Secular Meditation: Sticking With It, Part 2 — Doing What You Like

In yesterday’s post, I talked about ways to stay with a meditation practice and to find the time and motivation and discipline to do it every day. Inspired by this comment from Lea, I want to add another “sticking with it” tip: Pick forms of meditation that you enjoy, that resonate with you, and that fit into your life — and notice when that changes, and go with it.

respiratory-systemWhen I first started meditating, I was doing lots of body scans. I found it easier to keep my focus when it was on something as specific as a particular part of my body — and when I was done, I felt very centered and connected with my body. As time went on, though, I found myself moving more towards breath meditations. Partly this is just because of the time issue: for me anyway, body scans take a while (45 minutes at least, unless I do a quickie), and I found them to be unpredictable in how long they’d take. If I was particularly unfocused that day, and my attention was drifting more than usual, it could take me an hour, an hour and a half, to get all the way from my feet to my head. (My record was two hours, although that was on a really bad day.) A breath meditation can fill any amount of time, which fits better with my irregular and action-packed life.

And partly, I’ve been preferring the breath meditation because I like how non-directional it is. The body scan sometimes feels just a bit… not goal-oriented exactly, but it definitely has a “start here, go from here to there to there, finish when you’re done” quality, which slightly defeats the purpose of being in the present moment.

So lately, my standard go-to form is the breath meditation. I do mix it up, though, depending on my mood and what’s going on in my life. I sometimes focus my awareness on my emotions (if I’m feeling particularly disconnected from them), or on listening to silence (if I’m feeling particularly jangled). I find movement meditations somewhat difficult, but I do walking meditations now and then. I still do body scans occasionally, if I have time: they really are a deep sensual pleasure. And I sometimes let my awareness drift to whatever it wants to drift to, working to stay present and conscious with whatever happens to be arising in my consciousness.

This seems to vary significantly from person to person. At the end of my original eight-week meditation class, when we were going around talking about what practice we were going to do and how we were going to stay with it, I was very struck by how widely varied people were in what form they were going to focus on.

Now, I have found value in at least sometimes doing forms of meditation that I don’t immediately resonate with. I noticed this a lot when I was taking the original eight-week course and trying lots of different forms: if I had resistance to a particular form, sometimes it was because there was something difficult going on in my life that I was shoving to the back burner but really needed to deal with. (The “sitting with my emotions” technique is a perfect example: it’s often very valuable indeed, but it’s often very hard to persuade myself to do it.)

Yoga pose A style of ChakrasanaBut sometimes, a technique didn’t work for me because it didn’t work for me. Yoga was a perfect example. I found yoga difficult because, due to assorted physical limitations (a bad knee, repetitive stress in my wrists), a number of the poses were just physically painful, and I had to sit them out. It wasn’t about having some deep pocket of resistance — it just didn’t work for me. If I want to do a movement-and-change meditation rather than a mediation that’s about stillness, I do a walking meditation, or an eating meditation. (Those are interesting — richly satisfying, but also weirdly challenging.)

This isn’t universally true for all forms of self-care. Some valuable forms of self-care are painful, difficult, or just boring. And if your meditation teacher or health care provider is advising you to stick with a particular form of meditation even though it’s difficult — and if you trust them — then go with that. But in general, we tend to stick with things for the long haul if we enjoy them. This should be obvious; but in our weird, Puritanically-rooted, “pleasure is bad and if it sucks it must be good for you” U.S. culture, I think we sometimes forget it. So I’m writing this as a reminder, mostly to myself. If I want to keep meditating for the long haul, it’ll help to pay attention to which forms I’m most enjoying, and to stick with them.

(Yoga pose: A style of Chakrasana image by Thamizhpparithi Maari, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Secular Meditation: “How do you stick with it?”

I’ve read about (and listened to podcasts about) mindfulness meditation and have tried it some… Unfortunately, what I’ve found is that I had a hard time continuing with the mindfulness practice and didn’t keep it up for long. Did you have a hump to get over when you first started? If you have a routine, how do you (or how did you at first) stick with it?

-mistertwo, in a comment on Secular Meditation: How It Helps With My Depression

When I write or talk about meditation, I get asked questions like this a fair amount. Lots of people are interested in meditation and mindfulness, as a mental health care technique or just as a way of staying calmer and more present in the world — but they don’t know how to find the time, or the motivation, or the discipline, or all three, to stick with it in the long run. Or else they’ve dabbled with it in the past, and found it valuable, but still didn’t stick with it. How do you stick with it?

This is a large and complicated question. In fact, it’s currently my own biggest challenge with the practice. I am meditating fairly regularly, about five days a week, but maintaining a regular meditation routine over the long haul — folding it into my everyday life, finding the time and motivation and discipline to do it every day (or almost every day) — is definitely a challenge.

So here are a few thoughts about how I keep up the practice, and how other people might.

clockAt the end of my eight-week meditation course, the teacher emphasized the importance of creating a regular routine. He said this was important if we wanted to keep up the practice and not let it fall through the cracks of a busy life: we should pick a particular form of meditation that works for us (a sitting/ breath meditation, a body scan, a walking meditation, a yoga or other body-motion meditation, etc.), and do it at the same time every day.

I think for a lot of people, this would be a really good idea. If you make meditating into something like showering or brushing your teeth — a self-care routine that you do every day, at the same time every day — eventually, doing it could become something you just… do. Instead of being an extra activity you have to fold into your life somehow, it could become one of the pillars of your life, something the rest of your daily activity gets folded around.

dali clockBut when my teacher recommended this, I knew right away that it wouldn’t work for me. My life just doesn’t look like that. My life is highly irregular, with a different schedule every day. There is almost nothing that I do at the same time every day: I wake up at different times, go to bed at different times, work and eat and bathe at different times. The only way I might meditate with anything resembling a regular schedule would be to do it when I first wake up or when I’m going to bed — and when I’ve tried those, I’ve just fallen asleep. But if you have a more regular life than mine (which most people do), this is probably a really good idea.

Another “stick with it” technique that the teacher suggested was to find a meditation group. For a lot of people, external social support helps them keep it up. Seeing the benefits other people are getting from the practice helps motivate them; it reinforces the activity as part of a group identity; they don’t want to disappoint their groupmates; and it helps it become a regular routine (“this is just what I do on Wednesday night”). It’s like having a Pilates class or a workout buddy.

Unfortunately, this wouldn’t work for me, either. In San Francisco, the only regular meditation groups that are open to the public are religious ones, or at least ones that have religious overtones or some sort of religious affiliation (generally Buddhist). Yes, I know that for a lot of atheists, this wouldn’t be a problem: if there’s something they find valuable that’s offered in a religious context, they can filter out the religious stuff or just shrug it off. (In fact, I have an atheist friend who goes to one of these meditation groups, one that’s in my neighborhood even, and she deals with the religious stuff fine.) And I get that secular Buddhism is a thing.

no i wont coexist with your delusionsBut for me, there is no freaking way. I’m not just a professional atheist — I’m a professional anti-theist. Religion is like itching powder for me. I can’t hear it without wanting to argue with it. So in a meditation group, the minute I started hearing anything about energy, chi, chakras, karma, spiritual paths, mystical cores, the sacred world, the inner divine, or the life force, I would be snapped right out of my breath focus and into profound irritation. The only present-moment awareness I would have would be the awareness of how religion is bullshit. Even if 95% of the guidance or teaching were entirely free of religion or spirituality stuff, once I started hearing it I’d be bracing myself for that other 5%. In principle, I would love to be in a meditation group — I’m not immune to the social support/ group identity/ not wanting to disappoint others thing. But until there’s a 100% secular, woo-free, non-religiously-affiliated meditation group in San Francisco, that’s just not an option. (There is an online one, but the timing is unfortunately not workable for me.)

And frankly, there’s an aesthetic of most meditation groups and centers that I find.. let’s say “off-putting.” There’s a reason I took my original course in a medical setting. I hear about somatic experiencing, the alchemy of letting go, our heart as a light emitting entity, the natural outer expression of realization, and the embodiment of awakening in our lives, and I immediately want to drink straight bourbon and crank up The Ramones. Fuck that noise. Fuck it right in the ass.

So what do I do to keep this practice up? [Read more...]

Secular Meditation: Meditation as a Pleasure

calendarWhen I write about meditation, I sometimes get asked how I maintain a regular meditation routine: how I find the motivation and the time to do it every day, how I fold it into my everyday life, how I keep it from slipping into the category of “interesting enthusiasms I once took up and then let slide when they weren’t shiny and new anymore.”

That’s a large and complicated question, one that I plan to write an entire post about. But there’s one particular piece of that puzzle that I want to write about today, one that I think gets under-addressed in writing about meditation.

It helps to remember that meditation is a pleasure.

Meditation isn’t just a mental health self-care technique. It isn’t just a philosophical discipline that helps me stay present in my life. Meditation is a pleasure. It’s a hard pleasure to describe, there isn’t very good language to express the experience — but I’m going to give it a shot.

My mind is jangled much of the time. At the best of times, my mind is an omnipresent chatterbox, a nearly-constant running commentary and analysis, speculating and planning and opining and imagining and writing to-do lists and coming up with ideas. At the worst of times, my mind is an omnipresent critic, judging and carping and worrying and nitpicking and coming up with worst-case scenarios. Whatever I’m doing or thinking, there’s almost always an observer, an internal project manager evaluating whether this is really the best use of my time and energy. My mind is almost always moving forward, towards something or away from something. And it almost never shuts up.

It is a pleasure to take a break from all that. It is a pleasure to really, really rest. It is a pleasure to stay fully present with the experience of rest, to let the experience of rest and stillness sink deeply into my brain and my bones. It is a pleasure to let go. It is a pleasure to do nothing — and to do a form of “nothing” that I can be guilt-free about, a form of “nothing” that counts as productive self-care. It is a pleasure to do a form of “nothing” that is, paradoxically but non-trivially, an activity. It is a pleasure to simply be still. It is a pleasure to simply be aware of the fact that I am conscious, and alive. It is a pleasure to simply be.

Leonardo_da_Vinci_-_Study_of_handsIt’s not just a mental or psychological pleasure, either. It’s a sensual pleasure, and a powerful one. Many meditation techniques involve focusing awareness on the body and on bodily functions: breath meditation is a classic technique, as is a body scan in which you focus awareness on each body part in turn. Other meditation and mindfulness techniques involve staying present with the sounds around you (including silence), with the food you’re eating (without the distraction of television or reading or whatnot), with walking, with body motions such as yoga, with other physical activities. And all of these are intense sensual pleasures. It is a pleasure to simply be with my body: not to do anything with it, not to produce anything or go anywhere with it, but to simply be with it, and to simply be it. As I wrote when I was first starting this practice:

When I’m meditating, and I find myself getting distracted by my own brain — and when I then return my focus to my knee or my ears or whatever part of my body I’m focusing on — the thought that’s been filtering into me as I settle back in is, “I am my body.” It’s almost becoming a secular mantra. I am my body. I am my knee, my belly, my fingers, my neck, every bit as much as I am my plans and ideas and fears and goals. In fact, my knee and my belly and my fingers and my neck are part and parcel of my plans and ideas and fears and goals: they’re not separate from them, they inform them and shape them, and are informed and shaped by them. They are intertwined, part of the same physical being.

That is an intensely sensual pleasure. Repeatedly reminding myself of my body — repeatedly reminding myself that I am my body — and repeatedly returning my focus to my body, continuing to be aware of it and to heighten my awareness of it, without feeling any obligation to do anything else but experience it… that is a profound sensual pleasure.

And there’s a state I get into when I meditate — not always, but sometimes, often enough — that I can only describe as “bliss.” It’s not an elated, ecstatic bliss — it’s more of a calm, quiet bliss — but it’s still bliss. It’s the bliss of… is “acceptance” the word? That’s not quite it: that implies complacency and letting go of the fight to change the world, and that is not it at all. (In fact, I’ve found that meditation gives me more energy to fight the bad, and gives my political anger a laser-like focus.) It’s not acceptance — but it’s something like acceptance. A temporary acceptance, maybe. Meditation is a space where, for roughly twenty minutes each day (sometimes more, sometimes less), I let myself stop fighting, stop trying to change things. I let the world be what it is; I let myself be what I am. And that feels — well, blissful. Almost by definition.

I’ll be honest: It isn’t always a pleasure. There are times when meditation is frustrating; when the chattering in my brain is unusually loud and persistent, and noticing the chatter so I can draw my focus away from it is unusually difficult. If I spend way more time in the “notice the distractions” part of meditating than I do in the “be aware of whatever I’m focusing my awareness on” part — it’s useful, it’s necessary, it’s good practice, but it’s not as much fun.

And if I’m working to stay present with my experience — and my present experience is anxious or restless or irritable or depressed — it can be very hard to stay with that, and not try to fix it, and to just let it be. It is one of the most valuable aspects of meditation — as I’ve written before, being willing to just sit with my depression is often very effective in alleviating it. But it’s not always easy or fun. I think this is part of why I sometimes resist meditating when my depression is bad, even though I know that it makes me feel better. To the degree that my depression serves a function (as opposed to just being a horrible brain fail), that function is to shut down emotions, to keep myself from feeling things that my brain thinks I can’t handle. When that’s happening, the very things that make me feel better — meditation, exercise, time outside, sex and masturbation, etc. — tend to be things that get me to feel whatever it is I’m feeling. And that can make those things hard to deal with. (At first, anyway.)

It isn’t always a pleasure. But it often is. And remembering this is a big part of what helps me keep doing it.

Related pieces:
Secular Meditation: Mindfulness and Sex
Secular Meditation: Flexible Discipline, Or, On Creating a Regular Practice in an Irregular Life

Secular Meditation: The Paradox of Focus, and Hey, What’s That Shiny Bead Over There?

camera lensSo if part of the point of secular meditation is to learn how to focus your awareness and not be distracted by a hundred things… how do you focus long enough to meditate in the first place?

I recently wrote a piece on doing secular meditation and on how — exactly — it’s helping with my depression. One of the things I talked about was how meditating is, literally, practice in shifting my focus — and how useful this is for managing depression in my everyday life. Quote:

So in my everyday life, if my awareness has drifted into something that tends to drop me into a cycle of depression (pessimistic thoughts, worst-case scenarios, terrible memories, etc.), it’s now easier to shift it into something else.

And a couple of people responded to this, saying that this sounded awesome — but how do you get enough focus in the first place to meditate at all?

My friend Susie Bright and I were talking about this on Facebook, and she said:

I like your emphasis on observing distractions gently and w/o judgement… But what do you suggest for relieving distraction going in, those first few minutes? I am overcome by them before I even get a chance to “judge” them!

And on my blog, mistertwo commented:

I’ve read about (and listened to podcasts about) mindfulness meditation and have tried it some. My depression isn’t bad and I’m not on medication for it, but I have a horrible problem with focus. For instance, I’m reading your blog right now instead of getting work done! If I have small things to do at work, I’m good, but anything that’s going to take time is hard to start, and hard to continue working on.

Unfortunately, what I’ve found is that I had a hard time continuing with the mindfulness practice and didn’t keep it up for long. Did you have a hump to get over when you first started? If you have a routine, how do you (or how did you at first) stick with it?

As far as using it at work, what I think I’m supposed to do is notice the distracting thoughts creeping into my head (hey, I could check my newsfeed right now!) and think to myself “that was a distracting thought, but I’m not going to act on it.” That sort-of worked a couple of times, but getting myself to do that all of the time is the problem. I need to practice so that I can use it, but I need more practice so that I can use it, , but I need more practice so that I can use it…

question-mark-signThis is a really, really good question. (People who’ve seen me do public speaking know that when I say something is a good question, it means that I don’t have an easy answer.) Yes, this is definitely a paradox/vicious circle/self-fulfilling prophecy. Some of the skills that you acquire from meditating regularly — sitting still for long periods, doing one thing at a time, observing yourself without judgment, focusing your awareness without distraction — are exactly the skills that you need to have to be able to meditate at all.

So I’ll speak for myself here, and talk about how this works for me – how it worked for me when I was first learning meditation about a year ago, and how it works for me now.

The simplest answer is that I did it badly until I got better at it. Except “badly” isn’t the right word: meditation is meditation, and I was taught that if I’m doing it, I’m doing it right. Instead, let’s say “less effectively.” It was harder at first to sit still; I was more judgmental and anxious about doing it right; my awareness drifted from my intended focus much more often and for longer stretches. When I was first learning how to meditate… well, here’s how I described it in an earlier post, Secular Meditation: I Am Who I Am:

“Focus on my right heel. My right heel. Jesus, I can’t believe that idiot commenter on AlterNet. Did I remember to pitch my AlterNet editor with that story idea… hm, I’m noticing that my attention is drifting. I’m gently returning the focus to my right heel. Right heel. Sole of my right foot. Sole of my… I haven’t returned that email from Charlie, I really need to do that. I wonder if Charlie would be interested in a workshop or a discussion group on mindfulness and sexuality? Who else would be interested in that? If I do that, should I do it as an in-person group in San Francisco, or an online group, or… no, this ISN’T what I’m focusing on right now. Crap. Observe that my attention has drifted onto this thought, LET THE THOUGHT GO already, return my focus to the sole of my right foot. Sole of the foot. Ankle. Notice that my ankle is a bit sore and tight… probably from the gym yesterday. Am I going to have time to go to the gym tomorrow? Maybe if I get caught up on my email and the messages in my Facebook inbox. You know, I haven’t done the Atheist Meme of the Day on Facebook in a while, I know people really liked that, but it was such a time-suck… GODDAMN IT, YOU STUPID FUCKING BRAIN, WILL YOU SHUT THE HELL UP AND LET ME FOCUS ON MY RIGHT ANKLE FOR TEN FUCKING SECONDS?!?!?”

Somehow, I don’t think that’s what my meditation teacher meant by “observe without judgment, and gently return.”

But I’ve been meditating for a little over a year now, and this has changed a fair amount. It’s not that I don’t still do this. I do, and I suspect that I always will. It’s just that I do it less. The balance between “focus” and “distraction” is somewhat more on the side of focus.

But yeah. It’s a paradox. The skills you need to help you get there are the very skills you’re trying to get.

But isn’t that true of a lot of things?

Greta and Ingrid waltzingRiding a bicycle is the classic example. How the hell do you even start to ride a bicycle when you don’t know how to stay up on a bicycle? And when Ingrid and I were first learning ballroom dancing, we had a lot of this kind of frustration. We were learning the Victorian rotary waltz (yes, we’re nerds), and if you don’t know how to do the rotation part of the rotary waltz, it’s difficult-to-impossible to do any waltzing at all. You can’t even begin to do it if you can’t do the rotation — but how do you learn the rotation if you can’t do even a little bit of it?

But we learned. We did it badly, and stumbled a lot… until we began to get the hang of it, and stumbled slightly less… until we got the hang of it more, and got barely competent…

And then the learning curve started to take off. Because that’s the flip side of this paradox. The better you get at something, the easier it is to practice and learn… and the easier it is to practice and learn, the better you get at it. Sucking at something is a self-perpetuating circle — but so is getting good at something.

And when it comes to meditation, there’s a distinct advantage over other activities — which is that there is no such thing as failing. In the Victorian rotary waltz, there is definitely such a thing as failing. Falling over, stepping on your partner’s feet, crashing into other couples, unexpectedly launching into the polka for no good reason — all of this, and more, constitutes failing. To some extent this isn’t quite true, if you’re having fun then you’re doing it right — but crashing into other couples and stepping on each other’s feet isn’t really that much fun.

But with meditation, “failing” is part of the practice. When I meditate, if I get distracted and have to pull my focus back every three seconds, or if my awareness drifts off into spinning thoughts or spacing out for ten minutes at a time… then that’s what happens. I notice it, I observe it without judgment — and I return my awareness to its intended focus. If I have to do this every three seconds, or if I do it twice in a session and spend the rest of the session spinning my wheels and spacing out, then I do. And the next time, I probably won’t do that as much. I’ll get distracted every five seconds instead of three, or I’ll space out for five minutes instead of ten.

That’s how the learning curve works. I have to let it be hard, until it’s less hard. And in this case, “letting it be hard” is, itself, part of the practice.

(As for the discipline to stick with it over time: That’s a different topic, although it’s related. I’ve written a little bit about it before — Secular Meditation: Flexible Discipline, Or, On Creating a Regular Practice in an Irregular Life — but I’ll get into it more in a future post. And yes, it is a tough nut to crack: in fact, it’s currently my own biggest challenge.)

Secular Meditation: Both Restful and Active (Something I Forgot In My Post on Meditation and Depression)

There’s something I forgot to mention in my previous post about secular meditation and depression. It’s one of the qualities of meditation that seems to help me with my depression — and frankly, just with my life. I strongly think this would be a useful thing even if I didn’t have depression. So I wanted to share with the rest of the class.

It’s this: Meditation is both restful and active.

Meditation fills my need for activity, for something to do. And it also fills my need for rest, for quiet time and down time.

Meditation is weird. It both is and is not an activity. When I meditate, all I’m doing is sitting quietly and being aware of my breath (or my body, or the silence in the room, or one of a few other things). And yet it’s not like lying on the sofa spacing out and thinking about whatever. It is a focused activity, requiring attention and concentration and conscious work.

So when I’m meditating, I feel like I am simultaneously resting and being active. And when I’m done meditating, I feel like I’ve gotten the benefits of both rest and activity. I feel calm and refreshed, the way I do when I’ve had good rest; I feel alert and engaged, the way I do when I’ve been happily and productively active. And I get that sense of having done something valuable, something worth doing, that I get from both rest and activity.

So what does this have to do with depression?

feet on balance beamWhen I’m having a depressive episode, or when I’m teetering on the brink of one, one of the hardest things to manage is the balance between rest and activity. If I’m not active enough, I get torpid and foggy, and I tend to fall into a vicious circle where I can’t muster the motivation or the energy to do the very things that would make me feel better. If I’m too active, I get overwhelmed and irritated and exhausted. In general, I’ve found that it’s best for me to err on the side of activity — but it’s a tricky balance even at the best of times, and when I’m having a depressive episode or am teetering on the brink of one, the range between “too much rest” and “too much activity” gets very narrow indeed. I have to be very careful to get it just right. It’s like walking on a balance beam, over an abyss.

And one of the hardest things about a depressive episode is that neither rest nor activity feels good. If I’m active, I feel tired and overwhelmed and groggy and like I want nothing more than to sink into my bed or my sofa. If I’m resting, I feel anxious and twitchy and like I should be doing something, anything at all, other than just sitting or lying there. Sometimes I even feel this as a physical twitching in my muscles, where every tiny ache or tension becomes intolerable and has to be relieved immediately. (I especially get that when I’m trying to fall asleep, which really and truly sucks.) It’s one of the defining characteristics of depression for me: literally no matter what I’m doing, it doesn’t feel right, and I want to be doing something else.

dreaming faceBut meditation feels right. It feels like I’m doing something, and it feels like I’m doing nothing. There is something about consciously focusing my intense awareness on the activity of doing nothing at all: it gives the nothingness a richness, a vividness, that lets me savor the experience of rest and really absorb it. (In fact, sometimes when I meditate, that’s what I focus my awareness on — the experience of rest. I sit quietly, and I say to myself, “Feel yourself resting. Let the restfulness sink into your muscles. Let it sink into your brain. Let yourself take it in.”) And when I finish, it’s the exact opposite of the depressed feeling, where I feel both restless and torpid: when I’m done meditating, I feel both rested and engaged.

It is hard sometimes. It’s hard to just sit with my twitchiness, my torpor, my sense that nothing is right. Especially at the beginning of a session. It’s sometimes excruciatingly hard: when my brain is screeching at me, “Do something else! Do something else! Whatever you’re doing, do something else!,” it can be excruciatingly hard to simply sit, to notice the screeching and observe it without judgment and continue to sit, quietly, doing nothing about it.

But I don’t think I have ever meditated during a depressive episode — or any other time, for that matter — and come out of it regretting it. I don’t think I have ever meditated during a depressive episode and not come out of it feeling better. Not cured, not perfect, not “depression all gone now” — but better. And I almost always come out of it feeling both like I’ve been doing engaging and productive work — and feeling like I’ve had a good night’s sleep.

Secular Meditation: How It Helps With My Depression

I’m going to preface this right off the bat by saying: I am not a doctor. I am not a therapist. I am not a mental health care professional, or indeed a health care professional of any kind. I’m just talking about myself here, and my own experiences. If these ideas resonate with you, and you’re thinking of trying this practice, talk with your mental health care provider. Also, while evidence does suggest that Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction can be an effective part of a treatment plan for depression, it is not a treatment all by itself, and it is not a substitute for therapy, medication, or other medical care.

Content note: Depression. Obviously. (Also note that this post has a somewhat different comment policy than usual: it’s at the end of the post.)

I was on Facebook a little while ago, and the subject of depression and mindfulness/ meditation came up. And someone (of course I now can’t remember who it was, or what their exact words were) said that they were baffled about how meditation could possibly help with depression. How, they wondered, could focusing their full awareness on their experience of the present moment do anything other than catapult them even deeper into the depression?

I can see that reaction. There is something counter-intuitive about this. Sure, there’s a reasonable amount of research suggesting that Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction can be an effective part of treatment for depression — but I can see how some people might go, “But how on earth would that even work?” So I want to write a little about how, exactly, using meditation to help manage my depression works for me. There’s almost certainly neurological and neuro-psychological stuff going on that I don’t know about or understand — but this is what my subjective experience of it is like.

camera lens1) Practice in shifting focus. I’ve written before that meditation is a practice — not in a vague woo-ish sense, but in the most literal sense of the word. It’s like practicing a tennis stroke, or practicing the piano. I set aside time to practice certain skills, so I can get better at those skills and use them when I want them or need them.

And among those skills is the ability to shift my focus. Much of what I do when I meditate — in fact, the core of what I do — is to focus my awareness on something (my breath, a part of my body, an activity); notice when my awareness has drifted away; observe this without judgment; and gently return my awareness to its intended focus. So in my everyday life, if my awareness has drifted into something that tends to drop me into a cycle of depression (pessimistic thoughts, worst-case scenarios, terrible memories, etc.), it’s now easier to shift it into something else. I am, literally, more practiced at moving my focus to where I want it. I’m far from perfect at it, but I’m better than I was. And that helps with my depression enormously.

no judgment2) Acknowledging my experience without judgment. One of the central features of MBSR meditation isn’t just focusing awareness on one object or experience — it’s noticing when that awareness has drifted, observing this drift without judgment, and gently returning the focus. And when it comes to helping with my depression, the “observe without judgment” part is, I think, almost as important as the “focus” part.

For me, a big part of what makes depression worse is judging myself for it. That can turn into a nasty feedback loop: I get down on myself for being unmotivated, torpid, self-destructive, etc…. and then that self-judgment makes me feel worse about myself, and adds to my depression… and then I get more unmotivated, torpid, self-destructive, etc…. and then I get down on myself for it… around and around and around. Depression can be very self-perpetuating, and a lot of what I’m looking for in depression treatments are ways to cut into these vicious circles.

And the “observe without judgment” part of meditation is one of those ways. When I notice that my awareness has drifted from my intended focus into feelings of torpor or pessimism or despair — and instead of hammering myself for that, I observe these feelings, acknowledge them without judgment, and return my focus to my breath or whatever — it’s extremely liberating. It doesn’t make the feelings of depression go away — but it makes them less all-encompassing. It makes the depression feel more like something I have, rather than something that has me, or that is me.

This even helps with the meta aspects of depression. If I notice that I’m getting down on myself for being depressed or for having a hard time keeping my focus where I want it… that’s also something I can observe, and acknowledge without judgment, before returning to my focus as best I can.

serenity-rock3) Letting my feelings be, instead of frantically trying to fix them. MBSR isn’t just about formal, set-aside meditation sessions. It’s also about being more present in everyday life. So in everyday life, if I’m having a moment where I’m feeling anxious or restless or sad for no reason, I’m now better able to just notice that, and acknowledge it, and let it be. I’m less likely to desperately search for the non-existent reasons behind my anxiety, restlessness, or sadness. And I’m less likely to immediately try to fix the feeling or distract myself from it.

I don’t know about any of you, but for me, the frantic search for things that make me feel better is often part of what makes me feel worse. (Especially since things that make me feel better in the short run — television, junk food, long stretches on Facebook — often make me feel worse in the long run, and even the medium run.) The frantic search to fix my feelings and perfect my life just makes me feel anxious. It makes me even more aware of all the ways that my life falls short of perfection. It makes me feel like there’s something wrong with me, because I feel anxious or restless or sad for no reason, and because I can’t find a way to make myself feel better. And it makes it nearly impossible to really savor, and really experience, the parts of my life that are wonderful and satisfying. (Plus, it’s just fucking exhausting.)

Since I’ve started practicing mindfulness, I’m better able to just sit with the anxiety, the restlessness, the sadness. I’m better able to let myself simply… have it. I’m better able to say to myself, “I’m just sad right now. I don’t know why. My brain sometimes gets sad for no real reason. I don’t have to fix this feeling. I don’t have to figure out what’s wrong. There isn’t anything wrong, other than the fact that I feel sad for no reason.” This doesn’t make the sadness or restlessness or anxiety go away. But it does help keep me from throwing gasoline on the flames. It helps keep me from adding self-judgment to the mix, or anxious and exhausting and utterly pointless attempts to find the non-existent problem and fix it. And that makes it easier for the anxiety or restlessness or sadness to pass. It doesn’t make the emotions better, exactly, but it helps keep me from making them worse.

question mark sign4) I don’t know how or why it works — it just does. Apart from everything I’ve been talking about here, there seems to be something going on, on a deep neurological and neuro-psychological level, when I meditate. I don’t know what, and I don’t know why. I just know that when I meditate, I feel better. I feel both calmer and more energetic. (Very much the opposite of depression, which tends to make me feel both twitchy and torpid.) I feel more focused. I feel more at peace.

Meditation helps with my depression in the long run and the middle run, in the sense that when I meditate every day, I’m less likely to get depressed, and my depressive episodes tend to be shorter and less severe. But it also helps in the short run, in the sense that if I felt depressed when I started meditating, I almost always feel less depressed when I’m done. I don’t entirely know why it helps me. I just know that it does.

Again — your mileage may vary. I really am just talking about my own experiences here. And again, if any of this resonates with you and you think you might like to try it, do talk with your mental health care provider, and remember that this is not a treatment all by itself, and it is not a substitute for therapy, medication, or other medical care.

Other posts that might interest you:
Some Thoughts on Secular Meditation and Depression/Anxiety
Secular Meditation: The Serenity to Accept What Could Be Changed, But Doesn’t Actually Need to Be
Secular Meditation: Formal and Everyday Practice

Comment policy for this post: It sucks that I should have to spell this out, but past experience has taught me that I do: Please do not give unsolicited amateur medical advice, to me or to anyone else with mental illness, in the comments. Or anywhere, for that matter. Talk about your own experiences until the cows come home; ask questions until you’re blue in the face (except for douchy passive-aggressive question like “Why don’t you understand that psych meds are poison?” or “Will you read this article explaining why psych meds are poison?”). If you need this spelled out in more detail, please read Why You Really, Seriously, No Fooling, Should Not Give Unsolicited Amateur Medical Advice to People with Mental Illness (Or to Anyone, Really), Episode 563,305. Thanks.

Secular Meditation: Mindfulness and Sex

silhouette lovers kissing on beachSo how might the principles and practices of secular mindfulness be applied to boffing?

In some ways, sex is a perfect arena to practice mindfulness. And in some ways, it’s really, really not. Not that it’s impossible or antithetical or anything. Just that it’s sometimes challenging, and counterintuitive, and complicated.

I’ll start with the ways that I’ve found this to be pretty straightforward. The basic idea behind mindfulness is to be as fully present in the moment as you can be: to consciously focus your awareness on a particular object or activity or experience, to notice when your awareness has wandered, to observe this wandering without judgment, and to gently draw your awareness back to the here and now and to the object/ activity/ experience you’re focusing on. And sex is an obvious, and obviously wonderful, arena for that.

In fact, there’s an established technique used by many sex therapists called “sensate focus”: a way of alleviating anxiety and self-consciousness during sex, in which people focus on and fully experience their immediate sensations rather than being goal-oriented about orgasm (their own, or their partner’s). Letting go of distractions, of judgments, of goals, of anxieties about those goals, and bringing your focus to the immediate sensation of a hand on your thigh, of fingers in your hair, of your own fingers on the curve of their hip… yeah. Hell, yeah. No argument from me. It’s a technique that’s often used for people with performance anxiety, for men with erectile dysfunction or women with problems reaching orgasm — but honestly, this can be a good time for pretty much anyone. And it can be used in masturbation just as well as in partner sex.

Seems pretty simple. Difficult or challenging to practice, perhaps, but the basic idea is pretty straightforward. So how could any of it be complicated, or counterintuitive?

Here’s the thing. For me, anyway. Sex is — how shall I put this? — a multi-media experience. It commonly involves all the senses. Or at least more than one or two. And it involves more than the senses: it involves emotions, memories, images, ideas, associations, psychological connections.

So if I’m working to be fully present with my immediate sexual experience, it begs the question: Which experience? The sensation of my fingers twining in her hair? The sensation of her fingers on my belly? Her scent? The taste of her skin? The sound of her breath? How her curves look in the dim light? The memory of the last time, when we did that other really filthy thing? The warm, spicy glow of deep love blended with skanky lechery? The tightening of my clit? The brightness in her eye as my eye catches hers? When all of this is going on at once — what do I stay present with?

strawberriesOf course, this is true for other experiences as well. Eating is the example that most obviously leaps to mind. Eating isn’t just about flavor: it’s about scent, sensation, sight, even sound. And it’s also about memories, associations, emotions, as well as sensations. And yet mindful eating — eating slowly, finishing each bite before starting the next, staying in the present moment and fully experiencing your food — is a classic mindfulness exercise. It’s almost a chestnut. (Mmmmm — chestnuts!)

Plus, in sex — sex with another person, anyway — I’m not just working to stay present with my own sensations and experiences. I’m working to stay present with my partner’s. (“Working” is maybe the wrong word, that makes it sound like a chore and it’s not in the slightest, but it’s the best I’ve come up with for now.) I’m working to be as richly aware of what’s happening with my own body as I can — and I’m also working to be richly aware of what’s happening with hers. How do I do both of these at once, while still staying focused on one thing at a time?

ultimate guide to sexual fantasy coverAnd how does fantasy play into all this? For many people, accepting and enjoying fantasies is a hugely important part of fully enjoying sex. But isn’t “fantasizing” the exact opposite of being in the present moment? If you’re having sex or masturbating, and you’re imagining that you’re getting spanked by a nun, that you’re having sex in Central Park, that you’re getting a blowjob from George Clooney — isn’t that the exact opposite of fully experiencing whatever sex you’re having right now? Even if the sex you’re having right now is with yourself? But I would never in a zillion years suggest, even to myself, that sexual fantasies are bad for sex, and that in order to more richly and fully experience sex, I should step away from having them. Fuck that noise. I mean, if I were indulging in fantasy at the expense of ever enjoying my body in the here and now, I might see a problem — but I’m not, so I don’t. So how does fantasy fit into all this? How does “enjoying sexual images that drift into one’s head, and deliberately entertaining them and getting off on them” fit in with “staying in the present moment during sex”?

Here’s how I’m working this out for myself. For now, anyway. In MBSR meditation, there’s one technique in which, rather than deliberately focusing your awareness on one object or activity or experience, you let your focus wander. As your awareness drifts from your breath, to your sore back, to the sound of the heater switching on, to your plans for tomorrow, to some fantasy or anxiety about tomorrow, to a grumbling in your belly, to your anxiety about your body shape, to your breath, to some philosophical train of thought about your breath and meditation, to the awareness of your tongue in your mouth… you let it drift. You follow it. And you stay present with all of it, as much as you can. The intent isn’t to keep your awareness focused on one thing. It’s to stay conscious, to stay present, with whatever your awareness wanders into.

When I’m working to be mindful during sex, I do a version of that. I let my focus wander: from sensation to sensation, from image to image, from one part of my body to another (whether I’m having partner sex or masturbating), from my own body to my partner’s (if I’m having partner sex and not masturbating), from the sting of a hand on my ass to assorted mental images I’m having about spankings, and back around again. And with each of these moments and experiences, I work to stay conscious of it, and to stay present with it, and to experience all of it, as fully as I can.

Now, if my awareness drifts into something that isn’t sex — if it starts to drift into anxieties about work, plans to redecorate the house, ideas for the new book I’m working on, some argument I’m having on the Internet — that’s when it’s time to notice that my awareness has wandered, and observe that without judgment, and gently bring my focus back to the present moment. Some piece of the present moment.

Any piece of the present moment will do.

Especially the really skanky ones.

Thoughts? If you’re doing a secular mindfulness practice, how do you incorporate sexuality into it — or incorporate it into sexuality?

Secular Meditation: Listening to Silence

There’s this meditation technique I’ve been using. It’s a little hard to talk about: not in the “painful or upsetting” sense of “hard to talk about,” but in the “literally difficult to find words” sense. But I’ve been finding it very valuable, so I thought I’d share with the rest of the class.

I’ve been calling it “listening to silence.” (Not a hugely original concept, I’m aware…)

earWhen I was at a daylong meditation retreat thing a few months ago, one of the “bringing our awareness into the present moment” techniques our teacher had us do was to listen: to be aware of the sounds around us, and to let our awareness change as the sounds changed. A couple/ few minutes into the session, the background noise of a heater in the room shut off… and the room was suddenly very, very quiet. I hadn’t even been aware of the sound of the heater until it stopped, but once it did, the absence of that sound was palpable. No heater, no traffic, no music or conversation drifting up from the street. Just… silence.

And I sat there, listening to it.

And ever since, I’ve been doing this on a semi-regular basis.

Here’s the thing. Most of the meditation techniques I use are fairly inward-focused: focusing my awareness on my breath, my body, my thoughts, my emotions and mood. But there are times when this doesn’t work very well. The chatterbox in my head is always somewhat hard to quiet, but sometimes it’s especially persistent — and when I’m doing an inwardly-focused meditation, my awareness tends to be drawn into the chatterbox even more than usual. The jump from “breath” or “body” or “mood” over to “whatever plans and fantasies and memories and anxieties and ideas for blog posts and opinions about TV shows my brain is churning out this second” is a pretty small one. It’s all stuff that’s going on inside the fairly small confines of my own skin, and my awareness is easily seduced from one to the other.

But when I focus on something external, like sounds, that jump is a bit bigger. It’s a bit easier to stay focused on whatever I’m focusing on, and I can do it for a bit longer, and it’s a bit easier to notice when I’ve become distracted and to pull my focus back. Of course I still get distracted, of course my awareness still gets sucked into the chatterbox — but when my focus is outside my self instead of inside it, the gravitational pull of the chatterbox is a little less powerful.

And when the room is really, really quiet… here’s where it gets hard to talk about. I mean, what is there to say about nothing? How can nothing be a thing to pay attention to? And yet, it is. When I draw my focus away from “chatterbox on autoplay” and listen to what’s around me, and I hear nothing, and I keep listening… the calming effect on my brain and my mood is powerful. It quiets the chatterbox like just about nothing else. It is an odd thing, though: secular meditation is very much about fully experiencing the present moment (for me, anyway, and for lots of other people practicing it), and there’s an odd paradox when the thing in the present moment that I’m experiencing is, literally, nothing. (A friend of mine who’s a secular Buddhist sometimes talks about “the union of emptiness and clarity,” and maybe that’s what this is about: a clearer perception and experience of nothingness?)

truckOf course, silence is almost never actually silent. I don’t meditate in a soundproof booth (although that might be interesting to try sometime). Of course sounds drift into the soundscape: the fridge turning on, a truck going by, a neighbor coming down the back stairs, Talisker making those mysterious yowling noises that sound like she’s being strangled but that really just mean she has a toy in her mouth and is parading it around the house. These sounds get folded into the meditation: I notice them, notice them pass, listen to the silence again. It’s something of a pleasure, actually: really listening to these sounds instead of having them be part of the backdrop. It’s like an experimental music composition or something, where ordinary sounds get turned into music simply by putting them in a particular order, or even simply by drawing attention to them. Concerto #4 with Distant Truck.

Even when the room is very quiet indeed, even when there’s no fridge or truck or neighbor or yowling cat, the silence is still rarely silent. When I listen closely to the silence, there are small sounds deep inside it: the house settling, leaves rustling in a slight breeze, my own stomach rumbling. I just have to listen really deeply: let my focus really sink into the silence, and hear the tiny sounds embedded in it. Which, of course, is much of the point of the whole exercise: that deep, conscious focus on the here and now.

And of course, silence itself can also have that quality of an experimental composition: the quality of music being created, not out of instruments or vocal cords or amplifiers, but out of attention. John Cage’s “4 Minutes and 33 Seconds,” and all.

Not sure where I’m going with this. Not sure if I’m going anywhere. Which I suppose is somewhat appropriate for writing about meditation and mindfulness and being in the present moment. I’m trying to come up with one of my trademark punchy conclusions, but it’s not coming, so I think I’m going to let that go and just let this trail off. Into, you know… silence.

Secular Meditation: “If you can’t meditate for twenty minutes a day…”

clock in hand“You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day — unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.” -Zen proverb

Almost as soon as I started meditating, I started hearing this proverb. It pops into my mind now and then: usually when I’m struggling with (or simply looking at) how to find time to practice every day, in a life that’s both overly packed and highly irregular.

Part of me gets it. And part of me thinks it’s totally classist, elitist, tone-deaf bullshit.

Part of me gets it. If my life is so packed with activity that I can’t find even twenty minutes to just sit still, then that’s a sign that I need to start scaling back. It’s a sign that the balance between activity and stillness in my life has gone haywire. It’s a sign that I’m taking on too much, and that I need to start saying “No” more often to more people. What’s more, if I’m telling myself that I don’t have time to meditate that day, it’s often a sign that there’s something I’m trying to avoid: some emotion or memory or anxiety that I’m furiously shoving into a corner with all my frenetic activity and that I know is going to start rising up the minute I sit down and start quietly focusing my awareness on my breath. And of course, there’s the little matter of priorities. If I can find time to dick around on Facebook or watch reruns of “Modern Family,” I can find time to meditate. For me, a big part of the point of meditation is to wean my brain off of needing constant stimulation and activity and input — so it’s worth looking at how much of the busy-ness of my life is legitimate and valuable, and how much is just generating noise to feed my sensation-junkie brain and distract me from uncomfortable truths that might come up in the silence.

So yes. Part of me gets this proverb, and resonates with it strongly.

gas station at nightBut part of me finds this proverb intensely irritating. There are an awful lot of people for whom a busy, action-packed life isn’t a luxury or a privilege, or even a choice. If you’re too busy to meditate for twenty minutes a day because you’re working one job at Wal-Mart and another at the gas station and you’re trying to get your car repaired and your laundry done and your kids to school, and you think this meditation thing might bring a modicum of calm to your life but you seriously have no idea how you’re going to find twenty spare minutes in your day to do it… is it really going to help for some smug Zen jackalope to tell you that (a) there’s something wrong with you because you don’t have twenty minutes of downtime in your day, and (b) the cure for what’s wrong with you is to find an hour of downtime in your day? With the implication of (b) being to loop around to (a) — that the lack of downtime in your life means there’s something wrong with you?

Fuck. That. Noise.

And even for me, who doesn’t work at the gas station or Wal-Mart… sure, there are plenty of times when “I don’t have twenty minutes a day to meditate” is crap, but there are some times when it’s legitimate. When I was in the final stages of finishing my upcoming book (“Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why”), pretty much everything other than the book got shoved onto the back burner. There were days when I didn’t shower, days when I didn’t leave the house, days when I didn’t see or even speak to another human being other than Ingrid, days when I took five minutes to make breakfast and another five to make lunch and ate at my computer. I got to the gym once in two months. Every spare minute that I had went into the book. What’s more, I was very socially isolated and in need of human contact (see above re: days when I didn’t leave the house): if I had twenty minutes to spare, I wanted to fill it with conversation or touch, not the sound of my own breath. It was a weird paradox: my ability to set aside distractions and stay single-mindedly focused on the book was very much aided by my meditation practice, but there were days when the practice was, itself, a distraction. I did keep it up (a freaking miracle, IMO), but there were a few days when I skipped it, and other days when I just did it for a few minutes, or crammed it in during stretches of enforced downtime. (On a bus? In a doctor’s waiting room? A fine time to squeeze in some focused awareness!)

And I did not need some long-dead Zen monk with no clue about the publishing industry scolding me for doing my meditation wrong.

(I also have an intense allergic reaction to writing about meditation that scolds people for doing it wrong. There’s a reason that almost all of my writing on this topic has been in the first person. A topic for another post, perhaps.)

I think my reaction to this proverb is so strong because the rightness of it is so right — and the wrongness is so wrong. There’s an important kernel of truth in there, and it’s one that I need to accept if I’m going to continue with this practice. If I let myself blow this off because life is hard, I’ll miss out on all the ways that it makes my life better. But there’s also a cluelessness in there, an out-of-touchness with human reality, that I not only can’t accept but don’t want to.

Not sure how I’m going to resolve this. For right now, for myself: If I’m thinking that I can’t sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day because I’m too busy, I try to take an honest look at what “too busy” means. And if “too busy” means “I’ve taken a careful look at my priorities and values, and today, twenty minutes of meditation just isn’t on that list”… then I meditate for ten minutes. Or five. During my full court press to finish the book, I found that even a five-minute meditation helped a lot in quieting my mind and restoring my focus… and it definitely helped me keep meditation as a near-daily habit, which I’ve resumed more fully now that the book is complete. If, on the other hand, “too busy” means “I can’t meditate, I have to blog about the Pope/ get my travel schedule into my calendar/ get my nails done/ fix people’s opinions on Facebook”… then yeah, okay. If I can’t meditate for twenty minutes a day because of all that, then I need to find a way to meditate for twenty minutes a day.

And if I can’t find a way to do that, then it wouldn’t be a bad idea to sit for an hour.

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.)