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Secular Meditation: As It Gets Easier, It Gets More Difficult

I’m running into an interesting paradox/ conundrum/ thing with my secular meditation practice.

I’ve been meditating regularly, almost every day, since April of this year. Unsurprisingly, as I continue to do it and to be a little more experienced with it, it’s been getting easier. Specifically, it’s become much easier to just sit still for twenty minutes, forty minutes, an hour. When I first started this practice, some of what I wanted to get out of it was, quote, “the ability to sit still” and “the ability to not constantly be either in motion or feeding my brain with stimulation.” And I’ve been getting that. When I started out with this, simply the act of sitting or lying still for twenty minutes or more was sometimes — okay, often — irritating and frustrating, a weird blend of boredom and restlessness with anxiety and wanting to ignore or escape whatever was coming up. I am now much more comfortable simply sitting quietly for longish stretches of time: not looking at my phone, not reading a book or a magazine, not surfing the Internet. I am much more comfortable now with just… being. And that’s true whether I’m meditating or not.

But there’s an interesting paradox/ conundrum/ thing. As the “just sitting or lying quietly for twenty minutes or more” part of meditation is getting easier… the actual “focusing my awareness on one thing, on my breathing or a scan of my body or whatever” part is getting more difficult.

See, back when the mere act of sitting quietly was enough to make me bored or restless or anxious, that boredom or restlessness or anxiety would snap me awake, make me realize that my attention and focus had drifted, make me realize that I needed to return my focus to my breath or whatever. Now that I don’t have that little alarm going off every minute or so, I’m finding that long stretches of my meditation sessions are taken up with… well, just spacing out. Thinking, or letting my thoughts drift, or rehearsing conversations, or writing essays in my head. All of which are perfectly wonderful things to do (well, except for the “rehearsing conversations” bit, more on that in a later post) — but none of which are actually meditating. None of which are focusing my awareness for a sustained period on one particular thing. I’m certainly glad to be more comfortable sitting still and spacing out… but that’s not what I want to be getting from meditation. Or rather, it’s not the only thing.

And without that little bit of anxiety or restlessness regularly creeping in and making me notice that my awareness has drifted, it’s more difficult to notice… well, that my awareness has drifted.

As the practice has become easier, it’s become more difficult.

I’m not sure what to do with this. I suspect the main thing I need to do with it is just notice it when it happens. Certainly with other aspects of meditation, I’ve gotten better at it with practice, and I suspect that with practice, my brain will find some other way to notice that it’s drifting.

But maybe I need to look at other meditation forms. Lately I’ve mostly been doing the breath meditation, which has a lot of advantages, but which does have the disadvantage of being more physically static than other forms. I might need to move to forms of meditation that are more in-motion: a walking meditation, or the body scan and moving my attention from one body part to another.

Not sure. Thinking out loud here. If you have experience with meditation… thoughts?

(This has nothing to do with the topic of the post, but I’m going to keep mentioning it in every post I write for a little while: The news from the Philippines in the wake of Haiyan is getting worse and worse. The death toll is rising, and thousands are without shelter, food and medicine. The Foundation Beyond Belief’s Crisis Response is supporting the relief and recovery efforts of Citizens’ Disaster Response Center. Please help if you can. Even small amounts add up.)

Comments

  1. Dunc says

    Yeah, it’s just another phase to get through. You’ve got the physical quietness, now you need to work on the (rather more difficult) mental quietness.

    Did you think it was going to be easy? ;)

  2. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    It’s a phase.

    Perhaps “candle” meditation would work. You place a candle at a comfortable distance and watch the flame.

    Alternating walking and sitting meditation also helps.

  3. Trebuchet says

    I’ve been sitting quietly for an hour or so every day for about three and a half years. Usually with a cat. I must confess, however, that it can be better described as “a nap” than meditation.

    Off topic: I saw you in the “Pale Blue Dot” video at the Bad Astronomer’s site today! You were of only four or five people I recognized. How did Jamie manage to get in there twice?

  4. Greta Christina says

    Did you think it was going to be easy? ;)

    Dunc @ #1: No. I just didn’t know in what precise way it would be difficult. :-)

  5. infiniteartsupplies says

    One of my meditation teachers described meditation as a bit like taking your mind for a walk as you would a dog on a leash. Your mind ̣*will* wander and dart off in all directions, because that’s what minds do. And even if these sojourns are lasting longer because you have become more comfortable with the exercise, that’s not a problem – just snap yourself back to your focus when you notice.

    Another good piece of advice I received is that there is no bad meditation as such; no need to judge yourself or to worry about if you are doing it right. You don’t even have to enjoy yourself. Just observe and see what’s there.

    Oh, and a straight, upright back helps against drowsiness. Hope that helps.

  6. Greta Christina says

    Another good piece of advice I received is that there is no bad meditation as such; no need to judge yourself or to worry about if you are doing it right. You don’t even have to enjoy yourself. Just observe and see what’s there.

    infiniteartsupplies @ #6: That’s a good point. It’s not so much that I think I’m doing it “wrong.” I get that whatever comes up during meditation is what comes up, and that accepting what comes up without judgment is part of the practice. It’s not that I think I’m doing it wrong. It’s that if I keep on doing it the way I’ve been doing it lately, I’m not going to get out of it what I want to.

    And thanks for the tip about the straight back. Also, thanks to others in this thread for suggestions and reassurance.

  7. says

    It’s not about doing it right. Just keep returning to the breathing. Whenever you notice that you’re not here and now, come back. In those moments when you are aware of the breathing, you have interrupted a process which usually continues “by itself” without your noticing it. And the process has momentum, like a huge flywheel, so it’s not easy to get a glimpse of life without it. If you persist, though, you will sometimes catch yourself winding up the wheel, and then you can choose not to.

  8. says

    And the best attitude to take about why you’re “doing” meditation, is that it’s its own reward. Do you play an instrument? Do you enjoy games? To the extent which you want to “get something out of ” meditation, you will inevitably be frustrated.

  9. Greta Christina says

    And the best attitude to take about why you’re “doing” meditation, is that it’s its own reward. Do you play an instrument? Do you enjoy games? To the extent which you want to “get something out of ” meditation, you will inevitably be frustrated.

    Vijen @ #9: You know, while I see your point here, I don’t actually agree with it. There are people who meditate to help manage clinical depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and other serious medical conditions. To a great extent, I’m one of them. It’s not so cool to tell people with clinical depression that they shouldn’t make managing it their top priority. Yes, to a great extent, the point of mindfulness is mindfulness itself — I’ve even written about that — but there are specific side benefits along the way that are not trivial, that are a major part of why I’m doing this and why other people are doing it. If the way I’m meditating is not getting me those benefits, I’m going to want to make adjustments.

  10. says

    @Greta #10: If you check the comments on the other post which you referenced, you will see that I discuss a shifting practice over the long-term. And in this post I said “best” not “only”.

  11. says

    @Greta #10: And I certainly did not intend any criticism of your current motivation. In fact, if you check back to the post (about 18 months ago?) where you were seeking effective remedies for depression, it was me who proposed meditation.

  12. Greta Christina says

    And in this post I said “best” not “only”.

    Vijen @ #11: But that’s still judgey. When you tell people that the “best” attitude to take towards meditation is not to focus on a goal they want to get out of it, and that if they do that they’ll “inevitably be frustrated” — and if that goal for them is alleviation of serious depression or anxiety — it comes off as kind of dismissive, and like you know what’s best for them better than they do. Even if that’s not your intention, it kind of reads that way. Your goals with meditation aren’t everyone’s, and your attitude towards it isn’t the best for everyone.

  13. says

    @Greta #13: I really recommend you go back and read my remarks on those two other posts. There is a context which you’re missing. Briefly: meditation can’t ultimately solve your problems, but it will change your understanding of who it is that has the problems; and surprisingly, that turns out to be much more valuable.

  14. Greta Christina says

    I really recommend you go back and read my remarks on those two other posts.

    Vijen @ #14: I really recommend that you go back and read over your comments in this thread, from the point of view of someone who is suffering from clinical depression or anxiety or chronic pain or other serious medical conditions, and who is pursing meditation and mindfulness as a way of alleviating their suffering from these conditions (not “solving” them, alleviating them)… and who sees someone saying that if they’re pursing meditation to help them manage these conditions, they don’t have the “best attitude” and will “inevitably be frustrated.” (And who doesn’t necessarily want to go digging around for your other comments on other posts to better understand the nuance of what you’re saying now.)

    Briefly: meditation can’t ultimately solve your problems, but it will change your understanding of who it is that has the problems; and surprisingly, that turns out to be much more valuable.

    Yes, there are some paradoxes with this practice: there are effects you’re likely to get from it and these are what bring many people to it, but the actual practice isn’t goal-oriented. But again: It’s not so helpful to tell other people what is or is not valuable about this practice for them, or what their priorities with it should be.

  15. says

    Hi Ms. Christina,
    I have been working with meditation for similar reasons as you and my perception of meditation is a little different.

    Major issues in my life over the last four years have given me reason to try to learn as much about how brain anatomy gives rise to consciousness as I can (I lost a science career due to tourette syndrome and adult ADHD). The neat thing is that I keep running into meditation information from time to time as I do my reading. I’m no expert, but I have some general opinions on how one should approach meditation based on developing as much of a neuroanatomical view of meditation as I can.

    The short version is that you want to choose a practice (or even make one up) based on your specific cognitive goals. This can be anything from what you have already worked on, to things like “ignore pain”, “ignore intense annoyance from Republicans” and whatever else you define. What matters is finding a way to do sustained practice that develops your specific cognitive goals. You don’t have to just take your brain for a walk, you can jog, run, and maybe learn martial arts.

    If I can give you a little relevant information about how I intersect with mediation I might be able to give you an example of what I mean.
    I too have had,

    “‘the ability to sit still’ and ‘the ability to not constantly be either in motion or feeding my brain with stimulation.’”

    …as goals. The TS has made this difficult (urges to tic can be painful and there are lots of other weird cognitive effects from the reduction in cognitive inhibition), but I have improved.
    Oddly just having tourette syndrome has made the problem,

    …the actual “focusing my awareness on one thing, on my breathing or a scan of my body or whatever” part is getting more difficult.

    …a non issue in interesting ways. It turns out TS has given me a sort of frontloaded “cheat sheet” in that area. There is a growing body of literature that shows that children and adults with TS have a greater awareness of the “Internal Milieu” as the internal perception of one’s body and inner impulses is often called.
    Towards objectively quantifying sensory hypersensitivity: a pilot study of the “Ariana effect”.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23940834
    I don’t assume that I have anything like a complete awareness, but it’s nice to have an advantage. So I don’t really need to try to create or maintain body awareness with much effort since I almost have an internal metronome to focus on if I want. There are connections I could make tying mindfulness meditation observations to cognitive changes and activity in brain regions (such as the Insular cortex) that are also involved in awareness alterations in TS (there are correlations between “urge-to-X” as a system and Insular cortex activity in TS).

    So what am I trying to get out of meditation? Well honestly I’m learning to decrease sensitivity to the increases in emotional intensity that I have. I’m trying to burn through my ADHD problems by eventually learning to ignore the urge to redirect attention from a focus. I’m trying to learn to keep my focus even when presented with an emotionally stimulating phenomena that might make me experience rage or other intense feelings because they are always set to 7-10 in my head instead of a normal persons 1-10.

    So you should probably ask yourself what you want to improve in terms of cognitive function and how you might go about creating sustained practice that will build that function. It’s a VERY broad definition of meditation, but it’s based on brains instead of culture. Culture just accents things that can be given more information explanations.

  16. Receptive Observer says

    When I used to do Breathing Meditation, I followed a simple rule that was very useful: take it one breath at a time. Instead of looking at the meditation as focusing on your breathing the entire time, simply attend to your current breath. Don’t concern yourself with how focused you were on your past breaths. Don’t worry about how focused you will be on your future breaths. All that matters is your current breath, which will be slowly replaced by the next one.

    A simple rule like this helps you to be rooted in the present moment, which is what mindfulness is all about. Plus, it helps you to be patient. I found that time seems to go surprisingly fast when I meditate on my breathing this way!

    I hope this helps!

  17. ikkyu says

    Like other people in the comments, I agree that you will find that you will get better at your new meditation goal over time. Just keep going. Coming from a Zen background there is this always this conflict between having a goal vs not having a goal in meditation. But at this early stage its pointless to worry about it. People always have a goal in mind when starting to meditate and everyone needs it as motivation. As time goes by your goals will shift because you will get better at it. The notion of a goal-less practice is only useful to “advanced” practitioners. At some stage the only way to “advance” might be to drop the whole idea of goals and advancement. But actually is not really you “dropping” those ideas they just go away by themselves.
    Something that might help is sitting with a group of like minded folk. Non-religious sitting groups do exist.
    You may be lucky enough to live near one. I find that sitting in a group once in a while does wonders for motivation and talking with experienced practitioners about these issues helps. But I get the feeling you already have a good community online to help you along so its all good. Best wishes.

  18. knuelch says

    I’m not certain whether this is the right place: But can someone recommend some nice book or the like on getting into MBSR? I don’t really have any courses or the like nearby, and am wondering where I could get a good, practical overview of practices and techniques.

  19. Greta Christina says

    I’m not certain whether this is the right place: But can someone recommend some nice book or the like on getting into MBSR? I don’t really have any courses or the like nearby, and am wondering where I could get a good, practical overview of practices and techniques.

    knuelch @ #19: A good place to start is the Present Moment Mindfulness website and podcast. They have basic instructions on meditation, a community forum, an online practice circle, podcasts, and more — all from a totally secular perspective.

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