This week I took the first step in starting a daily meditation practice. I'm taking this space to record my motivation for starting a daily practice and some thoughts on my first week.
I've had the idea of starting a daily meditation practice for several years now. I'm the kind of person who likes to spend a lot of time alone with his own thoughts. I often spend large chunks of time processing events from the near and distant past. This is great for introspection and I tend to learn a lot by thinking about events from many different angles. But in order to truly relax, I need to put my internal monologue on mute. Most of the time, I find it really difficult to turn my brain off, so I'm very interested in the ways of quieting the mind when it's time to relax.
I've also been interested in long distance running (predominantly trail running and ultramarathons) for a number of years now. In the distance running community, a lot has been written about the altered mental states that athletes can experience after they've spent several hours alone on a run. I've heard many of the top performing ultrarunners equate their mental state during a long run to that of someone who is deep in a meditative state. I've experienced certain altered mental states during long runs on the trails and have always thoroughly enjoyed it. I would relate the feeling to what many have called a state of "flow". I feel calm, euphoric, and in control all at the same time. The idea of achieving such a mental state by meditating in my own living room without having to run for 3 hours is very appealing to me.
I have spent the last few months procrastinating on starting my mediation practice by reading around the subject instead of actually doing it. I picked up an electronic copy of The Mind Illuminated and have really enjoyed having a concrete guide on meditation. I find this helps remove some of the more wispy, spiritual ambiance that tends to surround the subject.
This week I decided that there would never be an optimal time to begin, so I just sprinkled in a very small amount into my daily routine. I mediated for five minutes per day every day. I set up a stopwatch so that I didn't have to keep checking the time throughout the practice. My only goal was to sit comfortably with my eyes closed, focusing on my breath, without checking my watch to see how much time was left. I'm planning on gradually increasing the time from 5 minutes all the way up to 25 minutes. The goal is not to become the Zen master in a week. At the most, I hope that by the end of the third week, meditation has become a non-negotiable part of my morning routine.
So far my five-minute sits are spent mostly trying not to indulge my mind in all of the little distractions it creates. Distractions come in all forms including racing thoughts, phantom itches on my body, and general discomfort from sitting. I conduct each sit by following four steps that I read about in The Mind Illuminated. Breathing softly through my nose with my eyes and mouth closed, I first bring my attention to the present moment. I mostly focus on environmental sounds and bodily sensations. If my attention seems stable without bering interrupted by thoughts, then I'll narrow the scope to focus just on bodily sensations. If I'm able to keep my attention stable on my body, then the third step is to focus on bodily sensations associated only with the breath. This could be the feeling of air filling my lungs or my shoulders and belly rising and falling with each breath. Finally, if my attention is stable at this point, I'll narrow my focus to the sensation of air passing in and out of the tip of my nose with each breath.
My experience with this sitting framework has varied greatly from day to day. On Tuesday, for example, my mind was quite still and I made it all the way through the four stages of attention within the five minutes. Other days, I struggled just to keep my attention on the present. I didn't berate myself for allowing my attention to wander on the hard days. If I noticed that my mind had wandered, I just acknowledged the racing thoughts and brought my attention back to the breath, happy with the simple fact that I had noticed and was able to bring my attention back.
I think the biggest impact from this week of sitting is overall positive. The actual mediation probably isn't having much of an impact on my mental state yet. I expect it will take months or years to see any real change directly due to meditation. However, the act of carving out even a short amount of time to sit quietly each day has made me plan my morning routine more carefully. With the knowledge that I'll be sitting at the same time every morning, I find I am less inclined to dive down meaningless internet rabbit holes. Instead, I have to take care of my breakfast and morning coffee so that I can take care of my needs and still have time to sit each day.