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meditation ii: the cushioning

A good while back I wrote about my early experiences dabbling in meditation. Since then I have talked about it in my abortive habit log (probably the most ironic project I’ve ever started), but obviously I’ve been pretty inactive over the last year. However, unlike the habit log itself, my meditation practice has actually continued. It’s been on and off, up and down, but in the last 3 months I’ve hit something of a stride, and thought it was a good time to review my progress. First I’ll talk about how my practice was going and the problems I was having. Next I’ll talk about the changes I made, how it’s going now, and what my near-term goals are. Then I’m going to talk about the results at length, and finally what I’m thinking about in terms of medium and long-term goals.

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Since my first post, I’d gotten quite into reading about and around meditation. I’d bought Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha and The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa. I was also prowling Reddit and various forums and generally getting a feel for the discourse and landscape. But once the initial rush of enthusiasm following my first major experience wore off, my actual meditation practice became sporadic. I would do it maybe 2-5 times a week on average, but it was very inconsistent in frequency and quality.

I had two related problems. The first was that while about half the meditation sessions I did lying down were productive, the other half of the time I would just fall asleep. For that reason, I tried to regularly meditate while sitting down. I would use a simple cushion and a throw, but after about 15 minutes I would start to experience lots of muscular tension in my back. At first I thought this might just be my mind being rebellious – physical discomfort and fidgeting is common while developing concentration – but I had no such problems when I was lying down, and this definitely felt different to the kind of random fidgeting that is typical. I also have some back issues, so it wasn’t exactly surprising.

The end result was that I was meditating for 15 minutes or so sitting down, then going and lying down to finish, and sometimes falling asleep. I knew this wasn’t as productive as it could be, and my frustrations around my back and sleeping combined were affecting my motivation to meditate more regularly. A couple of times a week I would also do walking meditation, but as before this was kind of squeezed into trips to and from town rather than something I did for its own sake. This went on for months, and the end result was that while I was still enjoying meditation, I wasn’t really getting anywhere with it.

I’m not really sure why I decided to buy a meditation mat and cushion. Partly (and frankly without any good reason) I hoped it would solve my back issues, but mostly I think I just wanted to try and motivate myself through a purchase (which is usually a bad idea). I did some basic research and settled on Basaho as a good combination of the right materials, tasteful design, non-evil business practices, and a reasonable price. The cushion and mat both use buckwheat husks as the ‘filler’, which means that while still comfy, they are also very supportive and don’t deform over time. The materials also feel hard-wearing, and barring an accident I don’t think I’ll need to replace them for at least a decade, probably longer.

I was expecting the cushion and mat to be decent quality, and I wasn’t disappointed. What did surprise me was the difference they made when I sat down. As soon as I had settled I noticed that I felt none of the usual tension in my back. I don’t really understand why, but it seems like raising my hips above my knees let me sit straight without my back muscles getting all tense and knotty. I was immediately able to sit for 25 minutes without any back issues, and the only reason I stopped was because that had been my (previously completely out of reach) target time for the last couple of months. And aside from the obvious help this would be in letting me meditate for longer, it was also gratifying to learn that it was actually my back that was the problem, rather than my concentration. This gave me a lot of confidence and motivation to really commit to a proper, daily practice.

My new aim was to mediate sitting once every day for 20 minutes, which took a few weeks to really settle as a habit. Then I began upping the time by five minutes every week or two, depending on how well I felt my practice had gone after increasing the length of my sit. If it was solid then I’d up it again after the first week, but if I’d been having more trouble concentrating than usual, I’d extend it to a second week at the new length, just to make sure I was making consistent progress across the board. My short-term goal is to get this up to an hour a day, and as of right now I’m doing 50 minute sits.

A secondary goal is to do a 20-30 minute walking meditation every day, but for whatever reason I have been way less successful at committing to this. It’s odd, because it’s a pretty good reason to get out of the house during the current national lockdown, but I’m much more likely to walk the dog, and the two don’t really mix. Once or twice a week I’ll also do some meditation lying down when I have some free time and I’m confident falling asleep won’t be an issue. I basically treat this as a bonus activity, but somehow wind up doing it way more often than the walking meditation. These sessions are usually pretty productive, and since picking up Right Concentration by Leigh Brasington I’ve decided to focus them on accessing jhanas (more on this later).

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The results have been… interesting. First of all, my concentration has improved dramatically since I got a regular practice going. During my best sits, I can stabilise my attention on the breath after about 5 minutes, and keep it there for 15-20 minutes at a time, either without getting distracted or with only the most fleeting periods of distraction. At some point this breaks down and I ‘have’ to stop for a sip of water or stretch or scratch or something (in other words I get distracted), but I can usually get back to concentrating on the breath for a good few minutes before the end of the session. And even during the worst sits, I’ll have fairly long periods of stable concentration. It’ll just take me longer to start, or after I get distracted I’ll have trouble settling in again. But even these sits feel constructive and positive (in part because per TMI‘s instructions regarding positive reinforcement, I try to stay positive no matter what), and the more I practice, the less I find myself thinking about how long is left in the session when I get distracted. In fact I often keep sitting even after my timer goes off, because I feel like I’m getting somewhere with my concentration.

I’m also starting to have more regular and on average stronger experiences while meditating. I still haven’t had anything quite like my ‘first’ experience – that remains the outlier. But meditating now generates pleasurable feelings every time I do it, and they are getting longer, more consistent, and even more predictable. For example, when I settle into following the breath, I will almost always start to see blurry circles or arcs of light similar to afterimages, which reduce to nothingness one after another – it’s a bit like a Windows 95 screen saver (and if that doesn’t make you want to meditate, I don’t know what will!). It’s typically after this that I’ll start to feel a kind of nice, warm feeling of pleasure suffuse my body, and this is often accompanied by a sort of yellow-golden tint to my visual background. What’s interesting about these phenomena is that they’re similar to what other meditators experience, and fairly predictable in when they occur. In the case of the circles/arcs, I didn’t know this was a common thing, but in Right Concentration Brasington says that some kind of lights and colours are very likely once you’re approaching access concentration. The same section also mentioned a kind of white light or static upon actually achieving access concentration. I haven’t experienced this yet, but even prior to reading Brasington I had the sense that I was likely close to access concentration, albeit not there yet.

When I am finished and get up from the cushion, I am almost always hit by a surge of pleasure. I feel giddy, full of joy, sometimes grinning or laughing uncontrolably. This lasts for several minutes, even after I go downstairs (to the point where I have to try and suppress my smile to avoid looking like I’ve lost it in front of other people). I’m pretty sure some kind of blood rush is the trigger as it always happens when I stand up, but it is definitely massively amplified by my state of mind – I sit and stand up multiple times a day without these effects. There’s also a more subtle level of pleasure and joy which can persist for as much as an hour, and seems to be influenced by whether or not I remain mindful of my conscious state. Writing this, it occurs to me that this would probably be the perfect time to go for a walking meditation, so that’s something to consider. Thanks blog.

This stuff is great, but to be honest it’s not the most significant change. Yes, I can get to these pleasurable states regularly, and yes they’re great and better than booze or weed (in my estimation), and I suppose it would still be worth meditating if that was all there was to it. But ultimately that’s just the same stuff I was experiencing before, only moreso. However, since practicing more regularly I’ve noticed changes in my general experience which definitely weren’t there before.

In particular, I’ve become way less emotionally reactive. I don’t get caught up in imaginary arguments anything like as often, and when I do I can pull myself out of them very quickly. But even in the moment, in direct conversations involving the kind of mundane or trivial hostility and annoyance that punctuate our lives, I just don’t get as defensive. It’s hard to describe (the term that captures it best is probably ‘equanimity’), but I am just so much less bothered by it, or anything else, really. And on the couple of occasions I have got into a funk, it has felt TERRIBLE by contrast. They weren’t actually worse or in any way more of a problem than before I began meditating. But I got over them extra fast because they just clearly sucked so much in comparison to my (now) normal state of mind, where these things just kind of bounced off. I also have many, many more moments where I’m spontaneously conscious of how lucky I am, how good my life is, and how wonderful the world is in general. These are usually triggered by simple attendance to an aspect of perception, like the breeze in my hair, a pleasant smell, or just the tactile sensations of washing a cup. I don’t intend to provoke these moments, they just sort of happen.

So far I haven’t had the kind of on-rails, dissociative experiences some people report, but I’m relatively early into having a regular practice so I wouldn’t expect to. But I think I can kind of see it, or sense what it might look like. The more I pay attention to the automatic nature of my moment-to-moment actions, and the multiplicity of what I think of as a ‘self’, the more aware I am of what this other way of seeing the world might look like. But based on the descriptions I’ve read of how transformative this feels, I definitely have some way to go.

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I guess at this point it’s worth asking the question: is that where I want to be? My answer is an unconditional ‘yes’. I know some people read about these perception-altering experiences, and a bit like hearing about bad trips on acid, decide that’s a door they never want to risk opening – even if it means they never get to open the fun and happy doors. I can definitely understand this point of view, even if it doesn’t really speak to me. Part of this is the bias of my experience. Prior to meditating, I encountered some very shitty aspects of my brain that put me pretty damn close to my limit. Meditation has only helped, and anyway I’m not sure there’s much left waiting for me behind the Scary Door. Sure, I wouldn’t want to experience the bad stuff again, but it’s not like meditation is an obvious trigger, and besides the Regular World got me there all by itself. Put another way, it’s not as if just going around with your regular conscious experience of the ‘normal’ world of craving and distraction and dissatisfaction we’ve built for ourselves is guaranteed to result in stability and happiness. And unlike e.g. LSD, meditation is not introducing anything new to the picture – it’s just a way of training you to notice what’s already there. Which means that even if you don’t meditate, whatever’s there might surface down the road regardless of your intentions.

I think for me, the other part is that I’m just too curious about what’s going on between the pink folds. The descriptions you read about concentration states and insight meditation are for the most part pretty consistent, and even when it comes to the more hocus-pocus supernatural stuff, there are people out there who claim to have had these experiences, without actually thinking that anything supernatural or against the laws of physics has occurred. Maybe you can feel like you’re levitating or teleporting or whatever, and even if it’s not real, it’s a blast. I am down for those experiences. The point is, it looks like there is something to this, and it is achievable and reproducible if you practice. Basically, I want in.

To that end, I have some medium and long-term goals in mind. The first medium-term goal is to develop stable access concentration. I was about to say that I think this will take another couple of months based on where I feel I’m at, but the truth is I have no idea and I probably shouldn’t build up expectations. It might take longer, and if it does then I’m just going to get frustrated when my arbitrary and uninformed timeline isn’t met. It might also take a lot less time, and I think I am already accessing it regularly, albeit briefly, so who knows. This last bit relates to my second medium-term goal, which is to experience the jhanas more. With the benefit of experience I am now almost certain that the experience I wrote about before was the first jhana, but I’ve also experienced it a few times since. These experiences were intensely pleasurable, but in the big picture somewhat frustrating, as due to the irregularity of my practice I didn’t really know what was going on, or why I couldn’t reproduce them. Now I have a much better grasp on this, and I think I’m pretty close to being able to get into the first jhana at will – my concentration and technique just isn’t quite there yet. But I have enough sense of what’s going on that I know it’s within reach with more practice.

My third medium-term goal may end up being a long-term goal just because of Covid-19. Basically every single person who knows anything about this stuff recommends going on retreat, so I really, really want to go on retreat. There is a broad consensus that nothing helps your practice like just doing it for a week solid, all day long. I have to admit it sounds kind of daunting and intense, but if I’m serious about this then it seems like a no-brainer. But of course in the midst of a national lockdown and global pandemic, retreats aren’t really on the cards. There are some centres doing socially-distanced retreats, but until the R-number comes down significantly at the national level I’m not going to risk it. It’s a shame, because I very much have the itch and motivation right now, but this is a pretty insignificant inconvenience in the grand scheme of things. I’ll just have to see how things look come summer.

In terms of my long-term goals, I want to get into the deeper aspects of insight meditation. I think the kind of concentration and awareness required for this is still some way down the road, and based on everything I’ve read, is unlikely to happen without going on retreat. This is absolutely fine, and I feel like I have a lot more basic practice to do before I can plausibly claim to be frustrated by circumstance. I’m just using this goal as a motivation: my practice today is going to get me where I want to go eventually.

Insights into the illusion of the self and arising and passing of phenomena also seem like they might lead to insights regarding my research in ethics. Not to go too deep into that, but my thesis basically revolves around the idea that epistemology and ethics are inextricably linked, moreso than is commonly recognised even among philosophers. That’s not to say I’m only pursuing this to that end, just that my curiosity is leading me down parallel paths with respect to my practice and my research.

I also want to further develop the increasing sense of equanimity that practice has brought to my daily life. Apparently this just grows, and far more than the trippy fun stuff, seems like it has the potential to improve my life in a lasting way, and make me a better person.

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This is basically just an update, so I have no literary flourishes to offer here in the conclusion. To the extent that there’s a takeaway, it’s that practice really does make perfect, and that cushions are great. So if you put in the time with this stuff (and maybe get a spiffy cushion), you are rewarded with the resulting benefits. And in case it isn’t obvious, I highly recommend doing so.

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