Powerful Sixty Seconds
Over the past few months I have been reading books by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana – a Buddhist monk who explains deeply complex Buddhist beliefs, structures, and practices in a very accessible, easy-to-understand way. He is direct and honest, yet still compassionate; and he writes in a straight-forward yet engaging style I really appreciate and find very valuable. I benefitted a lot from his first book (Mindfulness in Plain English), and am already gaining good suggestions from his second (Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness).
Gunaratana offers numerous ideas for how a person can improve their meditation practice, and for how an individual can develop further along the Buddhist path. One seemingly “easy” suggestion he provides is to meditate for one minute every hour of every day (in addition to a formal daily seated meditation practice). I have read in popular magazines before the suggestion that people take a small break every hour (for example, people who work on computers for hours at a time are encouraged to stand and stretch on a regular basis), so Gunaratana’s suggestion seemed to be a good idea, and something interesting to try. So, I did.
After my regular morning seated meditation, I set an alarm on my phone to ring every hour at a set time (usually a few minutes before the hour). When the alarm rings, I stop whatever I’m doing, close my eyes (if it’s appropriate and safe to do so [i.e., I’m not driving, or in a meeting at work, etc.]), and engage in conscious breathing for 5 breaths. When the 5 breaths are finished, I open my eyes, and resume whatever it was I was doing.
Sounds easy, right? Um, yeah… I was shocked (shocked!) at how much I learned about myself in just three days of this practice. Seriously. For example, I got to see how lost I get in whatever task I’m engaged in. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; psychologists are aware of this phenomenon, and call it “flow” – and the more time people spend in flow, generally the happier they are in/with life. So, I’m not complaining; I’m just surprised at how deeply I enter this “flow” state, and how often I do so. One “side effect” of living in a flow state for a while is that time seems to move *very* quickly; and this is absolutely true for me. My phone alarm would ring, I would pause and engage in the 5 breaths, resume my activity, and then 10 minutes later the alarm would ding again. What? I’d look up, and I’ll be damned; another hour had passed. Wow.
But not all of my learnings were the positive, happy type. I also got to see nearly immediately (by the end of the first day, for sure) how attached I am to getting what I want, and how aversive I am when I even suspect that there might be a hint that I might not get exactly what I want. And the things I “want” can be super-trivial: wanting a cup of tea RIGHT NOW instead of waiting even 30 seconds for water to boil; wanting the television to be one click quieter than it is; wanting the cashier to smile at me as broadly as she did the previous customer… just dinky, piddly stuff. And yet, my body doesn’t know that these things are trivial; it responds exactly the same way in every instance. So as the meditation minute began, I felt rather intense tightness and clenching in my physical body; stress I honestly didn’t even know I was carrying. At the end of the fifth breath, I felt a noticeable physical relaxation in my muscles, and a mental relaxation of my desires. It’s really, really wild. And upsetting. I get to see everything that’s going on inside of me; and a lot of it isn’t “pretty”.
So while this one-minute-every-hour practice is quite rich, and is showing me brand new things I honestly never knew before (and so this exercise is intensely valuable), it’s also a painful practice at times. Do I want to see all of my clinging, and grasping, and aversion, and stress, and pain, and unease, and suffering? Or do I want to live “blissfully ignorant “ to it all?
Well… it’s happening, whether I’m aware of it or not. It’s all real, whether I acknowledge it or not. If I bury my head in the sand, I might avoid a sunburn on my scalp, but I also won’t be able to breathe.
I think the latter consequence is a lot more dire than the former.
I had a situation occur today where I could have gotten very “justifiably” angry. My initial reaction to the situation was one of mild shock; then confusion; then disbelief. I reached out to the person who initiated the action-in-question, and delivered a firm message directly and honestly – but also compassionately, and without attachment to the message or the potential result. Once I had done what I could (by taking appropriate action), I let the whole situation go. The duration of the entire incident, from start to finish, was less than 5 minutes.
This may seem somewhat “underwhelming” when it is shared here as written text, but this example is truly monumental to me. I was able to address a volatile situation immediately (instead of ruminating on it for hours/days/weeks), by delivering an appropriate response (instead of an intensely emotional/hostile reaction). I was able to state my truth directly (instead of sugar-coating it, or avoiding it altogether), and then let go of the emotions connected to the situation right then and there (instead of holding on to them or having them gnaw at me for hours/days/weeks/months/years). Even when I shared details of the incident later with my supervisor and my spouse, I didn’t have an emotional reaction; indeed, it was difficult for me to even access any “righteous indignation” around this situation.
A year ago, this situation likely would have played out much differently. I probably would have responded with strong aggression, and certainly would have held internal anger and frustration for at least a day or two, if not longer. The incident would have affected my entire weekend, and perhaps even the next work week. I might have lost sleep over fretting and stewing about the ordeal, and certainly would have lost contentment and equanimity.
And while several of those above emotional states did still occur, they were very brief (i.e., elapsed in the span of a few minutes instead of a few weeks). So while I’m still not “enlightened” (not by a long shot!), I am progressing. Meditation is “working”. : )
Let the energy flow
(This morning’s meditation session was inspired by an event that happened in yoga; you can read more yoga stuff here.)
Yoga can be about lots of things, I suppose; but my current yoga teachers focus largely on energy flow. The flow of energy all around the physical body, and up and down the physical spine; and the flow of spiritual/universal/”cosmic” energy, all around all of us.
In a yoga session I had last week, the teacher asked all of us to not cross our arms, or clasp our hands together; but instead, to keep the center line of our bodies completely unblocked and open. Cool, got it; no problem. However, not five minutes later, the teacher approached me, and gently pulled my hands apart, placing them at my sides. I was unconsciously holding my hands together at my core, just like I do when I’m sitting in meditation. Oh.
A week between then and now has passed. But for whatever reason this morning, a thought came to me: “Hey, what if I didn’t connect my hands during meditation? What if I didn’t sit using a ‘meditation’ mudra, but instead let my hands rest by my sides?” So, I tried it. I sat down on my meditation bench, then separated my hands, and placed each one on either side of my rear.
And today, I had a VERY effective meditation session. My mind was focused, concentrated, and very aware – much more so than it has been in a long time. (Definitely weeks, if not months.) Then, about 5 minutes into the session, I could feel energy moving up and down my spine, and in and out of my body, all strong and steady.
It all made for a very powerful sit. I’m curious to see if I get similar results tomorrow. But more than anything, I recognize (and appreciate) how the different factors currently at play in my life are all coming together, reinforcing one another, and supporting me on my current path. It’s very, very cool.