Oscar Wilde, possibly my favorite playwright, famously said: "The only thing I cannot resist is temptation".
Over the last two weeks, I noticed that my temptation to try out guided meditation significantly subsided. Did I thereby accomplish that which Oscar Wilde quipped he could not do?
Amusingly, that prompted me to finally try guided meditation. If the temptation no longer exists, then there is no longer a challenge in resisting guiding meditation.
On a related note, it has been over six months since I removed Facebook from my phone and set up a chrome extension that limits my Facebook browsing to 15 minutes a day. At the beginning of the semester, I’d been enjoying some measure of success. I typically browsed Facebook for 10 minutes a day. Saving time made me happy, and I took pride in the days that I didn’t need the extension to enforce that limit. As part of Principles of Awareness, we set up a secret Facebook group where we could share #ontpd (one new thing per day) with each other. I whitelisted this group on my chrome extension, so that even if I couldn’t post to it from my phone, my desktop browser wouldn’t time me for doing my “homework”. This Facebook group quickly overtook my feed in quality, and I now find that the main Facebook feed holds little temptation for me. On many days, I no longer open Facebook unless specifically prompted (“Hey Amin, did you see the event I invited you to?”), and when I do, it is often to read the (finite) updates that my classmates have posted. Increasingly, it feels like the temptation to browse Facebook, like the temptation to try guided meditation, has largely disappeared.
On April 2, I installed the Headspace app and let Andy (the friendly, slow, disembodied voice) guide me through a short session. I can see the allure now. The app promises you that different guided meditation sessions will improve your life in different ways, reducing anxiety, finding calm, and improving sleep.
"I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures."
- Lao Tzu
This single quote encompasses much of the last two weeks.
Simplicity: My morning meditations, once a bag of tricks to help me keep my focus, have, through no conscious choice of my own, diminished. I set a timer for 25 minutes and start each practice with my eyes open, but I no longer strive to capture an image. Rather, I transition smoothly from eyes-open to eyes-closed; in both states I am grounded by my breathing. Though still approximately twenty minutes in length, I've realized I am not dependant on the crutches I devised, and I find myself employing them less often. I still require a silent or ambient environment, and I focus on my breathing, noting whether it is comfortable, whether I am relaxed, whether I am storing tension, and releasing it. The muscles in my toes and in my face, I've noticed, take the longest to relax.
Patience: I am less worried about "succeeding" in my practice. I am doing less and, exceedingly, I am content with the natural pace of my progress. This also marks another two weeks of resisting the temptation to try guided meditation. Near the beginning of the course, Tenzin said that every temptation is an opportunity to practice resisting it. I notice that I am most tempted by guided meditation right before my practice: *Maybe I can let someone who knows what they're doing take the reins this time*, and nonexistent in the moments after my practice. Indeed, I often find myself feeling very awake and energetic after my practice, with those positive feelings erasing any residual doubt that I'm doing it "wrong".
Compassion: We had a great conversation in class about the effect of our mental states on the likelihood that we will perform an act of kindness. Tenzin pointed out, quite rightly, that if I am having a bad day, I am significantly less likely to do something kind for someone else. I am less likely to give a stranger a dollar, and less likely to spontaneously show up at a friend's door to tell them I've missed them. My initial instinct was to reject Tenzin's claim, but a moment of reflection convinced me it was, disappointingly, true. I've started putting in a special effort to notice and change this behaviour. In particular, I've started to catch myself in the moment of expressing criticism or anger, then stop, and deliberately show empathy instead. It feels right, but strange. It feels like I'm not being subtle, like the person I'm interacting with must notice the abrupt shift. But at the same time, my action doesn't feel too quick. My action feels overdue; I cannot shift too soon.
Over the last two weeks I have been practicing unguided meditation. I’ve heard of many apps for guided meditation, and I may give them a try in the future, but for the time being I resist their temptation. With that avenue closed, there is no escape from the question at hand: to be in stillness and silence for an entire 20 minutes. With discipline, I find that I am able to catch my wandering mind more quickly now than it did before. Regularly, I will register that I have become distracted and I will tug my attention back to my breathing patterns. It is important not to chide myself at this point, since that too would be a distraction.
The twenty minutes feel less long now than they did before. I wonder how they would feel if I had a fast-approaching deadline? Maybe I’ll try it the next time that opportunity arises, but maybe I will not be sufficiently confident that - at my current level - it would be time well spent. For the time being, I continue to do my practice at 9 am, and at that stress-free time, I do not feel the investment of time.
Most days, I strive to maintain a visual image in my mind’s eye during practice. I have taken to sitting by my window, staring at the river for 5 minutes before eventually closing my eyes and beginning my practice. Then, I focus on the image of the river. The warm sunlight on my eyelids, which colors my view with shades of orange, is comforting. I imagine that I can still see the river through my closed eyelids, and that my practice is not as much an act of imagination as observation. It should not be very hard to see that which is right in front of your eye(lid)s.
This week, I found that sitting in silence for 20 minutes every morning helped me get the day really started. My practice has evolved from maintaining an abstract visualization of my breath to envisioning the rise and fall of the tide on a beach. While I cannot report that I am “successfully meditating” or experiencing “stillness” during my practice sessions, I feel energetic after my practice, and I am having no trouble motivating myself to take the time to do it.
Sometimes, when I am about my day, and I find myself with a hole in my schedule. I have started to close my eyes and practice. This enables me to experiment with setting! One time, there was music playing in the background, and while I didn’t focus on the music, later I noticed that I knew the words. Another time, I realized that it is more difficult to practice when the ambient noise is more obtrusive.
This week, I started a practice. To me, that word has a couple possible readings:
practice (v.): To repeatedly perform a challenging task with the aim of improving. To identify key skills you aim to hone along the way. To experiment with different learning methods and exercises until you find ones that work for you.
I set aside 30 minutes a day to practice my violin
Practice makes perfect
Never stop practicing
practice (n.): A profession. It seems to me that not every profession is a practice. A profession that is also a practice requires a license permitting the professional to offer their services in a particular state or country. Moreover, I think there is some implication that the professional is making their practice available to any member of the public, and therefore there is an expectation that they are reachable, that they have an office where they can be found, or a schedule that they adhere to. In other words, they are expected to be disciplined and reliable.
A lawyer has her legal practice
A doctor has her medical practice
My practice is not a profession. I am not learning to play a musical instrument. And no member of the public need waste their time knocking on my door. Which leaves everything else:
It requires repettition
It is challenging
It requires experimentation
It requires discipline
If I may borrow a term from linguistics, the aspect of my practice is imperfective. The imperfective aspect is used to describe situations that are not seen to be bounded in time, but to continuously or repetitively exist, as in "I was learning", or "I used to walk by the river”.
I committed to spending 20 minutes in silent mediation at 9 am every morning.
This week I learned that 20 minutes is a long time, and that I have more thoughts when I wish to banish them than when I invite them. I tried to focus on my breathing but stray ideas and images came unbidden, and I found that holding a visualization of my breathing in my mind’s eye is helpful to block out unwanted other images.