This post has an alternate, more precise title:
Mindful Meditation's Effects and Frustrations
(In Which I Yammer On and On About How My New Meditation Practice Seems to be Working, and About How I've Come to Understand the Idea that One Should Be "In the Moment" Even Though I Loathe That Phrase and Most People Who Use It, and In Which I Realize That Meditation Might Have Surprising, Practical Benefits for Writers.)
But that felt a bit wordy. (Just like this blog post will no doubt feel.)
1. The Meditation Seems to be "Working"
(Or, I briefly felt quite well after meditating and am conditionally attributing this to the meditation, pending further clarifying experiences.)
I had a feeling of settledness that for me is relatively uncommon in the absence of any intense focusing activity.
I mentioned in my last few posts that I’m new to this mindfulness business. I first tried it February 12, 2015, so it's been almost seven weeks now. That first time was a five-minute sit-down, but within a month I'd nudged my way up, minute by minute, to ten. About a week ago, for the first time, I felt like meditating had actually "worked".
It wasn't something I noticed right away. About an hour after meditating, though, it occurred to me that I wasn't feeling anxious, and had few wandering thoughts. I don't remember now what I was doing, but I was relaxed and focused on it. And I had a feeling of settledness that for me is relatively uncommon in the absence of any intense focusing activity. That is to say, if I’m actively writing or drawing or even programming, the focus these activities command helps to settle the rest of the mind; absent these activities, however, my mind wanders wildly and, often, tediously. The point of mindfulness is to get that tedious wandering under control, to train your mind enough so that it doesn't wander as much to begin with. So last week, experiencing this mental calm that seemed at least partly the consequence of meditation, I sat back and thought, oh, I see, is this how it is?
The feeling was brief. It hasn't happened in so clear a way since then, and I actually feel like I lost some ground in the past week, finding my thoughts harder to rein in and be mindful of. But from what I've heard, this is to be expected, a part of the process.
2. Being "in the moment" confounded me and the phrase itself made me gag.
(But I've developed some idea of what it means.)
Focus on your breathing, they say, but what about it am I supposed to focus on? Breathing isn't Calculus or Cara Delevigne—I don’t know that it needs my sustained attention.
Part of the point of mindfulness is to help you be "in the moment", which is a phrase I used to loathe because it feels hollow or, at best, trite, and which in any case is closely associated with would-be yogis and the advertising of soda. Now, though, I understand it a bit differently.
Part of the idea backing mindfulness meditation is that we spend much of our concentration on the past or the future, at the expense of the present. We rehash conversations we've had, ad nauseum (as if doing so can change how they happened), and we play out possible future scenarios, beyond the point where it's useful (as if we can control the future simply by imagining it over and over in our heads). Doing this is tiring and a poor use of our minds. Not only that but, because the mind tends to return to the same moments over and over, all this mental wandering is boring, to boot.
Most of the wandering is done reflexively, but by trying to be mindful of it—by explicitly noting these wandering thoughts when they happen, and then explicitly bringing our focus back to the present—we can try to weaken the reflex, try to train our minds to get out of the past or the future, and focus on whatever's happening. During meditation, you focus on the sensation of breathing. Outside of meditation, you focus on whatever you're doing. This makes better use of our minds or, at the least, it give the mind a break.
Sounds swell, doesn't it? I think it does.
My problem was—and maybe still is—that when you drop the past and the future from your mind, what is left? Both during meditation and outside of it, as I batted away all the future-past meanderings, I was left with a kind of emptiness I didn't know how to handle. It's like I didn’t understand what this present moment I’m supposed to be in... is.
It was harder to figure out what to do during meditation itself. Focus on your breathing, they say, but what about it am I supposed to focus on? Breathing isn't Calculus or Cara Delevigne—I don’t know that it needs my sustained attention.
It's not that my mind wasn't wandering, but, it was a good wandering, a productive, directed, purposeful wandering.
I think that's the point, though, or part of the point. I didn't understand it as first, and was frustrated because breathing seemed so unworthy of focus. But breathing is suited to the exercise precisely because it is an easy thing to think about, yet also is not a very sticky object of focus. The ease of thinking about it means it doesn't strain us, while its slipperiness means we have to work to focus on it and not on all the other things. In other words, the exercise would be too easy if the focal point were difficult and/or appealing.
So... okay, fine, great, and swell. But that only covers meditation, and it doesn't cover what being "in the moment" means at any other time. It took me a while to get to that in a way that clicked, in a way that felt like actual understanding:
Outside of the meditation, by disabling all the meandering thoughts, by taking yourself out of the past and present, it's not so much that you free yourself up to be "in the moment"—the phrase still feels trite—but that you free yourself to focus on more productive things, things of your choice. And I think people call that being "in the moment", simply by means of the fact that you are not lost in the past or future.
I'm not sure this is the right understanding for it all, but, it’s the clearest idea I have. The other day, then, and for example, after meditation appeared to do its thing, I wrote a rough script for a new comic, and I think it's promising. (It will be an illustrated essay about bookshelves, which I'm sure sounds fascinating, almost as fascinating as this illustrated essay about the drawing of an owl). It's not that my mind wasn't wandering, but, it was a good wandering, a productive, directed, purposeful wandering. And if I'd been stuck in the past or the future, I'd either have been distracted from the script and not begun in the first place, or I'd have had to work harder to keep it going.
3. The idea of being able to better focus, to better "be creative", kind of on command, is pretty darn appealing.
The feeling I had, drafting that comic, reminded me of the process I went through writing Doll Love, a story of mine I really like and which will be published in the Jabberwock Review later this year.
I wrote about a quarter of Doll Love while walking to and from work, dictating its incidents and dialogues into my phone, and no doubt looking like a crazy person while doing so. My mind was wandering but wasn't focused on the past or future, during those walks, it was just kind of... present. And the story's characters capitalized on this state of mind, taking over and then having themselves a lot of conversation. Most of those conversations ended up in the story, almost as is. It felt more like I was recording them than like I was making them up.
This was years ago, long before I started up with the mindfulness thing, but how I felt after meditation the other day reminded me of how I felt then, dictating into my phone.
So maybe being in the present allows for a creative focus, a happy and directed wandering. And maybe before meditation, this state of mind happened by accident, or took greater effort to fall into and sustain, whereas in the future, with meditation's conditioning, it could be a more directed, or frequent, or easier.
And that is pretty darn appealing.