meditation puzzle

How I got traction on meditation

In the last two to three months I’ve finally gotten traction on meditation, after having a huge chip on my shoulder about it for at least a couple of years. The most important piece of this was something Anna told me Jasen Murray once told her about meditation:

“Meditating is a puzzle, and the puzzle is what meditation is.”

So now when I meditate, I’m paying attention to this internal sense of whether I’m “doing the meditation thing,” and if the answer feels like “no,” I tweak little aspects of what I’m doing to try and get that internal sense of “I’m doing meditation” to increase. Which means doing a ton of little micro experiments when I meditate, testing different hypotheses.  Some stuff this has caused me to play with:

  • Not focusing on my breath (When I try to do mindful breathing my body wants to do a kind of weird semi-gasping thing from the chest instead of slow, steady diaphragmatic breathing. Which is uncomfortable, and also causes a bunch of distracting thoughts about how I’m “breathing wrong”. I also just don’t really get sensations in my nostrils when I exhale most of the time, which makes keeping my attention there difficult). Instead I’ve played with resting my attention on other things, like the qualia coming out of my right thumb, or how it feels where my fingers touch each other, or the patterns of light on the back of my closed eyelids, or a feeling of “being in the center of my mind” that sometimes arises – all of which produce many fewer thoughts to navigate.
  • Meditating for a very short period of time, taking a 1-2 minute break, then doing another very short meditation (ie 3+3 minutes). This turned out to be much less intimidating than meditating for 6 minutes straight, but in the second 3 minute period I’d often start out a little clearer minded
  • Using white noise to reduce my auditory input in addition to closing my eyes to reduce visual input (which seems to again just make it easier to get even a little bit of that not-thinking-about-anything state, in addition to having some useful classical condition-y type effects)

It used to be that when I tried to meditate, it felt like basically nothing was happening – that there was some experiential difference I would get if I was “meditating” that I was not in fact getting. I now believe this is basically true, that there is such a thing, and that I wasn’t managing to do it before. The problem is that somehow my interpretation of all the advice I’d ever gotten on meditation added up to “if it feels like it isn’t working, don’t change anything about what you’re doing; just do exactly what you’re doing, no matter what that was, a bunch more.” Which is arguably true in some sense, but was not the thing I needed. I suspect that I am/was unusually bad at meditation a priori, such that when I’ve tried it in the past I basically never got my mind clear even for a moment.

Part of what has succeeded this time, I think, is that I gave myself permission to “cheat” in a bunch of ways to get myself over the hump to sometimes getting that thought-free state for a few seconds. To actually try and get that to happen, by changing little aspects of what I was doing. Which is much less frustrating, and the lack of frustration does, in turn, make it much easier to succeed. In theory it’s possible I would have someday learned how to just keep sitting through all that frustration, but there’s a sense in which that’s an unnecessarily difficult path – better to just try and remove a bunch of the sources of frustration, so that I could get started. (I’m sure that lots of the things that seem to be working well for me right now would need to change again if I’m ever to get “decent” at meditation).

I should also mention in this that I think one other part of what enabled me to succeed here was the way I’m using a productivity app called Complice – which basically has been causing me to spend 1-2 minutes every morning asking myself what are the most important things I want to accomplish today, which I then make a list of and tick off as I do them. Using this to motivate meditation means that it’s never a stale request from a past-me – each day, I have to choose whether I want to put this on my plate, and I’m totally prepared for the likelihood that at some point this is going to fall off my radar and I’ll stop doing it. In fact, I’m pretty surprised the habit has stuck around as long as it has. And all of that is fine; that’s how I intend to be using this part of my to do system.

And to be concrete about what kind of progress I’m talking about: I’ve meditated about 30 times in the last 2 months, for between 1 and 12 minutes per session; probably on average 3?

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