Footnotes to a Process: An Inquiry into Meditation

On February 11, 2021, I decided to explore the practice of meditation. This is what happened and how I proceeded. In the lyrics Tragically Hip song, Courage, there is a passage which goes “There’s no simple explanation for anything important any of us do.” And with that observation in mind, I find the roots of my investigation of meditation in earlier events of my life.

For me, 2014 was a year of significant change stimulated by what seemed to be a multi-fronted storm of events in the previous twelve to fifteen months. 2014 was a year that I began to respond to all of the difficulties that I had encountered. I increased my pursuit of a number of philosophical and practical matters. In February of 2014, I decided that it would be the year I found out what it was like to ride a motorcycle – so I bought a 1980 Yamaha Maxim 550 XJ (images of the motorbike that may be seen on the virtual pages of this website). In March of that year, I also picked up Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to see what it was all about. It seemed to be a suitably hoakie “bike” thing to do. I didn’t expect to discover a book that would help me down several unexpected and delightful conceptual paths – including, eventually, meditation.

While I had some very limited awareness of Zen Buddhism and meditation earlier in my earlier life, I can comfortably trace my current exploration back to reading that particular book in that particular year.

So fast-forward a few years.

Buddhism in the Forests of Sri Lanka - thomas m wilson

Immediately prior to my first genuine attempt to meditate, I had begun a second reading of Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. My first reading of the book was in 2017, when it was first published. I appreciated Wright’s examination of meditation and the (Buddhist) philosophical principles upon-which meditation is based.

Here I will note that I do not consider myself to be Buddhist (see Footnotes to Buddhism’s Four Seals). I did not grow up in a Buddhist household or culture; I don’t participate in any Buddhist organizations; I have a relatively limited knowledge of Buddhist thought, having read only a handful of contemporary books about Buddhism. But none of that suggests to me that meditation isn’t capable of observable impacts. Indeed, Wright lists several practical reasons why meditation may be a beneficial daily practice. I recommend reading Wright’s arguments.

I had also recently read an article where the author attempted to savage both meditation as a practice and contemporary western Buddhism as a religious context. In this article, the author’s primary argument against Buddhism (broadly) and meditation particularly is anecdotal evidence that may be summed up as “all that happened for me is that I fell asleep“. This was augmented by suggesting that other anecdotal evidence amounts to a lot of over-educated Western elites who appreciate the aesthetic experience of a Buddhist lifestyle. A reduction of the argument: it’s all a bunch of pretentious twaddle with no science backing it.

If I’m honest, I found the article easily as pretentious as those it criticized. Reading a small handful of books with practical tips and a serious mind would have prevented both falling asleep and approaching meditation with expectations of major change on a few occasions. Wright’s book also provides a starting point to investigate scientifically-validated evidence that meditation does have an impact-to or alteration-of brain activity.

And a starting point to attempt meditation as a practical experiment.

Anything I experience will necessarily be anecdotal evidence. I don’t have any clear expectations. But here’s the thing. I have decided that I will place my meditation at a strategic position in my day. None of this…let’s try it at bed time stuff(meditation is not sleep preparation) nor any let’s start the day with it malarkey (it’s not gonna happen – plus I’ve already attempted to schedule Tai Chi exercises in the morning – see Tai Chi in the Morning). No. I am scheduling the meditation exercise at the end of my formal work-day and before the evening’s chores and recreation begins.

Currently, I work in a home office and therefore stepping away from my desk and toward an appropriate place to meditate will be simpler than during the several decades of commuting that I used to engage and endure. Then again, maybe all that driving functioned as a form of meditation.

At that time of day, I am usually still alert, though often fatigued and in need of time away from a screen.

Up-front acknowledgement: my early meditation attempts have not been “daily” but have been frequent enough to be a meaningful routine, if not quite a full-on habit.

Before launching into the documentation of my various experiences with meditation, it may be useful to explain what it is exactly that I am “doing” when meditating. This seems particularly useful as it seems to me that there are different forms of meditation – that is to say, different sets of cognitive processes that people undertake when referring to meditation. Since there are different processes, what I’m calling meditation may be significantly different than what someone else calls meditation.

Coming to this process as I am from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I typically take as my objective, the Zen meditation process called zazen, or “seated meditation”. More particularly, I am following the Soto form called shikantaza or “just sitting.” I don’t have any particular story (in Zen, koan or guided meditation) nor external stimulus (for example music or hertz-based tones) that I focus on. My objective is to sit and watch as thoughts (what I sometimes think of as distractions) come and avoid engaging in them. It is a process of concentrating on not-thinking. With that being said, I often find that it is useful to engage some tactics, particularly early in the sitting session to calm my mental activity.

Meditation One

On my first day of meditation, I approached the activity with as much pragmatism (practicality) as possible. Even though it wasn’t a regular work day for me, at approximately the same time as I would usually finish work, I prepared for the meditation. For me, this meant putting on loose-fitting track pants, a t-shirt and a zip-up hoodie. It’s the same stuff I wear for Tai Chi in the morning.

Next, I chose a quiet room in the house where I could sit reasonably comfortably for the session. I chose to darken the room by closing the curtains. I also chose to forgo any kind of background music or sounds. My plan is to reduce external stimulation to a minimum. I expect this to boost my ability to focus on my breathing. During this session, there was little outside or distracting sound. Essentially all I had was the periodic shuffling of the dog competing with my tinnitus.

With meditation, particularly Zen meditation, the matter of posture seems to be a big thing. As an outsider, it even seems as though it has been ritualized. I’m tempted to consider this an exaggerated issue. Per the previously cited criticism, I’m not looking to replicate an iconic pose nor reproduce an aspirational “lifestyle”. I want to see if meditation seems to have an effect on me.

I found the Zen Mountain Monastery web-page on the subject to be a comforting and valuable resource. Not least because practical and reasonable arguments are included for adopting one of several postures. Foremost of these is that meditation requires a person to be aware, awake and relaxed. The objective is an engaged attempt to observe one’s mind (also noted in Wright’s book). Second, by sitting with a straight back, I may be able to breathe in a different way than when sprawled, reclined or even laying down. Diaphragm expansion. These seem practical reasons.

The Buddha Mudra - The Bray Meditation Space
“Homeless” Kodo Sawaki Roshi

It is difficult to tell whether Kodo Sawaki, pictured here, is in a full lotus or something else. Sawaki, a renowned figure in Japanese Zen Buddhism has been cited as saying zazen is good for nothing. That’s pretty much a Zen puzzle and seems to deal with at least one of Buddhism’s four seals. I’ve also referenced Sawaki in titling these writings as “footnotes” (see On Footnotes). He argued that all of Buddhism is a footnote to zazen (meditation).

But back to posture.

Even in my more-flexible youth, I could never comfortably sit in the full or half Lotus positions for more than a few seconds. Now, at more than fifty years of age, it isn’t going to happen. However, I can achieve something that approximates the recommended Burmese position and that seems to have worked. I manage to remain in essentially the same position for half an hour to forty-five minutes. I was relaxed and awake. Great start.

As for the duration and as already noted. First session: half an hour. I’m not sure whether thirty minutes is a recommended duration for a meditation session. Practically, however, it makes sense. It is long enough to be a meaningful period of time but not so long that it is likely to be interrupted or filled with an is-it-over-yet anxiousness.

Once in the position, There was an adjustment period to let my body relax. Shift the legs a bit. Notice my hunched, tensed shoulders. Deal with the perpetual sinus issues. Distraction by the tinnitus in both ears. Physical discomforts. I usually deal with these kinds of things reasonably well, anyway. As we get older, we settle into our discomforts.

As to thoughts. Again, I am reasonably well-aware of how thoughts and emotions come and go. Even in my teens, I was aware of the volatility of emotions and recognized a personal need to detach and self-dampen the urgency of emotions. I wasn’t surprised or irritated with myself when thoughts came. Nor was I particularly surprised by their contents. It was unbidden material, but mostly predictable stuff from my day-to-day life. But I also didn’t pursue these thoughts for long. Only once during the thirty minutes did I find that one thought had led to another and another before I was aware that it had happened.

In Robert Wright’s book, he referred to thoughts thinking themselves. It’s this observation that your brain is producing thoughts without the active direction of your pre-frontal cortex. Unbidden thoughts.

For many years, I have discarded physical objects which I believe may bring with them unbidden emotion. Relating this to unbidden thoughts, Wright refers to “affective associations”. It is the “baggage” that people will (usually derisively) talk about. I actively eliminate physical objects that may bring unwanted “affective associations”. If meditation allows one to similarly discard unbidden thoughts and emotions (and their affective associations), then that would be a valuable outcome of meditation.

I found myself exploring the different places in my body where breathing occurs. How it feels. Diaphragm. Lungs. Nose. Mouth. This was a kind of thinking as well. Having experienced pneumonia, a pulmonary embolism and a chronic cough, I’m already well-tuned to notice the various physical sensations that accompany my own breathing, Indeed, during my morning Tai Chi, I have incorporated some deep-breathing in an attempt to improve the experience. Noticing isn’t a problem.

I’m not an overly mental-image-driven person. I thoroughly enjoy art, architecture and the collective wonders of light and vision but vivid “movies” of my life or experiences don’t play for me when I close my eyes. I can, with concentration, create images but my thoughts are not driven by visual images.

I ended the session feeling positive, relaxed and aware. Thirty minutes of engaged non-stimulation. A bit refreshing.

February 2021 Meditation Two

On my second day of meditation, I was able to replicate all of the preparatory details and the duration of the meditation period. Indeed, the duration may have been slightly longer.

My second day was a regular work day for me and this may have impacted the experience. I found it more difficult to become physically settled, although the hunched shoulders were no better or worse. My cough was slightly worse, probably a factor of medication timing. Overall, more thoughts distracted me from focusing on and counting breaths. The thoughts continued slightly more frequently, though I don’t think they were any more pressing or urgent. The content of the thoughts was little different, being related to my day-to-day affairs and the relatively small number of people I have personally met and interacted with in recent years.

What was most distracting was thoughts that arose as a kind of answer to the question “what will my brain come up with as I avoid trying to think about anything”. It is a ludicrous proposition. Overall, I focused on my breath less than I did the first time. I easily had a ten-to-one ration of fuss and distraction to concentration. For a period of time I had success studying the grainy blackness that appears when I close my eyes in a darkened room. The tinnitus in my ears was less intrusive. I did not end feeling as refreshed as the previous day, but I felt slightly more relaxed and energized than spending the same number of minutes with a screen of some kind.

February 2021 Meditation Three

For this meditation, I delayed the activity approximately one hour, which time was spent walking the dog plus a brief interval of screen time after the walk. I needed a bit of time to shake off the cold February air before trying to meditate.

Again, things didn’t go as well as my first day, but better than my second. I would rate my fuss and distraction (F&D) to concentration as seven to one. My range of thoughts remained dominantly within my day-to-day but I had a few more distant memories occur and a longer sequence of thoughts that seemed to take over a period of time. I had recalled a car I once owned (automotive pre-occupations are a familiar thing for me) and recalled certain features of the car. The interior, the overall exterior design, the motions of the manual transmission.. Notwithstanding the extended distraction, I would rate my focus as reasonable.

The most interesting barrier to concentration has been the dilemma of anticipating that I am about to experience some unplanned thought and wondering what it might be. This anticipation, although not directed at any particular thing, is interesting because it seems to be counter-productive yet it also seems to be part of the process.

February 2021 Meditation Four

This experience seemed to be slightly more aligned with my first meditation than the intervening two. I was able to remain detached from thinking for longer periods. Within the forty minute period, there was one fifteen minute period when my persistent throat irritation as well as my tinnitus went essentially out of my attention. I began by attempting to observe different part of my body and noticed I was able to isolate and observe various parts of my my body. First the tension around my eyes. Now the position and feel of my shoulders and arms. Then the posture of my abdomen, And so on. This directly led to physical irritations receding in my awareness. Strangely, I had one incredible urge to make a distorted face.There didn’t seem to be a preceding reason or thought to this urge.

Thoughts persisted to arrive with one extended period which challenged me to consider the difference between a dream and a pursues thought. Generally satisfying.

February 2021: Meditations Five To Ten

These sessions have been either a waste of time or have shown no real reason to offer further comment. On one session, I wasn’t ready-to-go and so it was a half-an-hour in a dark room. Another session I completed a 20-minute Tai Chi practice immediately prior to the meditation. I found the time to be more restful on that occasion.

I even tried a routine of lifting weights for twenty-time minutes, practicing Tai Chi for twenty minutes and finishing with a thirty-minute meditation session. This routine seemed as though it might yield a maximum effect of meditation as the exercise could provide both a clearing of physical tensions as well as a period to let stray mental activity have their play. It didn’t quite work out.

Periods of Not Meditating

Following an initial enthusiastic plunge into meditation, I encountered a bit of a lull in my daily commitment. This is to be expected as any new routine can take a while to establish itself. In my case, the habit was broken-off as a result of far-more established life patterns asserting dominance over my time.

During this first period of not meditating, did I notice any difference in my thinking, feelings or general sense of health? Not that I could attribute specifically to not meditating. There was some disappointment in myself for letting the practice slide. Self-recrimination for an ambition not properly pursued. Certainly also that time went to other things, some of which may have been an even bigger waste of time and energy. So which is the real affect in that scenario…the absence of one practice (meditation) or the presence of the substitute (other stuff). That’s a bit of a problem that is difficult to solve when the study population is one.

Well I had a bit of a break. Time to re-assume the position!

Onwards Meditations 11- ? – A One-Year Synopsis

Over the course of my first year of attempting a regular meditation routine, the most significant barrier I encountered was the seemingly simple task of making the meditation a priority at some part of my day. Even in a life as manageable as mine is, I will find other things to occupy my time. My initial optimistic plan to schedule meditation to occur after the work-day was rendered impractical when an alteration of my work schedule saw me occupied with the demands for eleven consecutive hours per day. At the end of that schedule, I simply wasn’t up to other kinds of activities. As 2022 begins, this temporary scenario altered and I find that I can again plan to meditate in the early evening hours after the work day is finished.

When reading about or speaking-to people about meditation, I have often come across statements that people find attempts to meditate lead to falling-asleep. Since my conception of meditation centers on remaining alert and focussed, but not engaged, this has seemed to be an awkward and counter-productive situation. Fortunately, I’ve only had it occur once. My error was to attempt meditation immediately after completing an exercise routine of cycle-training and weight-lifting. While I wasn’t completely fatigued, I thought that meditating after this activity might work. as I would be more physically relaxed. It turns out, I ended up essentially falling asleep while sitting-up – something that normally doesn’t happen. So it makes sense to avoid meditation at certain times of the day when maintaining and alertness consciousness may not be easy.

Welcome New Year

Interim Summary

I do not have a prescribed end-date for this experiment. I’ll let it go as long as it is interesting. I still have little doubt that incorporating a routing of meditation in my day-to-day activities may provide real and measurable benefits. I can’t conclude, yet, however, how this may best be implemented. This essay will be updated from time to time as I have more (or different) things to say.

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