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Posts Tagged ‘navel-gazing’

Four Stages of Mindfulness

So there’s the idea of four stages of competence, right? Unconscious incompetence (you’re bad at something and don’t even know it), conscious incompetence (you’re bad at it, but you know that), conscious competence (you’re good and you know it), and unconscious competence (you’re so good you don’t even have to think about it anymore).

The other day, while meditating, I realized a form of this applies to mindfulness:

Unconscious lack of focus — I am distracted from what I’m supposed to pay attention to — usually my breath — and I haven’t even realized that fact.

Conscious lack of focus — I am distracted from what I’m supposed to pay attention to, but I have noticed that fact. (Which means I am succeeding at the basics of mindfulness, yay!)

Conscious focus — I am paying attention to the correct target, but dammit, my awareness of the fact that I am focused keeps on breaking that focus. (I am again succeeding, but I’m annoyed at my own observer effect.)

Unconscious focus — I am paying attention to the correct target and don’t even realize that fact. (I am succeeding, buuuuut I’m lucky if this stage lasts for two seconds at a stretch.)

. . . and if you’re thinking, “But if you realized this while meditating, that probably means you were somewhere in the ‘lack of focus’ half of that list,” you are quite correct. 😛

Something like a year of sitting

The last time I posted about meditation was at the six-month mark, back in March when I commented that I no longer had an unbroken streak — I’d missed a few days here and there — but at least I was still doing it.

Yeah, that. And then some.

I’ve missed more than a few days; I think there was a stretch where I missed something like two weeks. But what I said before still applies: I feel like I missed two weeks, not like I stopped. I think I was teetering on the edge of this not feeling like a habit anymore, but I kept going.

If I had an unbroken streak, I would have made sure to commemorate the exact day it reached a full year. But in some ways, I think that for this particular habit, it’s better for me not to fixate on a milestone like that. I’m not in a competition with myself. I’m just doing a thing that I think helps a little bit, knitting back up my capacity for concentration against a world that’s determined to fray it into shreds.

A recent email from the meditation app I’ve been using had an analogy I really liked, which is dribbling a basketball. The writer of that particular piece said they talked to a meditation teacher who’s been at this for thirty years, and he estimates he can generally get about seven seconds of sustained focus before his attention tries to wander. But the wandering mind is like the basketball dropping to the ground: the goal is not to keep it perpetually in your hand (which is more or less impossible in meditation), but to train it to come back where it’s wanted with a minimum of effort and fuss. To have fewer of those moments where you ricochet from Idle Thought X to Problem Y to oh shit where did the last half hour go, I was in the middle of a work thing and then I got distracted. Idle Thought X will still happen — brains gonna brain — but if you’re mindful, if you notice that happening, you’re less likely to hop on the thought train and forget where you were.

So I’m still going. Something like a year, with an unknown number of days missed along the way. That’s fine. I’m still going.

Six Months of Sitting

A few days ago I passed the six-month milestone for when I began meditating again.

That isn’t quite the same thing as six months of meditation. My streak is no longer unbroken: I have missed three days, two in February, one in March. But I’ve gotten far enough that those missed days don’t feel like I’ve broken something. (One place where not having the gamified achievements turns out to be good, even though those are usually effective for me — there’s no brass ring I just missed getting.) The principle I’ve tried to really absorb is “begin again”: whether it’s the attention wandering away from the breath, a missed day, or months on end without sitting down to meditate, the answer is simply, begin again. But I’m at a point now where it doesn’t even really feel like I’m beginning; I’m just continuing. A missed day is not the end of the world.

I don’t think I’m quite at the level where I can call it an ingrained habit, though. Not to the extent that I can with my Duolingo Japanese practice, where my streak is now over 500 days long, even though the last achievement carrot to bait me onward was back at the 365-day mark. I also have to admit my sessions lately have not been what you’d call great — though I did comment on Twitter a while back that there are two kinds of good meditation days, the ones where my mind is obedient and focused and the ones where it’s like a hyperactive puppy but dammit I try anyway. We’ve had a bit more of the hyperactive puppy in recent weeks, alas. I still sit down for ten minutes, though, and that counts for something.

What about the results? Well . . . honestly, of late things have not been great. Some of you might have seen me on Twitter the other day asking for cute animal pictures and the like, because I was having a very bad day stress-wise. Unpacking why and what I’ve been doing about it is a separate post, but I can’t say I’ve been any model of equanimity lately. Would I be in a worse state if I weren’t meditating? No way of knowing. Do I think it’s been good to have in my toolkit six months’ worth of practice focusing on my breathing, or the lesson of being aware of what’s going on inside my own head? . . . maybe. I certainly don’t think it has hurt.

Regardless, the takeaway is that I’m going to keep going. To nine months, to a year, to more — I hope. I know I can do this, and furthermore I can keep doing it even when I stumble. A missed day doesn’t have to turn into me not even trying. That alone, I think, is useful.

Ninety days of navel-gazing

For several years now I’ve been intermittently trying to get into the habit of meditating.

For the first time, I think I may be succeeding.

You’ll see all kinds of stuff online declaring that it takes twenty-one days to form a habit. Or thirty. Or sixty. I went digging on this, and unsurprisingly, the actual answer varies wildly — not to mention that I wonder how the researchers who study this can actually tell. How do you detect “a habit” versus something you’ve been doing daily but it isn’t really ingrained yet? I think I have genuinely developed one in my Duolingo Japanese practice; I managed to keep my nose to the grinder long enough to achieve a 365-day streak, and in the month plus since then, I still haven’t missed a day. There aren’t any more achievements for me to unlock in the program, but I keep doing it anyway.

I’m a little over ninety days into the meditation practice/habit/what have you. Ninety-two, I think, but there was one day around 75 where I didn’t get my sitting done until after midnight, which broke my streak in the app I’m using. I did still meditate that “day,” though (defining that as a span of time between me waking and going to sleep), so it counts. This is longer than I’ve ever managed before, and I think I know why.

See, in the past I’ve started small and tried to build. If I’m doing well with ten minutes, I try for fifteen, or twenty. (I don’t think I’ve ever shot for more than twenty.) There’s certainly a benefit to going for longer, but this time I decided to prioritize the habit over the duration — it’s easy to squeeze ten minutes from my day, and definitely saves my bacon when I realize that oh crap, it’s 11:45, I need to sit down right now. And I think that’s contributing very substantially to my success in keeping this up. I don’t know if it’s a genuine habit yet, in the way Duolingo is, but it’s getting there. When it’s realio trulio ingrained, I’ll think about adding five or ten minutes to my regimen. But that might not be until some time next year. One study said the time needed for habit formation could range as high as 254 days (again, how do they tell???), so if I’m still just doing ten minutes come next June, that’s fine. The important thing will be that I am still doing it.

Is it making a difference? I think so. I’m just doing basic mindfulness, and I do think it’s improved my concentration and memory a bit. I also credit the equanimity I managed to maintain through election season to the fact that I started back in on this in early September, specifically because I knew I was likely to need something to keep me from losing my shit.

But what I do know is that I (mostly) don’t mind doing this anymore. It’s becoming routine. I think it would be better if I could manage anything like consistency in when I sit down . . . but what matters is that I’m doing this.


One of the mediation apps on my phone (yes, I have several . . . I am the walking stereotype of “I really want to make a habit of this! Maybe if I find The Perfect Program, I’ll succeed!) is running a New Year’s Challenge, with a goal of meditating at least fifteen days in the first twenty-one, i.e. five days a week for three weeks. So far I’m 11 for 11 (it started on the 6th, not the 1st), which is good, and I sort of wish they’d launch another challenge after this one, because seeing that little gold medal does help with motivation and persistence.

But it’s gotten me thinking about a bunch of things. Like New Year’s resolutions, and the ways in which that whole concept tends to set us up for failure. One of the “ohhhhh” moments for me in trying to practice mindfulness meditation was when it finally got through my skull that those moments when I realize my attention has wandered away from my breath? That’s not me failing at meditation; that’s me succeeding. Because the point is not to achieve perfect tranquility from start to finish, but rather to be mindful: both to pay attention to a thing (my breath), and also to notice when my attention has strayed. “Begin again,” as several of the meditation teachers in this app have said — and as one of them pointed out, that applies to the practice of meditation in general as well as any individual session again. Missed a day? Begin again. Missed a week? Begin again. Missed six months? Notice that you’ve stopped. Be mindful of what you’re doing. And what you’re not doing.

I have a poster on my wall with the text of “An Invocation for Beginnings”. It’s one of the few “motivational” things that’s ever spoken to me on an emotional level. And to quote one pertinent bit: “Let me realize that my past failures at follow-through are no indications of my future performance, they’re just healthy little fires that are going to warm up my ass.” New Year’s resolutions, though . . . we treat them as rigid. If you resolve to do a thing, and then drop the ball, you’ve broken your resolution. Game over. Stop trying.

No. Begin again.

The app has been providing a meditation lesson for each day, which I recognize is so they can advertise the various series that require a paid account to use. But I’m still appreciating it as a tour of different things, like deep breathing techniques to reduce stress. Today’s was on “loving-kindness” meditation, which is about developing compassion toward yourself and other people. Chesed, maitrī, agape in its less-religious sense. What really struck me was the brief video beforehand, with Dan Harris (the guy behind the app) and Sharon Salzberg (the teacher for that session) discussing the concept of loving-kindness — and how we as a society tend to disparage the idea, as if compassion and kindness make us weak. The video was only a few minutes long, so I’m not surprised they didn’t attempt to unpack the gender dimension, but it’s there: loving-kindness is a trait associated with femininity, and therefore men are discouraged from developing it. Harris straight-up admitted that he was embarrassed to be seen reading Salzberg’s book — that he literally hid the cover when he was reading it on planes, etc. How messed-up is that? But he’s a white dude in America, which means he’s not supposed to be squishy and touchy-feely and nice.

Hello, toxic masculinity. And yet, so many of our religions praise this quality, not just for girls but for everybody. But it’s hardly news that we’re historically bad at actually practicing what we preach.

I don’t really have a point here that I’m trying to arrive at, except that getting back into meditation (begin again) is prompting a variety of thoughts in me. And that I’m hoping it will help me develop the internal equilibrium I’m going to need to survive 2020. Our whole society could use a mega-dose of loving-kindness, if only we had some way to inject it.

Bicep curls for the brain

Once again, I’m trying to get back into the habit of meditating. Or maybe just into the habit, since I’ve never quite made it firmly stick.

Two things are helping this time, though. One is telling myself that it’s okay to just go for ten minutes: I don’t need to push to increase that to fifteen or twenty or thirty. Maybe once I’m really and truly in the habit of ten minutes every day, but not until then; it’s a lot easier to declare “for crying out loud, it’s only ten minutes” and then just sit down than it is to mark out a longer block of time.

The other is akin to the epiphany I had some years ago about balance. I stopped thinking of it as a state (I am balanced) and started thinking of it as a process (I am balancing) — which had the effect of making me better at balancing, because I no longer thought of any deviation from the center as failure. It’s just part of the process of balancing, and the rest of the process is bringing yourself back to center.

Same thing here. Meditating isn’t the state of having my mind clear and focused on my breathing. It’s the process of noticing when my thoughts have wandered, and bringing them gently back to my breathing. At least in mindfulness meditation — I don’t have much experience with other kinds. I’ve started thinking of it as bicep curls for my brain, strengthening my mindfulness every time I return my attention to my breathing. Except that bicep curls are an effort, and this isn’t supposed to feel like heavy lifting; the metaphor breaks down after a while. Even so.

Process, not state. Understanding that wobbles happen. Not giving up, but trying again, and accepting that “trying again” is how it goes. As the most recent newsletter from 10% Happier said, it isn’t about not having thoughts, but about not getting caught up in them. Letting them pass by. I keep telling myself, “I can think about that later.”

Less than ten minutes later. Maybe someday I’ll get back to longer stretches, but for now, ten minutes is a good workout.