Secular Meditation: “If you can’t meditate for twenty minutes a day…”

clock in hand
“You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day — unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.” -Zen proverb

Almost as soon as I started meditating, I started hearing this proverb. It pops into my mind now and then: usually when I’m struggling with (or simply looking at) how to find time to practice every day, in a life that’s both overly packed and highly irregular.

Part of me gets it. And part of me thinks it’s totally classist, elitist, tone-deaf bullshit.

Part of me gets it. If my life is so packed with activity that I can’t find even twenty minutes to just sit still, then that’s a sign that I need to start scaling back. It’s a sign that the balance between activity and stillness in my life has gone haywire. It’s a sign that I’m taking on too much, and that I need to start saying “No” more often to more people. What’s more, if I’m telling myself that I don’t have time to meditate that day, it’s often a sign that there’s something I’m trying to avoid: some emotion or memory or anxiety that I’m furiously shoving into a corner with all my frenetic activity and that I know is going to start rising up the minute I sit down and start quietly focusing my awareness on my breath. And of course, there’s the little matter of priorities. If I can find time to dick around on Facebook or watch reruns of “Modern Family,” I can find time to meditate. For me, a big part of the point of meditation is to wean my brain off of needing constant stimulation and activity and input — so it’s worth looking at how much of the busy-ness of my life is legitimate and valuable, and how much is just generating noise to feed my sensation-junkie brain and distract me from uncomfortable truths that might come up in the silence.

So yes. Part of me gets this proverb, and resonates with it strongly.

gas station at night
But part of me finds this proverb intensely irritating. There are an awful lot of people for whom a busy, action-packed life isn’t a luxury or a privilege, or even a choice. If you’re too busy to meditate for twenty minutes a day because you’re working one job at Wal-Mart and another at the gas station and you’re trying to get your car repaired and your laundry done and your kids to school, and you think this meditation thing might bring a modicum of calm to your life but you seriously have no idea how you’re going to find twenty spare minutes in your day to do it… is it really going to help for some smug Zen jackalope to tell you that (a) there’s something wrong with you because you don’t have twenty minutes of downtime in your day, and (b) the cure for what’s wrong with you is to find an hour of downtime in your day? With the implication of (b) being to loop around to (a) — that the lack of downtime in your life means there’s something wrong with you?

Fuck. That. Noise.

And even for me, who doesn’t work at the gas station or Wal-Mart… sure, there are plenty of times when “I don’t have twenty minutes a day to meditate” is crap, but there are some times when it’s legitimate. When I was in the final stages of finishing my upcoming book (“Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why”), pretty much everything other than the book got shoved onto the back burner. There were days when I didn’t shower, days when I didn’t leave the house, days when I didn’t see or even speak to another human being other than Ingrid, days when I took five minutes to make breakfast and another five to make lunch and ate at my computer. I got to the gym once in two months. Every spare minute that I had went into the book. What’s more, I was very socially isolated and in need of human contact (see above re: days when I didn’t leave the house): if I had twenty minutes to spare, I wanted to fill it with conversation or touch, not the sound of my own breath. It was a weird paradox: my ability to set aside distractions and stay single-mindedly focused on the book was very much aided by my meditation practice, but there were days when the practice was, itself, a distraction. I did keep it up (a freaking miracle, IMO), but there were a few days when I skipped it, and other days when I just did it for a few minutes, or crammed it in during stretches of enforced downtime. (On a bus? In a doctor’s waiting room? A fine time to squeeze in some focused awareness!)

And I did not need some long-dead Zen monk with no clue about the publishing industry scolding me for doing my meditation wrong.

(I also have an intense allergic reaction to writing about meditation that scolds people for doing it wrong. There’s a reason that almost all of my writing on this topic has been in the first person. A topic for another post, perhaps.)

I think my reaction to this proverb is so strong because the rightness of it is so right — and the wrongness is so wrong. There’s an important kernel of truth in there, and it’s one that I need to accept if I’m going to continue with this practice. If I let myself blow this off because life is hard, I’ll miss out on all the ways that it makes my life better. But there’s also a cluelessness in there, an out-of-touchness with human reality, that I not only can’t accept but don’t want to.

Not sure how I’m going to resolve this. For right now, for myself: If I’m thinking that I can’t sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day because I’m too busy, I try to take an honest look at what “too busy” means. And if “too busy” means “I’ve taken a careful look at my priorities and values, and today, twenty minutes of meditation just isn’t on that list”… then I meditate for ten minutes. Or five. During my full court press to finish the book, I found that even a five-minute meditation helped a lot in quieting my mind and restoring my focus… and it definitely helped me keep meditation as a near-daily habit, which I’ve resumed more fully now that the book is complete. If, on the other hand, “too busy” means “I can’t meditate, I have to blog about the Pope/ get my travel schedule into my calendar/ get my nails done/ fix people’s opinions on Facebook”… then yeah, okay. If I can’t meditate for twenty minutes a day because of all that, then I need to find a way to meditate for twenty minutes a day.

And if I can’t find a way to do that, then it wouldn’t be a bad idea to sit for an hour.

Secular Meditation: “If you can’t meditate for twenty minutes a day…”

Secular Meditation: As It Gets Easier, It Gets More Difficult

I’m running into an interesting paradox/ conundrum/ thing with my secular meditation practice.

I’ve been meditating regularly, almost every day, since April of this year. Unsurprisingly, as I continue to do it and to be a little more experienced with it, it’s been getting easier. Specifically, it’s become much easier to just sit still for twenty minutes, forty minutes, an hour. When I first started this practice, some of what I wanted to get out of it was, quote, “the ability to sit still” and “the ability to not constantly be either in motion or feeding my brain with stimulation.” And I’ve been getting that. When I started out with this, simply the act of sitting or lying still for twenty minutes or more was sometimes — okay, often — irritating and frustrating, a weird blend of boredom and restlessness with anxiety and wanting to ignore or escape whatever was coming up. I am now much more comfortable simply sitting quietly for longish stretches of time: not looking at my phone, not reading a book or a magazine, not surfing the Internet. I am much more comfortable now with just… being. And that’s true whether I’m meditating or not.

But there’s an interesting paradox/ conundrum/ thing. As the “just sitting or lying quietly for twenty minutes or more” part of meditation is getting easier… the actual “focusing my awareness on one thing, on my breathing or a scan of my body or whatever” part is getting more difficult.

See, back when the mere act of sitting quietly was enough to make me bored or restless or anxious, that boredom or restlessness or anxiety would snap me awake, make me realize that my attention and focus had drifted, make me realize that I needed to return my focus to my breath or whatever. Now that I don’t have that little alarm going off every minute or so, I’m finding that long stretches of my meditation sessions are taken up with… well, just spacing out. Thinking, or letting my thoughts drift, or rehearsing conversations, or writing essays in my head. All of which are perfectly wonderful things to do (well, except for the “rehearsing conversations” bit, more on that in a later post) — but none of which are actually meditating. None of which are focusing my awareness for a sustained period on one particular thing. I’m certainly glad to be more comfortable sitting still and spacing out… but that’s not what I want to be getting from meditation. Or rather, it’s not the only thing.

And without that little bit of anxiety or restlessness regularly creeping in and making me notice that my awareness has drifted, it’s more difficult to notice… well, that my awareness has drifted.

As the practice has become easier, it’s become more difficult.

I’m not sure what to do with this. I suspect the main thing I need to do with it is just notice it when it happens. Certainly with other aspects of meditation, I’ve gotten better at it with practice, and I suspect that with practice, my brain will find some other way to notice that it’s drifting.

But maybe I need to look at other meditation forms. Lately I’ve mostly been doing the breath meditation, which has a lot of advantages, but which does have the disadvantage of being more physically static than other forms. I might need to move to forms of meditation that are more in-motion: a walking meditation, or the body scan and moving my attention from one body part to another.

Not sure. Thinking out loud here. If you have experience with meditation… thoughts?

(This has nothing to do with the topic of the post, but I’m going to keep mentioning it in every post I write for a little while: The news from the Philippines in the wake of Haiyan is getting worse and worse. The death toll is rising, and thousands are without shelter, food and medicine. The Foundation Beyond Belief’s Crisis Response is supporting the relief and recovery efforts of Citizens’ Disaster Response Center. Please help if you can. Even small amounts add up.)

Secular Meditation: As It Gets Easier, It Gets More Difficult

Mind is Matter: Why Meditation Is More Humanist than You Might Think

A lot of atheists, humanists, and other nonbelievers are leery or dismissive of meditation and mindfulness. Some see it as an irretrievably religious or spiritual practice, and want no part in it. Others are put off by the faddish, overused, buzzword quality of the practice and the terminology. And I can understand that. For years, I stayed away from trying this stuff out, for exactly those reasons. I was interested in the practice—I had friends who did it, and who seemed to get a lot out of it. But I couldn’t find anyplace to learn that didn’t base their teaching on Buddhism or some other religion. And I’m too ardent an anti-religionist to “take what you need and leave the rest,” the way many nonbelievers do with religion. After all, I literally wrote the book on angry atheism. For me, trying to learn meditation in a Buddhist center would be like trying to learn meditation in a room full of fingernails scraping on blackboards.

But these practices are being increasingly secularized. It’s certainly true that many meditation techniques and approaches originated with Buddhism and other Eastern religions, and have been refined by these religious traditions over centuries. But the version I’ve been learning—mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)—is evidence-based; its techniques have been researched, and continue to be researched, using good, rigorous scientific methods, examining which effects these practices actually do and don’t generate. It’s commonly taught in medical settings, presented not as a method for spiritual enlightenment, but as a set of physical and mental techniques that can produce specific physical and mental effects. (Much in the way that, say, physical exercise is considered.) MBSR has been shown to help alleviate depression, anxiety, anger, high blood pressure, and other symptoms of extreme or prolonged stress—and can also improve focus, concentration, pain management, self-esteem, the ability to consciously respond to life’s events instead of reflexively reacting to them, and some other effects.

In my experience—which, admittedly, has been brief (as of this writing I’ve been practicing MBSR for about six months)—the secularized version of meditation and mindfulness is not just vaguely compatible with a humanist outlook. It is, in many ways, humanist to the core.


Thus begins my most recent column for The Humanist magazine, Mind is Matter: Why Meditation Is More Humanist than You Might Think. To read more about what makes this practice humanist — or at least, what makes it dovetail nicely with humanism — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Mind is Matter: Why Meditation Is More Humanist than You Might Think

My Podcast Interview about Secular Meditation with "Present Moment"

Present Moment logo

I have a new podcast interview up! It’s with Ted Meissner of Present Moment: Mindfulness Practice and Science, exploring meditation and mindfulness from an entirely secular perspective. It’s the first part of a two-part episode: in this part, I answer questions and share some of my experiences, while the second part is more focused on my questions for Ted about these practices.

In this interview, we talk about some of the basics of starting a mindfulness/ meditation practice; what has surprised me as a beginner in learning the practice; the difference between striving and ambition, and how staying ambitious and focused on goals can be consistent with being in the present moment and accepting it; what the practice changes and what it doesn’t; using meditation as a tool for managing depression; being present with other people; and more. Enjoy! And I’ll post Part Two of the interview as soon as it goes up.

My Podcast Interview about Secular Meditation with "Present Moment"

Secular Meditation: Is This Practice Making Me "More Buddhist"? Take One Guess

So I got this comment from sciamannata on my recent post, Secular Meditation: The Serenity to Accept What Could Be Changed, But Doesn’t Actually Need to Be:

You are becoming more Buddhist every day 🙂

…and I have stopped arguing with you in my head about this — especially while I am trying myself to meditate — because you seem to be doing very well as it is; in other words, you don’t seem to be missing out hugely by not using explicitly Buddhist concepts.

I remain somewhat uneasy about this movement to do mindfulness meditation etc. without acknowledging that it is entirely based on a tradition that was developed and preserved for a couple of thousand years by assorted Asians in an essentially religious context — but if that is what it takes for some more people to benefit from it, hey, Buddhism does have an esplicit concept of “skilful means” that I’m sure encompasses this as well!

Signed, a Buddhist atheist, or atheist Buddhist, who is working on what exactly that means 🙂

My reply:

Um…. thanks?

A couple of things, though. First, it’s just flatly untrue that MBSR and other secular forms of meditation/ mindfulness are, quote, “entirely” based on Asian religion traditions. For one thing, some form of meditation seems to have been developed independently by several different cultures, and is practiced in several religious traditions. Also, and rather more importantly: In addition to the Asian (and other) religious traditions it’s based on, MBSR is largely based on something very different and very important — namely, medical science. It’s based on double-blinded, placebo-controlled, peer-reviewed, replicated research, examining which of these many millenia-old techniques actually accomplish something, and which are about as useful as bloodletting or exorcism. That’s a pretty significant departure from the religious tradition.

And that’s exactly the reason I’m writing about this in a secular framework. I’m sure there are a lot of people who would be interested in meditation/ mindfulness, and who might benefit from it, but who are put off by the religious trappings that are so often attached to it — trappings make them hostile to it or suspicious of it or both. I was one of those people, for years. So I’m deliberately writing about my experiences from a purely secular angle.

It’s a funny thing. One of the most common criticisms aimed at atheists is, “Look at all the wonderful things religion gives people! Community, social support, comfort in hard times, ritual and tradition, music, art, meditation! People need that!” Then, when we point out that you can have every one of these things without religion, people holler, “Wait! You can’t take the religion out of these traditions and practices! You’re trying to take Christ out of Christmas!” (Or religion out of meditation, or whatever.) We can’t win.

Also, it seems to me that “being a Buddhist” or “becoming a Buddhist” would be a pretty deep and intense matter of personal identity, and would mean rather more than “adopting a handful of the philosophies and practices.” I’ve also adopted philosophies and practices of Epicurianism, Stoicism, Existentialism, Judaism, Christianity. That doesn’t make me an Epicurian, a Stoic, or an Existentialist — and it sure as hell doesn’t make me a Christian or a Jew.

Oh, and one more thing that I feel compelled to say here. From “Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless”:

80. I’m angry that, in many Buddhist monasteries, children as young as ten years old are inducted as novice monks. I’m angry that children who can’t possibly understand the tenets and demands of the religion are recruited into devoting their lives to it. And I’m especially angry because the children who become novice monks are typically among the most impoverished — and they’re drawn into abandoning secular life and devoting their lives to the monastery, not out of a sincere religious calling, but out of a need for food and shelter.
81. I’m angry that the current Dalai Lama said that sex can only provide short-term pleasure and is inherently destructive in the long term, even leading to suicide and murder; that all forms of sexuality other than penis-in-vagina intercourse are banned by Buddhist teachings; and that, although he supports the tolerance of gay people, he sees homosexual sex as “wrong,” “unwholesome,” a “bad action,” “vices,” “not acceptable from a Buddhist point of view,” and “contrary to Buddhist ethics.”
82. I’m angry that, in Sri Lanka, the Buddhist majority has perpetrated intimidation, vandalism, violence against Christians and Christian churches.
83. And I’m angry that, when criticisms of religion are leveled, Buddhism all too often gets a free pass. I’m angry that the Westernized version of Buddhism typically ignores or dismisses these abuses. I’m angry that the versions of Buddhism practiced in Nepal or Thailand or Sri Lanka get treated as marginal or trivial, while the version of Buddhism practiced in California is somehow seen as the true faith.

So… yeah. “Becoming more Buddhist”? Not so much. If you want to be an atheist Buddhist, go right ahead. I have no more objections to that than I do to secular Judaism or cultural Catholicism. But as for me… nope. Fuck that noise. Fuck it right in the arse.

Secular Meditation: Is This Practice Making Me "More Buddhist"? Take One Guess

Secular Meditation: The Serenity to Accept What Could Be Changed, But Doesn't Actually Need to Be

serenity rock
“The serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

It’s the famous “serenity prayer” from Alcoholics Anonymous. Minus the prayer part, of course. And it’s a theme I keep coming back to in my secular meditation/ mindfulness practice.

A big part of this practice — both in my formal meditation sessions, and in my work to become more mindful in my everyday life — has to do with acceptance. It revolves around noticing experiences, and having them, without judging them, without trying to fix them or change them, just letting them be until they pass. If I’m meditating or working on being mindful, and I start feeling anxious, tired, jangled, bored, restless, guilty, fearful, impatient, moody for no reason, desperately overwhelmed with grief, itchy… I notice it, I let myself experience it, I return my focus to whatever I’m focusing on. (Ditto with pleasant experiences, of course… but that’s easier, I don’t have an overwhelming urge to constantly fix pleasant experiences. Although… well, I’ll get to that in a moment.)

This doesn’t mean being a doormat, or a passive sponge. In fact, since starting this practice, I’ve found that when I am working to change something, I’ve become more focused, better at prioritizing, less easily distracted, better at noticing when I have become distracted, better at drawing my attention away from whatever’s distracting me and bringing it back to my work. (More on that in a later piece I’m working on in my head, about mindfulness and anger.) Acceptance of the things I can’t change is actually fairly helpful in finding the courage to change the things I can.

The “wisdom to know the difference” part, of course, is where things get tricky. Among other things: How do you know what can’t be changed if you don’t try to change it? The world has been made immeasurably better, in countless ways, by people who looked at things that everyone else thought were immutable — lynching, legalized spousal rape, smallpox — and said, “Nope. Not accepting this. Not acceptable.” So how do you know? How do you know when you’re being a visionary, when you’re dreaming things that never were and asking “Why not?” — and when you’re just beating your head against a wall? How do you know when to stick with your dream against all odds, and when to cut your losses? It’s the “wisdom to know the difference” part that takes this relatively simple, almost ham-handedly obvious little aphorism, and turns it into a large, deep question that you ask yourself dozens of times a day, and never stop asking for as long as you’re alive.

So, yeah. Serenity to accept what I can’t change; courage to change what I can; wisdom to know the difference. Awesome. But there’s a fourth thing I’ve been getting and learning from this practice, something they don’t mention in the serenity prayer saying, and it’s something I’m finding to be hugely important and even transformative:

The serenity to accept things that I could change, but that don’t actually need to be changed.

The serenity to accept minor annoyances. The serenity to notice that I’m bored, and to simply sit with my boredom, instead of immediately looking for something to do; to notice that I’m anxious, and to simply sit with my anxiety, instead of immediately looking for something to soothe it; to notice that I’m sad, and to simply sit with my sadness, instead of immediately looking for something to relieve it or distract me from it. The serenity to simply experience my life, instead of constantly tinkering with it to try to make it just a little bit better. The serenity — and the wisdom too, I guess — to realize that even if this tinkering does slightly improve my momentary condition or mood, being in a constant state of tinkering has a significant detrimental affect on my quality of life: it adds to my restlessness, my anxiety, my feeling of being jangled and overwhelmed.

Here’s the thing. Or here’s a thing, anyway. If the focus of my life is less on pleasure or achievement, and more on simply being present in it… than just about any experience is an opportunity for that. I can be present, aware, in the moment, no matter where I am or what I’m doing or how I’m feeling. I’m not going to say that any experience is as good as any other — I don’t think that. Some experiences are more deeply satisfying than others, and they’re worth seeking out and creating, for myself and for others. And, of course, some experiences are worth avoiding, and working to eliminate, for myself and for others. You know — lynching, legalized spousal rape, smallpox, that sort of thing. But just about any experience is an opportunity for… well, for experience. Waiting in line; having a headache; missing my father; feeling tired and discouraged; sitting on a bus staring out the window at an ugly industrial landscape… I can be present with all of this. All of it is an opportunity to fully experience the un-fucking-believably lucky accident of having been born, and getting to be alive and conscious.

And what I’m finding is that, when I’m not constantly tinkering with every little piece of anxiety or tiredness or jangled nerves or boredom or restlessness or guilt or fear or impatience or moodiness or grief or itchiness, I have more energy for the “courage to change the things I can” stuff. The constant tinkering isn’t just emotionally exhausting — it’s literally exhausting. It takes time and energy.

Not sure where I’m going with this, so I think I’m just going to let it peter out. Accepting things that I could change, but that don’t actually need to be changed. A cool thing. Thumbs up.

Secular Meditation: The Serenity to Accept What Could Be Changed, But Doesn't Actually Need to Be

Secular Meditation: Formal and Everyday Practice

Is there a difference between a formal, structured practice of mindfulness, and simply practicing it in your everyday life?

As I’ve been writing about this secular, evidence-based meditation practice I’ve been doing, some people have been commenting that they don’t do any sort of formal or structured meditation practice… but they do work on being mindful in their everyday lives. They work on being more conscious, more present, less tuned-out, when they’re eating, walking, talking, listening, reading, petting cats, and otherwise just getting on with their life.

So I’ve started wondering: Is this something that would work for me?

I’ve actually been doing both of these kinds of practices. I’m doing what I’ve been calling a formal practice — setting aside time every day to step away from my regular daily activities and meditate: sitting or lying quietly and focusing on my body, or my breath, or something else very specific, and noticing when my attention has wandered, and gently returning it to my intended focus. And I’m also doing what I’ve been calling an everyday practice — working on being more present, more conscious, less spaced-out and inclined to think about a hundred things other than what I’m doing, when I’m eating, walking, talking, listening, reading, petting cats, and otherwise just getting on with my life. Also noticing when my attention has wandered, and gently returning it to my intended focus.

This latter bit, this everyday practice, isn’t something I brilliantly came up with on my own. It’s something that was specifically taught in the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course I took. It’s a central part of it, actually. We learned an assortment of more “formal” meditation techniques… but we also learned an assortment of methods for being more mindful in our everyday lives, in our interactions with other people and with our surroundings and just with ourselves. (“Formal” and “informal” are not the best terms, in fact, since the everyday practice can be pursued in a very conscientious, disciplined way… but I’m failing to come up with better terms, so I’ll stick with these for now.) To a great extent, the “formal” practice really is just that — practice, literally, for being more present and less reactive in my day-to-day life.

So could I ever get so good at being mindful in my everyday life that I didn’t need the formal practice?

The more I think about meditation, the more I draw analogies to physical exercise. When I meditate, I’m strengthening the part of my brain that’s able to be really conscious and present in my life, that’s able to turn my focus where I want it to go, that’s able to thoughtfully respond to events in my life rather than reacting to them and being whipped around by them. And doing this feels very much like strengthening a muscle group, so I can make better use of it when I need to. It’s like lifting weights at the gym, so I can carry a sack of cat litter into the house; it’s like doing sprints on the treadmill, so I can run for the bus. And like physical exercise, it’s not just about building strength in one particular part of my body or my brain — it’s about improving my overall health. Working out improves my general health and stamina and well-being, in countless ways; meditating improves my mental and emotional health, in countless ways.

So. Let’s extend this analogy.

If I had the kind of job or the kind of life where I got regular vigorous exercise as part of my daily routine — if I were a construction worker or a piano mover or a park ranger — I might not feel a need to go to the gym. I might decide that the physical exercise I got as a routine part of my day was enough. (I could also see going the opposite way — I might make a point of getting extra exercise to keep me good at my job, or to get kinds of exercise my job didn’t afford — but not necessarily.)

But I don’t. My work, and most of my hobbies and interests, are pretty sedentary. If I don’t make a point of setting aside time to get vigorous exercise, it isn’t going to happen.

And if I were more of a natural athlete — if I were someone who just naturally gravitated toward lots of physical activity, if my hobbies included hiking and bicycling and skiing and tennis and kayaking — again, I might not feel a need to go to the gym. I might decide that the physical exercise I got through the rest of my life was enough. (Again, I could also see going the opposite way — I might want to make a point of getting extra exercise, like strength or endurance training, to improve my hiking and bicycling and skiing and tennis and kayaking — but not necessarily.)

But I’m not. My personality does not naturally gravitate towards physical activity. My personality naturally gravitates towards sitting on my butt thinking about stuff. I enjoy exercise and physical activity once I start doing it, and I can tell that it has a strong positive effect on my life — including my ability to sit on my butt and think about stuff — but I am not naturally drawn to doing it unless I make a conscious point of it. If I don’t deliberately set aside time for it, it isn’t going to happen.

And now, let’s bring the analogy back.

computer keyboard with hands
My life, and my personality, are not a natural fit for an everyday mindfulness practice. My work sucks my attention in twenty directions at once, and it strongly reinforces my tendency to live in my head. My personality includes a strong tendency to live in my head… and a strong tendency to live in the future, to worry and plan and fantasize, to come up with endless “If A happens then I’ll do B, if C happens then I’ll do D” contingency schemes.

Now, it’s true that my personality is also drawn, at least somewhat, toward mindfulness. When I look over my writing over the course of my career, I notice the theme popping up again and again, everywhere from my atheist rants to my smut. The ability to stop and literally smell the roses — like my character Dallas in my erotic novella “Bending,” to “just notice that she was alive, here, in this place and time… [to] be filled with the immensity of the moment, the clear understanding that infinity and eternity were present in this minuscule sliver that was her life” — this is something I treasure.

But when I don’t do a formal meditation practice, this happens pretty sporadically. And it happens to me, coming out of the blue. It isn’t something I choose to do. If I don’t set aside time to formally practice mindfulness, it isn’t something I’m going to keep up in my everyday life. Even if I did, it wouldn’t be something I’d do particularly well. When I do set aside time to meditate, being present in my everyday life is easier, and more natural… and I do it a whole lot more often.

Like I wrote before: Meditation is literally a practice — in the sense that it’s something I’m doing over and over and over again, so I can get better at it and more comfortable with it. If the skills I’m learning came to me more naturally, or folded into my life more fluidly, then I might, at some point, be able to let go of the formal practice, and just incorporate the everyday practice into my life.

But for now — I don’t think so. Not for the foreseeable future. Maybe not ever. I’m not even sure I would want to — I like meditating, it’s often pleasurable and feels good, just like going to the gym is often pleasurable and feels good. But I go to the gym even when I don’t think I’m going to enjoy it, even when I’m absolutely not in the mood. And I meditate every day even when I don’t think I’m going to enjoy it, even when I’m absolutely not in the mood. I work out regularly so I can be strong and healthy in my life. And I meditate every day so I can be mentally healthy and present in my life. For me, that’s just how it works.

Secular Meditation: Formal and Everyday Practice

Secular Meditation: What's the Point?

As I’ve been pursuing this new meditation practice that I’ve been yammering on about, there’s a question that keeps coming up: Why, exactly, am I doing this? What’s the point?

I don’t mean “What’s the point?” as in “Why am I bothering with this?” I know why I’m bothering with this. I’m getting a whole lot out of this practice: it’s affecting my life in heaps of ways, most of them overwhelmingly positive.* But… well, that’s actually the question on my mind. I’m getting lots of different things out of this practice. Which of these are side benefits — and which of them are actually the central point?

This isn’t an academic question. The specific goals I’m trying to achieve with meditation are, to some extent, going to affect how exactly I pursue it. I’m already noticing subtle but non-trivial differences in different forms of meditation and how they affect me… and it’s occurring to me, as I work on creating a meditation routine that fits into my life, that what I want to get from meditation is going to affect how exactly I go about it.

So what are the reasons that I’m doing this practice… and which of these, if any, are the central reasons? (For me, of course. Your mileage will almost certainly vary; your motivations and priorities for doing this, if you are doing this or are considering it, will almost certainly be different from mine. And yes, I’m aware of the irony of being goal-oriented about a practice that’s fundamentally about acceptance and being in the moment. I’m looking at that… but I’m basically okay with it.)

Alleviation of depression, stress, and anxiety. This is the primary reason I started this practice in the first place. I was experiencing a serious depressive episode, triggered by seriously bad shit happening in my life, and I was looking for pretty much anything I could add to my mental health care repertoire. (Anything with some decent evidence showing that it’s effective, that is.)

And this is still a huge part of what I’m getting out of this practice. Both in the immediate sense, and in the longer term. If I’m having a depressive episode, meditation is one of the things — like exercise, or spending time outdoors — that reliably makes me feel at least somewhat better pretty much right away. And in the longer term, the practice does seem to be helping lift the depression: my episodes are coming less frequently, and are less severe, and are easier to pull out of, since I started the practice. (And yes, I realize that many other factors are contributing to this improvement, and I realize that I am a data point of one, subject to confirmation bias and the placebo effect. I wouldn’t be crediting this practice with these effects if there weren’t medical research backing it up.)

But I don’t think this is the central reason I’m doing this. I can see how it would be for a lot of people, that would be entirely reasonable — but I don’t think it is for me. I think that once this episode of depression is managed and is well behind me, I’m still going to want to meditate, and am still going to find value in it.

still water
The ability to be still. This is a good one. Before I started mindfulness and meditation, I was totally one of those people who couldn’t be still for a minute, who wanted to constantly be doing some activity or having some sort of stimulation going into her brain, who surfed the phone and checked her email while waiting five minutes for her coffee at the cafe, who drummed her fingers and looked at Twitter and Facebook while her email was taking thirty seconds to load. Now… well, okay, I’m still one of those people, but I’m a whole lot less like that. And I’m getting less like that every week. I’m becoming much better able to just be still, to take those five minutes waiting for my coffee and spend them focusing on my breathing, or observing how my body feels and experiencing it, or even just looking around and noticing, really noticing, the people around me and the place I’m in. (It’s a bit paradoxical, I suppose, since “practicing mindfulness” is still, in some sense, an activity… but it’s a paradox I’m okay with.)

This is a big one. And it’s one of the ones that really feeds the others. Being able to be still makes it easier — heck, makes it possible — to connect with my body, to respond rather than react, to turn my focus where I want to. Actually, it makes it easier — heck, makes it possible — to meditate in the first place.

But I still think it’s a side effect. I don’t think this is the central reason I’m doing this.

Relaxation. Yeah… not so much.

It’s interesting how many people assume that the point of meditation is to relax. Not so much. Sometimes meditation is relaxing… but sometimes, it’s really not. I’ve had meditation sessions that made me want to climb out of my skin. Not as often now that I’m more experienced with the practice, and am better able to sit with uncomfortable or unpleasant emotions and let them happen instead of twitching out of my skin to evade them. But still. Meditation is often relaxing for me… but sometimes it’s aggravating, or uncomfortable, or frustrating, or occasionally even upsetting.

The point of meditation and mindfulness isn’t to relax. The point is to be present with my thoughts and emotions and sensations… even if they’re uncomfortable, or anxious, or freaky, or frightening, or sad. In the long term, in my day-to-day life, this practice does seem to be making me more calm and peaceful. But if I want to do something that will reliably relax me, I’m much more likely to get a massage, or masturbate, or sit quietly and read a book.

So yeah. This definitely isn’t the central reason I’m doing this. It’s not even a peripheral reason. It’s a nice thing that happens sometimes.

Peace. Since starting this practice, I’ve become much more accepting of annoying things in my life that I can’t change. Small things, mostly — things like the bus being stuck in traffic, or the restaurant being out of the dessert I wanted — but I’m becoming better able to apply this to some bigger things as well. And frankly, the “little things” thing is not so little. The ability to get through the day without falling into a series of irritations and frustrations and mini-rages over small things that I can’t do anything about — the ability to go, “Yes, this is irritating and frustrating, but it’s out of my hands, so I’m just going to let it go,” and the ability to then actually let it go — that’s pretty awesome. (I’m working on a whole separate post about this, in fact: the whole “serenity to accept what I can’t change, courage to change what I can, wisdom to know the difference” aspect of this practice. It’s the “wisdom to know the difference” that tends to be the sticking point, of course. But I digress.)

So, yeah. Inner peace. Pretty cool. But still not the central reason for doing this.

Connection with my body, and improved body awareness. Many of the practices I’m doing are very body-focused. There’s the body scan (the practice I try to do every day if I can), in which I focus my attention and awareness on each part of my body in turn, fully experiencing the sensations in each part before moving on to the next. There’s the walking meditation, in which I walk slowly and deliberately, focusing my attention and awareness on each step I take, and how it feels in my feet and legs and the rest of my body. There’s the breath meditation, in which I focus my attention and awareness on my breath, as I breathe in and out. All of these have the effect of making me more intensely and intimately connected with my body: not living in my head quite so much, not feeling quite so much like data stored in a cloud system, off in the ether, accessible by my hardware but separate from it. And this has loads of benefits: from making it easier to take care of my health, to just feeling good in and of itself.

But no. Still a side effect. Still not the central reason for of all this.

Responding rather than reacting; having my experiences rather than them having me. This is a big one. This is a huge one. This is pretty darned close to the central reason I do this.

It’s also a little hard to describe. But I’ll take a crack at it.

There is a difference between consciously responding to things, and reflexively reacting to them. There is a difference between, on the one hand, having a thought or sensation or emotion, and noticing it, and making a conscious choice about what, if anything to do about it… and on the other hand, having a thought or sensation or emotion, and reacting to it impulsively, without thinking. There is a difference between being influenced by my thoughts and emotions and sensations… and being driven by them. I sometimes think of it as the difference between riding a rollercoaster, and being chained to it. The way I usually frame it is that I want to have my experiences, my thoughts and feelings and sensations… rather than being them, rather than them having me.

This isn’t an either/or thing. I do both of these, I always have, I probably always will. But since I’ve started meditating, the balance is sliding away from the latter, and towards the former. I won’t pretend that I’m anywhere with this other than tiny baby steps — but I can already see a difference.

And this is huge. This has enormous potential to change my life for the better. This is already changing my life for the better. This is making me better able to make good decisions; to take my time about making decisions; to patiently wait for information to come in before making decisions; to make decisions thoughtfully based on my actual values rather than making them reflexively based on my lizard-hindbrain fight-or-flight instincts. And it’s also just enabling me to feel a little more centered, to not feel like I’m constantly being whipped around, to feel like my life is mine and that it doesn’t belong to whatever circumstances happen to be popping up at the moment.

This is a big fucking deal.

But I still think this is a side effect. A big one, and one that’s very close indeed to what I’m seeing as the central point of meditation and mindfulness… but still a side effect.

camera lens
Sharpened focus. This is even closer to the central point. When I meditate, I often feel like I’m practicing a very specific mental skill: the skill of turning my attention and awareness away from the distracting chatter that my brain constantly churns out, and returning my focus to whatever I’m choosing to focus on. And when I say I’m “practicing” this skill, I mean it literally, in the sense that a musician or an athlete practices — doing it over and over and over and over and over again, and over, and over, and over and over and over… until I get better at it, until it becomes easier and more second nature. It feels almost like physical exercise: like I’m exercising the muscle in my brain that recognizes when I’ve gotten sucked into some memory or worry or plan or fantasy or perseveration, and notices it, and accepts it, and gently turns away from it to focus on something else. (And yes, I know I don’t have muscles in my brain. A more accurate description would probably be that I’m strengthening and reinforcing certain neural pathways.)

And this is huge. This ability to consciously decide what I’m going to pay attention to, the ability to let go of multi-tasking and just focus on doing one thing at a time… it’s huge. It has already improved my work productivity tremendously, my ability to focus on whatever piece I’m actually working on, and not get constantly distracted by shiny beads on the Internet. (Hey, I said “improved.” I didn’t say “perfected.”) And this increased ability to focus my attention and awareness where I choose to focus it… it’s absolutely essential to realizing the central thing that I’m getting out of this practice.

But it’s not the central thing.

I think the central thing that I’m ultimately getting from this mindfulness practice is this:

Mindfulness itself.

Mindfulness isn’t just a means to an end. Mindfulness is an end. Mindfulness, itself, is the point.

This is the only life I have. I want to be present in it. I want to experience it. I don’t want to be barely conscious through most of it. I don’t want to be sleepwalking through it like a zombie. And I don’t want to constantly be racing through it to the next bit. I don’t want to spend my entire life focused on my future, until I’m on my deathbed and look back and realize that I didn’t let myself have a present. I want to savor the experiences of my life, and really take them in. I want to taste the food I’m eating. I want to absorb the book I’m reading. I want to feel the sex I’m having. I want to stay present with people when I’m with them, and to really listen to them, without tuning out or rehearsing what I’m going to say next.

I want to be present in my life. That’s what mindfulness means. The reason for practicing mindfulness is so I can get better at being mindful. Mindfulness, itself, is the point.

And all these other effects of this practice are, for me, ultimately subsets of this one, or are in service of it. The ability to focus is a form of being mindful. The ability to respond rather than react, and to experience my thoughts and emotions rather than have them toss me around, is a form of being mindful. Being present with my body is a form of being mindful — and it makes it easier to be mindful in other ways. Being at peace makes it easier to be mindful. Being relaxed (when that happens) makes it easier to be mindful. Being still makes it easier to be mindful. Not being depressed sure as hell makes it easier to be mindful. In fact, in some ways, that “buried in a vat of cotton” feeling of depression, the feeling of being disconnected from my life and my feelings, the inability to experience pleasure, the inability to make the connection between seeing something that I want or need to do and finding the will to do it… all of this is, almost by definition, an inability to be mindful, an inability to be present in my life and to experience it. These side effects aren’t trivial, far from it. But they’re side effects.

Now, on a day-to-day basis, I am going to tailor my practice, at least to some extent, to which side benefit I feel most in need of. If I’m feeling anhedonic and disconnected from my body, I’m going to do a body scan, or maybe a walking meditation. If I’m feeling jittery and jumpy and in need of calm, I’m going to do one of the “sitting still or lying down” practices: a body scan or a sitting meditation, as opposed to a walking meditation. If I’m feeling reactive, overwhelmed by my emotions and worries, I’m going to do the “focus on your thoughts” or “focus on your feelings” meditation, where I let myself have my thoughts or feelings, and notice them, and experience them, and let them pass. Again, these effects aren’t trivial: they have a great positive impact on my life, both in the larger scheme and in my day-to-day, minute-to-minute experience of it. And of course, many of these practices and effects feed into each other, and make each other easier and more effective.

But ultimately, for me, the point of practicing mindfulness isn’t to be less reactive, or to have more stillness and peace, or to be more connected with my body, or to bring a more laser-like focus to my writing, or even to be less depressed and anxious and stressed. The point of practicing mindfulness is so I can get better at being mindful. Mindfulness, itself, is the point.

*There have, in fact, been a few interesting and unexpected downsides to this practice… which I may write about at some point.

Secular Meditation: What's the Point?

Secular Meditation: Flexible Discipline, Or, On Creating a Regular Practice in an Irregular Life

So I’m working on creating a regular meditation routine. I’m running into an interesting conundrum with it. And the conundrum, like so many I run into with meditation, is bringing me some compelling insights into how I live my life… in this case, into what it means to have discipline, and what stability and security might mean in a constantly changing life.

At the end of my eight-week meditation course, the teacher emphasized the importance of creating a regular routine with it. He said that if we wanted to keep up the practice and not let it fall through the cracks of a busy life, it was important to create a routine: pick a particular form of meditation that works for us (a sitting/ breath meditation, a body scan, a walking meditation, a yoga or other body-motion meditation, etc.), and do it at the same time every day. He didn’t use the word “discipline” — his language is generally more gentle than that — but the word would certainly be appropriate.

I can see the value of this. I’m not arguing with it. But here’s the problem: My life just doesn’t look like that.

dali clock
Some days I stay up writing until four a.m. and sleep until noon. Some days I get up at five a.m. to get on a plane. Some days I get up at seven a.m. to make it to the conference by nine, and I’m at the conference all day, and I get back to my hotel room, exhilarated but exhausted, at nine p.m. or later. Some days I have a meeting or an interview or a conference call at nine in the morning, or at noon, or at three in the afternoon, or at seven at night, or any combination of the above. Some weeks I have three deadlines; some weeks I’m in a different city every day; some weeks I have no immediate demands and can work on more or less whatever I want. Some days I get eight hours of sleep, or even more on occasion; some days I get six hours of sleep, or four… sometimes for several days on end.

I’m not complaining. I am way beyond lucky to be living the life I’m living, and I’m intensely aware of that. But it does present its challenges. And this is one of them: If I tried to set up a routine in which I meditated at the same time every day, it’d fail within a week. The only way I could really meditate at roughly the same time every day would be to do it right before I go to bed… but for me, that would be an almost complete missing of the point. I meditate to get my mind in a good state for dealing with my life and my work. I don’t particularly need to get my mind in a good state for dealing with being asleep. (Also, when I meditate right before I fall asleep, I tend to, you know, fall asleep.)

So for me, staying disciplined about this isn’t going to look like, “meditate every day at seven in the morning.”

For me, staying disciplined is going to look like, “meditate every day… regardless of what your day is like.”

For me, staying disciplined is going to look like, “No matter what your schedule is, find a slot in it for meditation. If you have time, do an open-ended body scan first thing when you wake up. If you don’t, then do a twenty-minute sitting meditation in the middle of the day before lunch, or in the late afternoon before you go to the gym, or during one of the conference sessions you’re okay with skipping, or do a body scan on the plane. If you really and truly don’t have twenty minutes today, do ten. And if you absolutely can’t find any other time to do it, do it at the end of the day before you fall asleep: it’s not ideal, but it’s better than not doing it at all.”

Discipline is a weird thing. It can mean regimentation, creating a schedule and sticking to it: going to the gym after work on Mondays and Wednesdays and Fridays; playing chess every Tuesday and reading the Sunday Times every Sunday; writing every evening from eight until midnight. And for a lot of people, for a lot of lives and a lot of personalities, this works. I’m not dissing it. I’m actually kind of envious: an irregular life creates its own stresses, and it’s hard to feel stable or centered when your days and weeks never feel the same.

river with rocks
But a regular life is just not an option for me. Not at this point in my career. I need another kind of discipline: flexible discipline, adaptive discipline, discipline that flows around the rocks in the stream and still keeps moving, still stays itself.

And meditation isn’t just one of the things that I’m trying to fit into this irregular life. It’s one of the ways I’m making it feel regular. It’s one of the ways I’m giving it cohesion. It’s not just another part of my life that I’m trying to be disciplined about: it’s a tool that’s helping me create discipline, that’s helping me stay focused while the ground underneath me keeps shifting. And it’s a tool that’s bringing me some measure of peace.

One of the more unexpected things I’m beginning to get from this practice, and one that I hope to keep getting, is a sense of stability and centeredness that I can take with me wherever I am. An irregular life, a life that keeps throwing different things at you every day, can make you feel unsteady, off-center, vulnerable and defensive all at the same time. But whether I’m slamming on three deadlines at once, or staying in a different hotel in a different city every day, or freaking out about the Internet firestorm of the week, I can find twenty minutes, and sit quietly, and pay attention to my breath, and simply be myself.

Other pieces in this series:
On Starting a Secular Meditation Practice
Meditation and Breakfast
Meditation, and the Difference Between Theory and Practice
Some Thoughts on Secular Meditation and Depression/Anxiety
Secular Meditation, and Doing One Thing at a Time
Secular Meditation: “Energy,” and Attention/ Awareness
Secular Meditation: How Down Time is Changing
Secular Meditation: “This is my job”
Secular Meditation: I Am Who I Am
Secular Meditation: “That’s not for me”

Secular Meditation: Flexible Discipline, Or, On Creating a Regular Practice in an Irregular Life

Secular Meditation: The "Present Moment" Podcast/ Website

Some of you who’ve been reading my recent writings on secular meditation have been asking me, “How can I do this myself?” “What are some good resources?” “Where can I find out more about this?”

Present Moment logo

Ted Meissner — the Executive Director of the Secular Buddhist Association, and host of the SBA’s official podcast The Secular Buddhist — has started a new podcast and website: Present Moment: Mindfulness Practice and Science, exploring meditation and mindfulness from an entirely secular perspective.

Present Moment is just getting off the ground — it’s eventually going to have a resource guide (which it doesn’t currently have), and the discussion forums are just being launched — but the first podcast is up, an interview with Dr. J. David Creswell, director of the Health and Human Performance Lab at Carnegie Mellon, who is doing research on coping mechanisms for stress, including mindfulness meditation. And the site also has something a lot of you have been asking for — basic meditation instructions. Check it out!

Secular Meditation: The "Present Moment" Podcast/ Website