Thursday, December 12, 2013


Status Update: coffee is stronger and blacker than usual today, even for me. I think I used slightly too many beans. Even after one cup, I am caffeinated to the point where I could pound nails with my forehead or pee laser beams. When the crash comes, it's probably going to be a) at work and b) very severe.

I've been meditating a lot more this year. Usually, it's the first thing in the morning I do, between taking a shower and drinking my coffee.

It's nothing particularly new for me--I learned how the same way a lot of people learned how, I think. Early exposure through a karate class as a kid. It's one of those skills which has stuck with me over the years, along with the basics of being able to fall down relatively gracefully, tie a colored strip of cloth around my waist or stay in shape through regular exercise. It is something I haven't always made a regular practice of, and that's kind of a shame.

Meditation is one of those words which comes with a lot of baggage. I never mention doing it to friends or family, and for several reasons. For one thing, they assume you're attempting to achieve enlightenment of some sort or other, which is about as far from the case as possible.

Or they assume you've been reading from the wrong end of the book store and engaging in all sorts of alternate lifestyle behavior, like enjoying food that didn't begin its life as a cow or collecting pictures of unicorns and pyramids (shut up, I like unicorns).

Or I fail to mention it simply because bragging about things you do in your daily routine to maintain your health--mental, physical or otherwise--is an awful lot like bragging about brushing your teeth. It makes you look simple.

I meditate because it's a useful skill. One common view of meditation is that it's done for relaxation, which is only partially correct. You can relax with it, but that's not the entire story.

What I find it useful for is training focus. You settle down in a somewhat-but-not-completely comfortable position in a room which has few distractions. You sit for a length of time (fifteen minutes at a go, for me) and you simply concentrate on not thinking. Focus on your breathing, or the sounds around you, or your heartbeat. It doesn't matter. Whenever a thought comes up of any sort, let it pass. Swat it away, dismiss it, laugh mercilessly as it dissipates into a puff of malodorous smoke. Observe the thought as it develops, then let it go. Breathe some more. Dismiss other thoughts. Ad infinitum. It's surprisingly difficult and a never-ending task.

The human brain is designed to think, so meditation is an endless loop of smacking down irrelevant thoughts. Conversations with friends, musings about anteaters, snippets of music, anger, stress, all the noise of daily life--you're going to have it wash through you as you force yourself to sit still for however long you're meditating. Eventually (and not every time you sit down) you will reach a state of stillness and, hopefully, you come out of it feeling recharged and focused.

Eventually that ability to swat down stray thoughts will stick with you. Something happens which stresses you out: an argument at work, or someone cuts you off in traffic. Maybe you're having a hard time going to sleep because your brain just. Won't. Switch. Off. And then you realize that what's distracting you is simply that: a distraction, and nothing to do with what's important in life. And you dismiss the thought the way you do when you're meditating. It puffs into smoke and you finish your drive, or you go to sleep, or the stress dissipates, for now.

I don't really think of meditation as a spiritual thing at all. I think of it as cardio for your brain. It trains a certain ability to focus on the present, a mindful state where you can distance yourself from whatever you're doing, just being content to be there, whether you're writing a story or washing your dishes.

As a person who writes, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the practice of mindfulness. When I do it regularly, I find I don't procrastinate as much. I write longer because I can focus deeper on my writing, to the point of losing track of time or what's going on in my immediate environment.

On the other hand, part of being a creative-type person is that you're a creative type person because you always have voices in your head. You're always carrying on conversations with mental strangers, imaginary friends, historical figures, whatever. It's excruciating when you're meditating and you're forced to let go of a particularly interesting conversation or a useful train of thought. I've lost track of the number of story ideas I've had to dismiss meditating.

There's always a sense you're casting away something valuable, but you're not. You're just sending it back to the well, where it will marinate again and probably return when you need it, stronger for the experience.

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