On 100 days of meditation
I bought this book, The Secret of the Golden Flower, at the beginning of last October as I read something which implied that the book had set someone off on a transformative adventure. I thought I wouldn’t mind one of those myself, so as soon as it arrived, I bumped it to the top of the reading list.
To be honest, Jung’s commentary aside, I couldn’t understand a lot of the actual text: it is very esoteric and requires a base knowledge of Chinese Buddhism that I do not have. Nevertheless, the author/s recommend that people start off committing to 100 days of meditation and I figured I could do that much at least.
The last time I tried seated meditation was when I lived in France. It was excruciating: I could not still my mind at all, and it was physically painful to sit in the cross-legged position for more than 15 minutes. Not that I could even manage 15 minutes of meditation, such was the noise and chaos of my mind. My failures then, however, did lead me down a path of learning how to get out of my head and into my body. Mind is suffering, but I sensed through the ‘Zen’ of my manual work in the garden, that the body could be a site of stillness. Fundamentally, what my attempts at seated meditation showed me, was that I didn’t want to live in my mind. Simply put, I understood that my life would be much nicer if I did not.
France was twenty years ago now, but I still vividly remember how difficult and uncomfortable meditation was. Thus, my plan this time was to do 30 days of 5 minutes per day, 30 days of 10 mins per day, and the rest at 15 minutes per day. However, on my first day I found 5 minutes so easy that I immediately did 10 more. I subsequently did 8 days of 15 minutes, then moved onto 30 minutes per day for around six weeks. After that I moved onto 45 minutes per day, which is where I still am. Ultimately, I would like to do an hour a day, but it’s dependent on my old lady hips, as the pins and needles are currently intolerable past the 45-50 minute mark.
I do the meditation in the morning as a part of my routine. I get up, do my morning pages as I drink my coffee, meditate, then work on my stories. This has meant that I now get up very early and I welcome it. Past me is shocked and baffled by this, but also very happy. It is right. The only days I do not meditate are walking days, as I need to be out of the house so early due to the short winter days. Although I would prefer to meditate before my hikes (and will do once the days are longer), I do not mind skipping it too much for, as I will explain later, walking is a form of meditation if you do it right.
I have thought a lot about why meditation now comes so ‘easily’ compared to when I was in France, and I thought I might have some insights which may be helpful to those random internet searchers out there who are looking for some kind of ‘beginners guide to meditation’. On the one hand, meditation is so profoundly personal that I hesitate to share my experiences. In addition, I think that we each approach the practice via our own path. More: it is something we must do, not read about. Finally, I am a mere novice, so what do I really know? On the other, perhaps some of my experience can be useful to someone.
Firstly, I need to explain why I have put ‘easily’ in inverted commas: meditation is not easy. It is not not easy either. Oh god, I already sound like one of those infuriating Buddhist texts! I am trying to say that it is easy because I welcome it, and I can feel with every atom of my being that the time is right for this practice. It is easy because I want to wake up early and do it. It is easy because I protect and prioritise my practice. It is easy because I intuit that I have spent twenty years laying the foundations to try again.
Yet and still, it is not easy. Whilst there are days when my mind is still for almost the entire session, there are plenty more where it is not. I still have ferocious pins and needles by the end of the session, which is deeply uncomfortable to say the least. That said, like the annual distribution of night and day in such northerly places as Scotland, it feels to me as though the light outweighs the darkness. Or perhaps it is that I am grateful to the darkness for how it frames the light.
So here are my thoughts on how to begin a meditation practice. If you find, like me twenty years ago, that when you sit down to try you are in tormented agony, then perhaps you will find my experience helpful or a guide of some sort. Please remember that this is just my extremely fumbling experience, and it is one based in practice not theory or scripture. When I was in France, I read many Zen Buddhist texts, but I have not felt the need to go back to them as I am not a Buddhist. I just wanted to see if the author/s of The Secret of the Golden Flower were right: that 100 days of meditation would change my life. They were. It has. That is all the theory I feel to know right now.
Meditation and the body
The first and foremost thing you must understand, is that meditation is a practice of the body. It is a misunderstanding to approach it as a practice of stilling the mind. The stilling of your mind is ‘collateral healing’ as a result of practicing how to fully inhabit your body. This is, in my opinion, the most important thing. It is the foundation of my practice, at least.
I think this is why there are so many prescriptions around what you eat in Buddhism, because you soon notice any digestive issues once you are actually in your body (by which I mean focussed on your body) for any period of time. I think that the early Buddhists figured out what seemed to be easy to digest (for them) and it eventually became coded into scripture. It becomes uncomfortable to meditate if your body doesn’t feel good, so you need to ensure you are eating the diet that is optimal for you.
For me this means an almost exclusively animal-foods diet (meat, eggs, cheese, fish), as twenty years of vegetarianism had a profoundly negative effect on my mental and physical health. In addition, I have noticed that if I consistently increase my carbohydrate consumption from more than 5-10g per day, I start to find meditation considerably more difficult after a few days. Thoughts end up feeling chaotic, and more real than reality. It now makes perfect sense to me that I struggled with meditation when I was in France: I was a whole foods vegetarian then.
This link with the body is also why yoga, martial arts, and Tai Chi traditionally go along with meditation. To meditate, your body must be strong, flexible, and healthy, not only to be able to sit in a cross-legged position for any period of time, but also because any site of pain or discomfort in the body becomes intolerable and overwhelming during meditation. For instance, although the pain in my formerly dislocated right shoulder has vastly improved since removing oxalates from my diet, meditation revealed how much more tension remained in it. Often, as I sat there on the mat, I felt like my right shoulder and neck area was crooked and disfigured. Over time, and as my practiced has developed, this tension is starting to slowly ebb away, and I feel straighter during practice.
Pathways to the body
I think that to be able to meditate, you must first learn how to be in your body. My time in France started that process and I have been getting better and better at it for the last twenty years. Strength training in particular has been crucial to that journey, but so too has martial arts, CrossFit, running, and the other forms of exercise I have tried. The point is that I have regularly been ‘in my body’ 3 to 4 times per week for close to 20 years. My body is strong and relatively healthy, and I know what it means to be ‘in it’: to listen to it, hear it, know it.
This is why I think strength training is so important. Not only is it the single most important exercise form to do in terms of healthy aging, but when we do it, it is vital to be in your body. This is unlike running or walking, where you can easily get lost in thoughts. When you are lifting heavy objects, technique is critical to prevent injury. Before you do a lift, you have to check in with your body in terms of form and posture, and then concentrate on your exhalation as you perform the lift. This is the same if the heavy object you are lifting is yourself (i.e. calisthenics), or if it is a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell.
Another thing which has been helpful for me is spa. Sitting still in the hot and cold has shown me another way to be in my body. At spa, you must pay attention to what your body is telling you so that you know when it is time to leave the heat for the cold, and vice versa, and also when it is time to rest. These are crucial skills for the regular spa goer, and you suffer the consequences if you fail to listen to your body and stay in a hot room / plunge pool too long.
Finally, and possibly most importantly, I am certain it is no coincidence that I have returned to meditation now that I have found walking. Walking enables a constant pull to the present moment which is almost always a wonderful moment when you are walking in an environment you love. For me that is the woods, but perhaps for you it is by the sea, or on a hill, or on flatlands. For walking to be a meditation in the sense that I am using the word, it needs to be the kind where you use it to pull yourself to the present moment, not the kind where you get lost in your thoughts or use it to actively solve some problem. These are perfectly fine uses of walking, but they will not assist with seated meditation.
Ultimately, what I am talking about here is developing your interoception: learning how to listen to your body. For, as much as I have spoken here in quite Cartesian terms about mind/body, we are our bodies, and that includes our brain of which our mind is a manifestation. The point of developing your capacity for interoception is to remind yourself of that. It is important to know how your body feels both as a whole, but also as constituent parts. Meditation is a fine-tuning of this, a sharp focus on the body which can be overwhelming and painful, and cause a retreat into mind. Each time that happens, you must guide yourself back into your body and learn how to be with the feelings and sensations no matter how unpleasant; eventually they pass, even the pleasurable ones, sadly.
Attention to attention
Paying attention to what you are paying attention to is the foundation of mental health, and this is why meditation matters. Meditation is to be with, and in, your body, and the way you do that, is to call your attention to it over and over again. In this way, every breath is an opportunity to start again. Once you get better at that focus, you will notice the various qualities of your breath and your curiosity over that will be enough to hold your attention. The way to prep yourself for that, is to spend every waking moment noticing what you are paying attention to. Don’t be a captive of your mind. Notice that you are here right now and observe what is truly around you. If you don’t like it, figure out ways to change (parts of) it, but don’t escape into mind to avoid it. And most importantly, don’t let your mind make a wonderful moment torment by living in an imagined past or future. Be here now.
Another small tip I have relates to breath. Obviously, when we meditate (and more generally) we should be practicing diaphragmatic breathing (even though this can be very difficult for those of us with asthma). However, this does not mean that our breath is located in our belly that day. It might be, but it also might be in your nostril or right shoulder or hip or frankly anywhere else in your body. Once I stopped trying to force my attention into my belly and realised that my breath actually dwelled somewhere else that day, my practice improved in leaps and bounds. And by ‘improved’, I mean I found it so much easier to concentrate on my breath when I allowed it to tell me where it was. Some days it leaps around my body and I just follow wherever it goes; other days it stays in one or two places the entire session.
More recently, however, I have realised that my breath is best found in the space in-between breaths. I have learnt that if I sit quietly in that space and await my breath to return, then I am able to have a calm and mainly uninterrupted focus, and a deep sense of relaxation. Whilst I still experience the breath in certain parts of my body during the in/out part, I have found it easier to stay with it if I concentrate less on that and more on the calm space of patience between the breaths.
The better I get at finding my breath, the less my concentration is broken by thoughts. Perhaps one day my breath will stay in my tummy all the time, but it feels right to just be with it wherever it is. I think it knows more than me. Take, for instance, how it wanted to be with my right shoulder for some time, and how subsequent to that, my right shoulder feels less tense. In this way, I don’t think it’s a metaphor when raging hippies say that breath is healing. It is.
The eventuality of thoughts
The simple truth is you are going to have thoughts when you meditate. I was going to append that sentence with ‘as a beginner’, but I suspect that even long-term meditators still have thoughts, as it is the nature of mind to think. The trick is to be non-judgemental about your thoughts. As soon as you notice you are inside a thought as opposed to inside your body, gently guide your attention back to your breath. Maybe you only get one or two breaths before you are lost again, but don’t stress. Just keep starting again. I have noticed that it helps to initially close my eyes to find my breath, but that I need to open them very slightly after that, as closed eyes seem to facilitate the movie screen of thoughts.
In the context of meditation, there is no such thing as ‘good’ thoughts or ‘bad’ thoughts. Thoughts are thoughts, and what you are aiming for is to be with your body and your breath, not your mind. Sometimes you get really clear understandings of things you should do in your life during meditation, but these are still thoughts. They interrupt your practice as much as anxiety or anger over an unwanted situation does.
Sensation and emotion
I have had some incredible sensations, emotions, and feelings during these last 100 days. It was tempting at first to keep chasing them (the pleasurable ones at least), but I don’t think that is right: pleasure is not stillness. So, I think: don’t get lost in sensation or emotion, or seek to experience them during meditation. Seek only the breath and breathe through the sensations and feelings that the breath uncovers, even when you’d really rather not. In the end, like breath, the sensations and emotions always dissipate.
Posture and position
I sit cross-legged on a mat with a cushion under my sit bones because I can (mostly), but I think if you need to meditate on a chair, then that’s fine too. I don’t think lying down would be right though, unless you were doing some kind of guided meditation and that’s not what I am talking about here.
I don’t want to say too much about posture as I definitely have a tendency to overthink it. On ‘bad’ days, I shift about on the mat as I am convinced I am slouching and I hear the words of some Zen master I read once telling me off for doing so. I don’t think I am though, I think thinking I am slouching is just noise. On ‘good’ days, I know I feel very strong and rooted to the mat and don’t move at all, save for my breath. All in, I think you just need to find a comfortable but attentive position and stay still once you do.
Time of the day
As I said above, I do my meditation first thing in the morning. This is because I am prioritising it in my life. I have noticed that if I wait until after work to do ‘me’ things (write, exercise, etc.), I invariably don’t. So now I put the important things in my life first and in doing so, I have much more energy, joy, and emotional centredness. Doing it first thing sets me up in a good space for the rest of the day.
There are two other reasons I think that it is important for me to do meditation first thing: firstly, because it comes right after my morning pages which are a brain dump. I clear my mind through writing them, and I think that helps with going into meditation, as things which are bothering me have been dumped on the page. Secondly, by doing it first thing, I do it fasted. I have discovered that if I try to do it right after eating breakfast, my breath feels small and cramped and harder to find or stay with.
These are just my thoughts after 100 (non-consecutive) days of meditation. I hope that this has been helpful to someone; more, I hope that I have convinced you to try (again) to meditate. One of the benefits for me in doing this, is a concomitant unlocking of my creativity. I note that whilst I started my walking practice in January 2023, and increased it in August 2023, it was not until a month after I started meditating that I got the idea for my Writing Walking project. I do not think this is coincidence.
If you want to start meditating and have found it difficult, I am not saying you need to wait twenty years before you can start. I’m just saying that’s how long it took me to figure this out, but my mind has always been particularly unsettled. All I am saying is that if you are struggling, perhaps back off the seated mediation. First learn how to find, and be with, your body, next learn how to direct (and redirect) your attention to the present moment, and then finally try again.