When I signed up for an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, I thought it would help me “deepen” my commitment to mindfulness meditation. Now, going into the final stretch of the program, I’m wondering what, exactly, I was thinking.
I’ve had plenty of time on the cushion to contemplate the purpose of my intensive foray into the world of mindfulness—or, in the parlance of the meditation community, my “intention.” I think I was hoping to develop some serious meditation chops, to transform myself from a meditation amateur into a meditation professional.
Now I’m realizing the daily practice I’d fashioned for myself was deep enough just the way it was. Which, I guess, is the very essence of mindfulness: recognizing things for what they are, accepting them, and not trying to make them different.
For this achievement oriented striver, the concept of “good enough” has required a major mental attitude adjustment. You mean I don’t have to be an expert? And what would that even look like for a meditator? Going on a weeklong retreat? Becoming a Buddhist monk? No, I just have to keep plugging away to reap the subtle benefits—improved focus, better tolerance for frustration, more patience—I get from practicing meditation on a regular basis.
This observation came to me after the all-day retreat last week. (With hours devoted just to sitting and observing thoughts as they floated by like clouds in the sky, I’d have been disappointed if I hadn’t come away with at least one insight.)
I’d anticipated the day with a great deal of trepidation, as did many of the participants. Would I be able to stand being silent for 7 hours? Sit for long stretches without needing to get up and move? Endure just “being” without doing anything? Heck, I even wondered what to pack for lunch and how I’d slip away discretely if I needed a bathroom break.
But, as with many unfamiliar situations, the experience turned out to be far less taxing than I’d feared. We moved smoothly from one meditation to another—sitting, yoga, walking—so there was plenty of variety to break up the time. We could leave whenever we wanted and even had permission to take our lunches outside (which turned out to be an unexpected delight given the beautiful weather and fortuitous park bench I happened upon). The only rule was “No talking.”
Three hours passed surprisingly quickly. I enjoyed having nowhere to go and no chores to do. But when we returned from our lunch break, the afternoon started to drag. I felt drowsy. The last instruction of the day was to do any meditation of our choosing for a half hour. I welcomed the opportunity to stretch out on a yoga mat and close my eyes. And then I promptly fell asleep.
Even though improved sleep may be one positive outcome of meditation, sleeping isn’t meditating. But given the intensity of the day’s activities—yes, just being can be exhausting—and the focus on self-acceptance, I cut myself slack for missing out on the last part of the session.
So what did I learn? I realized more isn’t necessarily better when it comes to meditation, or many other pursuits, for that matter. Sometimes you reach a point of diminishing returns.
I plan to continue meditating. But I probably won’t be putting in 45 minutes a day, and I certainly won’t be going on a 7-day silent retreat any time soon.
I’ve discovered the importance of evaluating—mindfully, of course—what you need in any given moment. It might be meditation. Or it might, in fact, be a nap.
Not even a week into 2014 and already I’ve broken my resolutions. I should have known better.
Most of the promises made on the eve of January 1st are doomed to fail. Yet we continue to make them year after year, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Isn’t that the definition of insanity?
My first resolution didn’t even last through New Year’s Day. Feeling pleased with the meditation practice I’d cultivated over the last year by setting myself the modest goal of sitting and focusing on my breath for at least five minutes daily, I’d decided to raise the bar. I would meditate for thirty minutes every day!
As it turned out, on the first of January I got involved in preparing a complicated meal, puttering around the house, and sharing the fruits of my labor with my family. When I finally remembered I hadn’t yet meditated, it was 11:00 pm, and I was sleepy. Normally I’d put in my five minutes and call it a night. But instead, I set my timer for 20 minutes and struggled to stay awake while I concentrated on my inhalations and exhalations until the bell chimed.
You’d think, having just quadrupled the length of a typical late-night meditation session while managing not to fall asleep during it, I’d congratulate myself. But no. I felt disappointed.
I kept my second resolution until January 3. I’d decided I would accrue 10,000 steps a day on my activity-monitoring wristband. Despite my sedentary job, I often do get in at least 10,000 steps by taking the stairs instead of the elevator to my seventh floor office, walking the dogs for nearly an hour, and catching up with my favorite TV shows on the elliptical trainer instead of the couch.
Usually, in spite of my aversion to the cold, I manage with a Teutonic-like resolve to drag the dogs (both wimps when it comes to weather extremes) and myself out the door every day for a walk. But with the wind chills hovering in the single digits on January 3 and the sidewalks iced over, none of us could endure more than fifteen minutes around the block, giving me a paltry 5700 steps for the day.
Maybe you’re sticking to your resolutions a little longer than I did. But unless you’re endowed with an ironclad will—and, if so, probably not in need of making vows to improve yourself—you’ll abandon them sooner or later.
Why don’t New Year’s resolutions work? In my experience, both personal and professional, most people fail to stick to their resolutions because they set their sights on inflexible goals. Both my resolutions were too rigid and unrealistic, failing to take into account variability in daily responsibilities and interference from outside forces (like the weather).
Before making my resolutions for 2014, I’d already been meditating regularly and getting more active by aiming for consistency over quantity. This tactic motivated me because even one minute of meditation “counted.” And when I increased the length of a practice, I did it out of choice rather than obligation. But as soon as I changed the rules, demanding of myself 100% adherence to an arbitrary numerical standard, I set myself up to fail.
Fortunately, I recognized my distorted thinking right away and have gone back to striving for consistency. I’ll still try to practice longer when I can carve out the time but I accept that it’s not always possible.
Many people get frustrated and give up altogether when they fall short of their goals. If you’re an “all-or-nothing” thinker, you may believe you blew it if you slipped up even just a little. Then, bye bye, resolutions.
One reason making New Year’s resolutions is so appealing, according to social scientists, is “the fresh start effect.” Researchers found an increased interest in dieting, inferred from the frequency of Google searches for the term “diet,” around the beginnings of new weeks, months, years, semesters, birthdays, and holidays.
Viewing change from the perspective of a fresh start mentality can backfire, as anyone who’s fallen off the diet wagon on a Wednesday knows all too well. Your waistline won’t shrink if you tell yourself, “Oh, well. I guess I can eat whatever I want and start the diet again on Monday.”
But if you must give yourself a mental clean slate to recommit to change, there’s a better way. You can take a page from Zen Buddhism and the concept of Shoshin, or “Beginner’s Mind,” where every moment can be a fresh start. Even the same action repeated over and over is different every time.
So forget about the New Year’s resolutions and just begin again—not tomorrow or next week, but right now.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about time—about its elusive nature, its short supply, and its too-rapid passage.
So far no one has invented an app to add more hours to the day. But we can change our relationship to time. How? Through meditation. By adding a formal mindfulness practice to your agenda, you can slow your pace or heighten your awareness of even the briefest moments to get the most bang for your temporal buck.
I came to this discovery recently during a meditation practice. On weekdays, I usually I try to meditate as soon as I arrive at the office. I don’t like to feel rushed, and I get in early enough to give myself plenty of time.
But on this particular day, I needed to answer emails and couldn’t fit in the practice before my first appointment. So, I decided to squeeze it in during a break. I set the timer for twenty minutes and began to focus on my breath, as I do nearly every day.
What I noticed was this: I found myself hurrying, trying to get through the exercise as quickly as possible. I wasn’t cutting short the time—twenty minutes is twenty minutes, no matter how you may try to speed it up—but I remained acutely aware of the clock until the bell I’d set to mark the end of my practice (there is an app for that) rang. I found the process frustrating and unsatisfying.
We often dash through our days in just the same way, rushing to complete one activity so we can move on to the next. Focusing on the end product rather than the process of getting there takes away from what’s happening in the present moment—so much so, in fact, that we often can’t even remember what we’ve just experienced.
When my son was in high school, he had his own epiphany about time. Now a college senior majoring in music performance, back then he’d already begun to get serious about his trumpet playing and, under the guidance of an outstanding teacher and mentor, was finally learning how to practice. Until that point, he’d put in the requisite fifteen or twenty minutes, speeding through his scales and embouchure drills so he could get them over with and play video games. But after reading The Inner Game of Tennis and discovering how to focus, he started playing longer and with a greater sense of presence.
Although 15-year-old boys aren’t typically known for their ability to verbalize complex internal processes, he summed up his experience with an uncharacteristically Yoda-like observation: “When I used to practice, 15 minutes felt like an hour. Now an hour feels like 15 minutes.”
Of course he didn’t realize he’d achieved the enviable mental state called “flow.”
Most of us overly scheduled people would seriously question adding yet another task to our already excessive daily To-Do lists. Between going to work, looking after a family, attempting to maintain a semblance of fitness, and maybe even having a social life, how can we find the time?
It’s possible to make room in your agenda for a mindfulness practice, even though it might mean playing fewer games of Angry Birds or Tweeting less frequently. By including twenty minutes of meditation—or even just five, for starters—you might find you accomplish more throughout the rest of the day. Or, as my son realized, you might even enter The Zone: that sweet spot where you connect effortlessly with your experience and don’t even notice the passage of time. You’ll still have only twenty-four hours at your disposal. But it could feel like all the time in the world. Or like no time at all.
This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.