Teaching meditation as a bad meditator

Because it’s part of the taiji practice that I learned from my taiji instructor, I teach meditation as one aspect of my beginner taiji class. (I also include meditation as one aspect of the class for continuing students as well, but they know how to meditate so I don’t need to try to teach it.)

I worry that I don’t do it well, because I think of myself as a bad meditator. I’m easily distracted. Too often I spend half my time thinking about what I’ll do after I’m done meditating, and half my time thinking about stuff that happened in the past and how it went well or poorly.

But I do, now, actually meditate, however badly. That wasn’t always true. I came to meditation slowly. For a long time after starting to practice taiji I just went through the motions. I would sit while we were sitting and stand while we were standing, but not really even try to meditate. And, quite predictably, I saw few of the mental and emotional benefits of meditating.

I did, though, see some of the physical benefits—also predictably, because the physical part of sitting or standing was the part I was actually doing. I wrote about this a few years ago in a post called Physical benefits of standing meditation.

And it was then—when I saw the physical benefits of meditation—that it occurred to me that it might be useful to actually try to meditate and see if maybe the other benefits might accrue to such a practice. And they have, if only perhaps in a small way, because I’m a bad meditator.

In any case, I thought I’d go ahead and write down what I say to my meditation students, in the hope that it might be useful to others. It’s usually something like this:

To my mind, meditation is about paying attention. There are many meditation traditions which suggest different things that you might pay attention to: a repeated word or phrase such as a mantra or a prayer, or an object such as a crystal, or an image such as mandala, or your posture, or your breath.

What you choose to pay attention to is not important. What is important is simply that you’re paying attention.

In this room where we practice there are things that may distract you. The refrigerator or freezer may turn on and make noise. The people who work out front may come into the room to get their lunch. The lawnmower may go past outside the window. These things are not distractions from your meditation. Rather, they are things that are actually happening at that moment. If they capture your attention, that’s just fine. That’s what meditation is: Paying attention to what is actually happening in that moment.

What would not be fine would be to become attached to those things beyond the moment.

It would not be meditating to worry that the fridge might turn on. It would not be meditating to become annoyed at someone coming into the room to get their lunch. It would not be meditating to think that the lawn mower is going by because today is Wednesday and Wednesday is the day they mow the lawn.

Still, these things will happen. Things that capture your attention will continue to hold it beyond the moment when they are actually happening. Other thoughts will inevitably intrude. These things happen to everybody, even people who are very good at meditating.

What makes someone good at meditating is not that these things don’t happen—although they may happen less as you get better at it. What makes someone good at meditating is getting better at noticing when it has happened, and better at letting go of those thoughts and returning your attention to what is actually happening right now, right where you are.

I like this way of teaching meditation. I think it is authentic—I claim no expertise whatsoever, which is good because I’m not very good at meditation. But I think what I say is true. I think it’s what meditation is about at its deepest level.

A little journaling

Several things came together to get me started with paper journals again.

My brother suggested that we might write one another actual paper letters. I think that was partially just because it’s fun to receive actual paper letters, but also because we’d been talking about reviving an idea we worked on a while back, for collaborating on an epistolary story in Esperanto, which would involve the characters writing actual paper letters, which put us in the frame of mind of thinking about letters.

At about the same time, Tobias Buckell wrote a post about starting a bullet journal, with links to a couple of videos (one a nice review of a particular notebook designed with bullet journaling in mind, the other a video on starting a bullet journal).

As an aside, let me mention that the main bullet journal site has the “reference guide” for bullet journaling translated into many languages, including Esperanto! (They want you to give them your email address and sign up for their newsletter to get the link to the reference guides.)

I’m perpetually vulnerable to diving too deep down this particular rabbit hole, geeking out over anything and everything related: notebooks, paper, pens, etc. Already I have:

  • Gotten out and inked a couple of fountain pens that I haven’t used since I was working at a regular job (and had enough opportunities to take notes that I could work my way through a piston converter full of ink before it dried out).
  • Rearranged sheets in several of my Levenger Circa notebooks to clear one for daily use as a bullet journal, and used it as such for almost a week now.
  • Drafted a handy Field Notes notebook for separately tracking my bodyweight workouts (which seem to call for their own non-bullet journal).
  • Downloaded two separate PDF workbooks on Spencerian handwriting, and spent perhaps an hour practicing (my long-ago forgotten) cursive writing.
  • Written two letters to my brother and one to my mom.

I’m having great fun. It’s probably a big waste of time, but I’m finding it a at least a little bit useful:

  • I’ve probably remembered to do a couple of things I’d have forgotten, because I had noted the task in my journal.
  • I’ve probably done a couple of things that I’d otherwise have procrastinated on, because I had noted the task in my journal (and didn’t want to either strike it out nor carry it forward another day).
  • I’ve definitely got a much better idea what I’ve actually gotten done, because I have a record in my journal.
  • I’ve gotten to play with my fountain pens, the new Mont Blanc pen the Wise Bread founders gave me, my Dr. Grip G2 gel pens, and my Fisher space pens (all excellent pens—each the right tool for one circumstance or another).

I think Steven and I will continue writing one another, at least for a while; it’s fun! I’m continuing my bullet journal—I’m currently on day six. My handwriting has definitely improved.

Basically, it’s all good. Even if there are obvious advantages to just keeping stuff in a computer, it’s not as much fun, and why do stuff if it isn’t fun?

Adjusting my morning routine, maybe

The natural movement people I follow continue to broaden my perspective on what constitutes natural movement. Fairly recently, in her podcast, Katy Bowman pointed out that dilating and contracting the pupil of your eye is a natural movement.

Most people spend most of their time at just a few lighting levels—dark (however dark they keep the room they sleep in, which often isn’t very dark), medium (ordinary indoor light levels), and bright (ordinary outdoor light levels). Katy suggests that there may be some benefit in experiencing the whole range of light levels, from in-the-woods-at-night dark to full-sun-at-midday light—and most especially everywhere in between.

It’s an idea that appeals to me, and I’m inclined to copy her and go outdoors while it’s still dark, and take a walk during the time from just before dawn until just after sunrise.

Taking such an early morning walk would be a change to my daily routine, and whenever I think about adjusting my daily routine I like to compare it to that of Charles Darwin. He was so productive for such a long time, I figure his is a touchstone for a successful daily routine. So I went and checked and was very pleased to see that Darwin’s daily routine included a pre-breakfast walk of about 45 minutes.

I’d previously copied some elements from Darwin’s routine, but I hadn’t taken that one. I’ve been spending that time at the computer checking email, Facebook, and my RSS feeds, and chatting on-line with my brother. Those are all things that are probably worth doing, but maybe they don’t need to be the very first things I do in the morning.

I’ve been thinking about doing this for a while, but spring has been cold and damp and not really conducive to early morning walks.

This morning I took a test walk, strolling around Winfield Village and in the Lake Park Prairie Restoration in the half hour before sunrise. It was very pleasant.

sunrise from prairie

Summer work

I was making some notes, trying to organize my thinking about how I wanted to spend the summer. My first draft looked something like this:

  1. Finish my novel
  2. Work on my parkour strength/skills
  3. Do some running
  4. Go for some long walks
  5. Get in some bike rides
  6. Practice taiji in the park

It’s not a bad list, but as soon as I started playing around with it, I noticed that there’s a lack of parallelism. Specifically, the first item was a goal, while the other items were activities.

So I changed it, turning the first item into “Work on my novel.”

I think that’s better. I think having a goal to “finish” my novel has been an obstacle to actually doing so.

And it’s kind of odd that I’ve been thinking that way at all, because I’ve always enjoyed the actual writing part of writing. I’ve never been one of those “author” types of writers—the ones who don’t want to write, but only to have written. I’ve always liked all the phases of writing. I like starting something new, when I have a clean slate and haven’t made any mistakes yet. I like the phase of cranking away on something, putting the words down. I like the phase of revising, getting my raw words closer to the story I’d envisioned. They’re all good. So why have I found it so hard to work on my novel these past many months?

Perhaps I have tricked myself into replaying my perpetual struggle with the things I merely wanted to get done, as opposed to the things I actually wanted to do. It’s a problem I had all through school, and then all through my career. The things I needed to get done were always the hardest.

Since I quit working a regular job, I discovered that I am way more productive when I do the things I want to do and put off the things I just want to get done. This makes some things problematic—the taxes come to mind—but overall it’s been an effective strategy.

I have other thoughts about trying to be more productive this summer—this actually started out to be another “daily routine” post—but I’ll save those thoughts for another time.

For the rest of this morning, I’ll just see if I can quit worrying about finishing my novel, and instead spend some time working on it. And maybe squeeze in a run, along with some strength training.

Back to the novel

I’m back to work on my novel, and my brother gets some of the credit, for pointing out something that I had not considered.

Last summer, I was feeling especially good. I was feeling fit, both mentally and physically, and enjoying life. I noticed that, the more time I spent outdoors, the better I felt. I had a lot of guesses about what might have been going on. Maybe I was feeling better because I was getting:

  • Extra movement (I was mostly outdoors either to walk or to run)
  • Extra time spent in the prairie and the woods (walks in nature are known to improve mood)
  • Extra fresh air
  • Extra alone time (I ran by myself)
  • Extra together time with Jackie (we did many long walks together)
  • Extra light (full sun at noon on a clear day is over 100,000 lux)
  • Extra vitamin D (a pale guy like me can make 10,000 IU in just 20 or 40 minutes)
  • The placebo effect (just doing something can often make you feel better)

I was inclined to credit the extra vitamin D (which probably helps mood). I have gone so far as to get my doctor to order a vitamin D test along with the other blood tests for my annual physical. (We’ll see how my vitamin D levels held up over the long dark winter. If the results are interesting, I’ll post them.)

I was describing all this to my brother, who said, “I think you were feeling great during high summer because you had made plans and you were executing on them. You made a plan to walk the rail trail and did that, and then made a plan to go to France (for the Esperanto conference) and did that too.”

That sounded very reasonable.

Steven, of course, had his own idea about what I might next plan and then execute (“I think you should make a plan to write an essay for the Belartaj Konkursoj”), but I knew that the most important thing to work on is my novel.

So, I’m back to work on it. Starting with a plan.

In its broadest outline, my plan is simple.

I had stalled out because I’d realized that I’d gotten the end of my novel wrong. So, I’ll fix that.

I’ll spend a couple of hours brainstorming the ideal ending of a novel along the lines of the one I’ve written, and then I’ll write the ending to that novel.

Then I can back up and rewrite the beginning so that it leads the ending I’ve come up with.

I’ve known this would be what I’d have to do for a long time. It seemed daunting six months ago, because I’d just rewritten the first part, and the idea of doing it again seemed excruciating. But now, I think I can face it.

I’m more than a little excited about writing the ending from scratch. I’ve got lots of stuff to work with—heroes I like, menacing characters for them to deal with, danger, complexity.

And, if I don’t remember all the details about exactly who was menacing in which way or why, that’s entirely okay. I’ll figure out just what sort of menacing most suites the ending I come up with. Then I can go back and diddle around with the menacing in the middle and at the beginning to make it match.

It’s got all the excitement of starting work on a new novel, with just a quarter of the work!

Sore knees; decluttering my workspace

I hurt my knees and toes a few weeks ago, being too aggressive with a new natural-movement thing. Recovery from this sort of injury is best accomplished with a mixture of rest and gentle movement, and that’s what I’ve been doing. My toes got better pretty quickly, but my knees have continued to hurt.

Gentle movement in the form of walking did seem to help, but as the soreness persisted anyway, I started ramping up the amount of rest, figuring that was what was needed. My knees would get better and then get worse again. Extra rest didn’t seem to help. It was very frustrating.

Yesterday it occurred to me that the problem might be the way I was resting: I was spending extra time sitting at my computer.

In particular, I was spending a lot of time tucking my legs back under the chair, resting my feet on two of the chair’s wheels. When I wasn’t doing that, I’d stretch my legs out, but my left leg (the one with the persistently sorer knee) was constrained in how much it could stretch out, because I’d put the subwoofer for my computer speakers under the desk on the left.

So, this morning I made two changes. First, I moved the subwoofer out from under the desk, freeing up space to stretch out my left leg. Second, I lowered my chair, making it easier to put my feet flat on the floor, and less tempting to tuck my legs back under the chair.

I’d had the chair height set with the screen in mind, after some neck issues seven or eight years ago. Those had been resolved by getting computer glasses (I had been tipping my head back to read the screen through the progressive part of my glasses), so I feel free to rejigger the space to address other issues.

Not being an idiot, I’m also trying to spend less time at the computer today, and will go on doing so until my knee is all better.

On a related note: One of the things I’m less able to deal with during the dark days of winter is clutter. Unfortunately, I’m also less able to get my ordinary decluttering tasks done. In the past, this has led to a vicious cycle of clutter making me more depressed and depression making less able to tidy up my workspace. Doing my other workspace reconfiguring left me with a bit of momentum, so I carried on with some preemptive late-fall workspace tidying. Behold:

Workstation 2015That grey box at the far left is the subwoofer, no longer under the desk.

My screen desktop is a photo taken in the Lake Park Prairie Restoration, about five minutes walk from my house. Here it is on Flickr:

Snowy late-fall day at Lake Park Prarie

It’s a beautiful image and well worth clicking through to embiggen.

I share a lot more photos in my Flickr photostream than I end up using in blog posts. After you click through to admire that one, check out some of the others as well.

Zero unread RSS feeds (plus novel update)

Over a period of some months I’ve been working to clean up the set of feeds I try to follow. Today I got the unread count down to zero, perhaps for the first time since I started using a feed reader. Certainly for the first time in years.

I did it two ways. First, I did it the legit way, by unsubscribing from feeds that I didn’t actually read. Second, in just a few cases, I did it the cheating way, by just selecting a feed and clicking “mark as read.”

The first permanently reduces the burden of stuff I imagine that I ought to do.

The second just briefly hides the fact that there are some feeds I imagine I want to follow, but that I don’t actually keep up with. Still, I figure this is a test of sorts. Some of those feeds were pretty quiet. Maybe, if they’re not mixed in with all the stuff I’m not keeping up with, they’ll be easy to follow. And, if they’re not, I can always unsubscribe later.

This flurry of feed-pruning activity brought to you by procrastinating on the novel.

I’m in the midst of some tough slogging as I push through the final third. Even after my previous pass through this bit, it is still written a lot like a short story. The scenes are highly compressed, with lots of bits merely referred to. As I reach those scenes, it takes me a while to uncompress them—to see the two or three or four scenes represented by the existing text, and then to compose those scenes, placing them in the right sequence in the story.

I’m actually really enjoying that work, once I get into it, but each new scene is hard to start on—largely because I’m quite proud of the old, compressed versions. The uncompression work feels like taking a finely crafted miniature that I spent days painting, cutting it up into pieces, sticking each piece in the middle of a big canvas, and then trying to paint a new picture that incorporates that bit of the miniature. (It would probably be better to just do the necessary new scene “inspired” by the old scene, and I’ve done some of that, but that turns out to have problems as well.)

In any event, progress continues. It’s just hard.

As I go to click the “publish” button on this post, my unread feed count stands at zero.

Comfort activity (and a novel update)

A few years after we got married, Jackie and I planned a Key West vacation for February. I figured early-to-mid February would be perfect—we’d get to escape a week of winter weather, and when we got back in mid-to-late February it would be almost March and it would be safe to start looking forward to spring.

Probably most important—to my mind, more important than the vacation itself—was the anticipation of the vacation. My plan was that we’d spend all January looking forward to the vacation. We’d be kept busy with preparations and packing, we’d be researching things we might do in Key West and making plans. Looking forward to our vacation was supposed to make January zip by more quickly.

Unfortunately, that was the year the airline pilots threatened to go on strike, with the planned strike date the day before our flight to Key West. So, instead of spending all January looking forward to my vacation, I spent all January wondering if I’d spend my vacation in the airport, waiting on labor negotiations.

In the event the pilots did go on strike, but Bill Clinton ordered them back to work for a month, so we got to Key West and had our vacation as planned. It was a fine week in Key West, but a real dud of an anticipatory month of January. The experience strongly reinforced my view that the anticipation is worth as much as the vacation itself.

I mention all that because I’ve found our party preparations similarly diverting. We picked the date a couple of months back. (I’d proposed a New Year’s Eve party, a date Jackie rejected as too soon for us to be ready. She counter-proposed Groundhog’s Day, and then we settled on Groundhog’s Day Eve because it was a Sunday and we wanted to do an afternoon party.)

So we’ve had most of two months to anticipate our party. We would have been busy anyway—still unpacking from having moved, family visiting early in the new year, both on top of all our usual activities. With party preparations as well, we’ve been busy every minute.

All of which I figure is worth mentioning, because this was probably the best January I’ve had in about as long as I can remember.

I used to suffer from seasonal depression pretty routinely. It’s been better of late (probably helped by using my HappyLight™, by taking vitamin D, and by not working a regular job), but it’s never gone away. I still suffer from anxiety starting in early fall just from knowing that the days are going to get short. But this year has been great—and I think being busy with the activities of party preparation have been a big part of it.

Clearly it’s worth planning something for early February that I can spend January anticipating. I don’t know if it should be a party every year though. Perhaps a vacation that didn’t come with a month of worry about airline pilot’s strikes would be even better. (With the bonus of getting us someplace warm for a week.)

I did want to mention that progress on the novel proceeds apace. Despite being busy, I’ve managed to work on the novel very nearly every single day since the solstice.

As of just a few days ago, I’d made my way through the middle third—and I’m pretty pleased with it. As I feared, the final third is in rougher shape than I’d like. I’d gone through it once already, reworking it from a short story into the final third of a novel, but now that I’m here, I can see that there’s a lot left to do.

There’s also a good bit of new writing that needs to happen. The short story wrapped up with an explanation of why things were going to be okay. It didn’t quite work as a short story, which is part of what made me want to expand it to a novel. But as I pressed through the first two-thirds, I realized that what needs to happen is that events predicted in that explanation need to actually happen in full-blown scenes. And those scenes haven’t been written yet.

That’s okay, though. I’ve really enjoyed the bits here and there during the rewrite when I came upon a scene where, in the first draft, I’d said, “Since they’d remembered to do X . . .” and went back to write the scene where they did X. Now I’m looking forward to writing two or three or four scenes of additional climax and dénouement.

It’ll be great.

Bad meditator

I’m a bad meditator. While writing this piece, I was briefly tempted to claim to be the world’s worst meditator, but I’m sure that’s not actually true. At least, it’s not true if you include the people who don’t meditate at all—they’re worse than me. Even among the people who have a regular meditation practice there are certainly people who are worse at it than I am. Well, almost certainly. But probably not very many. I’m really a very bad meditator.

For one thing, I haven’t taken my meditation practice seriously. For a long time, I just went through the motions, not even really trying to meditate. In my taiji class, the teacher included a period for meditation, so I “meditated.”

Even just going through the motions of meditating, I quickly found some physical benefits to standing meditation, but the more subtle benefits—the insights into my mind that meditation is supposed to provide—eluded me. This was not a surprise; I did not expect much benefit from a practice that was as slipshod as my own.

(As an aside, I should mention that there are also physical benefits to sitting meditation. They were not as obvious to me, mostly because of my own foolishness in viewing standing meditation as a successor to sitting meditation, rather than a complementary practice. This kept me from giving my sitting even the rather feeble effort I gave my standing. Even so, I eventually perceived the physical benefits of sitting meditation as well.)

Only after three or four years did I begin to find the other benefits of a meditation practice. In particular, I felt like I began to acquire insights into the mechanisms of attention. (At around that same time, I read an article about Steve Jobs that talked about his meditation practice, saying that, “Sitting zazen offered Jobs a practical technique for upgrading the motherboard in his head.”)

One thing that made a difference for me was attending a free meditation workshop by Mary Wolters, a local yoga instructor. Her guided meditation sessions were excellent—sitting rather than standing, 30 minutes rather than the usually 10 minutes or less that we did in taiji class, and (probably most important) separated from the effort of (both learning and doing) taiji—I found that I actually was meditating.

Having begun to perceive the benefits of meditation, I find myself wanting to do it more, but have not yet found a way to add it to my daily routine, except as part of my taiji practice, which is good, but not enough. (And I hesitate to spend more class time on meditation, on the theory that the class should take advantage of there being a taiji instructor present to focus on the movements, whereas we could all meditate successfully on our own.)

Still, even if I haven’t added time to my meditation practice beyond what I do in taiji, I have at least added meditation to my meditation practice. It’s a start.

Noveling along

I’m making steady progress on my novel rewrite. Since getting back to work on it back on the solstice, I’ve put in a nice block of time nearly every day. (Besides Christmas Day, which I took as a holiday, I think I’ve missed two other days.)

The first third had already been rewritten back in the summer. I spent the first couple of days reading through that part and making minor edits. Happily, the edits were in fact minor. I fixed typos and minor sentence-level errors like poor word choice. I fixed the sort of scene-level errors that can only be spotted on a close re-read, such as saying something that I’d just said in the previous scene.

Once I got through that first third, progress slowed down quite a bit. The middle third of the novel had some serious structural problems. It had too many locations where too little happened. I’d already figured out that I needed to collapse that into two locations, and I’d taken a first pass at identifying which things happen in location A and which in location B, but now I had to make all that work.

That turned into kind of an odd mix. Sometimes I could just fix the name of the location and otherwise leave the scene alone. Other times the scene needed to be completely rewritten, because the action was only appropriate for a location that the characters no longer visited. (The latter was more work, but the former was worrisome in its own way—if the exact same thing could happen in the exact same way, perhaps my characters and locations were overly generic.)

Just yesterday and today I’ve been working on a bit that had (in an earlier draft) been written to be chapter one, to be followed with the story running along in two alternating threads, one present and one a flashback. I was pretty pleased with the chapter as a first chapter, but here in the middle, it’s all wrong. In particular, it has several bits written to establish the characters and their relationships. Those bits need to go, which is hard because they’re pretty good bits. Worse, they really ought to be replaced with references to stuff that happened earlier in the book—except that some of the bits they reference never got written.

So, that’s my task for tomorrow—spot those references, then go back and make sure that there’s actual text that establishes that aspect of the character’s relationship. Then decide which of the references should be edited to refer explicitly to those events and which should just be plucked out.

Writing this pass is weirdly different than writing a first draft. I spent a lot of mental effort trying (and often failing) to resist the urge to go back and edit as I went along. Now that I’m in the edit phase, my problem is just the reverse: each time I come upon something hard like this, my urge is to say, “Oh, I’ll leave that for the next pass.” Except that there is no next pass, at least not until my first readers come back with comments.

Still, steady progress is good. I’m about half-way through the middle third.

The final third, where the text draws heavily from the previously existing short story, will no doubt be yet another different experience. I’ve already gone through that part fixing stuff in the sequence of events and adjusting for how the characters had evolved in the writing of the novel-length work. At this point I really have no idea if I got most of that right, and that (having already been rewritten once) it will be like the first third, or if it will be like this middle third, needing major work. I know there’s be some significant new writing that needs to be done—I have a list of scenes that I’ve realized are missing—but beyond that I really have no clue how much work is sitting there needing to be done.

I’m can say that I’m happy with the draft up through this point. If I’m as happy with the second half, I’ll have no hesitation about sharing it with my first readers.