put my dog in his kennel, set my alarm for 21 minutes out, and sat, and breathed.

In essence, the task for today was to say, breath to myself on every inhale and every exhale. When a thought or sensation arose – positive or negative – I was to label it not breath and return my focus to the breathing. I found it to be fairly easy to return to my breathing today. I’m not sure if that’s a cumulative effect or today was just a good day, but it was heartening.

Likely as a result of my time in JROTC and ROTC, I have an internal voice that calls me Farrell, and when it chides me it sounds a lot like it’s a drill instructor. Honestly, though, the drill instructor voice was pretty quiet today, and didn’t add much to my experience. The soft-spoken hippie woo woo voice that I’ve developed internally over my years of exposure to counter culture was much more chatty today, and surprisingly, more difficult to shut up.

My mind would wander to things I was upset about, hippie voice would say, “It’s okay that you feel angry.” Then I’d imagine myself in a field lightly scattered with trees, sun shining, wind blowing through my hair, and he’d say, “It’s important to stay in the moment, remember, the point of…”

“Shut up, Hippie! You are ‘not breath!'” I finally told him. Then I laughed, and focused on my breathing again. While I appreciate his input, he makes it difficult to concentrate on a given moment with his kind, considerate prattling on. We get it, you eat organic and recycle, and you dole out self-love like it’s going out of style. Thank you, now shush.

The time seemed to fly by today, which I attribute largely to my attention on each breath component, as opposed to the experience as a whole. I’ve also been able to pepper in some mini-meditations in the past couple days. I’m a doorman at the late-night bar, which means I spend a lot of time by myself in a foyer, staring out a 1′ x 1′ window.

As you might imagine, this allows for a lot of reflection. When I’m not interacting with guests, I spend a lot of time lost in my own thoughts, but last night, I also spent some time here and there just focusing on my breath and on the individual sights and sounds being presented to me. I let them enter and exit my consciousness, then put my attention back on the sensation of inhaling and exhaling (my left nostril is still fucked up, if you were wondering).

Last night, I pondered whether or not my years of exposure to hippies or studying psychology put me ahead of the pack when it comes to self awareness, but I think it ultimately doesn’t make any difference in this endeavor. The truth of the matter is that everyone – from monks to plumbers – can improve on what they’re working with. The practice of meditation is not a cure for the human condition, but a coping mechanism that we can always be better at employing right now. Or now.

Or now. Especially now. Point is, I’m enjoying this.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 3

I’ll admit, I didn’t put a whole lot of sitting and breathing into my day yesterday, but I did regularly think about today’s practice session with eagerness and excitement. Today was 20 minutes of Hearing Meditation, which involves (for me) closing my eyes and actively listening to the world around me.

I was nervous about setting myself up not to hear the alarm again, so I put extra effort into choosing the right sound (I landed on Sun-Shower which has some running water noises and some birds chirping and shit), and I went with Airplane Mode over Do Not Disturb. I set the alarm for 21 minutes, spent some time situating myself on the foot of my bed with my legs crossed, my back straight, my hands on my thighs, and my attention on my first few deep, intentional breaths.

About a minute in, some sort of lawn mower machine (I realize it wasn’t actually a law mower, as the winds outside are currently quite high, and there’s like 7 inches of fresh snow on the ground). This machine ended up taking a lot of my attention at the start, and throughout the session, which I found slightly aggravating, but mostly amusing.

With my eyes closed, I imagined myself suspended in nothingness – a boundless white space – and let the sounds around me populate that space as they rose and fell. My radiator squealed, popping suddenly into my consciousness void, then it disappeared into the whiteness again when its work was done. The wind whipped against my window, momentarily bringing both of them into focus in my mind’s eye.

I felt myself looking toward each of them internally, or to put it a different way, I felt my shapeless self awareness physically drift through the nothingness toward them. Focusing on my breath again after I drifted, brought my attention back to the center of my being/awareness, so I better understand why people say it’s “centering.”

Then some douchey itch popped up in my left ear. I refocused my attention on my breath for some centering. Then the little bastard moved to the left side of my scalp. Breathing. Then the right side. Breathing. Then it settled in on the right side of my penis for most of the rest of the time, before finally landing in my right nostril toward the end.

“Fuck, am I doing this right?” I thought. “What defines doing this right?” I played myself the memories from my readings and some videos I’ve watched on meditation. “Everybody strays, everybody has intrusive thoughts and emotions. The point of meditation is to keep refocusing your attention on the present. What are you hearing right now?”

Of course, I had recurrent, fleeting anxiety about whether or not I had done the alarm right this time. I also kept envisioning the alarm going off – anticipating the end of the session. Otherwise stated, I spent quite a bit of time not adequately focusing my attention on the present.

Interestingly, I noticed that much of the time that that was happening, I was also unintentionally leaning forward. My body was contributing to the anxious, future-driven feedback loop my mind was in. Breathe in… Breathe out… I sat back again, and focused on my breath, then found myself in void again, ready for auditory input.

My cousin was walking my dog, and returned toward the end of the session. His excited footsteps brought him in and out of my void. His crying did, too, but the crying was different. Instead of popping in and out like with all the other things I was hearing, the crying solidified him in my mind’s eye. Even when he stopped actually making noise, I could still see him in my blank space. I wondered what he might need, and lent him a lot of focus despite my best efforts to stay in the moment.

My guess is that the noises he uses to tell me he needs things resonate more with my innate nurturing side. I’m programmed to lend him – the creature I care for – more attention emotionally, physically, and mentally. The question that I have as a result of that is, “To what extent is that playing out in the rest of my life?”

I don’t just mean with him. I mean, to what degree am I allowing lingering thoughts to eat up my ability to listen to the rest of the world? How much am I missing out on because I’m not living in a moment while I’m plotting for my future or dwelling on mistakes I’ve made in my past?

I guess that’s one of the points of meditation practice – answering those questions by continuously refocusing my attention on the shit going on right now. Per usual, I would prefer to have my answers right this second, but that seems to happen less and less these days, and I’m slowly coming to acknowledge the power of delayed gratification.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 1-ish

So this is sort of Day 2 in that I started reading Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation yesterday, but by the time I got through the first 60-some-odd pages, I learned that I would be meditating for 20 minutes each go-round, I should read the instructions a couple times before beginning, and I was only doing it thrice in the first week (every other day). Initially, I balked at the idea of reading the instructions over again, but then I thought, “If I’m gonna do this shit, I might as well do it all the way.”

So today, after my usual morning of walking the dog, making breakfast and coffee, and watching some random shit on Netflix, I sat back down with the book, finished the remainder of the material for Week 1, then reread the instructions on Breathing Meditation. Then I downloaded the audio files on my phone, and realized I didn’t have any software on my phone that would allow me to unzip the compressed file, so I downloaded the file on my computer.

Track 1 was a recitation of the directions I had now read twice, but I sat through those three minutes while I situated myself in the correct posture. Track 2 was the guided meditation portion, but I got about three minutes into that before I decided her voice was more distracting than it was helpful, so I opted in on my own practice (which sounds like a thing I should do, so I felt good about that). I went back to the dining room where I left my phone (I was encouraged to leave it elsewhere) to use it as a timer.

I put my phone on Do Not Disturb, and set an alarm on Pandora to play some classical musical after 21 minutes, then I watched my phone intently for the minute of setup I allowed myself to be up. When it hit 11:37 I threw my phone down, internally said, “Go!” and focused on my breathing. I felt the sensation of the air going into and out of my right nostril (apparently my left one is clogged or something). I centered myself with a few deep breaths, then fell into a more normal breathing pattern.

Planes flew by overhead. My dog started dreaming and growling in his sleep. This made me laugh, as it usually does. I returned to my attention breath. In… Out… I thought about how much easier this would be if I were simultaneously doing physical activity. Like yoga. Which I should really get back into. I bet I can find videos online and do those. I should also do an ab routine after this, followed by some stretching. Actually, the yoga would probably serve both of those purposes. Shit. Breath. In… Out…

Every time my attention wandered, I forgave the intrusion, and thanked myself for recognizing it and returning to my breath. My back started hurting. My legs started hurting. My new tattoo started hurting. I felt tension in my jaw, and when I relaxed that, I somehow felt tension in my tongue. I let all of them go. I adjusted my sitting position. I started to get antsy. I started to feel lightheaded for some reason.

“There is no alarm. There is only this breath,” I told myself. In… Out… My attention kept returning to my phone sitting next to me. When would I hear the sweet relief of classical music? In… Out… “Okay, we’ve gotta be getting close now.” In… Out…

Finally, it was too much for me in some way or another, and I almost jolted out of it. Funnily enough, I did that at exactly 11:57. The alarm was silent (apparently Do Not Disturb extends to Pandora), but I had made it the full 20 minutes. “Fuck yeah! That’s what’s up!” I said out loud.

I have the day off from Sitting and Breathing tomorrow, but I’m back at it again Saturday. I feel good for having done the thing today, but I’ve clearly got a lot of room to get better at this. I guess that’s why it’s called a “practice” – there’s pretty much always room to get better.

I’ve already noticed a shift in the way I interpret the goings-on in my day, and I’m excited to see what changes (if any) come about in my view of the world over the course of the next month. Stay tuned. More sitting and breathing to come.

Not Enough of This

Looking fly as fuck for my interview.

After the tail-between-my-legs return to my mother’s house so common in my generation, it was time to start working again. That meant applying anywhere and everywhere offering money for labor. After a little under a month, I was interviewed and hired by a small, family owned and operated boatyard. Per the Craigslist ad, I was to work in their front office as a sort of administrative assistant – a role previously held by their daughter who was now on her way to bigger (and undoubtedly better) things.

I was under the assumption that I would love working there. The harbor is beautiful, I love the smell of ocean air, and I love working at small businesses. There was a small yapping dog that ran around the shop, and a large cage with birds who added some color behind the desk. It was rundown, but clearly the regulars loved the homey feel, as did I.

This place clearly had a lot of room for improvement when it came to marketing itself, and I felt like I could really make a positive impact on their business practices and long-term marketplace relevance. The shelves were stocked seemingly at random, little was done in the way of digitizing, and there were no policies and procedures to speak of (I don’t believe I ever signed anything but a W-2), so I was excited to get to work.

I was in the office for very little time before they realized that I had muscle tone and a willingness to put it to work out in the yard. Having never worked in a boatyard before, I wasn’t exactly the fastest when it came to knot tying, and I had to ask a lot of questions, but I was hired as an admin assistant, so…

Anyway, I actually enjoyed the work for the most part. I had to pick weeds from the planters surrounding the parking lot, but I got to listen to my audiobooks while I worked. I had to lift and carry rusted slabs of steel, but I got to enjoy the beautiful weather (except when it was raining) of Southern California’s beaches. I had to carry large quantities of insulation and fiberglass, much of which got embedded in my arms, but… Actually, no, that one just sucked. The rest was pretty enjoyable, though.

Then the problems started. I talked more than I suppose was appropriate. I asked more questions than was absolutely necessary. Once I was asked to dust all of the shelves, and when I said I was done, the owner went immediately to the only shelf I had overlooked (it was the highest shelf and it was completely covered with signs), and ran his hand along it. He threw his hand up in my face, putting the coating of dust on display, and said, “I guess you just don’t feel like doing the things I ask you to do, huh?”

Can’t really fault him on that one. I didn’t dust the shelf. That was my bad.

Another time, though, I was actually working in the office (ya know, the thing I was hired to do given my years of experience working in offices and marketing for small businesses), and I realized that there was no call log. So, I took it upon myself to spend ten minutes drafting a sheet that could be printed regularly, and give whoever was answering the phones the chance to record information about the people on the other end – why they were calling, who they were, what their contact information was – so that that information could be used to follow up at a later date.

When I explained this to the wife, she was all about it. When I explained it to the husband, he said, “You never heard of Post-Its before? Ya know, those little yellow pieces of paper with sticky stuff on the back?”

“I have,” I said, “but this is a more organized way of keeping track of who calls and why.”

“I only care about the people giving me money!”

“Well everybody who calls is potentially someone who just hasn’t given you their money, yet.”

“Oh, so you know how to run a boatyard now?!” he spat.

“No, but I do know…”

“I’m seeing a lot of this!” He did the hand open-and-closing thing, like hand shadow puppet prattling on, “and not enough of this!” and he clasped his hand shut, and stormed off.

Well fuck this, I thought. I didn’t quit, and I wasn’t fired, but I did get a call the next day saying that there “just wasn’t enough work to do in the office right now,” but I would definitely be getting a call back when business picked up again. I never got that call, and I opted out of telling the wife that her husband’s stubbornness, unwillingness to adapt, and dickish nature were running their company into the ground.

I did get the chance to learn a little about boats, and I definitely got a lesson in humility, even if it was unintentional. I learned that starting again at the bottom isn’t the end of the world. I learned that showing up on time, working hard, and doing a job thoroughly and correctly without backtalk will get you far. I also learned that there’s only so much douchebaggery I’m willing to put up with in the workplace, and that dude had more in his gnarled pinkie than I was willing to tolerate in a whole human being.

Would I do it over again? Probably. But I’m a glutton for punishment and good views, and speaking solely in those terms, that boatyard had it all.

Reaching for Ten Percent

I listen to a lot of audiobooks. I listen to them while I’m driving, while I’m walking the dog, while I’m on the train or bus, while I’m doing dishes… You get it. I listen to them a lot. A little over a year ago, I stumbled upon a book called Stealing Fire, which looks at the potential therapeutic value of altered states of consciousness (as brought about by psychoactive drugs, exercise, meditation, watching TV, etc.). It’s great – I strongly suggest you check it out on your own.

I was so intrigued by their research, that here I am a year and some change later, and I’m revisiting it with the intention of pursuing higher learning in the same vein. I want to know what these people know. I want to be responsible for teaching them some of the things that they don’t know. So where do I start?

Well, I went to their website, and shot them an email outlining my plan and asking if there were any institutions already actively engaged in this type of research. I don’t expect to hear back any time soon, but while I was on their website, I took the liberty of reading what they already took the time to type up. They (not exactly sure who “they” is in this instance) recommended that someone with my particular set of ongoing foibles check out 10% Happier, written by Dan Harris.

In line with my impulsivity and hunger for information of this ilk, I downloaded the book for immediate consumption. It chronicles the TV journalist’s journey through the Woo Woo world of conquering one’s inner demon’s by striving toward “enlightenment.” You get the narration of a skeptic as he chats with leading self-help gurus, religious figureheads, psychologists and neuroscientists, and peppers them with questions driven by his own quest for inner peace (he’d probably object to some of that verbiage). I love and strongly recommend this book, as well.

As a result of this book (and probably partly as a result of me choosing not to drink alcohol for the remainder of January), I’ve decided to embark on some meditative shit. Dan did a video with meditation expert Sharon Salzberg, giving me the chance to do a quick trial run before making this choice. So what did I learn in my very first session?

I’m angry. I’m not sure exactly what I’m angry about. It comes out as anger at my cousin for not doing the dishes, or anger with my dog for being distracted by squirrels and conveniently forgetting that we went outside because he had to poop, which he doesn’t remember until we’re back at the top of the stairs and in the apartment. Max (my dog) barked within the first minute and a half of starting the meditation session, prompting me to get up and put him in his kennel so I could start over.

Other than that, I’d say it went well. As they say in the video, the whole point of meditation is repeated failure. You’re supposed to continuously be distracted by whatever, then refocus your attention on your breath. Each time you catch yourself, and bring your consciousness back to your breath, it’s the equivalent of a brain-bicep curl. I enjoy regular bicep curls and the idea of conquering my wandering mind, so this all seems like a good fit.

Goal time: I’ve ordered Sharon Salzberg’s book, which includes a 28 day program of guided meditation. I’m gonna do that. Why? Hopefully I’ll be able to shed some light on why so many people I respect seem to really dig it. Hopefully I’ll gain some insight as to why I have a tendency to fly off the handle about little shit in my life. Hopefully I’ll be able to eek out a percentage point or two while I’m reaching toward that 10%.

Like Mr. Harris, I’m skeptical, but I’m approaching it with an open mind. After just my first attempt, I can see how this might be tough at the get-go, but how it’s ultimately doable. Oh, and I’ll tell you about it. And probably some other things I’ve been meaning to tell you. We’ll see.

Namaste, motherfuckers.