Attention, gratitude, compassion

Many years ago I read a pretty good book: How to Want What You Have by Timothy Miller. It teaches what is basically a stripped down, secularized Buddhism as a way to make yourself happier. I was reminded of it because I’ve just read 10% Happier by Dan Harris, which covers similar material. I’d recommend either book for anyone who wants to be happier.

Reading a book about meditation made me realize that I’ve been meditating (in my own somewhat haphazard way) for a full ten years now. I don’t meditate every day, but for most of the year (while I’m teaching my taiji classes) I meditate at least five times a week.

Some people seem to find their meditation practice immediately reinforcing: the practice helps them deal with real world problems, which makes them more keen to meditate, which helps them even more, in a self-reinforcing cycle.

That hasn’t really been my experience.

I’ve long been inclined to blame that on initially not taking the meditation more seriously, and figure that if I’d just try a little harder to really meditate, rather than just go through the motions, I’d discover that it’s extremely useful to me just like other people find it useful for them.

That’s been true in a small way, but only a small way. And I think reading the Harris book has helped me spot one reason why not. His alternate title was The Voice in Your Head is an Asshole, and a good bit of his (and other people’s) experience of meditation is like that—their internal voices are belittling and denigrating, full of imposter syndrome and criticism. Meditation helps them by helping them understand that their internal voice is not them, and that they can easily go astray by paying too much attention to it.

My internal voice isn’t like that at all. My internal voice thinks I’m great. (I credit my mom for this. She thinks both of her sons are perfect in every way, and will countenance no disagreement.)

My internal voice isn’t without its flaws. It’s way too prone to remind me of things I did that were wrong or mean or unhelpful, as if its purpose were to make me embarrassed or unhappy. It’s also way too likely to get me started worrying about possible bad things that might happen in the future, sending me into a spiral of anxiety or depression. But it doesn’t think I’m bad. Just that bad things have happened in the past (that I should feel bad about) or that bad things might happen in the future (that I should worry about).

So I too can benefit from learning not to pay too much attention to my internal voice. But I don’t get the immediate payoff that comes to those whose internal voice is an asshole, rather than merely occasionally unhelpful.

Having been reminded of the Miller book, I was reminded of the other two legs of its recommended practice: gratitude and compassion.

I’ve made an occasional effort to practice gratitude. Click on the gratitude tag in the sidebar to see any number of instances where I documented a feeling of gratitude. I should do more of that, but I think I’ve gotten pretty good at gratitude, at least compared to when I was a child and had a lot of trouble feeling gratitude for the things I did have when there was so much that I wanted and didn’t have.

Which brings me to compassion. It turns out I have a tag for it too, although there was only one post under that tag before this one, where I wrote about how excited I was that Christopher McDougall’s book Natural Born Heroes was coming out. One of McDougall’s main points is that compassion is a key attribute in a hero, every bit as important as bravery or strength.

The Miller book suggests a specific technique for practicing compassion, which is that whenever someone acts like an asshole, you imagine some reason why their behavior might be excusable, or at least understandable. The guy who cut you off in traffic? Maybe they’re rushing to the emergency room because a loved one was just in an accident. The dude who practically knocked you over because he was staring at his phone? Maybe his boss just fired him by text. The woman who overheard a casual comment in a private conversation and rudely took you to task for it somehow being offensive? Maybe your words reminded her of some past traumatic experience.

I have a friend who used to do this when we were officemates. Whenever I’d complain about somebody—typically for endangering my life with their careless or aggressive driving, but sometimes just for being rude or dismissive or inconveniencing me in some way—he would always have an excuse. Maybe the person was old or sick or injured or in pain or hadn’t slept well. He could always imagine some reason why that person should be excused for their behavior.

It was really annoying.

But I can now feel some compassion for his need to do that. Partially he was trying to help me—help me be less annoyed, help me learn how to feel compassion. But at least as much, I now understand, he was trying to remind himself to practice compassion for the people who made his life more difficult.

Dan Harris describes a specific Buddhist meditation technique for practicing compassion. Called metta meditation, it involves choosing a few compassionate phrases such as “May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be safe. May I be filled with ease.” In your meditation direct them first at yourself, then at a series of others: a benefactor, a close friend, a neutral person, a difficult person, and then “all beings.”

Time for me, I think, to step up my own gratitude and compassion practices. I think I’ll give metta meditation a try, and I’ll get back to gratitude journaling here on my blog.

Photo by Rosalie Lang

I find gratitude easy. I am, for example, grateful for the public art in our local parks. (If you’re an arachnophobe, you should be grateful that I didn’t go with my first impulse, which was to post a photo of the spider friend I saw in the house this morning, to which I’m grateful for its help with insect pests. Relatedly, I’m grateful to my mantis friend! And to a growing number of human friends, such as this human friend with Jackie!)

Compassion will take more practice, I fear. But I think it’s practice I’m ready for.

How meditation is like weight lifting

On a recent podcast, Tim Ferriss and Peter Attia drew a parallel between weight lifting and meditation that really resonated for me.

Some people really like weight lifting. They enjoy the ambiance of the gym. They like doing the reps. They like “feeling the burn” as they finish a good set. They like the way their muscles feel trashed at the end.

Other people hate all those things, and loath every minute that they spend in the gym—but they lift weights anyway for the benefits that result: stronger muscles, stronger tendons, stronger bones, healthier joints, improved insulin sensitivity, increased neurogenesis and brain plasticity.

In much the same way, some people really like meditation. They enjoy the sitting (or standing, or moving). They enjoy the centeredness. They like bringing their attention to their breath (or their mantra or their mandala). They like the focus. They like the stillness. They like the peace.

Other people hate meditation. They find it boring. They find it uncomfortable. They find no stillness or peace. Their attention constantly wanders. Their efforts feel like repeated failure.

While everybody knows that you go to the gym and lift weights to get stronger—not to prove that you’re already strong—many people fail to understand that the same is true of meditation. You don’t meditate to prove that you have great focus. You meditate to get better at noticing when you’re thinking and better at letting your thoughts go.

The point of a meditative practice is not to have a 20-minute session that feels like a success. When you are sitting and you notice that you are thinking, and you let that thought go, and return your attention to your breath—that’s a rep. That’s what you’re practicing. If you do it twenty times in a five-minute meditation session. . . . Well, that’s twenty reps. That’s an extremely successful session of meditative practice.

My point here is that doing the work of practicing meditating is worth doing, even if the meditation sessions themselves feel like one failure after another. Just like the point of lifting weights is to be stronger in the other 23 hours and 40 minutes of the day when you’re not lifting, the point of a meditation practice is to be better at paying attention the other 23 hours and 40 minutes of the day when you’re not meditating.

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.

Missing my zombies

I’ve praised the game Zombie’s, Run! several times over the past couple of years. It’s great fun. It’s gotten me out several times to run in weather cold enough that I’d have otherwise just stayed inside. It’s kept me company on several treadmill runs that I’d otherwise not have finished. But I haven’t played it in quite a while, because more and more I find that I want to be fully present in my runs.

This isn’t a big change. I’ve never been much on listening to music or the radio or audio books while walking or running, and not just because of the various dangers, from traffic or muggers or stray dogs or whatever. (Those dangers are real, both from having your ears covered and from being distracted, but I think they’re pretty small, and pretty easy to ameliorate through simple things like looking carefully at road crossings.)

The main reason I didn’t listen to things while running was that I enjoyed running, and didn’t want miss the experience. (And of course, mindful exercise is more effective than distracted exercise.)

Maybe it’s a pretty good compromise to distract myself from my unpleasant workouts—trudging through the cold, running on the treadmill—and maybe I’ll do that again next winter. But lately I’d had no inclination to distract myself.

I feel sorry for the people who find exercise so unpleasant that they need to be distracted from what they’re actually doing. I enjoy my runs too much to want to miss them by being immersed in a fictional world—even a fictional world as much fun as Zombies, Run!

Doesn’t mean I don’t miss my zombies.

Katy Bowman: The Michael Pollan of movement

I have always found “deconstructionist” models appealing. For example, I liked the idea that you could “figure out” all the nutrients that you need and then build up a diet that provides the right mix of carbs, proteins, fats (with proper mix between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids), the right amounts of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and so on.

Then Michael Pollan came along and (in his book In Defense of Food) completely destroyed that idea. First of all, it’s an impossible problem to solve—the different nutrients interact in the body (and biome) in ways that are intractably complex, plus there are so many micro-nutrients as to make it computationally infeasible (even if we knew what all of them were, which we don’t). More to the point, though, it’s a completely unnecessary problem to solve: our bodies solve it for us, as long as we eat a diet of diverse foods and minimize our consumption of manufactured food-like substances.

I’m not saying this is new news. In fact, this is common knowledge—everybody said this, right from the start. What I’m saying is that, for reasons no doubt having to do with my personality and psychological makeup, I liked the deconstructionist model for analyzing and then constructing a plan for what to eat, despite what everybody said. For some reason, again having to do with my personality and psychological makeup, Michael Pollan’s explanation of how the whole deconstructionist model of designing a plan for eating was fundamentally flawed suddenly made it clear to me (in a way that any number of people—including my third grade health teacher and both my parents—had not managed to do).

All that seems relevant because—I recently realized—for years now I’ve been making the exact same mistake with movement. I’ve been trying to “figure out” an exercise regime that would keep me fit. If you click on the Fitness category over in the sidebar, or the “exercise” tag on this post, you’ll be linked to a long list of my posts on the topic, many of which describe my latest attempt to find the right mix of walking, running, bicycling, lifting, stretching, and taiji to build and maintain optimal levels of aerobic capacity, strength, and flexibility.

Then I ran into the work of Katy Bowman, whose explanations of why exercise is no substitute for movement clicked for me in just the same way, and for roughly the same reason: The problem is intractably complex, and anyway our bodies solve the problem for us—as long as we engage in an ample amount of diverse movement and minimize things like sitting in chairs and wearing bad shoes. (See her book Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement.)

Again, this is not really new news; I’m just late to the party because I like the idea of designing an exercise regime that covers all the necessary categories.

However, I think I have come around. Appealing as it is to me to design the perfect exercise regime and then tick off each box as I reach my target for the week, I pretty much have to admit that the whole thing is a fool’s errand. I’d be much better off spending that time walking, stretching, hanging, squatting, climbing, balancing, jumping, throwing, catching, and so on.

I’ll still run (because I enjoy it, probably due to the endocannabinoids, and because being able to run is useful), but I’ll spend a lot less time on things like figuring out how much I can safely add to my weekly mileage. I’ll just run as much as I feel like—while being careful to do so mindfully, and to pay attention to my body, so that enjoying running doesn’t entice me to run more than should.

Still not new news.

Human movement capabilities

I’ve started thinking of my fitness practice more as movement practice. This post is about that shift in my thinking, and if that’s not going to be interesting to you, you’ll probably want to just skip this one.

I have always wanted to be fit, for what I think are mostly ordinary reasons: to be healthy, to look good, to be capable of doing the things that need to be done. For most of my life, my fitness practice fell short of what I thought it ought to be, again for mostly ordinary reasons: I was busy, the weather was bad, I found exercise boring or unpleasant.

I would get my aerobic exercise running and cycling in the summer, and walking year round. When the weather cooperated with a mild spring, I could get in pretty good shape by mid-summer. A couple of years, I even preserved some level of running capability over the winter; one of those years, I ran the Lake Mingo Trail Race, which at 7.1 miles was usually beyond my capability in mid-June when it takes place. But, given the realities of working a regular job (with hours when I needed to be sitting at a computer, rather than out for a run), winter (when I just about don’t cycle or run) and injuries (as my brother likes to say “Running is great exercise, between injuries”), my fitness practice never made me fit for the long term, just fit for a while.

This changed a few years ago, for a couple of reasons.

The less important reason was that my employer closed the site down, and I decided I could get by without a regular job. It means our financial circumstances are a bit straitened, but my hours are my own.

More important, I started practicing taiji.

Taiji gave me balance and control, but much more important, it taught me mindfulness—to be present in my body during my exercise. (I was prompted to write this post at this time because I’ve been reading a blog by Johnathan Mead called Move Heroically, that nicely hits the sweet spot in my evolving interest in fitness. The latest post in particular is on exactly this topic: Embodiment is a Performance Enhancing Drug.)

I like to think of my exercise as building capabilities. I go for long walks because I want to be able to go for long walks. I run because I want to be able to run.

That’s an oversimplification in at least two ways.

For one thing, honesty requires me to admit that I engage in endurance exercise because I like it (perhaps because of the endocannabinoids it generates). A long run at a brisk pace makes me feel good.

More important it’s an oversimplification because specificity of training means that my exercise practice was only building a very narrow slice of the capabilities I imagined. Yes, if I go for a long run every week or two, I do create and maintain the capability to run a long way, but that capability is only barely transferable to other activities. When Jackie and I wanted to go on a century ride, we spent many weeks building up our stamina for long rides. Given how long it’s been since my last long ride, I would not want to stake my life on my capability to bicycle 100 miles without a good bit of training. Maybe fewer weeks because we’re fitter now, but I’d still want weeks of training before attempting another century ride.

It was this realization, in conjunction with my taiji practice teaching me to move more mindfully, that brought me initially to parkour, and more recently to natural movement generally.

Running wasn’t just for fun (although it was fun), and it wasn’t just to be more healthy (although I expect I am). I was explicitly building the capability to run if I needed too. I used that capability sometimes—to catch a bus, to get to an appointment on time—and I imagined that I could use it under other circumstances as well: running away from some danger, running toward someone who needed my help.

But I came to realize that, because of exercise specificity, my capability was a very narrow one indeed. I could run, but I could only barely jump or climb. If I came to a place where I needed to step down I was fine, as long as the drop was only a step or two. But if I needed to jump down by, let’s say, three steps, things got much more problematic. I could climb up a steep path, but am quite daunted if I need to climb up a tree, or cliff, or a wall, or a rope.

That was what brought me to parkour.

Even before I made much progress in the skills of parkour, however, I happened upon natural movement. It shares the roots of parkour, but is less about the specific skills of parkour (vaults and such), and more about basic human movement. Yes, walking and running. Also climbing and jumping and crawling. Balancing. Throwing and catching. Lifting and carrying. Swimming and diving.

So, this is where I’ve come to. I’m very pleased with my walking, and adequately pleased with my running. My climbing skills need considerable broadening. Thanks to taiji, my static balance is okay, but I’m still a beginner when it comes to more dynamic balance. My throwing and catching were never great, and have declined enormously due to a lack of practice since I was a boy. My lifting and carrying skills are deficient, due to too many years lifting weights primarily with machines. If you dropped me in water over my head I could avoid drowning for a while, but unless shallow water or rescue were reasonably close, I would be hard pressed to reach it.

There is a great deal I want to learn (and re-learn) this summer, and I have started in small ways.

weir-behind-winfield-villageThis weir crosses a ditch that runs behind Winfield Village. It’s concrete, a good 12 inches wide, but curved on top, making it a pretty good imitation of a log put across a river to serve as a bridge. I’ve been including it as part of my running route, initially with some difficulty (needing to use the concrete blocks as additional stepping stones), but now crossing on just the weir, and beginning to pick up the pace.

I’m being very careful—Jackie would be quite peeved with me if I injured myself right before our Kal-Haven Trail walk—so I’m not doing much with jumps or vaults yet. But my concept of fitness has broadened greatly, and I’m no longer satisfied with merely a strong heart and strong muscles. I want the full range of human movement capabilities.