An Open Letter to Phone-Addicted Friends and Family

I know we’ve talked about this casually before.

“Everyone’s addicted to devices these days.”

“The average human being now has the attention span of a goldfish”

But it’s more than that.

On the other side of every conversation we have is another human being with an experience as rich and complex as yours. Today I want to try to share with you what it’s like to be me, on the other end of things.

When your phone is out and you are impulsively reaching for it every few moments, it changes the conversation.

It begins to become an arms race for the most interesting, most stimulating topic. I feel this weight, my mind urgently searching for something to keep your attention, otherwise I see your eyes start to wander. I see your hand reach for your phone, in the middle of my sentence. Like a child, I rush. I speed up.

There’s this feeling, like your self worth is only what you can come up with to entertain those in your presence, because you know they’ll turn away from you if you don’t… it’s one of the worst feelings in the world Disappointed Face on Google Android 7.1. To watch someone important in your life consciously or subconsciously – literally and physically – turn away from your face as you are talking…. Disappointed Face on Google Android 7.1… for this to happen again and again… all day long… in every moment we spend time together Disappointed Face on Google Android 7.1  Disappointed Face on Google Android 7.1

I know this might seem like a naggy pet-peeve, but for me, it’s as important as being kind to someone, being a good friend, being there for your people.

The alternative is actually hurtful. It’s the same feeling of worthlessness you might get if you asked a good friend for help in a moment of serious need, and you could feel their turning away from you when they text back, “nah, I’m busy.” Abandoned, simply because there’s something more interesting.

Being turned away from, big or small, is hurtful. And being turned away from as a matter of habit, well…

 

–  –  –

 

Maybe the next time we spend time together, we can silence our phones. Turn them off. Leave them in the other room.

What a relief it would be, just to be me, to have the space and time to really share who I am, instead of constantly trying to win the arms race for your affection attention.

-Taylor

P.S. – This is not just a think piece. Most of this was lifted verbatim from real emails and conversations.

Thoughts on the Meditator Ego

If your practice is good, you may become proud of it. What you do is good, but something more is added to it. Pride is extra.

-Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

I started writing about the mind last year, but haven’t published a post in a while because some time ago I uncovered yet another layer of my meditator ego.

My meditator ego is a little sneaky, you see. Yours might be too.

I think we all start (or most of us start) as a humble beginner: “Ugh, I’m so bad at this meditation thing, *googles ‘meditation tips for beginners'”

But eventually we, we grow. We build concentration, have insights, and maybe even have some “cool” experiences.

  • At its most bottom layer, maybe we think to ourselves: “Wow, that guy is totally mindless, he needs to meditate.”
  • Maybe we think we’re beginning to get good at this thing. Maybe we start to tell others how awesome meditation is.
  • Or, maybe it’s just that we think we’ve learned at least a thing or two about the nature of the mind, and think about it with a certain confidence (or, write a blog/forum post).
  • Maybe it’s more subtle than that – maybe we now sit with an expectation of what’s supposed to happen, and seek to recreate it. We “know” how things are going to be, and so some part of us sits to get that thing or feeling.

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Why I hesitate to recommend “The Mind Illuminated”

mind illuminated

Our way is to put the dough in the oven and watch it carefully. How this physical body becomes a sage is our main interest.

We are not so concerned with what flower is or what dough is or what a sage is. A sage is a sage. Metaphysical explanations of human nature are not the point.

– Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

Lately I’ve noticed an upsurge in recommending The Mind Illuminated – meditator friends in real life, posts on Reddit, and elsewhere on the internet seem to be bumping this book to the top of the “what to recommend when a beginner asks me about meditation” list.

In an effort to simply everything that is going to be said below into a tl;dr up front:

My main worry is that The Mind Illuminated, compared to other ways to introduce beginners to meditation, places the newbie at a high risk developing a “checking” habit – a discursive thought pattern of checking in on technique or worrying of everything is as it should be in the mind. 

Before we continue, disclaimer: My experience is my experience, based on my place on the path and my interaction with the content. This post may be relevant to your circumstances, or maybe not.

It should be said that at the time of picking up the book, not long ago actually, I’d already done the hard work of struggling to establish a regular, disciplined practice.

I’d heard great things, plus the book had the phrase “brain science” in the title – it seemed perfect for what I was looking for. And as I ran through the book it felt great – “FINALLY! This is one of the best breakdowns I’ve EVER read!” I thought.

It might feel as though there are these monks doing meditation and spouting off esoteric, ambiguous, and confusing instruction. And then here comes along Culadasa and The Mind Illuminated speaking “MY” language.

And I have to say, I think the world of meditation and those exploring the mind need to do a better job writing in the way that Caludasa writes. But, I worry that the manner of instruction in this particular book (not related to the relatability) might lend itself to an over focus on concepts.

And so this led me to trying to “think my way out” of any problems that arose. I fear beginners might ask questions like:

What was that, forgetting or mind-wandering?

Ah, crap, what was the solution for that again? Following? Connecting? Mindfulness?

Was that gross distraction or subtle distraction? What kind of antidote do I need?

Is this unification of mind? (well, not anymore :P)

There are certainly more and less skillful ways to teach beginners anything: baseball, guitar, meditation. The question I hoped to raise here is: Is the method in the book one of the more skillful recommendations to make generally to absolute beginners who ask, or does the rich detail and emphasis on terminology distract beginners. In this case, would an introductory book with a simpler method be a better first recommendation?

Without a doubt, the book is a tremendous achievement. But I I wonder if it is not a better description of meditation experience, struggles, and solutions many meditators know, rather than an ideal manual for beginners.

Maybe this metaphor will help: Imagine a professional soccer player having retired, wanted to write a book about learning to play soccer and the professional sport. The book he/she writes is a wonderful account of what it’s like to play a professional sport, and a wonderful account of how it felt and the major things experienced in going from a beginner to professional.

But, for whatever reason, young soccer players found that reading this book didn’t actually help them become professional soccer players. It’s not that it was inaccurate, it’s just that it the manner in which the book described the process of becoming a pro seemed to be less productive than the simple instruction of going out and finding people to practice with.

It reminds me of this quote from the book: Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen’s Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye:

When you start thinking you just gotta, gotta, gotta get to the bottom of everything and experience whatever you envision as complete, unsurpassed, unqualified whiz-bang-with-cheese-on-top enlightenment, you’re moving in the wrong direction. The enlightenment you’re searching for when you search that way is always gonna be way off over there somewhere. Never here. Never now.

I hope this post can help kick off a discussion and sharing of experiences to better inform the community and the next generation of beginners looking to pick up the perfect first meditation book.

-Taylor

Quieting the Mind is a Bit Like This Water Wheel

The other day when I was watching one of my favorite YouTube channels, film critic/desconstructionist Every Frame a PaintingI came across this awesome 15 second clip:

Buster_Keaton_The_Art_of_the_Gag

Buster Keaton performing one of his famous gags accidentally provided us with some great visual imagery of what it can feel like to quiet the mind.

The short version of this lesson is that often, the more we frantically struggle and push back against a busy, hectic mind, the crazier it gets. We add fuel to the fire, trying to “attack” the problem from so many different angles, when the solution is to stop attacking all together.

  • Maybe we return to the breath after a distraction, not with a neutral non-judgement, but with a sense of failure, frustration, or stress.
  • Maybe we’re irritated with our wandering mind, so we begin to tighten and tighten our attention on the breath.
  • Maybe we cycle through multiple techniques, annoyed at our inability to drop into a deeper place.
  • Maybe we sit, resolving to not fret, while in the back of our mind we know we are truly disappointed in our lack of progress that session.

The concept of “letting go” in meditation is a bit ambiguous (and can often sound a bit hooey), but is also so darn important.

Simply put, it’s at times like this where the instruction to “stop trying so hard” can come in handy.

If you find yourself feeling like you are on a wheel, fueling the cycle of distraction with each effort to quiet your mind, try telling yourself you aren’t going to try so hard.

It doesn’t matter what happens… you’re just gonna watch. You may find that once you stop worrying so much, things just snap into place.

-Taylor

Beware of the Hazardous “I know things” Phase

Most of us interested in meditation and the world of the mind will spend a huge amount (if not a majority) of our time in an awkward middle phase.

This awkward middle phase lies somewhere between the beginner and the expert, and comes with one particularly insidious trap:

knowledge graph

As beginners it’s easy to admit to ourselves that we know nothing.

But as we advance our ego steps in – we’ve been doing this for a while… two weeks, two months, two years, two decades, two centuries (hey Yoda). So, hey, we feel like we know some things.

But are you really in the Expert phase (even if you just know something specific), or are you actually in the Hazard phase?

While the graph above isn’t exactly a scientific endeavor, it matches up with the psychology in this area. A phenomena known as the the Dunning-Kruger effect provides evidence for a common intuition: that people with partial information do a bad job at evaluating just how partial their knowledge really is. In other words, the less you know, the less apt you are at recognizing how little you know. And as you know more, your ability to fully understand your own ignorance grows. Or, in the psychologist’s language, the unskilled lack the ability to “to recognize their own ineptitude and evaluate their own ability accurately.”

In meditation circles, everybody thinks they know how it is. On Facebook, on Reddit, on Youtube, in person. “Conscious experience? I know something about that.”

And as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about and writing about this stuff, I get it. I fall into this trap on a regular basis.

I’ve revisited beginner techniques that I thought I’ve mastered, and have been truly humbled by the realization of how much power my ego had over my sense of “what I know.” I don’t want to be at the same place “on the path” in ten years because I was wrong about something I thought I knew.

So, do you know things?

Or do you “know nothing?”

If so, you’re in good company, standing right alongside Jon Snow and I. Come on in. Our minds our open, and we’re ready to learn.

-Taylor

Caffeine and Meditation: An Aid or Hindrance?

coffee cup

With 90 percent of Americans consuming caffeine in one form or another each day, and over half taking in more than 300 mgs, caffeine is here to stay. Meanwhile, 67% of Europeans “can’t imagine life” without coffee.

So how does one of the world’s most popular drugs intersect with meditation?

Tea (caffeinated and non-caffeinated) has a long history in many meditative traditions.

On the other hand, many recommend abstaining from caffeine all together because it “makes meditation harder.”

So what the hell is going on here?

I believe the answer is balance… properly understood, we can use caffeine strategically, and even as a boost to our practice.

First, let’s think about our energy and concentration levels like a scale:

Low Energy: – – – – – – | – – – – – – High Energy

Low Concentration: – – – – – – | – – – – – – High Concentration

When we meditate, if our energy levels are too high, it can lead to the monkey mind taking over – our thoughts race, our attention is all over the place, and it feels like we can’t sit still. In other words, we can become restless, agitated, and distracted because we’re too “up.”

If our energy levels are too low, it can lead to sleepiness, dullness, sloth, torpor, and other states that feel “down.”

We want to avoid both of these extremes. Your energy level should never vastly outpace your concentration level. 

This is where caffeine comes in: It can either hurt or help the meditation session, and depends on where your energy levels are at.

More energy is great, provided you have the concentration to “contain” that energy. Otherwise, like a glass of water which is overfilled, it may feel like the activity in your mind is spilling over the brim of what you can contain.

If you have low energy, a small amount of caffeine can help bring you to a balanced, attentive, focused (and interested) state of mind. I’ve had some amazing sits with a cup of coffee.

If you are already at a place of high energy, caffeine may just push you into restless – especially if you are new to meditation. Keep in mind that everyone is different, and some people may find that caffeine just NEVER is helpful. Experiment and see what works for you.

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One Small (But Critical) Mistake Beginner Meditators Make

blurry

When I was a beginner I discovered I was making this mistake after WAY too much time. Teaching beginners today, I notice an enormous amount of people – nearly everyone – end up making some form of this mistake before fixing it (or quitting):

  • Have you ever noticed yourself thinking you are following your breath, but really you are lost in thought?
  • Are you observing your breath, or just counting?

The difference might be hard to notice, but for beginners, it could mean the difference of being stuck in a rut or being able to progress in your practice. It’s not quite “doing it wrong” but is sort of like a half-rep in exercise terms: if your technique is only at 50%, you may find it difficult to progress (and never know why!).

Here’s what the counting mistake looks like:

  • You start to take a breath and think “1”
  • As you start to take the next breath you think “2”
  • You continue in this manner, and your object of focus becomes “3” next instead of the breath itself.
  • Your brain might even jump to “4” after that, even though you didn’t actually observe your next breath.
  • You might continue on in this way, losing mindfulness completely as you count up like a drone with your breath merely in the background.

What’s happening? You have piggybacked on an existing mental thought pattern – counting. You’re faking yourself out.

But wait – even if you’re not counting, it’s still very possible to make this mistake:

  • You take your first breath and it’s going well. You notice it and move on.
  • But on your second breath your attention wanders slightly. You still have most of your attention on your breath. As you take your next two breaths, your mind drifts further – now your attention is split between the breath and something else (a noise, a thought).
  • This continues and intensifies. In the background you have the rhythm of your breath and body, but only a fraction of your attention is left on the breath. You drift into being lost in thought.
  • By the time you’ve been going for 30 seconds, hardly any attention remains on your breath. You’ve slowly drifted into distraction, but you think you’re meditating so you never “return” to the breath.

Both examples are the same mistake. Beginner meditators especially don’t have much experience in the space of awareness and can’t tell when they are gaining concentration or losing it – so slipping slowly into mindlessness (without noticing) can be quite normal.

(Note that in this post we are talking about concentration meditation, not insight. The difference is explained here).

What’s the solution?

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with getting lost in thought, recognizing this, and then returning to your breath. In fact, that’s the WHOLE process of concentration meditation. The problem is when we don’t realize that we’ve slipped, and we might even finish our session thinking we were mindful when we were not. This can even go on for months and months, and it amounts to us spinning our wheels but thinking we’re moving.

Let’s see if we can tweak our technique so that you don’t run into this problem.

You see, attention is not black and white. It’s not a case of you either have it or you don’t. It’s more like a spectrum – at any level of awareness your attention can be split: partially focused, partially there.

The tl;dr explanation of the below solution is this: We’re going to add some artificial structure to keep the thinking mind busy. Once we’ve built up some momentum, we’re going to drop away the structure (like training wheels).

So instead of starting at full awareness and spiraling down (to then reset and try again after many minutes of mindlessness, or finishing the session without even realizing), consider trying a different technique: start at partial awareness and spiral up!

This video below is one of the best instructions I’ve seen for beginners which provides clear tiers or levels to work up to.

One final tip is to focus on “feeling” the breath fully. I’m using words below to communicate, but you shouldn’t focus on the when you practice. Just like when you “feel” the warmth of the sun, the word “warmth” is not actually in your mind:

  • Does the breath feel warm or cold? Does it fluctuate?
  • Does the breath feel tight, or open?
  • Is it pleasant, or unpleasant?
  • Try picking a specific area (like the belly or tip of the nose) and see if you can notice a smaller sensation.

Whether or not you use the above technique, be sure you’re not making the mistake of slowly losing awareness.

Simply being aware that this happens can be enough to self-correct and return to full awareness.

-Taylor

P.S. – Once a week I send out a comic, video, short story, etc, as a fun and light “mindful reminder.” Check out the list, Mindful Mondays, if you’re interested!

How to Actually Make Meditation A Habit in 2016

meditation rocks

“This year I’m going to start meditating regularly.”

It sounds good, but in the real world we rarely follow through.

Maybe we meditate a few times and nothing exciting happens. Or we make some progress. But after a few days, a week, a month, we stop. It doesn’t become a regular part of our life.

It doesn’t become a habit.

If you want to get the benefits of meditation, talking about it with friends, reading about about it on Facebook and Reddit, and meditating “every so often” is not going to cut it.

It’s time to start thinking about how to turn it into a habit, robust enough for the long run. We know meditation is a practice much like exercise (it only works if done consistently) – so treat it that way!

Today we’re going to abolish the casual: “ughh, I need to meditate more.” If you ever expected to evolve from a Facebook-addicted mind to a Zen master in a matter of weeks, this article is for you.

Meditation is amazing – it rewires our brain, literally building gray matter and undoing years of conditioning.

That’s why today I’m going to give you a blueprint to actually make meditation a part of your life.

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Why You, Meditation Skeptic, Need Meditation.

question

You have this hardware, your brain. And this software, your mind.

And every day you operate this machinery, the most advanced computer ever known, without ever being handed an instruction manual. You were never taught how it works, never shown what it can fully do.

And this is no iPad. It was not designed with intuitive, user-friendly controls. No, the brain is a messy product of evolution. Many of its features and settings were developed for a different time – for a different purpose. Today we are behind the wheel of these biological machines, most people lacking even the slightest interest in learning how they work.

As a result:

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Why You Should Know the Difference Between Scribe Knowledge and Warrior Knowledge

Warrior Knowledge Vs Scribe Knowledge

Words often limit us in ways we don’t even know. That’s why I love words like schadenfreude – apart from just being plain fun to use, it helps illuminate the limitations of language itself.

The way we talk about things has a profound impact on the way we think about things – and ultimately – the decisions we make… even how we act without realizing it. Words are powerful, even when we don’t realize the power they have over us.

Today I want to talk about one instance where the power of words often secretly sabotages our mindfulness and meditation practice: the lack of a coherent way to distinguish between experiential knowledge, and intellectual knowledge

In the simplest terms, think of this as the difference between knowing what love is (scribe), understanding it through pop culture and worldy observations… and feeling love. Being in love (warrior).

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