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Matt's Blog

A Most Stupendous & Audacious Undertaking

How to get yourself to actually meditate: Do it while walking, driving, snowboarding...
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At this point there are volumes of studies showing the beneficial effects of meditation in terms of reducing various causes of malaise and mortality.  However, I still have not been able to get myself to do even a minimal amount of meditation, like 8 minutes per day.  Generally I get around 30 seconds in before the brain starts spinning up and having lots of thoughts.  I'm fairly hosed after a minute or so. 

I've heard many definitions of meditation, but they all tend to involve a few things:

- Gently suppressing analytical/abstract thought loops
- Being "present"
- Being aware of your surroundings
- Being aware of your own body
- Being aware of your emotions
- Being nonjudgemental about thoughts as they do come up

They also tend to (traditionally) be done seated, with eyes closed.
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However, there are numerous ways of satisfying the above list without sitting still.  Over the last week I've found that I can extend the 30 seconds of full presence to around 4-5 minutes by doing a meditation exercise while walking or driving.  During these moving meditations, I encourage myself to be as aware of my environment as possible, and work to suppress abstract thought.  The same patterns do emerge over time -- my direct experience starts feeling less interesting and my mind starts allocating time to other things.  However, my enjoyment of a few minutes of success is likely to leave me feeling less frustrated.  As a result, I've been able to stick with a meditation routine every day this week. 

I'm starting to wonder how far this can be taken.  Snowboarding satisfies all of the above criteria -- I'm definitely present when I'm barreling down the mountain, and I'm not having abstract thoughts about what happened three years ago or what I need to get done in the next week.  One of the most fully present days of my life was the day I rented a motorcycle in Vietnam and went from no skill at all to freeway, urban, mountain curves, mud, and nighttime driving in one day.  (I did get some guidance from an Israeli dude on post-army-service holiday)  That day, statistically speaking, probably took a couple of weeks off my life, and seeking out dangerous experiences is not the most efficient or prudent way of engaging in a meditative state.  However, my mind knew what to do in this situation -- it prioritized the task at hand over everything else. 

Ideally I'd like to be able to do that any time I need to.  I do like exposing my mind to fresh experiences because it creates a childlike sense of wonder and engagement at a new and surprising world and likely stimulates mental growth and plasticity, but I would also like to become good at extracting more novelty and applying more focus in familiar experiences. 

I'm very quick to lose focus on tasks not requiring full mental attention.  My mind recognizes that the task/environment is known and starts ignoring it or allocating it the minimal necessary attention.  This happens astonishingly fast -- one reason I chose to sublet an apartment that was full of the landlord's crap is because I knew I'd stop noticing it after a few days.  However, there are also lots of tasks that part of my brain doesn't *think* need attention but are actually important, and that's part of the problem.  I become easily distractable because other stimuli are more immediately mentally engaging.  In addition, when fully mentally engaged in something, I find it difficult to let go, even if it's time to go to sleep.  

I feel that starting with something active but familiar, like walking or driving, and gradually trying to increase my present-ness is a good strategy.  It relieves stress and gives me practice at letting go of undesired thoughts or emotions in a real-world situation. 

Ironically, the distracting thoughts that come up when I'm trying to do one of my walking or driving meditations are often worth following up on. 
It also brings up the question on whether meditating at some of these times is worthwhile.  Am I better off listening to an interesting podcast while washing dishes as opposed to mindfully enjoying the process of cleaning each dish?  Am I better off pursuing the leads of new thoughts that occur to me on walks instead of suppressing them?  Part of the appeal of going on a walk is that it often gets my mind out of a rut; if I'm trying to solve a particular problem, doing something else for a while will un-stick me from my rut, and the right moment of inspiration will come during this unrelated activity.  Going forward, I'm planning on pausing the meditation if a particularly useful thought comes along.  I can always write it down and return to it later.  However, restoring calm should take priority over cramming information in my head -- I spend plenty of time driving; if I'm preoccupied I should spend the time cleaning up the preoccupation with meditation as opposed to trying to distract myself with something interesting. 

Over the last week or so, I've been rewarded by discovering things in familiar environments I had never noticed.  Among the things I've seen:
- The Bay Bridge eastbound tunnel through Treasure Island has subway-style emergency nooks every 20ft or so.  The westbound lane through the tunnel does not.  I'm guessing this is because, back in the 1930s-1950s, the lower deck of the bay bridge carried rail traffic both directions, while the upper deck carried car traffic both directions.
- There's a hidden keyhole in a fence that I've probably walked by 100 times -- it's positioned in the middle of a knot, and it's stained brown to match the wood. 
- I don't know what rules there are about how frequently retro-reflectors should be placed on the vertical side railing posts of elevated highways, but the people who built downtown SF's elevated freeways are ignoring them around intersection areas.  Or they're encoding interesting binary messages with them.
- There's lots of other stuff too, but I didn't want to bore you with a laundry list.  Generally speaking, these exercises have made me directly aware of just what a small fraction of our stimuli we actually process.  I already cognitively knew this, but feeling it on a regular basis is interesting. 

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hypatia156  pointed out to me that meditation was developed during a time when people were typically on their feet for most of the day, constantly on the move.  In the modern world, we spend most of our time sitting -- sitting in front of screens of various sorts, sitting in cars, sitting in meetings, sitting at meals.  Perhaps movement should be our means of putting things right in our inner world.