Meditation is like going out on a brief date with yourself.
I may be dating myself, but, when I think about going on a date with someone–either someone new or someone I’ve come to know and love–I guess I would look in the mirror, and then choose to take a little time to get ready—
What about you? Do you, just, come as you are and knock on the door?
Maybe you’ll take a shower. Maybe, saving water, you’ll sniff an armpit, seems okay, and go with changing your shirt. If you’re a guy, you may decide your three-day shadow of a beard is looking a little less like a rock star, a bit more scruffy than you intend, and give it a trim. You’ll put on some of that stuff you bought because you liked the smell of it when you scratched-and-sniffed that page in the last issue of GQ. You’ll brush your teeth. As you head out the door, you’ll give some thought to the first thing you plan to say–
Same thing with meditation. You don’t just come as you are. I mean, meditation will take you as you are, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare. You may get a little further on this date, if you prepare–
Take a look around your room. Maybe you should turn off a few lights. Put your phone on airplane mode. You can still use it as a timer. Tidy up some of the paper trash on the floor. Pick up dirty clothes and put them where they are supposed to go. Pull down the shade if the city daylight intrudes too much.
Pick your sitting place. Couple of pillows on the floor? Nice. Which way should they point? Do pillows point? Hmmm, how about the edge of the sofa? Knees just about the right height? Sweet.
Do you really need that music? Maybe there are too many words. Okay, you say you do need some music today. How about something classic, or neutral, or neural–something that slides into where you are but doesn’t leave a mark?
You need a timer. The one on your phone. Otherwise, you may sit too long and fall asleep, topple against the edge of the coffee table and hurt yourself. Or, you may worry about time and keep thinking oh man twenty minutes is like an ETERNITY! How will I ever know when it’s up?!
Then there’s that posture thing. It’s hard enough walking around for fourteen hours a day and holding yourself out there for others to see–isn’t this private time? No one is watching. Isn’t it okay to slump? I mean, sunflowers do it. Their heads get tired!
But, see, if you slump too much, you are sending an implicit message to your brain: “You don’t matter enough to deserve some unstructured top-of-the-spine time.” Or, “You have tired me out so much lately that I am just going to hold you in an at-the-point-of-keeling-over impossible angle.”
You are sending another implicit message, to your spine: “I’ve given up on you. Yeah, you can hang there all wrinkled like an old coat on a hanger in my closet back home, but, you know, I’m probably not going to need you again.”
The reason that meditation teachers talk about posture is that, well, they have always talked about posture since those first sanyasis wandered around the lower Himalayas looking for a nice place to sit. It is only today that neuroscience is beginning to map and measure the spiralling energies within the complex structure of nerve, bone, tunnel, sheathe, gel pack, and muscle back there. You help that structure do all the unconscious and semi-conscious work it does, by trying to keep it erect–if, physically, you can.
Years ago, Lisa, our Teaching Assistant, raised her hand in class. “Peter, can’t I just do everything I already do, like, mindfully, and so, I don’t really have to dedicate twenty daily minutes to meditation. I can, just, wash the dishes mindfully, or….”
Of course you can do that. You should. Doing anything mindfully is a real plus. You won’t spill that milk, or drop that plate, or send that nasty email to the wrong person.
But, isn’t there a lot of ego and time management involved in this question? You’re thinking, hey, if I both meditate and wash dishes at the same time, I’ve just saved twenty minutes! Yeah!
But, if you have twenty minutes worth of dishes piled in your sink, you have probably been living in a place whose feng shui has been fallujah-ed. Not good.
And, if you are trying to save time by deliberately not dedicating twenty precious minutes to meditation, you may want to do a cost-benefit analysis of this decision. If these twenty minutes didn’t make better businessfolks and better soldiers, then MBA programs and the U.S. Armed Forces wouldn’t be hiring teachers like me.
And, if you honestly think you have saved twenty minutes, what are you going to invest those twenty minutes in? Twenty minutes more of checking in with the material or online world? Twenty minutes more progress toward your next goal?
Sitting meditation is a speed date with yourself. You may want to make this event regular and enjoyable. You want to make a good impression. Be honest, be a good listener, as you are going to be spending your whole life with this person. We’re not talking about a brief fling.
And speaking of that self, I know of no better way, than meditation, for you to check in with your continuing process of figuring out who you are, checking in with a false or outdated self-conception, and, for the last time, letting it go. Mark that one down on your calendar. You’ll want to remember this date. This speed date.
This is a date with benefits, too. You will sleep with this person. Ten years from now, if you wake up in a cold sweat from a nightmare, that person will be right there to comfort you. They’ll know you intimately, emotionally, and that will be a great reassurance. Believe me; it happened to me last night. (Fortunately, my speed dating with myself has never upset my partner, my wife.)
Another benefit you can look forward to: I am definitely less reactive now that I meditate regularly. I don’t mean I just stand there and watch dumbly, or sagely, as grandma’s vase topples off the table. No, I’m there in plenty of time to catch it before it shatters on the floor. But that is not my mind at work. It’s my brain stem and a couple of nerves and muscles that learned to react quickly, sub-cortically, when I first climbed down out of the trees and realized I could use my hands for something other than just holding on.
I mean, my mind is less reactive. My emotions. My desires for satisfaction or revenge. My judgment regarding the hundreds of events, expected and unexpected, that make up my day. My potentially quick unmindful response to something someone says. I honestly believe that a sitting meditative practice makes you a better listener and observer, a person who takes a moment to breathe, to think, before responding in any way. There: I’ve just told you: the best mindfulness practice takes about one second of your time.