The Perfect Time to MeditateBy
You know that first instant that you know you’re awake in the morning? The moment you realize where you are, and that you are awake? This may, for some, be a disappointing moment, depending on what you were dreaming about a moment before. Sometimes there is the impulse to return to the dream, to follow the path, eat the food, kiss the person, or find out what happens around the next corner (and, I confess, I am one of those people who can re-enter their dreams in that way.)
Sometimes at that instant of realization of “awareness” (or maybe of being in “this world” and not “that one”), the mind wants to start spinning and chewing and contemplating the world into which you just woken up. Sometimes this “revving up” of the mind – even while the body is dead tired – is the sign that you are irrevocably awake and will not be going back to sleep. People who have insomnia can attest to this.
That moment, the instant of recognition of this version of reality – coupled with that mind’s desire to start chewing on something – that, for me, is the ideal moment in which I like to meditate. I think the conditions are so ripe that it’s the “perfect storm”, if you will.
When I do this, I will usually stay lying in bed to take advantage of that luxuriant desire to return to the dream and the natural relaxation in the body. (Although one of the first techniques I will do will be noticing and cultivating relaxation in the body and, depending on the dream, I will often find opportunities to relax the shoulders and head more down into gravity and the pillow. I encourage you to check and see if there is something you can let go of as soon as you’re awake enough to know you have a body – you may be surprised at what you find.) But the body is mostly released – it’s been asleep – and the momentum of the sleeping state is something that I do want to capitalize on.
I’m also taking advantage of the mind’s impulse to start something, to chew on something …and I merely re-direct that impulse or energy – the way you simply offer a new toy to a 2-year old instead of trying to pry the coveted one out of her fingers. I’m simply taking advantage of the perfect set-up and momentum of conditions, like a surfer. You can get knocked down by the wave or you can ride it.
Another reason that I stay lying in bed, is because the moment I get up, I lose that “soft clay” of sleep – and I do believe that meditating through transitions is where we do most of our brain rewiring. So I will make sure my body is in an absolutely straight corpse pose, and I will begin a technique of separating “See, Here and Feel” (or visual, auditory and somatic experience.) By “separating” I mean that I will tune into each component individually.
I start, as I already mentioned, with making sure the body is totally relaxed down onto the bed, then I quickly scan the body for evident sensations, which, at this point, are almost always a world of vibration. Nothing has solidified yet. No movement has been needed to engage muscles – or the part of the brain that must engage with physical activity. I take advantage of that. I may or may not “label” (i.e. repeat a word, like a mantra, that describes what I’m tuning into, like “Feel Flow … Feel Flow” or just “Feel … Feel … Feel.”)
Then I quickly move my awareness to my visual experience. When I worked on the Harvard Medical School brain study, I got to see the different parts of the brain that light up when we focus on See or Hear or Feel. Each sensory modality activates a totally different part of the brain – and that image (of those different illuminated parts of the brain) always flashes in my mind when I focus on visual restful states, knowing that by doing so, I’m helping to “unplug” the chatting mind. I’m simply allocating a majority of my awareness to a different part of the brain, leaving very little awareness available to “chew on” my to-do list for the day. When I focus visually, I will tend to park in the patches of lighter and darker areas that are naturally present – letting images (or pieces of images) created by the thought process just be a part of the movement and flow that is always present, in my experience anyway. This way, I’m focusing on what is actually present and not something that is created by the mind. I’m not “feeding” the mind, I’m not offering food for it to chew on – on the contrary, I’m offering a place for it to rest.
So then, and all this, so far, takes less than 30 seconds, I am living in a world of “See/Feel Flow” and the impulse for the brain to latch on to something was directed to staying focused on this world. The desire to plan, review, rehearse or judge has dissolved almost as it was arising. And if there is still a remnant, or an ambitious or stubborn wave of verbal thinking that wants to hold on, grip or propel itself forward, I simply turn my awareness to what I actually Hear in that moment – which, for me, is always ringing in the ears.
I’ve had tinnitus since I started paying attention and was only aware that others didn’t when I attended my first meditation retreat (which was with Shinzen Young, whose system of “See, Hear, Feel” I am employing.) I listened to people complain about the ringing in their ears and it had never previously occurred to me that it was a problem. In fact, having lived in NYC or LA for the past 35 years, the sounds of the city around me have always been an issue or obstacle for sleeping – also because I am a wildly light sleeper (as every man with whom I’ve ever been in a relationship can attest.)
But when I started wearing earplugs to sleep (and yes, it took me a long time of trial and error to find the most comfortable and effective pair for me), that’s when I realized the real advantage of tinnitus – Ah, it was a built in white-noise machine! I found that ringing in my ears (and mine is actually a chord of about 3-6 different notes and textures) to be a place where I could rest – and also rest in “Flow” or movement – like listening to a smooth stream. Add the advantage that the same part of the brain attends to all auditory experience – to the external noises as well as to the chatting mind in the head. So I can “replace” the internal talk with a smooth, soothing friend – they share the same channel, I’m just shifting the programming. (And for those who do not having ringing in the ears, shifting to any external sound can “unplug” the auditory thinking habit – and if it’s a continuously moving sound like air-conditioning, for example, it can serve the exact same purpose.)
So far, everything I’ve described happens within about 45 seconds – or less. Then, I lay on my bed in this world between worlds. My nervous system hasn’t been jolted by an alarm or running to do something, and I’m setting a nice habit for the day.
Now, whenever I tell someone that I like to meditate the instant I realize I’m awake – without getting up – the first question I get is, “But don’t you fall back asleep??!” Well, first of all, I usually only do this on mornings when I have no alarm and have gotten enough sleep – so that takes care of that, for the most part. And then, an honest answer would be,”Yes, sometimes I do.” But if I do fall back asleep, it will be while meditating and not for long, and then – and this is the totally cool part – I am still meditating as I wake up or even as I go in and out of sleep. (And for those who suffer from insomnia, you can actually use this technique to go back to sleep. The only adjustment would be to simply “let go” as awareness “unplugs” from the thinking mind and focus more on the relaxation in the body – letting it “pull you in” – rather than employing a technique where you are keeping track of modalities or labeling. I will go into more details on how to do this in an upcoming post.)
I feel that, when I meditate upon waking, I am rewiring my brain and my “habit”, or default, to automatically “untangle” the thought/feeling process of “problem” as it arises by separating it into restful, flowing components. So I’m getting a lot of bang for the buck. Even if I only end up meditating for 5-10 minutes (although it’s usually at least 30), I have applied this “detangling” and “redirecting” at a key moment – when, as I like to say, “the clay is soft.” (I’m very big into brain re-wiring as you’ve probably already noticed.)
So, yes, the moment we know we are awake is, for me, the perfect time to meditate. I do extend this throughout my day by noticing, valuing, and taking advantage of transitions. Any time between activities, or between an activity and non-activity, is another occurrence of this ideal scenario. I’m not pulling myself away from anything to meditate, I’m allowing the transition to be a wave I ride with mindfulness.
And the ultimate transition will always be the transition from conscious to unconscious – and from unconscious to conscious – and I get both in that sleepy morning time. What a fabulous re-wiring that always affects my day and has, actually, affected my life. And it’s really simply taking advantage of conditions – taking a disadvantage and making it an opportunity. Although, I must say that every moment of our lives is an opportunity to practice mindfulness – both to reduce suffering but also to take advantage of the richness that is present (and that would otherwise go unnoticed and unappreciated.)
So here’s to starting the day by being willing to “un-start” and start again, employing mindful awareness as the rudder to direct us into the present moment with grace. Give it a try and see if you notice any “re-wiring” – and then, please feel free to share your experience here.