Things are going really well. I’m feeling fully present in the moment, mindful of physical sensations, my thoughts, and my feelings. I am calm, and I feel a wonderful sense of focus. Then the bell sounds on my Insight Timer app, signaling the end of my time on the cushion, and the beginning of the real work.
It took me a while after beginning my meditation practice to realize that I couldn’t really compartmentalize my daily life from my practice. I still lose sight of this truth frequently. I had a pretty rough weekend last weekend, filled with a relapse of some bad mental habits that I had generally seen diminishing over the last year. I really let my monkey mind go wild for several days in a row. I have been dealing with the chaos of some fairly major life changes recently, and although I have been staying consistent with my seated meditation practice every day, I have let a lot of the supporting mindfulness activities that I’ve been practicing slip. The results were several days of wall-to-wall mental proliferation, the likes of which I haven’t seen in a couple of years. Let me tell you, it didn’t make for a very pleasant experience.
Although I was somewhat aware of what I was doing during my weekend dukkha-fest, at no point was I truly mindful. I watched my mind pinball around, hurtling from one anxiety to another. All the time I kept telling myself that I needed to be mindful, but never worked up the intention to actually practice mindfulness. It wasn’t until Monday morning that I woke up and realized, “you’ve been driving yourself crazy all weekend, and it’s time to stop.” Monday was still a little rough, but I consciously focused on being present throughout the day. I would catch the monkey starting to get a little rowdy, and I’d turn my attention to it, watch what it was doing and be mindful not to feed it. Several times I watched as my anxious thoughts arose, noting that “this is insecurity” or “this is anxiety”, than observe as they slowly played out their half-life and passed by.
I have had more times of struggling with my emotions and anxiety throughout the week, but I have also had some really nice moments of awareness. The important change for me has been to purposefully bring my practice off of the cushion again. Our time on the cushion is training to strengthen the muscles that we use in the real practice, which is our lives. Just sitting will not get you anywhere in the liberation game if you allow the work to stop there. It’s out in the world where we find the real opportunity to experience freedom from our suffering. All of our life is our practice.
I am not my thoughts. It might sound dramatic, but this simple combination of words might have saved my life.
There is a voice that speaks to each of us from within our own minds. This voice speaks with authority and certainty, often building superficial edifices atop the foundations of our lived experience. These stories that the voice crafts can take on a variety of tenors, but for many of us, they tend toward rumination on our inadequacies and mistakes. This is the voice of our inner critic, and for most of my life I have believed that this voice was me.
Early in my life I was taught to neatly divide the world into dualistic categories. Things were either right or wrong; righteous or sinful. I first noticed my inner critic as the voice that would let me know what a worthless sinner I was. “Man, you are a horrible person,” the voice would tell me. “I can’t believe you are thinking about that.” My inner critic extended beyond my moral failings, however. The voice would churn over whether something I had said had caused someone to dislike me. It would criticize me for my appearance, and for not being “cool” enough. It even paralyzed me from taking certain positive actions, because I would craft some long chain of events that my action could set into motion.
There have been a couple of times in my life when my relationship with this voice has taken me into a dark place. Once, in my early 20s, I was struggling with loneliness and some really difficult circumstances, including a brief period of homelessness. Into the void in which I felt trapped came the voice, telling me that I was a fuck up who had ruined his life, and that I would never escape from this hole. It told me that all of my friends had left me because they couldn’t stand to be around me anymore. I believed every word that the voice spoke to me. Thankfully, things did get better, and I came out of the experience without harming myself too much.
A couple of years ago, when I first started having real problems in my marriage, the voice took me to a dark place again. I had built so much of my identity on this relationship, that I began to lose myself when things began to crumble. The voice began to tell me that I was going to live the rest of my life alone. It told me that I wasn’t worthy of anyone’s love. I heard the phrase, “I hate myself,” repeated on a nearly constant loop. This time, I began to think that everyone’s life would be better without me in it. Again, I believed every word that this voice spoke to me.
This was my state of mind when I first discovered meditation. I want to be clear from the beginning, I don’t believe that meditation is a panacea that will solve all your problems. The truth is that I should have pursued help during this period of my life. I wallowed in this state for nearly a year, when I probably could have eased some of my suffering by going into therapy, or at very least opening up to some of the people around me. That being said, one of the first things that I learned as I began to meditate did completely change my life. In fact, given the trajectory that I was on, it might very well have saved my life.
When I first heard the phrase “you are not your thoughts,” I felt like I had come into shelter from standing in the middle of a tornado. I broke down in tears. The realization that this voice that had plagued me my entire life was just a thought, and that I could just acknowledge its presence and watch the words fade away without accepting them as truth, was liberating in a way that I had never experienced. I didn’t create these thoughts, they just sort of happened to me. Why did I take ownership of them? Why did I believe these thoughts?
I began to practice noticing when the voice started to speak to me. I worked on not trying to fight the voice, but just to notice it, watching it live out its half-life and slowly fade away. By not pushing it away or latching onto it, I noticed that the voice seemed to lose a lot of its power over time. The thoughts didn’t completely go away, but I didn’t feel owned by them as often.
Whenever people ask me about how meditation has benefitted me, it can be hard to know what changes to attribute to my practice. My life has changed in a lot of positive ways over the last couple of years, but I don’t think I can specifically pinpoint what things have caused my growth in different areas. I have read a number of really great books from a variety of perspectives that have informed my thoughts recently. I’m also just a little older and have benefited from lessons that experience has taught me. The one thing that I can definitely attribute to meditation, however, is the relationship that I have with my inner critic. The ability to less frequently attach to this voice has helped me be more compassionate with myself. I don’t really catch myself descending the downward spiral like I used to. When I do start to listen to that voice berating me, I tend to catch myself before I get too far along the path of self-judgement and recrimination.
I am not an expert on meditation, so this is just me sharing what my personal experience has been. This is the basic practice that helped me initially. I’m happy to discuss this further with anyone, so please feel free to comment below, email or tweet me if you have questions or comments.
I have found that having a regular meditation practice is a key component to strengthening the ability to notice the thoughts as they arise. The basic concentration practice that I used was simply to focus on the feeling of the breath going in an out. I start of with a soft mental note of “in” on the in breath, and “out” on the out breath. Eventually (sometimes within a single breath, sometimes longer), you will become distracted by a thought popping into your head. This might take the form of thinking about a situation at work, fantasizing about that person you have been thinking about asking out, or thinking about how uncomfortable you are on your cushion; it can be any of the countless thoughts that come into our minds throughout the day. When you notice that the thought has arisen, note it softly as, “thinking.” Then return your focus to the feeling of your breath. Repeat as often as necessary. No need to judge yourself or get frustrated. This is how meditation works for all of us, so no reason to beat yourself up, no matter how often you get distracted.
After establishing this practice, I started to apply the same technique off of the cushion. Throughout the day I might notice that my inner critic has made an appearance. When I noticed that old voice chiming in again, I just noted that I was “thinking,” took a beat to watch the thoughts play out and disappear, and then moved on with my life.
My hope is that my experience can help someone else who might be experiencing the same thing I did. May you have peace and live with ease!
I haven’t always loved hiking. I have tried to at various points in my life. I spent some time in Denver back in the 90s, and I remember buying boots to hike in, but I mostly just wore them as part of the Colorado uniform. I think I loved the idea of hiking, but wasn’t so much into the actual reality of hiking. A few years ago, that slowly started to change, and I now find getting out on the trail to be one of my favorite ways to reconnect with myself and with the world around me.
I first started hiking the trails around Spokane about three years ago as a part of a big exercise kick. I liked it more than running, and there are an amazing amount of trails nearby. I wouldn’t say that I initially got much connection to nature out of hiking. I mean, there was always something about the views that I would connect to, but I would always have my headphones in when I would hike, always listening to a book or a podcast. In fact, I just went for a hike on a trail yesterday that I can remember listening to my first book about meditation on a little over a year ago. During this period, I began to really enjoy hiking, but it wasn’t until I began my mindfulness practice that I took the headphones out and developed a true love for being in nature.
Prior to discovering meditation and mindfulness, I obsessively avoided moments that were free of stimulation. I always had to be listening to something, watching something, playing something, reading something, or doing something. In fact, most of the time, I refused to limit myself to a single thing. In hindsight, I can see that I was afraid to be alone with silence, because that would be the moment that I would have to deal with my thoughts. In meditation, I found that I actually could sit in silent stillness and be okay. As I dug deeper into mindfulness, I found that I could actually experience a lot of joy in doing one thing at a time, and engaging fully with that one thing. This discovery was so revelatory to me that I wanted to keep following the path deeper to see what I would find.
One of my favorite local trails is about a nine mile loop that has an amazing variety of scenery, and culminates in a beautiful waterfall at the top of the trail. When I first decided to hike this trail without my headphones, I was actually a little worried that I would freak out about the silence over the course of the relatively long hike. Instead, I found that the combination of my recent mindfulness practice and the lack of superfluous stimuli helped me to experience things that I hadn’t noticed on my previous times on the trail. I heard the songs of numerous bird species, smelled the various aromas of the forest, and observed little white butterflies flitting around the floor of the trail. Not only that, but my practice of mindful breathing was helping me to take the initial steps toward a presence in my body that I had never had (On first hearing the James Joyce line, “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body,” I was sure that it had been written specifically about me.)
There is a quote from meditation and Dharma teacher, Mark Coleman, that really resonates with what I experienced as I opened myself to being more present in my time outdoors. Coleman says, “Nature teaches us simplicity, because in its presence we realize we need very little to be happy.” We have so many tools that we use to distance ourselves from the natural world. There are many benefits that we get from our technology, but we have also learned to cling to it as a mechanism for our happiness. The problem is, whatever happiness we derive from our various distractions is fleeting, a hungry ghost that requires that we constantly consume more and more to keep the buzz going. Being in nature strips that away and shows us that, however nice our modern technologies are, they are not essential for our happiness.
Yesterday, as I walked the trail, I allowed my awareness to open to whatever was arising around me. The field of sensation was so rich, and I thought back to how much of this I would have missed in the past. It made me feel grateful to truly be there in that moment, hearing, seeing, smelling, feeling, and simply being.
This spring I spent a weekend camping at Sullivan Lake, a beautiful and peaceful spot about two hours drive from Spokane, WA. I set out on the trip with the intention to practice mindfulness throughout the trip. This effort was aided by the fact that I would be spending 3+ days without any cell phone coverage.
I had been spending my time on the cushion practicing the Anapanasati Sutta around that time, and had been specifically focusing on impermanence. Every morning during my ad hoc self retreat, I would go down to the lake and sit on the beach and meditate before the other campers were stirring. The wind had been blowing pretty hard most of the first couple of days, but I was delighted to discover that all was calm when I went to sit on the third day. I generally meditate with my eyes closed, but I had decided to practice that day with my eyes open, incorporating vision into my field of awareness. After a while, I felt a slight breeze blowing across the hair on my arms and legs. Shortly thereafter I saw slight ripples disturbing the surface, traveling from one side of the lake to the other, and then the water gradually subsiding back into it’s previous serenity.
Still morning waters Hills reflect on the surface Ripple with movement
My Sullivan Lake Haiku
As I sat taking in this scene, I realized that my mind was similar to this lake. I have within me a stillness that I hadn’t recognized until about a year ago, when I was constantly being helplessly blown about by various thoughts, desires, and aversions. In my practice, I have found moments of stillness, but I still experience the winds blowing across my surface. These winds arise and they pass, and as they do I am more often able to observe them mindfully. I am by no means free of their push and pull, but I have seen the stillness and know that it is there.
When I was a young twenty-something, besotted with the writing of the Beats and of Chuck Palahniuk, I bough myself a Moleskin notebook to carry around with me everywhere I went. This accessory (combined with my Gauloises cigarettes) was partially proof to the outside world that I was a man of depth, and partially a legitimate tool for me to begin writing my own poetry and short stories. My poetry was shit, but I like to think that some of my short stories were half-way decent for a person who had never really done any writing. At some point, I began to see a thread in my writing. I would often use the image of the protagonist taking a drag on a cigarette as a symbol of resignation. The most clear example of this was the following paragraph –
I stood out on the sidewalk, gingerly fingering a lump on my neck that had appeared a couple of days ago. ‘What is this thing?’ I asked nobody. ‘It’s probably cancer. That’s fucking great, I have cancer now. I’ll probably die alone from throat cancer.’ I took a drag of my cigarette. ‘I guess I could go to the doctor and have him look at it. Nah, I’m not going to pay some fucking doctor just to tell me I have cancer. Fuck it.’ I flicked the butt into the street and went back inside.
Some random thing i wrote
First, I would like to say that looking at this now, I am surprised to find that I unwittingly wrote a perfect example of Papancha (proliferation of the mind) many years before learning what it was that I was describing.
Secondly, I think this is a good way for me to set up the contrast between acceptance and resignation. In a tweet I posted recently, I said –
Acceptance doesn't mean resignation. We can accept things as they are, without being resigned to them staying that way. In fact, that acceptance helps us to see the most skillful way to respond to our circumstances.
I had a lot of different directions that this thought was going in my mind. One of my new Twitter friends, Duane Toops, followed this up with a great post that captures part of what I was thinking. He did a great job covering this, so you should read his post, and I won’t go too in depth on this part. The short version is that we all have things that we find difficult to accept in ourselves. We need to learn to accept the truth about ourselves to grow as people and to skillfully make choices and deal with our life. The key thing is that accepting doesn’t mean that we have to be resigned to those areas not changing.
There were two other directions that I was exploring when I posted that tweet, the first being my approach to my practice, and the second being my approach to the outside world.
Acceptance in My Practice
I am still learning to see my practice as being a fluid and impermanent thing. It isn’t a straight line. It is a squiggly zig-zag, filled with ups and downs. I have recently found some rigidity creeping into my sittings, which is naturally accompanied by less ease and friendliness. I can get frustrated that I am not concentrating as well as I would like. I am finding that part of the reason for both my frustration as well for the actual cause of my frustration, is that I am bringing a lot of expectations and unnecessary striving into my time on the cushion. I have not been approaching my practice with friendly acceptance for what it has to bring. Over the last week I have been trying to approach my time in meditation with a spirit of acceptance. That doesn’t mean that I am not applying effort to continuing to improve my practice, merely that I am trying to accept that this is what my practice is like in this moment.
Acceptance in the Public Arena and Politics
With everything that has been going on in the world recently, this one has been a real problem for me. How can we accept the inaction of our government (speaking as an American) on issues like climate change and gun violence? This is where the concept of acceptance vs resignation really starts to get tricky.
In the wake of two days in a row where I encountered news of mass shootings in our country, it was not easy to accept what was happening. I could feel my heart racing and tension building up with anger that this is continuing to happen with such regularity. Working with accepting what was arising internally helped me begin to accept what was happening externally, which lead to my anger turning to compassion for the people in El Paso and Dayton who are dealing with the pain of what has happened in their communities. It also directed my energy toward the question of what I could do to effect change. This wasn’t resignation, it was acceptance of the reality of the circumstances that exist and an exploration of how to skillfully deal with those circumstances.
This process is not easy, and we do have to be mindful to avoid the trap of confusing resignation for acceptance, but it is the only way that we can skillfully respond. In order to determine how to best fight the battle, you have to understand the battlefield. Not accepting leads to reaction, while acceptance can guide us toward skillful and effective response.
I’ve talked a little in a previous post about how difficulty in my personal life originally brought me to meditation. Discovering these practices helped pull me out of a dark period of my life, and have continued to be useful to me as a means of confronting difficult emotions and the events that lead to them. As I continue to work through some of these issues, I have seen that there is a difference between using my practice to skillfully face the things that arise in my life, and in turning to my practice as a means to numb myself to them.
As a culmination of a two year process, my wife and I recently came to an agreement that we would be separating. Although the events of the last couple of years have already caused me to deal with many of the most painful parts of this experience, this has still been a difficult development for me. I have been determined to be present with my sadness, anger, and the plethora of other emotions that I have been feeling this time around. In talking to my meditation and Dharma teacher this week, she brought up the fact that I needed to remain mindful not to use my practice as a means to numb what I’m feeling. I can honestly say that I haven’t been doing that to this point, but the reminder that this can be a seductive choice is a valuable one.
Looking back at my practice over the last couple of years, I can definitely see times when I used meditation as a means of getting over some difficult emotion or another. Joseph Goldstein often refers to this type of behavior as being an example of “in-order-to mind.” I am focusing on my breath in-order-to calm down my feelings of anger, or running to my cushion in-order-to get past my depressed feeling. In fact, my initial foray into meditation was all predicated on the idea that it could help me get over my depression and anxiety. While this kind of practice did sometimes give me temporary relief, it didn’t really treat the actual diseases of greed, hatred, and delusion, which manifested themselves in my sadness and fear.
In working with the Fifth Precept, I’ve discovered that my practice can become an unexpected intoxicant that can cloud my mind. True mindfulness requires that I be aware of my difficult emotions, engaging with them fully. While relief from suffering can thankfully be a side effect of this practice, the real benefit is in growing in liberation from the root causes of my suffering. When we use our practice to avoid our feelings, we are basically just putting them on layaway, where we will eventually have to pick them up, and often the payment will have interest applied.
Every morning as I say the words, “I undertake to abstain from intoxicants that cloud the mind,” I have been examining my intentions to watch for the desire to escape my feelings in my practice. I don’t want to avoid these feelings. I want to be present with them, and learn what they have to teach me. This is all part of my path.
For the last year or so I have been trying to start and end each day with a little journaling. Consistency in this endeavor has been spotty, but I do the best I can. As a part of this habit, I have a gratitude list that I write in the morning. Most mornings I start with a simple phrase that has become a bit of a mantra for me; “Beginning again.”
I first started incorporating this phrase into my life shortly after I began meditating. I noticed that several of the people who I was reading would describe the basic meditation practice as some variation of, “Sit with your back straight, focus on the feel of your breath going in and out, then notice whenever you get distracted, gently return your attention to your breath, and begin again.” The idea that I could begin again at any moment was so at odds with the way that I was raised, and I found the concept liberating in a way that I hadn’t expected.
It is not uncommon to hear about “Catholic guilt,” but the guilt of those of us who grew up as Evangelical Christians hasn’t gotten as much press. I learned early on that I was a sinner, and that every sin that I committed was responsible for putting Jesus on the cross. That’s a lot for a kid to deal with, and as I went through life, I accumulated a collection of sins that weighed on me like an anchor. The guilt really got out of control around puberty, as I discovered a minefield of sexuality that had me spending countless wakeful nights lamenting the lustful thoughts that I had experienced during the day, fearful that I couldn’t be forgiven for such persistent sin.
I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t have a voice in my head that loudly and constantly told me I was a horrible person. I know the voice was there by the time I was 12 or so, because I can remember specific incidents where I would cuss out the kid down the street or lie to my parents, and would spend hours thinking about what a bad person I was, and that I was probably going to hell. As I grew older, the voice only got louder, and had begun to berate me for various other inadequacies, and not just my sins. I felt hopelessly caught in a loop of the same mistakes, and I had begun to genuinely hate myself.
We all have this type of voice in our head, although the contents and severity of this inner critic varies from person to person. This voice will tell us that we aren’t good enough, or that we are a fuck-up. It might compare what we have to what someone else has, or cast judgmental aspersions on someone we pass on the street. The thing is, we are not our thoughts.
I was thoroughly convinced throughout my whole life that this voice in my head was me, stating the facts about who I was. The very first lesson that I learned from my meditation practice was that those thoughts aren’t me. They are just thoughts, and I can notice when they are arising, watch them float by, and begin again. Not only that, I can apply the same practice off of the cushion. For instance, as a part of my 31 Day Precept Project, I have committed to eating a vegan diet. Somehow, when I ordered a butterscotch latte at the coffee shop yesterday (with oat milk, by the way,) it didn’t occur to me that butterscotch was not vegan. It has BUTTER in the name for crying out loud! In the old days, I would have beat myself up for failing in my quest for dietary perfection. Instead, I accepted that it was an honest mistake, and that this is only my fifth day of veganism, and today I can begin again.
In my practice it can be easy for me to get caught up in “succeeding” at meditating. I have days where my concentration isn’t what I would like it to be, or when I can’t shake a feeling of grogginess, and I can have moments of frustration with my perceived lack of progress. At times where I am more mindful, I observe that frustration arise and watch it pass away, and then I thankfully remind myself that I can always return to my breath and begin again.
There is a lot about my life that would have surprised a younger version of myself, but pretty high on the list would be that I would find the 40 year old me pouring over books about meditation and Buddhism, and contemplating the logistics of going on a 10-day silent meditation retreat.
I grew up in a conservative West Texas town, to a conservative West Texas family. Where I grew up, the question wasn’t whether or not you went to church, it was where you went to church. The evangelical church that I grew up in lumped meditation in with listening to Ozzy Ozzborne, having sex outside of marriage, and participating in black masses as signs that you were on the highway to hell. Of course, watching The Smurfs and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were on that list as well, so it wasn’t a very hard list to make.
By the time I found myself approaching my 40s, I had accumulated a massive guilt complex, a mountain of insecurities, and a marriage that was falling apart due to a number of factors, not the least of which was a lack of attention on my part, and the strain of my personal baggage. The voice in my head was a dick who constantly cataloged my inadequacies and failures. Between all of this and an increasingly stressful work life, I had begun to experience a steady stream of anxiety that was punctuated by a series of full on panic attacks.
I would like to say that I immediately turned toward healthy coping mechanisms for my stress, but that was not the case. I dove headlong into a pattern of self-medicating, which given the fact that my career was in the beer and wine industry, was a pretty easy route to take. I had already been drinking more than I should for some time, but I really started ratcheting that up as I tried to numb myself to cope with a life I didn’t want to face. Things were spiraling out of control, and I was just going along with the downward flow.
In the midst of all of this, I was fully aware (okay, maybe not FULLY aware) that I needed to find a more healthy way to deal with my anxiety and the stresses that I was facing, but I am not really sure what it was that made me think, “maybe I should try meditation.” I probably read an article, or at least the title of an article, that said something about meditation being useful in working with anxiety. To be honest, I barely even knew what meditation was, but for some reason I thought it might be helpful to me. I found some instructions online for basic breath-based meditation (previous programing still had me creeped out by mantra-based practice), and started trying it in 5 minute chunks.
By July of 2018, I had been playing around with periodic meditation for a few weeks when I saw that one of my high school friends had posted a review of 10% Happier by Dan Harris on her Goodreads feed. For those who don’t know, Dan Harris is a news anchor for ABC who had an on-air panic attack, and through a round about journey discovered meditation. He wrote about his experience in a memoir with the full title of 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story. I found both the subtitle of the book and my friend’s synopsis intriguing, as Harris describes himself as a natural skeptic, and I was still a bit skeptical myself. I jumped on my Audible account and downloaded the book and started listening to it. I plan to write a post about my experience with the book soon, but suffice it to say, I owe Dan Harris a lot for starting me on the journey I am on now.
10% Happier introduced me to a cast of characters whose work has become instrumental in founding and growing my practice, including Dr. Mark Epstein, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzburg, and others. Additionally, Harris’ candid descriptions of his various struggles in the establishment of his own practice were incredibly useful when I encountered many of the same hurdles on the cushion and in everyday life.
In the year following my initial experiments with meditation, I have developed a daily meditation practice, and have ventured into studying Buddhism. I have been working with a meditation teacher named JoAnna Hardy, who I discovered on Dan Harris’ 10% Happier app (thanks again, Dan.) I am currently sitting for about 45 minutes every morning, which would have been unthinkable to the me of a year ago, a man who couldn’t stand to be sitting still and silent for 5 minutes at a time, let alone 45. I am doing better in some aspects of mindfulness than others, and I do better at some times than others, but I can say that the old bouts of sitting for hours while my inner critic excoriates me for various misdeeds and shortcomings have almost completely disappeared. Oh, I still hear that voice pipe up from time to time, but I find myself breaking out of the cycle much more quickly, rather than attaching to it and spiraling.
So now you know where I have come from. As I continue to post on this blog, I will share some things that I have learned and experienced in the time since I started meditating, and will be sharing some of my current experiences. This blog is not written by an “expert” meditator, but by someone who is still early in their practice. I hope that reading about my mindfulness journey will be useful to others, and I hope to also learn from some of you who might find yourself reading my posts. A big part of my motivation for writing this is to pursue interaction with an online community. Feel free to comment below, or you can email me or send a tweet anytime.