How I started, and sustained, a meditative practice

When I was a teenager, I found myself enamored with the Stoics. Back then, there wasn’t a lot of useable information on applications of Stoic principles like there is now. Reading  the Enchiridion or Meditations was useful but not directive. These insights required experience I just didn’t have yet in life. I wanted to be a “Stoic Sage” for egotistical reasons, not for practical utility. Such is life as a teenager.

Coming to Austin allows for lots of Buddhism, which allowed for a lot of content on suffering, meditation, equanimity, and other components similar to that of Stoicism. Through this, I came to Ken Wilbur’s work, which was mind-bogglingly complicated. However, from this was the great line I’ve cited before:

Needleman once said that Zen was essential Buddhism, and that Tibetan Buddhism was complete Buddhism. That’s sort of what it is, Zen it goes right to the heart: Satori! This is it, satori! IF you don’t have satori, you don’t have Buddhism. But Tibetan is like the whole shebang. I mean it’s got every single aspect, vehicle, gross, subtle, causal, all sorts of practices.

So if the essential element is mediation to reach enlightenment, I was going to meditate.

After my mom died, I ended up meditating for a time at Appamada here in Austin. Fantastic experience that I had to stop attending due to parental responsibility and eventually moving to the other side of the city. I continued on my own to the best of my ability, which meant sporadic to non-existent practice.

Establishing the habit

I have, since August of 2017, meditated at least 5 days per week, increasing the duration with each successful week. Here’s the process that finally got me over the hump:

  • Gradual improvement & habit chaining 

BJ Fogg’s group at Stanford has demonstrated the efficacy of both tiny steps (or tiny habits) and hanging a new habit on a preexisting habit. I used this to my advantage by first setting a modest goal of meditating 10 minutes per day, 6 days per week. IF I could do this, I would increase the following week’s meditation length goal by 10 seconds. Easy stuff, right? Anyone can do it! If I didn’t make 5 days of meditation, I didn’t increase the duration.

Second, I added the practice to my work calendar. I typically have known set of available openings during my training days, so I schedule meditation as my first “non-essential priority” task for a day.

  • Park Bench vs. Bus Bench

I forget where I learned of the analogy originally, but it’s a useful check against any practice. A “park bench” practice is one that you can’t win, doesn’t have a timeline toward a conclusion, and doesn’t (or shouldn’t) have expectations tied to it. A “bus bench” practice can be won, has a discrete time period attached to it, and desired outcomes.

It feel strange saying this, but you can’t win meditation. It’s a practice. In order to reap the benefits you have to do it. If you associate “winning” or “completing” meditation, you’re taking a bus bench mentality and you’re in for a bad time.

I have subjectively better and worse meditation sessions, but the value of regular practice continues to show itself in daily life.

  • Surrender

Given the above, I’ve found that taking an attitude of surrender to what my brain is going to give me on that day to be the most useful course of action. Instead of “trying” to do everything to achieve some of the amazing feelings I’ve experienced from meditation, instead I surrender to what is most interesting or “loudest” in my sphere of awareness. Sometimes it’s the technicolor dreamcoat on the back of my eyelids, sometimes it’s the intense ringing in my ears, sometimes the total sensory dissociation from my physical self…all of these are perfect. They’re all great and none is “better” or more preferred than the other.

I have found that these mental prerequisites and realistic progressions have helped me to keep the habit on a day to day basis. What has also helped me is the actual meditative process that I go through during the event.

How I meditate

It’s not helpful to just tell someone to sit and clear their mind. There are many layers to the awareness onion of the brain that I find a few rituals within my practice has given my monkey brain something to do while the rest of my brain relaxes into the deeper feelings and experiences of mediation.

Here’s my meditative process:

Start Small

Whatever duration you think you can do, cut that number by a third. Pick a duration that you can do on your worst day, that is an 8 or 9 out of 10 on the confidence scale. Yes you can compare yourself to those people who are totally blissed out for 45 minute straight, but you could also compare your basketball game to Lebron James’. Both are counterproductive to where you are starting from.

For me, this was 10 minutes. I have meditated upwards of 20 minutes per day in the past, but I was going to start so small that I had no excuse for not getting it done most days.

Starting sequence

There are lots of ways to meditate, from simply watching the breath to mantra to visualization, all of which certainly work. I have found that I need the same starting sequence to relax into the session. For me a form of box breathing has been most helpful, because again my monkey brain gets to “do” something and my physiology has a chance to unwind. Here’s what I do:

-Inhale for a 5 count

-Hold for a 7 count

-Exhale for a 9 count

-Hold for a 3 count

I cycle through this for 5 to 7 cycles, though I don’t count the actual number. There’s an experience of feeling more “settled” that leads me to my next process.

Breath Counting

Nothing magical here, just inhale (“1”), exhale (“2”), and so on to 10. If I get caught up in thought, I bring myself back to the breath, restarting at 1. If I make it all the way to 10, the next breath starts at 1.

Look at your Nose

I find that if I’m getting distracted by thought, that I attempt to direct my inward attention toward my nose. The feeling of this slightly cross-eyed orientation within the black technicolor visual experience of my consciousness tends to focus me on the sensation of air moving through my nose, in and out. This also tends to be, for me, where the colors moving on my eyelids can sometimes start to dance, morph, and expand as the meditation proceeds. My monkey brain is excited by the changing visual landscape, or the nuance of how the air feels in and out of my nose.

Listen to the buzz

You know how in the movies, whenever the hero survives the explosion that was nearby but not so close to harm, that the editors add the loud ringing noise? That’s always there if you listen. Sometimes it escalates in how loud it is, as if merely listening to it gradually increases the volume to a deafening roar. Other times it just cruises at a constant level, as if no amount of effort can coax it to increase. It’s always something for your brain to key in on so that you may find the space of your inner citadel.

Progressions

This could also be called “algorithms” but that may imply that you could reach some sort of tidy conclusion. Rather, think of all of the sensory feedback your body is trying to distract you with as opportunities for you to surrender and watch how they morph, change, grow, and regress, all the while you focus on your breath counting.

For example, my sessions often start with me focusing on the sensation of air in my nose, and then as that starts to waiver I focus on my ears, and then if that grows I sit with it. If not much is happening and my body is giving me something else to “distract” from my ears, I use that as an opportunity to turn my attention and gaze upon the experience. So on an so forth until the end of my session.

So that’s my process. Sometimes this results in a sensory feeling of my entire body filling the room, pushing out the walls, drinking all of the oxygen on Earth with each breath, implicitly understanding the depth and breadth of the cosmos… and sometimes it’s me struggling to bring my attention back to the simple feeling of being. Neither is better or worse. Neither will deliver me unto the promise land. You can’t win meditation. The practice is the point.

Instead, this has helped me keep a habit that has started to create space in my responses to life’s challenges and irritations… a margin around my “sphere of choice” as Epictetus would call it. While no grand thing, you start to notice this pause, this gap, this constant throughout your daily decisions, acting not reacting to life.

Think of it sort of a compound interest for joy and ease in your life: at first not much is going on but eventually the practice goes exponential and you can’t help but pause before everything you are presented with. At which point, you’ll keep on meditating. Chop wood, carry water. Onward, just a little bit better, until death.

That’s pretty rad, if you ask me.

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3 thoughts on “How I started, and sustained, a meditative practice

  1. Interesting. I’ve been working on a meditation habit myself for a while now. I did it in the past, but have never stayed with it consistently. I use similar tactics for consistency (I even include square breathing). Most days I do between 5-10 minutes, as measured with the Insight Timer. I like streaks and watching the time add up, charts, etc – which of course is sort of the antithesis of true mindfulness, but what are you going to do 🙂 By setting my daily goal low, I’ve been very consistent, and have days where I go longer. 6 months in I’m plugging away.

    Some books that have helped me are: Waking Up (Sam Harris), 10% Happier (Dan Harris), Buddhism is True (Robert Wright), and On Having No Head (Douglas Harding).

    As always, I enjoy the posts.

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