The birds in my neighborhood perch on the very highest branch possible and face the rising sun. All of them. Waiting. And when it does rise, when the first rays touch their beaks, their chests, their eyes, they stay standing just like that, facing due east.
I wonder if it’s uncomfortable for them, if the muscles and tendons in their clackety feet ever cramp or ache from gripping the tree branch, only truly sitting once their nest is made. They don’t really seem to mind. They just watch, and they wait.
After about fifteen minutes they’ll start to spread their wings and swoop down for any worm, bug or twig that catches their eye. But those first few moments of their day are spent stock-still save a ruffled feather now and again. Facing the light. And waiting.
I’ve been spending my mornings the past 4 weeks in a similar way, stock-still, waiting. I sit on two yoga blocks, cross my legs, close my eyes, breathe, and face the light of (so cheesy) my own inner world- through meditation.
I had two goals with starting meditation, the first of which was to train myself to disconnect from racing thoughts/simply observe them instead of participating in them, and the second of which was to connect with what I call Source/God/Isness/Intuition.
The latter goal is not something I struggle with- my intuition and I are pretty tight. But the former goal has long been a struggle for me, so I knew I needed to bring in the big guns- guided meditation. For this, I use an app called Headspace. The interface is curated and considerate, minimalist. There’s no background music in their guided meditations, and the audio quality is outstanding to the point of eerie, as if my instructor is right there in the room with me. The purpose of a guided meditation is for someone experienced in meditation and mindfulness to (wow!) guide you through your experience. I find it easier to stay on track when there’s another person on the other end, telling me what to do while I follow.
Here’s how a typical meditation goes with Headspace:
- Sit down, eyes open, and take some deep breaths to ground into the moment
- Close your eyes and keep noticing your breath
- Do a body scan- from head to toe, notice without judgment how each part of your body is feeling, and then how it feels as a whole
- Notice your intention for meditating, your reason why, and who else may benefit from you meditating today
- Now that that’s all out of the way, it’s time to focus on your breath, how it feels coming in and out of your body, how each one is slightly different from the previous. You can count each breath as it passes, and once you get to 10, start back at 1. Or, you can just observe
- When your focus inevitably wanders to the thoughts that pass, bring that focus back to your breath without judgment and sink into the present
- Repeat steps 5 and 6 for, like, ever (15 minutes)
My first 10 sessions were between 5 and 10 minutes long, which is what I recommend. Sitting alone with your thoughts for even 5 minutes can be pretty daunting at first. But as I sat my sleepy ass down each morning on my yoga blocks, I was surprised to find myself configuring the app for 10 minute sessions in order to stay in meditation longer. I’m now up to 15 minutes, with plans to bump to 20 after another few weeks.
presence vs. Presence
Before I took on daily meditation, I had a version of presence that I knew to be true- it was stepping into my senses, noticing details, appreciating. Thank you, Universe, for all the bark on this tree. Wow, my friend has really pretty eyes. I never noticed that little dust bunny in my room, how cute. This is an important practice in it’s own right that fortifies your sense of fulfillment day-to-day. But when I appreciate something, I’m still thinking about it. I wanted to see what it was like to be so present that I did not think about it, or anything.
The Presence I’ve been able to tap into with meditation takes the whole thinking piece out of it. I don’t hear my thoughts. I just hear my breathing, feel my arms and legs, listen without attachment to the crow outside and my parents shuffling pots and pans downstairs. I can sustain this level of focus for about 2 breaths, and then a thought pops by, I get distracted, and then I will myself back to focus on my breath. Total time truly Present in a 15-minute meditation is between 2 and 20 seconds, and not consecutively. My record is 3 breaths of consecutive Presence before I think “Look! I’m in the present moment! This feels great!” which thus takes me out of the present moment and I’m back to the task of recentering.
My goal is to progressively increase to being Present for 3 breaths. Then 5. Then 10. And see how long I can maintain that beautiful state of Being.
Neuroscience, and a questionably reliable reference to a study
Another thing I’ve noticed about meditation is that it’s allowed me to start understanding and identifying the split between myself and my mind. I’ve learned that just like haters gonna hate, minds gonna mind, and minds gonna mind by making lists, planning, anticipating the future, and reviewing the past. Though I can’t for the life of me find it on Google, SOME study said that when your brain is idle, after about 6 seconds you’ll start to think about a social situation, i.e. a memory or plan relating to another human (I think I heard about it in this podcast maybe?). I know this seems ridiculously hard to measure and you can question it if you’d like, BUT, if true, this means that it’s in your nature to think about SOMETHING provocative and/or relating to another human being every 6 seconds. Meaning: getting distracted is kind of in our biology.
This is really important because I felt like something was wrong with me that I couldn’t just be in the moment. That might be how our limbic brains work, but our pre-frontal cortex forms over the limbic brains as we grow from a baby into a person. So while we were totally in the moment when we were babies, as adults, it’s natural for us to be whizzing around piloting our brains from room to room without stopping and taking a deep breath or smelling the roses or even noticing our poor bodies exist.
With this knowledge, I can now step back and say “My mind is making a to-do list. That’s what minds do,” instead of actively participating in the creation of, engagement with, and stress related to, that to-do list. This benefits me when I say “My mind is fixating on a work problem. That’s what minds do,” and refocus on my after-hours plans. Or when I point out “My mind is worrying about the future. That’s what minds do,” and come back to watching TV with my mom. When I can recognize “My mind is in a memory, and it’s causing me to feel something about that memory. That’s what minds do. But that memory is in the past, and we’re in the present. Let’s come back to that moment,” everything will be just fine.
Meditating in the future
When I compare my first five-minute session to today’s 15 minutes of quiet, I feel genuinely excited about the progress I’ve made. Throughout a good day I’m not only able to appreciate details, but I can sometimes take it one step further by being completely Present and thoughtless, my attention and focus absorbed by the sound of my breathing as I walk and the feeling and weight of my feet as I shuffle along. I’m not pre-frontal cortex or even limbic brains at that point. I’m just the human animal.
After 4 weeks meditating daily I’ve started to develop a bit of a craving for it. If I don’t meditate in the morning I feel a bit off-kilter, as if I’m dehydrated, and all actions point towards going home to sit on that yoga block and take some deep breaths. I think that’s the coolest thing. It’s like when we start to work out, or drink water, or eat a vegetable, our bodies automatically funnel us into a state of doing it again. (I guess the same could be said of checking Twitter or smoking weed, but it’s ultimately on us to guide our bodies towards the habits and addictions we want them to have, isn’t it?) My body has found a worthy habit in meditation, and so meditate I will continue to do.
Now, looking at the birds perched on the highest branch in my backyard as I write, I see them a bit differently. Maybe their sense of time places them at a “contentedly perching” stage rather than a “waiting” stage. Maybe they’re not waiting for something so much as they are meditating, letting their natural instincts move them from one place to another throughout the day. Maybe we’re not waiting, the birds and I, but just being here. Right here. To face the rising light.