July 19th, 2019
What do I do during meditation?
In mid-January I started to meditate almost daily. Since I attended a seminar at a Zen monastery in March, my practice has become even more stable. I start each day at about six in the morning with a sitting meditation for 15 to 20 minutes. It was quite an invasive change in my daily routine - so why do it?
Well, last year I had problems getting enough sleep. At night, my body was tired and my brain was busy, and during the day it was vice versa. I also had increasing problems with my back despite having established a quite stable yoga practice. I felt I was not getting enough rest. I even took 10 days of unpaid vacation to tackle this problem.
But only after a breakdown I realized how serious the situation was. I felt dizzy for weeks, my back was out of whack and I constantly felt depressed. By then the problem had become too large to ignore. I started with a mindfulness-based stress reduction course, and it was quite hard at first to re-experience my body. But I felt better quickly, also thanks to help from friends and family, improving my nutrition and adjusting my exercise routine.
The weekend at the Zen monastery in March was a breakthrough for me. I realized quite a few things (that I might have known before, and have even written about) but only through the undisturbed experience internalized them. Now I feel much more stable and resilient. I don't know to which extent meditation got me there, but I will keep going.
During the weekend at the monastery, there were two Q&A sessions with the Zen master, where more or less the same questions kept popping up. This blog post is about "What do I do during meditation", the question "What do I gain from meditation?" deserves its own blog post.
What do I do during meditation?
First of all, if you do a sitting meditation, just sit. The Zen master's brief answer to "what do I do" was to "embody sitting". No need to do anything else, just focus on sitting for once, it's enough. Feel how the contracted muscles slowly relax, and where the body is still tense. Sit comfortably, relax your shoulders, but still keep the body in an upright position. By this, you can meditate longer without pain. When I meditate now, I prefer the half-lotus pose - but it's taken me a few weeks to be really comfortable in it.
Often the importance of the breath is mentioned in relation to meditation. But breathing is just as unspectacular as sitting, there is no special way to do it, no need to breathe particularly deep or regularly. The point is rather to have something recurrent, something we can use as an anchor that keeps us in the now, or gets us back into it. So use the breath to experience where it goes in your body, if it is deep or shallow, or if you are trying to control it. Resist the urge to "create" the breath, trust the body to do all the breathing that is needed.
What if thoughts arise? First of all, it is important to even notice you are thinking. The idea is not to suppress thoughts, it cannot be done. Just realize they are there, and let them pass. The Zen master used the metaphor of a blue sky and clouds drifting by. The sky is not trying the stop the clouds, it lets them do their business. Above, the blue sky is always there, just as a clear mind is always there, although it is sometimes obscured by thoughts. So if it is cloudy, focus on the sky, not the clouds - do not confuse meditation with thinking about meditation.
At first I was a little afraid of the quietness. My brain needed input. But by constantly observing that need and understanding the fear, it lost its sting. The restlessness and impatience slowly receded, and now I manage to be mostly calm, although I still have days where it's difficult to wind down and let go. However, I learned to be gentler towards myself. In itself , the effort is commendable, and it is natural to have ups and downs. Sometimes, still a handful of calm breaths can make a difference.
Here and now
So the nature of meditation is utterly minimalistic. You just need to be here and now, period. Not lost in thoughts, not sleepy, not distracted, not waiting for something to happen. Relax, observe, be gentle - don't judge, don't plan, don't act.
I can recommend using Headspace for a start, I have a subscription and content is enough for years to come, even when you meditate daily. There is enough guidance for beginners, but also more quiet sessions for later on. To me it was really helpful to get started.