Sitting and Breathing: Day 29

I know, I know – it was supposed to be a 28 day program, but I didn’t do anything yesterday so here we are. Happy Valentine’s Day to those who celebrate it.

As the photo here shows, I occasionally let my dog play too rough. I have fun, he has fun, but often I get a little damaged. That photo was taken about a week ago, right before I found out I was getting the barbacking gig at the fancy place (my first day is today, by the way). Since then, I’ve been careful to only use his tug-of-war rope so that my hand had time to heal. For the most part, it worked very well and he was very cooperative.

Then I got home from work last night, and after walking him around the block, where he both peed and pooped, I returned to my room to find a large poop in the middle of the floor. Now, I move my bed out of my room and lock up all my things each time I leave the house so he has a decent space to play in, and also to account for his mishaps. So really, this is kind of par for the course. But yesterday I was really looking forward to coming home, putting my bed back in my room, and getting a good night sleep in preparation for today’s shift, which I’ve been a little nervous about.

The poop in the middle of my floor meant that I had to clean the floor, but the smell clearly meant I was sleeping on the couch, and that pissed me off. I punched the wall and opened up two of my knuckles in the process. So now, not only was I not going to get a good night’s sleep, but my hand also had two fresh wounds on it because I couldn’t control my anger in that moment. I did not go to sleep in the best of moods.

I also did not wake up in the best of moods. The couch just isn’t as comfortable as my bed, and it smells like dog, and of course, Maximus woke me up like fives times this morning asking to go outside.

So! I finished reading the last bits of Real Happiness, and sat myself down for some good ol’ breathing. Holy crap did I need that. In the last bits of the book, she discusses how the point of continual meditation practice is not to become better at meditation, but to become better at life. I don’t sit and breath so that I can master sitting and breathing, I do it so that it connects me on a deeper level with myself, my emotions, and the events, people, and dogs in my life.

My practice itself hasn’t improved much over the course of the last month. I still get easily distracted, I still get washed away by torrents of emotion, I still get bored and restless just like I did on day one. But I will say that minus punching the wall yesterday, I have a much different way of interacting with my emotions. Meditation has, of course, made me no less of a human being – no less prone to the ups and downs of my own mind or less likely to experience positive and negative occurrences – but it has given me a powerful tool when it comes to my perception of those things.

So ends my series on Sitting and Breathing, but my journey on the road to better understanding the intricacies of my world feels like it’s just beginning, or at least beginning anew. Next up on the reading docket is Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Enlightenment by Joseph Goldstein. I will keep you abreast of what I learn there, and regale you with more tales of my nonsense going forward.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking the time to read about my journey thus far, and I look forward to continuing it with you.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 15

I can’t say I was pumped to start today’s meditation, titled Meditation On Calling Up Negative Emotion (doesn’t exactly “call up” a lot of enthusiasm, right?). After procrastinating in the form of the Ted Bundy documentary out on Netflix, I finally sat myself down, reread the instructions about three or four times so I was doing the right things in what I imagined would be turbulent waters, and dove in (or sat, rather).

Per the instructions, I spent the vast majority of the time trying to conjure up emotions by examining my memories of the recent and distant past, and replaying those scenes in my head to try and illicit an emotional response.

My dog being a dick on our walks? Well he was just nervous and excited. The recent passing of my grandmother? Well she lived a long, happy life, and she knew I loved her very much. My personal and professional failures? Well I was young and I feel like I’ve learned a lot since then. My meditative practice over the last two weeks had me shooting myself in the foot today. Each time I put myself in a time and a place where emotions ran high, my mind quickly followed it up with a rationalizations, justifications, or explanations of circumstances. To put it differently, I wasn’t feeling anything.

FEEL SOMETHING – ANYTHING – GODDAMMIT! I heard my inner voice screaming.

Finally, I got angry with myself for not being able to do this right, and I pounded my fists on my thighs and exhaled violently. That break in my physical composure (up to that point, I had been sitting with [nearly] perfect meditative posture and stillness) was enough to let the emotion itself run through my body. My shoulders tensed, my brow furrowed, I clenched every muscle in my body as hard as I possibly could. Rage ran freely inside of me, then I was exhausted by the effort, and allowed a moment to refocus on my breath and come back to center.

My back straightened, and after some doing, I was able to relax all of my muscles throughout my body and face. Huzzah! I thought to myself. I gave myself a little mental pat on the back, then focused on my breathing again. If it worked with anger, maybe it’d work with another emotion. I gave it a shot with sadness, but I got nothing. So I reworded it as loneliness, and that struck a nerve.

I felt my insides hollow out as I repeated the word to myself. I imagined the loving embraces I’ve experienced in my life, and thought about how long it’s been since I’ve had that, and how nice it would feel. There’s a sweetness to that sadness, in that it’s centered around a beautiful memory and a warmth that aren’t present in that moment. I felt exhausted again, and I let my head droop down. One single tear streamed down my right cheek (like in a fuckin’ movie), and I brought myself back to center.

I finished my meditation just focused on my breath. I felt lighter than when I started – more airy. Also thirsty. Tomorrow will be positive emotions. I’m excited to see if I will have similar difficulties tomorrow.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 14

As you’ve probably heard, it’s quite cold in the Midwest today. Presently, it’s sunny in Chicago, and a balmy -11 degrees that feels like -35 with windchill. That means I’m relegated to my apartment for the day, and the landlord (who controls the heat) has cranked all of the building’s heaters up to the max, so I’m currently in only my shorts, and still quite warm.

Today’s sitting and breathing session was the first one in Week 3, which is largely focused on emotions. Today’s practice – titled Meditation on Emotions – involved sitting and focusing on my breath, and just sort of letting emotions happen. When they happened, I was to note them with a descriptor, and let them along by refocusing my attention on my breath.

I was particularly restless today. I have things on my to-do list that took up a lot of my attention largely because I’m excited about doing them. Also, I was sweating from man-made inferno of a space that is my bedroom right now. I felt it collecting on my palms, and along my brow; not enough to drip, but enough to be noteworthy. It made me want to move around more than usual while simultaneously lulling me to sleep while sitting up.

All of that said, I felt like I had the easiest time yet focusing on my breath today. It was very easy to fall into and continuously return to my breath throughout today’s session. Largely, I was in a very neutral emotional state throughout my practice. I was able to note when I was hit by infatuation when an object of affection popped into my mind, anxiousness and anticipation when I thought about the alarm going off to indicate the end of my sitting, or restlessness for any of the reasons I mentioned before.

At one point about fifteen minutes in, I almost nodded off, then jerked awake with a deep inhale. More deep, rapid breaths followed, as did an overwhelming anger that quickly morphed into panic. The panic gave way to sadness almost as fast, and I felt my face contort. I didn’t exactly hold back tears, but I didn’t exactly let myself get to tears, either. I mentally gave myself permission to cry if necessary, but my body didn’t seem to want to.

I let the emotion hang out for a minute while I investigated its physicality. After taking note of the welling in my chest, the light-headed feeling, and the increased heart rate, I brought my attention back to my breathing. It slowed, and I felt each of the muscles in my face relax again. I’m not sure what brought on that little moment, but I’m excited to learn more about it.

I also noticed that even with every other muscle in my body completely relaxed (except for the ones keeping my in the sitting position, I guess), I’ll unwittingly hold my tongue against the roof of my mouth. It seems to be a way for me to hold tension without anyone else seeing it, and I wonder if the literal holding of my tongue is a manifestation of a more metaphorical tongue-holding.

What is it that I’m not saying? Is that self-imposed silence causing the inexplicable tension or is it a byproduct? Moreover, was the rapid succession of emotions I felt an unearthing of sorts? Is there a sadness underlying the anger, frustration, and anxiety I experience more regularly?

Luckily, I’ll be spending quite a bit of time this week focusing on my emotions in my meditations. Hopefully some attentiveness will shed some light on some of the answers to those questions, if not this week, then eventually. Ya know, whenevs, no pressure.

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.