mindfulness

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 13 - 90 Days of Sitting

This is the thirteenth (and final) in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

The end, my friends!  It has been 90 days.  I was asked recently by a student who knew I was undertaking this challenge, whether I had “stuck with it.” I had to answer honestly: for the most part, yes.  Did I miss some days? Yes.  Did I meditate when I really didn’t feel like it? Also yes.  Do I regret committing publicly to meditating for 90 days? Not in the slightest. 

It has been over a week since the 90 days officially ended.  I have had a hard time sitting down to write this, the final post in this series.  It has felt like I have been doing this for a long time. Perhaps it’s ending has put off my writing.

Hopefully, I have begun the process of charting a path for some of you through the murky waters of engaging in a meditation practice.  I know I have begun that process myself.  I am still unclear where I am going, but I am at least a little more familiar with what the journey feels like.

As a way of bookending this little experiment, I would like to offer a few of the things that I learned along the way.  This list is personal, so your experience may (will) vary.

1)      Consistency is Key. I obviously missed some days.  What I found was that this was more likely to happen when I got out of the practice of practice.  As I have stated in a previous post, I like to meditate in the morning, after a few sips of coffee, before doing anything else.  For a while, I got into the habit of telling myself that I would meditate later in the day, or that evening.  While I sometimes would follow through, I was much more likely to skip these days if I broke up my routine.  My word of advice here is to sit, even if it is only for a few minutes (instead of the length of your regular practice) just to keep the mind and body on a schedule it can grow into.

2)      Presence is Passing. I very rarely found myself in the state that one might consider “present.”  My mind was a chaotic mess most of the time.  Thoughts about the day, my family, my work, the news, it all became a constant parade behind my closed lids.  Much of the “work” was just becoming aware that this was happening.  I would re-center, focus on the breath, relax my clenched jaw, and sink into an exhale. For that moment, I really felt lighter, and at rest. Then I would think about feeling that way, and off I would go again!  I really think this is a “enjoy the journey, not the destination” type of activity.  My insights came from doing the practice, not getting to any sort of enlightened state.  My advice here is to be okay with the process.  Be process-oriented and sit and watch and learn and breathe.

3)      The Body Speaks.  Sitting still for 10-30 minutes can be a strain on the body.  Even if one has mastered the art of aligning the body in a way that this is less of an issue, my experience is that when you aim to quiet the mind, the body’s voice can be heard.  In sitting, I became aware of imbalances in my flexibility, aches that didn’t exist previously, the internal sounds that are usually drown out by living and I found places that were doing just fine.  Our minds and our bodies are often seen as separate.   I found that sitting helped the process of reintegration of mind and body.  Emotional thoughts brought tensions in different places.  Relaxation was as much held in my hips as in my head.  On the days that frustration grew, it was often because I was nurturing a disdain for the body – feeling like the soreness of the knees or back or jaw was a betrayal.  It is no surprise that when one demonizes their own flesh, they end up in a foul mood.  My advice here is simply to listen.  In the same way we should listen to the other people in our lives with compassion and openness, we can extend this practice to our bones, our blood, our joints and our scars. 

4)      Complexity is Compassion.  I am reminded of something a teacher of mine once said (paraphrased): Becoming intimate with anything makes it less personal.  My practice opened my awareness to the complexity of my inner life.  The dialogues always running in the background, layer upon layer until it all just felt like white noise.  By really seeing the depth of that conversation with myself, I gained a much greater appreciation for the dialogue that must be going on in others.  If I am this way, then it is difficult to imagine that anyone else is less so.  This has allowed me to become more compassionate in my living.  Each person I meet has this same cacophony of voices all wanting to be heard.  They are complex constructs of experience and feeling and competing desires.  Knowing that, makes it all less personal.  It reminds me that I am not the center of anyone else’s actions, decisions, and needs.  A slight I might feel is more about me than them, and it is my job to remind myself of this reality.  My advice here is to be intimate with the world.  Know that very little is ever personal.  Most people are just trying to navigate their own way, just as you are.

This is it! As far as writing on this experience is concerned anyways.  It has truly been an honor to share a piece of me with those of you who have followed me on this path.  I will continue to sit, to reflect and to share.  I hope you find the time to do the same.

 

Be well, friends.

 

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 11 - The Perks of Guidance

This is the eleventh in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

I have officially reached 75 days of practice.  75 days of sitting and contemplating, feeling successful, feeling frustrated, feeling here.  Thank you for coming along on for the ride.

Meditation is a practice, and not all practice days are your best.  As I have said before, I started writing this blog as a means to normalize meditation.  To show you that it is not all “sit and clear your mind and everything else is going to be alright.” I came up against this hurdle when I started sitting years ago, feeling like there was a wrong way to do it, feeling like I wasn’t getting it.  It is hard to stick with something when you don’t feel like you “get it” or that progress is not being made.  I think it is hard to track the progress of mental attunement, especially when you don’t exactly know what progress means!

I have been fortunate to have been taught about meditation, both in person and in books and podcasts, by people who stress the importance of just showing up.  I think that has inspired me to write this series of posts.  And it has inspired the theme of this week’s post: having some guidance can be a really great thing.  Now, I live in a northern town where meditation teachers are not exactly plentiful.  As such, I have had to find guidance through podcasts, books, and a lot of question-asking.  I have not had the perks of an in-person teacher for more than a few days at a time, but that does not mean that guidance wasn’t accessible.  The internet is your friend.

The reason I have been thinking about this so much is that this week I have been using the aid of guided meditation to help me when I sit.  For the first several years that I dabbled in meditation, I never sat without an audio guide.  I just couldn’t sit in the silence. My mind was too loud and distracting.  I found that by making someone else’s voice the focal point of my sit, I could at least anchor my thoughts to that. 

Some days I feel like my mind is a wide-open plain, and as gusts of wind just keep flashing thoughts through my mind, I have no way to anchor myself and not get swept up with them.

Listening to a guided meditation helped me to find my way back.  This week, I have been going through a fairly typical upswing in deadlines and workloads and have found that sitting with myself has become a fertile ground for all kinds of thinking, and not a lot of letting thinking go.  After a few days of this, I decided to meditate with the guidance of an old teacher, Michael Stone, through one of his podcast episodes.  The episode is a meditation of breath and lasts about 15 minutes (link here).  This aid was anchor I was looking for.  These kinds of guided meditations often remind you to focus on the breath, bring your thoughts back, or pay attention to the body – things that can get away from us when we are left with our own silence.

So that is what has come to me after 75 days of sitting - more acceptance of the process, more struggle, more success, more redefinitions of both.  Of course, Maezumi’s excerpts have also been there the whole time.  This week I want to share one of those excerpts just because I think the message is a wonderful one:

In your daily life, please accept yourself as you are and appreciate your life as it is. Be intimate with yourself. Taking good care of yourself is always the best way to take care of everything. Then your life, I am sure, will go all right. I want you to be a truly intimate being. Beneath your robe is the same as outside your robe. Inside and outside the robe are one. There is no division. Please take good care of this life. Enjoy yourself!”

Taking good care of yourself also means accepting your practice as it is right now.  Sit, breathe, enjoy yourself.

In the coming week, where can you let go of non-acceptance? Where is there room to let in some enjoyment? Is there a form of guidance that you can accept to have a little help on your journey?

Be well, friends.

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 7 - The Fabric of Crazy Thinking

This is the seventh in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

As I sat down to write today’s blog post, I was a little lost.  I didn’t feel like I had any great insights this week or had experienced anything that was worthy of a blog post.  I was restless and kept getting up from my computer to pace around the house, trying to think up some great lesson or hurdle or experience that I could share.  I was feeling the need to perform, to produce interesting content without sounding too cliché.   The truth of the last week is that I had been practicing, had missed a couple sittings, had “made up” for them by sitting twice a couple days, and just generally struggled with balance and finding time in an otherwise busy-feeling schedule.

The truth, as I expressed it to my partner, was that without that nugget of wisdom, I felt like a fraud.

She asked me why I didn’t just write that?  I couldn’t, I said, it was way too vulnerable.  It would be too much of me, just…out there.

Meditation is as much about personal practice as it is about the practice of a community: as Rumi puts it, a community of spirit.  Somehow, in my feelings of inadequacy, in my need to produce a weekly blog, I convinced myself that vulnerability, openness, and raw experience should be cordoned off. It was a subtle script running in my head: You can be vulnerable only when you feel strong, on-track, and capable.  

I think we all really know that those moments are not when vulnerability yields its greatest rewards.  We like to see the struggle in the other and to know that struggle is universal and normal.  We have enough people that only show us their “good face.” We need to know we are all human. 

So I felt like a fraud. Though strangely enough, as I confess this in the moment, this process is absolving me of that feeling.  I think we can only feel like a fraud when we hide, deny, mask and pretty-up our surface.  When we believe the fraudulent story we tell ourselves – the story that we should obfuscate real emotion, real experiential personhood.

Maezumi has something to say about this too:

"Regardless of what you think, even your crazy thinking itself is nothing but that, do you see? It is no other than the dharma."

What this says to me is that, like everything else, our “crazy thinking” is still the practice.  We are not just taking part in finding clarity on the cushion.  We are exploring the dharma, the Zen principles of living, even in our crazy-making.  Even in my feeling like a fraud, I am practicing the way of meditation as clarity.  To put it simply: Crazy thinking and the associated stories are all you, they are me, they are as much the fabric of our lives as every other thing. 

What a relief! Our stories are all equal in that they are just stories.  Under close examination the fabric of those stories comes undone and unravels. What is left is just your experience, here and now.

As you move through the next week, I invite you to take a look at your stories.  If they were all made of the same stuff – nothing, or everything - how does that inform the way you move through your day, your week, your life?

 Be well, friends.

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 6 - The Unforeseen Benefits of Living the Practice

This is the sixth in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

After two days in a row without a formal practice, I sat down this morning a little shamed and guilty.  The weekend had been a whirlwind, and I had not made it a priority to find time away to sit in the midst of out-of-town company.  In all honesty, I am still a touch protective/private about my practice – though my friends know I am writing this blog and that I have a regular practice, I still do not go out of my way to put it out there and ask for some time away.  Perhaps it feels selfish, or maybe I just don’t want to be that “in your face” about it with other people.  Whatever the motivation, I don’t excuse myself to sit when I have people in my home – which means sometimes it doesn’t happen.

However, today with the week staring anew, I decided I too would start anew and get to my cushion early in the morning – no more excuses!

This is what greeted me:

"Please do not forget that your life itself is the practice. Practice is no other than your life."

All my insecurities left me.  I gazed out the window, started my timer, and just began to breathe. 

As I sat there, I reflected on those words, that life itself is the practice, and I asked myself, was that true for me?  Has my practice worked its way into my life?  I thought back to my busy weekend, where I had been able to connect with friends I had not seen in a long time, and I thought on our conversations.  I thought about the honest and openness of our talks, of the genuine sense of connectedness and the ability to share where we were in the moment.

That was where I was living my practice.  

I believe that being able to sit on a regular basis and be with my thoughts has yielded a few different things, but of them, an appreciation for the important people in my life has surfaced time and time again.  Actually, I think that I have always known I have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by some amazing individuals but contemplating this aspect of my life has given me the ability to verbalize these thoughts.  From my perspective, one of the differences of this weekend was that I felt comfortable enough with my own internal process to freely acknowledge that deep appreciation.  To allow for connection, bolstered by the afterglow of sitting and connecting with myself.

So here I am, picking right back up and sitting right back down!  I will continue to practice both on the cushion, and off.  As Maezumi points out, I don’t really think we get the choice.  Life is our practice, there is nothing else we have but this moment.

In the coming week, I invite you to ask yourself the same question:  Is your life your practice? Where is your sitting/meditating/writing/creating/contemplation practice effecting, improving and deepening your moment to moment living?  Looking on it now, is there somewhere you could invite it in?  So many possibilities! Until next week,

Be well, friends.

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 5 - Examining the Other Shore

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

There was something redeeming about opening my email a couple of days ago and seeing that I had made it to Day 30.  One of the reasons that I decided to write these blog posts was to create some accountability for myself, and to semi-publicly proclaim that I was going to actually follow through on a 90-day commitment.  As I write this, I sit with 32 days (having missed a total of 2) of regular meditation under my belt.  As these blogs hopefully convey, it has been a learning experience.  Each week brings new insights, new obstacles, new perspectives on the way my mind works and has allowed me to connect and speak to a community of people who also have an interest in meditation.

One of the things I have been exploring through this process is the idea that meditation “solves” some of the problems that we have in life.  These can manifest as stress, anxiety, bills, loss, grudges, worries, fears and a whole host of other unpleasant emotions.  When you dive into the literature on Zen meditation, however, it becomes clear that this  is not the intent of developing a practice.  Meditation is not an escape, but a return.  A return from the thoughts listed above, back to the body, the breath, the presence of now.  As Meazumi puts it:

“We have a practice know as the paramitas. Paramita means "to have reached the other shore." Dogen Zenji says, "The other shore is already reached." In other words, the meaning of reaching the other shore is to realize that this shore is the other shore. This life is the unsurpassable, realized life. There is no gap.

So if there is purpose to our practice, it is to realize that this shore and the other shore are the same. The purpose is to close the gap, to realize that there is just one shore, there is just one life. To reach is extra. Until you realize that this shore where you stand, this life that you are living, and the other shore, the life of the buddhas, are the same shore, you cannot appreciate your life to the fullest.”

As I see it, Maezumi is reminding us that when we sit, that sometimes we can get caught reaching for a better version of us.  A version that doesn’t worry, or fear, or love too deeply, or have the aches and pains of living. 

A version detached from suffering. 

In this same excerpt, he brings our attention the idea that reaching for the other shore allows us to convince ourselves that there is another shore.  That there is something outside of us that we can get to that will solve our issues.  When I sit to solve the problem of interpersonal strife or work stress, I am reinforcing the idea that I am that stress, that thoughts are things to be solved.  That they can be escaped by receding into practice.

I have come to realise that this is not the case.  That as Maezumi points out, I was (and am) already that other version of me.  I am that version of me because there is no other shore, and as such no other me.  The grass isn’t greener on the other side because the other side is make-believe.  The stress we try to escape in practice is a pattern of thoughts that you can not get away from, because things that are not real can follow you anywhere.  Instead, we turn to those things and sit with them.  We look at them and try to internalize the thought there is no other shore, and in doing this, we sit with who we are here-and-now.

To be clear, I am not saying that there are not real problems and concerns that we face in our lives.  There can be many, and they may pose real risks and hardship.  However, the thinking portion of these problems exist only in the space between the neurons and atoms of our mind.  The anxiety of returning to work tomorrow steals from me the option of being here right now, fingers on keys, contemplating mindfulness and enjoying the view from my living room window.  There is no meditating practice that will banish my obligation from work.  There is, however, a practice that will “close the gap” between the ideal me, who doesn’t worry, and the experiencing me, who is here, enjoying my afternoon.

My goal moving into this next week is remind myself that there is no other shore. That this is the moment I exist in, and that it is my sitting practice that can bring me back to that.  I do not sit to be another version of me, I sit to actualize that I am (and that is all there is).

This week, I encourage you too take some time to look at where you might be reaching in your own life.  How much of your time is thinking about who you should be or could be.  What would happen if you looked around to realize that you have everything you need in this moment? That you were already standing on the other shore?

Be well, friends.

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 3 - Noticing What Comes

This is the third in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on a excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

Another week has passed, another seven days of sitting, and another string of learning, growing, and slowing down.  This week I noticed a few things came up for me:  The first was timing.  As work and life gets a little bit busier, I am finding that I must be more flexible in the way and time that I approach meditation.  I am a creature of habit, at least when I am successful.  How this translates to meditation is that I like to sit in the same place, do the same things, and roughly at the same time each night. 

Because of this, I must admit, I missed a day of practice this week…

…which is ok. 

It is ok because I am learning to practice compassion with myself.  To be in this moment and not belabor the past or think about catastrophic futures.  I have a tendency to think that if I break a “streak” then all the work before was for nothing.  This is just simply not true, and luckily, one of the more memorable excerpts this week speaks to just that idea:

"So mere sitting is not enough. You must reveal this wisdom in the way you live. How can we live this realization? Just living in a realized way is still not enough. We must share it together, with each other. How can we share it best with everybody, so that all of us can live the enlightened life?"

As this reflection indicates, our practice is not simply on the cushion.  It is in our actions, how we live with one another, and how we show compassion.  I chose to sit twice the following day after I missed my practice, but I also was able to remind myself that I am trying to live the practice as well.  In my interactions, I aim to be more present, in my work, I aim for vulnerability and authenticity, and in my self, I aim to show some compassion – to understand that a ‘missed’ day is just that.  There is always the opportunity to recommit, sit, and breathe.  There is nothing compassionate in beating ourselves up – especially when we are talking about presence and living mindfully.

Another thing that came up for me was an intense desire to return more and more to the cushion.

The more I sit, the more I crave sitting.

I wrote this after wandering over to my meditation space a few days ago in the middle of the day.  My space is not fancy: I have a singing bowl, which I use to chime me into and out of practice, I have my cushion, a mat for the cushion to sit on, and some sage.  There is something comforting and homey about burning sage, so I find the fragrance in the air a nice addition to my meditation practice.  Occasionally, I will just sit on my cushion, morning coffee in hand, and stare out the window – at trees, or snow, or if I am lucky, a passing bird or fox.  I think this signifies an important movement in my practice, a bodily recognition of the comfort, balance, and release that the meditation space has created for me.  I firmly believe the consistency of practice has led to more of a desire for consistency.  It also helps me plant and ground much more effectively when it comes time to sit and be still.

So – the journey continues!  As my practice and thoughts evolve, I hope yours do as well.  As you move into the next week, remember there are more ways to practice than sitting, and that it never hurts to direct some of your compassion, understanding, and openness to yourself.

Be well, friends.

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 1 - Settling In

In case you are unfamiliar, this is the first in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on a excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

I think the first week of any new practice is a difficult one.  This week was no different, but I am happy to report that I completed all 4 days of sitting this week.  It was particularly hard, because two of those days I was out of town.  This traditionally disrupts my routines, as I am staying in someone else’s home, not really on my own schedule, and just generally out of my comfort zone.  What made this time different for me, and led to my success, was two-fold; one, I felt accountable to you – I said that I was going to write on this experience, and I really felt like I should try to not crumble to the first obstacle that came my way.  Two, I didn’t let myself rationalize or talk myself out of it.  I am really good at coming up with all the excuses for why I don’t/can’t follow through on commitments.  This time (maybe it was because of the practice) I caught that inner dialogue, identified what was happening, and simply told myself that when I could find some time before bed (I was chatting late into the evening with my hosts), it would be fine to sleep a little bit less so that I could stick to my guns.  I short, I didn’t give myself the opportunity to talk myself out of my commitment.

In terms of length, the program doesn’t specify any predetermined amount of time.  Though I have had a practice of sitting on and off, I opted for a goal of 10 mins of meditation.  For me, this is a pretty attainable amount of time, and it set me up for the highest chance of success (if my life gets crazy, I would even be ok with 5 min).  If this is your first go at meditation, choose a time that works for you.  1 min is better than nothing at all.  As I see it, if I want to overshoot that goal, great! But I don’t want to find myself in a situation where I am feeling like I let myself down if I don’t sit for 30 min every day.

I found the excerpts that come with each daily email to be really nice.  Focusing on a specific feeling or thought is a little outside of my comfort zone; I usually practice with a focus on the breath only.  These emails usually suggest a specific focal point, and I tried to stick to that.  Here is the excerpt this week that most resonated with me:

I encourage you. Please enjoy this wonderful life together.  Appreciate the world of just this! There is nothing extra. Genuinely appreciate your life as the most precious treasure and take good care of it.

I read this right after scanning through news headlines on my phone.  As I am sure you can imagine, there is a disproportionate amount of negative versus positive news.  I find it quite easy to get bogged down in all that negativity, so to have this gentle reminder to come back to this moment, feel myself in my space, listen to my body breathe, and practice appreciation, allowed me to let the news of the world melt away – making room for silence, calm and genuine appreciation.

I think that is enough for this week, though I am looking forward to what the next several months brings.  If you have any questions of comments, please reply below, or email me and I would be happy to talk about your questions, experiences, or reflections.

Be well, friends.

J