500 uninterrupted days of meditation in a row. Am I there yet? I don’t know. No. Turns out there is nowhere to go, except be. A message that meditation delivers and redelivers over a long haul. A note that is particularly poignant in this current moment, when we want nothing more than to get back to normal and not be in this moment. Meditation asks us to notice. To notice how and what we label — this is a crisis, that’s normal, I don’t like this, I like that.
Since meditation is nothing but a practice of noticing; here’s what I’ve noticed:
1. When will I remember? I’m now almost able to remember to sit without a prompt. I still try to leave a physical reminder for myself. On weekdays, it’s my headphones on my office chair, so I can’t sit down without noticing that I haven’t done my meditation yet. On weekends, when I try not to sit at my desk, even if I have work, I put my iPad (aka the book on my Kindle app that I’m likely to want to relax with on the couch) under my headphones. Most days, I’ve already remembered before the headphones give me a nudge, but not every day. Not yet. I’ve noticed in the last ten days that the habit is finally starting to get really sticky, which, paradoxically, makes me worry I’ll forget. I wonder when (if ever) meditation will get to be like brushing my teeth. I’d never forget to brush. Or working out. My body gets itchy for activity. Or eating. I never forget meals (never mind snacks). Most days, if I’m honest, I don’t hunger for meditation the way I do for movement and food. Though on days when I don’t meditate early, I notice that I feel like I’ve forgotten something.
2. Still a chore. Overall, I enjoy many of my meditation sessions. I think they are useful, particularly the daily-ness. And yet, sitting still feels like a chore a lot of days. A thing to get done. A box to check. Like an immersion in icy water, I know I’ll feel better afterward, but that’s not always enough motivation. Some days, I still need the extra incentive of keeping my streak intact to take my seat. Hello? Is that The Judge in my mind who just arrived to tell me that a streak is an unworthy reason to meditate? I notice her and continue.
3. Fixing me. This leads me to wonder, am I meditating wrong, because it can feel like a chore? I know the answer. No. Meditation isn’t a score (even though I am counting days). The only real object is to notice whatever there is to notice. While some meditations are based on a point of focus, like the breath or the body, simply noticing thoughts as they arise is the core fundamental. So, I notice the chore-ness. I notice that The Judge tells me I need meditation to fix what’s wrong with me. Do your chores! That’s not motivating.
4. Noticing The Novel C. Now, of course, every meditation is at minimum tinged, if not downright flooded, with COVID anxiety. Not so much about my own health. When I think specifically about my body, I feel healthy (so far). The anxiety is more about others’ health, the personal financial implications and the potentially massive societal shifts, which may be in process.
5. Zoomitation. One of the immediate shifts has been the Zoomification of my life. My regular Wednesday night sangha at Mindful Harlem has moved online. During my first Zoom-sit I had technical difficulties. The leader didn’t let me in from the Zoom waiting room. I participated in the guided meditation via FaceTime with a friend, who pointed her phone at her computer screen. When the leader asked us to focus on the sounds around us, I listened to the pauses and subtle electronic rustling as FaceTime faded under a poor connection and then reconnected multiple times. The first time I opened my eyes to check on the situation. The next times I just thought, the meditation will come back, if I just wait. And it always did. Since then, I’ve noticed that Zoom does the same. I’ve become accustomed to the pauses. Trusting the return of connectivity has been incorporated into my practice in meditation and really in my whole life.
6. Anxiously counting breaths. I’ve noticed that breath meditations appeal to me more in this moment. And I’ve further noticed that, in a particular Zen meditation counting breaths that I do, I can focus on counting in-breath and then out-breath as 1 and 2, but I have a lot of trouble only counting the out-breath. Waiting for the out-breath causes a panic-hitch in my breathing pattern; as if I’m anxious to count already. My breath eases when I switch to counting on the in-breath and then letting the out breath go. The hitch is that I feel like I’m breaking the rule that’s been specified in the meditation. Then I notice my Judge again. She says, maybe you’d be able to fix what’s wrong with you, if you could learn to count on the out-breath.
7. A drumbeat helps. Another breath meditation I did recently, involved breathing in on a count of 5 and out for a count of 7. The meditation, from Sonic Yogi, a favorite of mine on Insight Timer (the meditation app I use), had singing bowls and other sound bath elements, but also an underlying drumbeat. For the first time I was able to really find myself inside my breath count. Because, in addition to the breath counting panic described above, I often panic in meditations that ask me to count to a specific number as I breathe in and as I breathe out. As a result, I often slow down or speed up the count and then eventually lose heart in a state of confusion. A meditation guide who talks in the midst of counting just ramps up my anxiety, because then some 4-counts are longer than others. The drumbeat removed any doubt around how fast to count. I found the metronomic precision throughout the whole meditation comforting and easy to follow. Also, we had permission to alter our counts (nothing for you to comment on here, Judge). We could find the breath pattern that best suited us. Mine was 5 counts in, 2 counts holding at the top, 7 counts out and 2 counts holding at the bottom; without breaking any rules. There’s hope for me yet.
8. Mantra meditation without a clue. Another favourite of mine on Insight Timer is davidji. His meditations are straightforward and simple, and at the same time invite us to commune with the universe in a soothing way. Maybe even a little too soothing. If there was one thing I’d change about his meditations, I’d ask him to speak normally, instead of in that smooth meditation-y voice. On my 479th day, I did one of his newly released meditations. He guided us through a contemplation of uncertainty. About halfway through he set us off on our own with this mantra: Aham Bramasmi. He didn’t tell us what it meant. Or, if he did, my mind had wandered and I missed it. I repeated the words over and over in my head. Then I wondered what the mantra meant. What if the mantra was something I objected to? My mind had wandered sufficiently far now that I wasn’t sure anymore what the mantra was. Aham Bramamsi? Aham Bramsami? Aham Bramasmi means: I am the universe or universal energy. Of course, the mantra has much more nuance than that, but that’s something that comes with meditating on the mantra. I wondered, does it matter that I didn’t know what I’m saying, even as I’m repeating it? Does it matter that I repeated it wrong? No. But also yes, because intention does matter. Understanding the mantra will resonate differently. Plus, I like that mantra.
9. More faves. Since I’ve now mentioned a couple of Insight Timer faves, I wanted to give a shout out for some others (note that I listen to a lot of meditations in French): Aurelia-Lanson Villet (French); Guenther Georg’s music with binaural beats; The Bhaktas electronic mantra music; and Tara Brach (translated and guided in French by Dominique Fugère is my preference).
10. The Dracula Mantra. I did davidji’s mantra meditation again 20 days later, on my 499th day. This time I heard him say, “I am the universe.” But that was much earlier in the meditation. He didn’t connect it to the mantra. Knowing what Aham Bramasmi meant made a difference. I even had a mnemonic to remind me what the mantra was — Ahem, Bram (as in Stoker) Ask Me. Why that mnemonic? I have no idea. I’ve never had a thing for Dracula or his author. The phrase was just the first thing that came into my head. With the comfort of understanding the mantra’s meaning and my mnemonic to keep it straight, I was able to relax into the silent repetition.
11. My mind won’t travel. By contrast, meditations that try to take me on voyages are hard for me to relax into. My mind gets busy trying to work out the details, which is its form of resistance to the proposition. If the guide suggests we are in a paradisal location, my mind starts to lay out the options of what that looks like for me. My mind argues with others who think that beach locations are perfect, but then gets caught up on whether it’s a high mountain lake, or a waterfall on a steep trail, or a vista atop a peak, or a dense forest streaked with sunlight. Or maybe paradise is an undulating desert. My mind gets occupied considering the temperature and season. By the time my mind makes a decision on paradise, the meditation has moved on and I have no idea where I am. The Judge is in the house and it’s not utopic.
As you can gather from this list, meditation summons up a lot of mental hijinks. Of course, my experience is not your experience. Maybe your mind is pre-qualified for peaceful quiet. Mine is not. Maybe your mind doesn’t have a loudmouth Judge who likes to shoot off her mouth a lot. My Judge likes to hog airtime. Yet, the more I notice her, the lower the Judge’s decibel level. And each time I find some peaceful quiet inside my breath, I am cutting the brush away to better clear that path for my next visit.
So, I persist. On these still-chilly early spring mornings, I wrap myself in a beautiful mother-knit serape made from Icelandic wool and put a blanket over my crossed legs. I settle onto my cushion. Or as davidji puts it, I feather my nest. And I notice.
I’ve been writing along the way about my meditation streak; most recently here: 14 Things I Noticed During 365+ Straight Days of Meditation.