An insight into my personal meditation practice

A question I get asked a lot is: “What does my personal meditation practice look like?”.

This post is for those guys. I hope you find it useful and feel free to comment.

I dictated this during my meditation on the morning of the 24th July.

I meditate in a variety of ways, places and times: everything from a regular morning practice to meditating wherever I find myself during the day, travelling or waiting in a queue or in a quiet five minutes. I also sometimes meditate in bed after I wake up or before I go to sleep (beditation). When I add the meditations that I teach (I always meditate when I am guiding a meditation), I probably meditate for a couple of hours per day on average.

I decided a while back to go over to using my Zen Bench as often as I can which is the best meditation bench I have been able to find. I usually meditate on one of a number of different cushions depending on my mood but I think that my posture is better on the Zen Bench so I am working on moving over to it. This is because when I teach I often find myself on random cushions or various chairs/stools or on the floor/ground.

If you are interested you can buy one here: http://zenbench.co.uk/ I have no association with the makers.

This article is an insight into a one hour regular practice meditation I did on the morning of the 24th of July. This is just an insight into my experience. It isn’t anything in the way of a regular experience as, for me, there is no regular experience. My meditations vary considerably. Sometimes I might meditate with an intention such as to gain some insight on a choice I need to make, or to just follow the breath, or to calm a busy mind or resolve conflicting thoughts or release some emotion (increasingly rare), or focus on the body, or relax or do compassion practices or open awareness or whatever. But most commonly now, I allow my meditation to go wherever it goes. This is one of those sessions.

I used an app on my iPhone called Drafts to dictate every so often so this is in the nature of a running commentary. I have edited it as much of the grammar was incorrect and many words had been captured incorrectly but there isn’t much change from what I dictated. I dictated a few sentences to describe my experience whenever I became aware to do so. After half an hour I noted the time into the meditation that I had reached. I have left the drafts dictation end bars === in place. These are created by Drafts at the end of each dictation. Any comments that I have added after the meditation, I have enclosed in brackets.

I did my morning yoga before I started which consists of Makka Ho stretches and a set of sun salutations: I do between three and ten depending on how I feel.

I didn’t meditate with any intention (except to dictate my experience) and just allowed the meditation to go where it wanted to go.

I sit so that my torso and head are at the point of equilibrium where leaning back causes my head or torso to fall back and leaning forward causes them to fall forward. This means no muscles are operating and I will be the more comfortable for longer.

My Meditation Space July 2017_680x907

My meditation
“Becoming aware of my connection to the Earth. Allowing myself to feel gravity pushing me down into the ground and adjusting my balance.
My eyes are open. I allow my body to relax with my arms by my side and no muscles are tense. Just maintaining my balance and allowing myself to notice where my awareness settles.

Aware throughout this of the breath. Also aware of the breeze moving the plants and trees in the garden and of the colours and shapes, textures, reflections, contrasts, patterns, shade, light, dark.

===
Allowing myself to become aware of any discomfort in my body and adjusting if necessary. Checking to see if I’m relaxing. Adjusting my balance again.

Checking in with my body
Noticing I’m calmly alert: not tired, no headache (I had a headache the previous night), a tiny amount of brain fog. Noticing it’s quiet, that there is movement somewhere in the house and traffic noise in the distance.

I can’t taste anything, there’s just a hint of a smell of some sort, not obvious what it is, now closing my eyes.

Becoming aware of my physical sensations: balance, comfort, relaxation, warmth, alertness. Noticing I can feel my heart beat, my attention moving to the breath in my chest. Noticing the rhythm.

===
Focusing on the sense of air in my nostrils, Again checking my balance. (I’m surprised to know how often I do that. Possibly it is because I don’t usually use the Zen Bench and I have an underlying intention to focus on my posture).

Now focusing on the breath I’m surprised to notice that I have now been meditating for 15 minutes.

===
Following the breath
The mind is quite calm this morning. When I allow myself to be aware of thoughts arising I notice very quiet, almost distantly in my mind, the beginning of sentences forming as thoughts: half formed sentences arise which stop when I become aware of them. (It is as if the mind is trying to get a train of thought going and my awareness of it doing so cuts it off).

I sit listening for thoughts. No images arise, just half formed sentences of the inner voice.
Adjusting my balance again.
Relaxing in the gap between half formed sentences arising. Slowly focusing on the breath and seeking the source of thought in the background. Now just the occasional word popping into my awareness and words not getting as far as forming into even the start of sentences. I’m aware that there is a potential for the inner voice to arise, but it is not transforming into a coherent statement and it slowly diminishes in the background as I focus on the breath, particularly the coolness of the in breath. Adjusting my balance again. Relaxing again.
Now just focusing on the coolness of the breath.

===
A calm mind
No thoughts arising now at all now. I’ve been sitting for 30 minutes.
Allowing myself to notice how I feel emotionally at 35 minutes. What emotions are there? There is nothing obvious so I’m just sitting, allowing any emotional state, any unsatisfactoriness, any discomfort or anxiety or joy or happiness to arise.
Nothing arises. Making a space for insights. (Sometimes when my mind is quiet, intuitive insights arise but not on this day).

===
Forming an intention to connect to the sensory present moment.

===
Open Awareness
Opening my eyes at 40 minutes. Moving over to open awareness meditation. Allowing myself to connect to all of my sensory experiences. Allowing my vision to roam around as it wishes. Closing my eyes from time to time to focus on the body, sound, smell, taste, the sensation of sitting, the breath, sounds, distant sounds, the sound of the breath, my balance.
Gently scanning my body, readjusting my balance, relaxing, noticing the sensation in my legs, noticing slight discomfort now in my right knee (an old injury). Allowing my sense of feeling and touch in my body to move out around me beyond my body. (I didn’t realise I did this. To me it was just a sensory experience where the sense of connection came into my body. Possibly that varies). Allowing my sense of feeling to move beyond the body and extend out into the room including all of my surroundings, down into the ground and above my head. My mood elevating and a sense of physical connection like a tingling and the best massage ever arising as I connect. Still aware of the sensations of discomfort in my right knee now but it is mildly improved with an adjustment of posture by repositioning my thighs on the bench.
Noticing the breath rising and falling feeling the sense of connection.
Eyes still closed, exploring my feeling of connection and noticing the joy arising. Smiling, noticing the discomfort in the knee, adjusting my body, checking in with my shoulders, ensuring I’m relaxed, tipping my head back to balance, a smile on my face, joy continuing to arise.

===
51 minutes now, I’m aware of the warm sensation throughout my body where the joy is filling it. Grateful and thankful for this.
Basking in the sensory pleasure of the feeling of connection to my surroundings, the rhythm of the breath in the body, the sound of the trees being blown in the breeze mixing with the traffic noise, the airplane noise and the sound of my breath. Connecting with the sound, connecting with feeling, noticing the same sense of pleasure and joy in my fingers and hands as there is in my chest and shoulders.
Settling back to calmly witness all of this, the quality of the joy changing from one of near euphoria to one of a calm collected connection.

===

55 minutes, eyes opening, observing the source of thought again, noticing that there is no thought and also no potential for thought.
Noticing the breath, noticing a sense of compassion
===

57 minutes
Noticing distant sounds, police sirens, airplanes, movement of the plants and trees. The sense of joy has become a calm relaxation.
===

One hour.
Ending the meditation and stretching.”

Namaste.

Mindfulness v. Mind Wandering

I recently received an email from a student asking about mind-wandering and mindfulness. He pointed out that he is quite attached to mind wandering and whether mindfulness is better than mind wandering.

“Something that is puzzling me; why do we have a default (“wandering”) mind if that task-positive mind is better and happier to be in? Does it help in some situations, does it encourage imagination, open-mindedness, a wider solution space? I think historically I’ve been quite attached to that default mode, I’m feeling a bit of cognitive dissonance in letting go.”

I can put your mind at rest.

Excellent question. There is no need to let go of mind wandering. It would be impossible to in any case as it is, like task positive mode, an essential activity for the brain. Remember that by fostering mindfulness, we are only ever exercising the ‘choice’ of whether we allow our minds to wander or return our attention to the sensory present moment. We are not, and can not, ever banish mind wandering from our experience entirely. We can also, always choose to let the mind wander if we wish. Mind-wandering is a subset of default mode. Default mode has a purpose. It helps in decision making and in retrieving social information and in a number of other ways. Mind wandering only becomes a problem when it entirely squeezes mindfulness out of our experience or operates compulsively or at inappropriate times (see below).
If I am a judge, mind-wandering is part of my decision making process, I will imagine how I will feel giving various sentences for example: letting the accused off, giving them a light sentence or giving them a heavy sentence. The result is gut feel. It is incredibly useful and can often outperform cognitive assessment. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink gives us an insight into that process. That useful intuition often arises in mind wandering.

Mind wandering is also a place for creativity and it can be a welcome experience. Positive mind-wandering is as enjoyable as actually doing something according to Gilbert and Killingworth, the Harvard guys who wrote the article ‘A wandering mind is an unhappy mind’ in the journal science after studying mind wandering through an app used by thousands of subjects.

What we are seeking to do with these mental processes is to become comfortable with them, understand them and regulate them for our benefit.
What our artificial lives have done is to overload what would be quiet moments of connection with often compulsive mind wandering and problem solving, when it is more beneficial to have a rest from it.

Examples of when mindfulness trumps default mode:

  • When someone else is speaking.
  • When we are trying to get to sleep and the mind is in overdrive.
  • When we are having a special experience, travelling, spending time with our family etc.
  • When we are eating.
  • When we are landing an airplane or doing our tax return.
  • When we are doing sport or exercising (think of a mind-wandering goalkeeper or the runner that doesn’t notice the rabbit hole).
  • Walking the dog or going for a stroll is most usefully a combination of mindfulness and mind-wandering which is exactly what will happen in any case for most of us.
  • When we are suffering from cognitive overload: Waking up with a head full of lists, suffering from anxiety or worrying about outcomes too much. Mindfulness is a refractory period for the mind.
  • When we are driving or crossing the road.
  • When the needle gets stuck and our thoughts become unhelpful, repetitive or affect our ability to sleep.

Examples of appropriate experiences for mind wandering:

  • Retrieving memories especially, social ones.
  • Social evaluations of the self and others.
  • As ‘part of’ the decision making process. A balanced decision making process consist of: rational choices (task-positive mode). Gut-feel – default mode and task positive mode collaborating. Loosely associated thoughts (creativity) are default mode or mind wandering. From this we are making use of three elements of decision making in a skilled way: How we feel, what our subconscious mind contributes and the outcome of our rational decision making processes.
  • Mind wandering is great when we require creative input. Drifting in and out of sleep (the hypnagogic state) is also immensely beneficial which sometimes results in us waking up with the answer in our heads which happens an awful lot to me now. Check this link out if you are interested in this: http://scienceline.org/2014/06/sleeping-on-and-dreaming-up-a-solution/
  • And most importantly, when we are just chilling and our monkey mind isn’t giving us any trouble.

I hope this helps, feel free to ask any questions that arise.

Mindfulness and Intuition

Intuition is something that I often find myself speaking about with students. It is part of our common experience and isn’t confined to realisations that change our lives or provide unexpected insights. Intuition is action without thought, it is how we live most of our lives. Decisions we take when driving are an example. We don’t think aloud in our minds which queue to take or when to brake it just happens.

The Science of Intuition

Intuition has seens some serious research study recently. Most noticeably from Daniel Kahnaman and Amos Tversky who won a Nobel  prize for their work and resulted in a book by Kahneman called ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’. In the book, Kahneman describes how our  brains enable us to get through the day.

There are two quotes from the book worth repeating. The first explains how our brains create a mental model or world view.

“The main function of [your subconscious] is to maintain and update a model of your personal world. [This model is constructed by associations that]  [determines your interpretations of the present as well as your expectations of the future.”

The second excerpt explains how we actually navigate our days.

“Whenever you are conscious, and perhaps even when you are not, your brain is] asking [some key questions:

Is anything new going on?

Is there a threat?

Are things going well?

Should my attention be redirected?”

What he is saying here is that there is a constant feedback loop between our inner experience and our outer experience and it is largely unconscious.

Mindfulness makes this loop conscious.

How Intuition and Mindfulness work together

The way that mindfulness practices work is to continually return us to an awareness of these otherwise unconscious experiences. One of my favourite definitions of mindfulness is “Awareness of unawareness”. This process of bringing previously unconscious experiences into the light of our awareness works at many levels over time as our meditation practice deepens. Mindfulness is a toolkit with one tool. That tool is a magic lens that helps us see through the fog of thoughts and emotions that cloud our experience and that distance us from the richness of our experience in so many ways.

Mindfulness and Mind-wandering

There is much talk about how mindfulness changes the brain but far less about what that change actually is.

Two studies that are worth reading are:

Impact of meditation training on the default mode network during a restful state

  • Taylor et.al 2013

Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity

  • Brewer et.al 2011

These studies show that mindfulness operates on what we call default mode which is the state the brain is in when our minds are wandering.

It seems that connections to and from default mode grow after mindfulness training. This is probably our brains strengthening neural pathways that help to bring us out of the mind-wandering default mode state to full awareness. This has implications for many activities and circumstances but also provides a direct link between the subconscious and our conscious awareness that grows over time with practice. We can then become more aware of our unawareness and step back to witness our minds operating.

The Mind as an Iceberg

A common description of the mind is that it is like an iceberg with only a small part visible and the vast majority of work occurring where it can’t be seen in the subconscious. The work of researchers like Kahneman provide insight into this. He refers to intuition as “Thoughts and preferences that come to mind quickly and without much reflection”. What seems to be happening here is that we are retrieving information that is as it were, hard-coded, into our brains. The contents of our association cortex.

 

We can see by observing this exactly how we have become programmed to think, act and feel.

 

Sometimes of course, this direct connection with our programming can be unhelpful. Most of us have some sort of behaviour that, given the option, we would change so that it aligns more clearly with a behaviour that benefits our self-interest. Mindfulness is not a very useful tool for managing addictions directly, but what it does is to help reduce stress. Reducing stress helps of course so mindfulness is useful as part of an addiction programme. Mindfulness is however, the only tool that I am aware of, for observing our inner processes operating. We become incrementally more aware of self-talk, the operation of the inner critic and our unconscious responses and actions. This is one place where intuition and mindfulness come into contact. We become more aware of our intuitive responses.

 

Intuitive Realisation

The other way that mindfulness and intuition operate is that during meditation or periods of mindfulness, what I call intuitive realisations arise. We learn about ourselves and the causal links between experiences, thoughts and behaviours. I always keep a notebook by me when I meditate so that I can capture these insights. Most of what I have learned about myself, I have learned this way.

 

 

 

The Parable of the Chinese Farmer

A wise man once told me that back in the day, there was a Chinese farmer that lived with his son. He was very poor and only had one horse that he used to plough the fields. The Farmer was elderly and relied on his son and the horse to do all the work on his farm.

One day his son left the gate to the horse’s field open and the horse escaped.
The Farmer kept sending his son out to find the horse but it was nowhere to be found.

When the Farmer’s friends and neighbours found out they come round to commiserate with him and told him how unlucky they felt he was. The Farmer replied “Maybe”.

After many days of searching, the Farmer’s son found the horse. It was grazing with a group of other horses. When the Farmer’s son returned with the horse its new friends followed and when he closed the gate there were seven horses in it.

The Farmer’s friends were delighted and all visited to celebrate telling the Farmer how lucky he was. The Farmer replied “Maybe”.

The son set about breaking in the horses so they could be sold at market as tame rather than wild. When he was working with the last animal, he fell off and broke his leg. Again the Farmer’s friends and neighbours visited to commiserate and told him how unlucky he was. The Farmer replied “Maybe”.

The very next day, the Chinese army passed nearby. They were on the way to a huge battle with the Mongols and arrived at the Farmer’s house saying they had heard there was a young man there and he must come with them to fight the Mongols. The Farmer showed them in so they could see that the son had a broken leg. They left.

Again the Farmer’s friends and neighbours arrived delighted telling the Farmer how lucky he was.

The Farmer replied “Maybe”…

Three Day Fast – Fourth Day

Hooray it’s Thursday morning and I can eat!

I started this fast on a Monday morning so I am now on my fourth day of fasting which is the day that I’m going to break the fast. I’m going to have breakfast at Carluccio’s to celebrate.

That isn’t counter-productive, it’s what I promised myself to help to keep me going! What I will do is to avoid any carbohydrates.

Yesterday, I began to really notice some unhelpful mental effects of the fast. I taught three times for about seven hours in total yesterday and did a couple of hours of admin on the energy equivalent of about 1 innocent smoothie which is 86 calories. What happened is that on the last of my three teaching sessions I found myself lost for words by not remembering a specific word twice, though they both came to me when I stopped trying to retrieve them of course. In addition I was almost lost for words once. These things aren’t entirely unusual but to have three memory retrieval problems in one 2 1/2 hour session is a first.

Meditation was also interesting. With the teaching and my personal practice there was quite a lot of meditation. Probably two or three hours in all. Mystics use fasting as a way of bringing them closer to mystical experiences. During one of my meditations yesterday which was with with a student, and because of the company is invariably extremely powerful, I found that my mind was slipping into something like a dream state which actually wasn’t a dream state… I know what it feels like to drift off into semi-sleep whileI’m meditating and this wasn’t it.

Images arose that were like fast forwarded still photographs taken over time. A bit like amateurish time lapse. In addition, there was a moving images of crowds and so on. Not an experience that I can say I remember having, even during deep meditations.

However, putting those minor hiccups to one side, I didn’t feel hungry at all yesterday and I felt that I had sufficient energy.

Today, interestingly, I feel even less hungry. Eating breakfast this morning, although in a relaxing enjoyable way, will be an addition of nutrients and not a fulfilment of need.

Last night at about 3:45 I woke up with two solutions in my mind. One was a solution to a minor problem which is just something that I haven’t confronted yet and the other was a complete solution to a problem I didn’t even know I had! It would have arisen over the course of the next few days though. I was able to lean over and type the solutions into my mobile and go back to sleep. It was as though my subconscious mind had decided those things that I most needed to smooth out my next couple of weeks and provided me with clear and actionable solutions to them. One for the most urgent thing, and the other for the highest priority thing.

I also had some incredibly deep insights. I was talking through a problem and talked my way into the solution to it. It was a very, very big problem.

I also only had about 7 1/2 hours of sleep last night which is fine but I’m aware that I usually sleep longer during a fast so I feel a little sleep deprived.

Lessons learnt

Fasting clearly changes the nature of the operation of the mind.

On or after the third day the lack of energy is noticeable with poor memory retrieval.

The nature of deep meditation can change on or about the third day. Could this be the mystic visions or is it too early?

It is possible that fasting is a source of incredibly useful insight.

All in all, this fast was a fascinating and useful exercise and something that I absolutely will repeat at some point.