It is commonly said that practising meditation is like training a muscle. Repeated and consistent practice strengthens the meditation “muscle”. Lapses weaken it. So why don’t we use lessons from the science of exercise and muscle-building to fast-track our meditation development? Here is what happened when I tried…
As you may know, I’ve been meditating regularly for almost four years. I’ve been on retreats and meditate weekly with other people. For a significant portion of these four years, I’ve maintained a daily practice. I’ve also taken hiatuses in my daily practice, however, and it’s coming back from one of these hiatuses right now that pushes one point home for me: I find it hard to be with the breath (or other meditation object) consistently for a prolonged period of time.
Note that I’m not having problems with sitting for 20 or 30 minutes every day. My body isn’t complaining and my schedule now allows for it; so there is no immediate competition or interference. But am I really with the breath for all of these 20 or 30 minutes? Hardly… I allow thoughts to carry me away, to review the day, to daydream even. The relative silence of the early morning hour and my early morning mind are quite enjoyable and have benefits of their own. But meditation it is not. Moreover, this permissive attitude tends to become habitual after some time, making it easier and easier for me to let my mind drift.
I feel that I should be making the most of my time on the cushion and not give myself a pass. So that’s where the science of exercise comes in. I’ve started myself on a regimen of short bursts of meditation, designed to train my mind according to the principles of muscle building and interval training.
What I do is this:
- I set my timer for 1 minute and close my eyes. I pay attention to my breath non-stop. When thoughts, emotions, other physical sensations, etcetera come, I note them as quickly as I can and go back to the breath. Truth be told, though, with the one minute intervals I’m able to stay with the breath quite exclusively without thoughts making an impact. They may be there, but they’re wispy and transient. I suppose this is due to the high level of determination at the beginning of the session.
- When the timer goes off, I do standing meditation for about 20 seconds, paying attention to the act or intention of standing.
Rinse, repeat. I increase the time by 1 additional minute after each “successful” sit. So after the 1 minute sit and the 20sec standing meditation, I increase the sitting time to 2 minutes – thus creating “levels” for myself. I keep the standing meditation at around 20 seconds.
When I notice that my attention during a particular level has been scattered or less determined than I’ve wanted, I’ll try the same level a second time. If it’s scattered again, I may drop down to the level below, maybe do some walking meditation or quit for the day.
I usually spend at least 20 minutes this way. I currently run into trouble around the 4-5 minute levels, sometimes already way in the beginning of the sit, at what seems like 30 seconds in. So, I guess 4-5 minutes non-stop awareness of the breath is my current level of “training”. I’m curious how this will have changed by the end of August, say, not to mention the end of the year.
One thought for those who have trouble experiencing the breath on a raw sensate level; it might be a good idea to spend a few minutes just breathing quietly at the beginning of the session, placing your hands on your chest and/or abdomen to become more intimately acquainted with the way your breath manifests itself. Then set the timer and start practising. If you’re interested in more of these breath-cognizing techniques, be sure to check out Donna Farhi’s excellent “The Breathing Book” (amazon.co.uk | bol.com).
One last, obvious, thought to close this blog post off with. This method can work with all kinds of meditation practice; not just with the breath. This is actually the way I learned how to do walking meditation. “Walk twenty steps, do standing meditation, turn around, walk twenty steps, do standing meditation, turn around, etcetera.”