Sunday, April 10, 2011

Meditation progress

I rolled out of bed and tried to meditate this morning, for a grand total of .... drum roll....  15 minutes (sigh). Did I say meditate? What I meant was I sat upright for 15 minutes with my eyes closed. There was no meditation going on there even though that was the intention. More experienced meditators have said that it's easier to meditate in the morning, when the body is stiff and the mind is clear. For me, it's the other way around. It's as if instead of dreaming, my thoughts that are supposed to be in dreams are triggered the moment I wake up. Plus it's not even the thoughts the bug me the most. It's the fact that I can't sit still. All my body parts feel creaky in the morning. I can't hold a straight back, body parts seem grumpy and not really under the control of my brain yet. Neither my body nor my mind wants to be in a sitting position.

What about doing some yoga warm up before sitting in the morning? Tried that. I did some sun salutations before settling down onto my meditation cushion. That made it worse. I craved to do a whole yoga sequence instead of sitting.

Things are different at night before bed time, especially if I just came back from a yoga class. All my nadi channels (meridians?) feel open, allowing my breath to flow freely absolute ease. I don't feel any kinks in my body (guess they were all taken care of during yoga). My back has no trouble holding the spine straight; I can actually sit happily for 30-60minutes. Scary part is, I can actually sit with alertness happily even if it's 12am.

This is going to be a problem if/when I sign up for Vipassana retreat, when meditation starts at 4:30am and we're supposed to go to bed at, what? 9 or 10pm?

I was reading this article called "Can Meditation Be Bad for You?" by Mary Garden. She mentioned that  she used to meditate a lot (went on 5 Vipassana retreats.. must have had a lot of free time) and had experienced a lot of hallucinating experiences from it. At some point she finally gave up seeking for enlightenment and "returned to worldly life", when she also gave up on meditation. She also talked about cases where people became psychotic and/or committed suicide after long meditation retreats, which at first scared me a little (would I hallucinate and want to commit suicide after my Vipassana retreat?!?! Garden did mention that a questionnaire was implemented by the Vipassana retreat organizers to try to prevent further suicides and epilepsy-like episodes at retreats, but she questioned the effectiveness of the questionnaire (as a safety guard).

So I googled some more, and found forums with comments of frustrated people complaining they got rejected by Vipassana retreat organizers when they answered honestly on the retreat application that they perform erotic reiki massages for a living and use a lot of psychedelic drugs recreationally. Oh I laughed my ass off reading these comments. I think I'll be okay left alone with my brain and minimal external stimulations for 10 days, even if I probably won't be able to sit still for long in the mornings.

This quote by Arthur Chappel was mentioned in the article:

"Many meditation practitioners have complained of difficulty doing simple arithmetic and remembering names of close friends after prolonged meditation. The effect is rather like that of Newspeak's obliteration of the English language in George Orwell's 1984."

Hmm.. okay I originally started meditating to build focus and I didn't realize there would be this side effect. However, I wish somebody warned me before I signed up for grad school that spending too much time thinking about research questions may result in extreme absent-mindedness... effects include forgetting where I place my keys all the time, frequent occurrence of forgetting to place the milk back into the fridge before heading out to school, falling asleep in the afternoon and sleeping past the time I'm supposed to meet friends for dinner, started reading 5 different books but never able to finish any of them, etc.  If you take a close look at a large group of professors you'll see that some of them have forgotten to brush their hair, or how to interact with ordinary people (ie. people who don't speak academic-babble). Some of them have this absent look in their eyes not much different from long-term meditators. I guess the difference is that the professors are madly processing a million thoughts on their research question (or grant applications) at all times, while the meditators are keeping their minds as free of cluttered thoughts as possible.

I set out to meditate so my brain can be "clutter-free" and be focused on a few important matters at hand, without forgetting to brush my hair or lose my keys every day. Now it seems like it's not possible. If I meditate too much I'll lose my arithmetic skills (gasp! I need that for my analyses!) What if I keep it down to only 15 minutes a day? Would that help with anything? Give me a year to work on it and I'll get back to you on that.


  1. Dear Yyogini
    Why don't you try Zen instead? Vipassana is just one of the vehicles of Buddhism. The joke in SF, a big Vipassana place, is that most people in the audience are psychology patients and their doctors. But it's true. There might be more structure to Zen, where there are interruptions for walking, chanting, service, cleaning the temple, etc - all opportunities to practice. Others won't agree with my opinion, but if Vipassana is freaking you out, you could try Zen. There is always Mahayanan, which involves nonstop chanting. Now that is difficult. Imagine mumbling on end for two hours.


  2. Thanks for the suggestions Arturo. I'm not actually trying to get into Buddhism. I just found Vipassana to be "simple" conceptually - focus on the breath and scan the body mentally (obviously not simple to do in practice). If I come across a reputable zen retreat, I might check it out.

  3. Fifteen minutes of sitting upright really isn't bad. That meditation shit's hard.

    And, yeah, some vipassana folks tend to be kind of fundamentalist in their attitudes, seeming to see dhamma or dharma as synonymous with "dogma."

    Haven't read the stuff you mention about harmful effects of meditation, though there's no question that there needs to be the proper balance between introspection and grounding--in my experience the most advanced yogis are those who manage to be totally out there and totally grounded at the same time...though it seems like a hell of a balancing act...

  4. Hi Yyogini,

    I have a terrible time doing a sitting practice in the morning too! We did morning sitting practice during my teacher training and I had a similar experience to yours. My body was cranky from not having done any asana practice yet which was very distracting. It felt like 30 very awkard minutes of trying to keep myself upright and not fall back asleep! I do a short sitting practice most evenings (about 10 minutes) and have found it works much better for me. Evening sitting is helpful for me to make some peace with the thoughts lingering from the day before I try to sleep.

  5. Great post, was smiling fondly at the unbrushed professors.

    My wife was terrible for getting up in the morning, she'd set the alarm for six and it would go off on snooze every ten minutes until eight. So you can imagine morning meditation was a problem. I taught her the ten minute version of the Vinyasa Krama tadasana sequence ( basically a bunch of standing stretches, it's on my VK blog ) she does that, a couple of sury's and paschimottanasana then, after a couple of minutes kapalabhati ( that panting/snorting pranayama, also on the VK blog ) she settles down for thirty to forty minutes Vipassana. It seems to work, she's able to begin waking up through the stretching and start to focus on her breathing. The whole thing takes her an hour and she feels better for it ( she has a VERY stressfull job). If you skip the sury's you might not feel the urge to do a full practice.

    Me, on a work day, I do a couple of hours asana, twenty minutes pranayama and then ten minutes mantra meditation. I was given a Shiva mantra but gave that up after the tsunami and now go with the 2nd yoga sutra. I see meditation now as just a concentration exercise, the mantra keeps it very simple.

    Sorry long comment but one more thing Supposedly Krishnamacharya said that asana and pranayama without meditation was like cleaning a room but then not using it : )

  6. Great Post Y. Grimmly's last sentence nails it. I'm glad he wrote "one more thing". I think 15 minutes of sitting through whatever happens without bailing out is quite respectable. Claiming those 15 minutes as non-negotiable is a great foundation for a practice.

  7. @Dr. Jay SW: I wonder if the "meditation gone wrong" cases happen to people with chemical / neural imbalance in the first case, or if they are super keen over-achievers who practiced way harder than most average meditators.

    @Christine: glad to know I'm not the only one who prefers night meditations!

    @Grimmly: Awesome advice as always. I always appreciate your experience and wise suggestions. Will try it out when I get the chance. Thanks!

    @Serene: I agree with you on Grimmly's last point. I wonder if meditation of non-yogis differ from yogi meditations though, as I imagine the former to be much harder.

  8. Hey, another suggestion is ACEM meditation. I've tried it and quite liked it. They recommend 30 min morning and evening. Though I think the idea is that one has to take a course to get started. Worked brilliantly for me when I was preparing for my first Arabic exams, cleared my mind and helped me concentrate. Good luck!

  9. Hi Pakistaniashtangi, if it helps with your exams I'm definite interested in trying it out, thanks!(I think my brain's in permanent student mode)