Last week we experimented with meditating for exactly one minute. Hopefully some of you tried it during the week as well. If so, what was your experience?
I notice that I feel much more relaxed, alert and present than I would have expected from just one minute of meditation. It made me realize that when we know we have 30 – 40 minutes we may take our sweet time getting into it, especially if we are on our own, without the introductory guidance of a teacher. In fact, meditation retreats are similar in that way. Whether we are attending a day long, a weekend retreat, a week-long or longer, there’s an arc that includes a ‘settling in’ period, a ‘sweet spot’ of varying duration, and then the either ‘eager for or dreading the end’ period. When we only have one minute we don’t have time to mess around. Experienced meditators can, if needed, drop right into that sweet spot. And that’s a sweet thing to know!
I am going to present this one minute mini-meditation to a group of non-meditators and it will be interesting to hear their experience of it. I have done this before to very positive effect. We discussed in class how parents and schools are routinely giving ‘time outs’ to children. I’d be curious to know if there is any instruction given with this time out that would make it a more beneficial meditative experience rather than simply a cooling off of raging emotional states. Instead of ‘Little Johnny seems less angry now” or “Sally seems truly sorry for what she did,” how about “Johnny and Sally seem more able to interact with the other children without resorting to violence, and they are paying more attention in class. They seem more grounded and happy.”
Even a minute of meditation helps us to be more present, relaxed and alert, like tuning a violin when it gets off key. Maybe we were a little out of tune with the moment — all tensed up, too tightly strung, or too loosely strung, tired and unable to focus, and now, after the minute of inward focus, we feel more in tune.
‘Taking a minute’ has always been an acceptable coping skill. Watching my granddaughter, I see that it is an inborn skill. When she first started becoming mobile she naturally found herself in awkward physical situations that were new for her. She would pause in place and become very still. She seemed to be sensing in to these new sensations for a bit before deciding how to proceed. She still needs a minute now and again just to transition and regroup, as do we all, whether we realize it or not.
As regular meditators, doing this tuning-in minute at any time during the day when it feels necessary serves to weave our meditation practice fully into the fabric of our lives so that we aren’t deluded into thinking that meditation is some isolated event in our day that we can forget about when we stop and return to habituated behaviors.
It can also aid our understanding of meditation, reminding us to be present, aware, not lost in dreamy fantasy. When a group of meditators sit in a circle in silence there are many different ways to experience meditation. Here is a poem I wrote about eleven years ago that illustrates the variety of experience meditators have, one from the other but also within any given meditation.
The Running Child Meditation
In the foyer of the meditation hall
a small child runs back & forth
back and forth, feet plopping & rising
& pausing & turning again.
Inside the sitting room a meditator
feels irritation rising up within her.
“What could that parent be thinking?
Why don’t they take that child outside?”
Another meditator is drawn
into a memory of her own children, now grown,
and the sweetness of the footfalls in the foyer.
Another notes in awe the boundless energy
of youth and feels her own lethargy.
“I am old,” she sighs.
Yet another is caught in the aching emptiness
of the old dream of the child she never had.
She hadn’t expected it to find her here
and feels a victim of its intrusion.
Another doesn’t notice the sound very much,
so loud are her own thoughts, planning, planning.
Another doesn’t hear the sound at all.
She is almost asleep in a fog and nodding,
catching her head each time it drops.
Another hears the sound as simple sound,
unattached to any image –
a rhythmic cadence, soft and round.
Another composes a poem in her head, titled
The Running Child Meditation.
And all of these meditators are me.
– Stephanie Noble, Spirit Rock, 2000
So the one minute attunement puts us in an instant state of being present with our experience. We don’t have time to settle in, to finish our thoughts or lollygag. I am reminded of Margaret Atwood telling our poetry class at UC Berkeley many years ago that when she was single she had all sorts of time-wasting rituals she would do before writing, including sharpening all her pencils to perfect points. Then she had a baby, and suddenly she had to decide between these rituals or really writing. So she just got right to the writing whenever the opportunity arose because there was no time for messing around. That has stayed with me and helps remind me to cut to the chase of whatever I am doing.
In our Vipassana or Insight meditation practice we have our intention to be present and to be compassionate to keep us anchored into our physical senses. We focus on one sensation such as the breath or we rest in an open field of awareness to receive and be present with whatever sensations arise and fall away. We may alternate between a concentrated focus and an open receptive awareness.
Meditators from different traditions have other ways of focusing such as inner mantras (sacred word silently repeated) or chanting. All forms have the ability to bring us fully present into a state of heightened awareness.
Daily meditation practice when anchored in intention has the potential to keep us present during our day. But if we think of meditation as separate from our ‘real’ lives, then we check it off our to-do list, or chalk it off as a pleasant respite and forget about it. This happens even after extended retreats where we have had amazing experiences and insights. We want it to last but most of us toss ourselves right back into the bubbling cauldron of daily life where our habitual patterns take hold pretty darn quick. We are advised to think of the last day of a retreat as the middle day, and to take as many days to gently reintroduce ourselves into our lives as we spent on retreat. For longer retreats the recommendation is for a day for each week of the retreat. But really, it’s an opportune time to reevaluate how much of our habitual lives we must reclaim? Do we really want to watch television instead of the sunset and the stars? Do we really need to tell everyone everything all the time? This transition out of retreat can be a sweet time of rich noticing and clear choosing, if we take the time to allow for that.
The addition of this minute attunement could serve to remind us that meditation is a practice to bring awareness into every moment of our lives.
Now some of us might wonder if this one minute tuning in is all we need. Maybe we don’t need a sitting practice at all. Each of us would have to answer that for ourselves. Immediately after a one minute attunement we might feel the wonderful relaxation and centeredness we feel after a longer sitting practice. But how long do we feel that way? How often do we have to have these minutes in order to feel the sense of connection, aliveness and joy we experience with a regular daily practice? This would be an interesting experiment for those who want to try it.
I know from many decades of personal experience that daily practice replenishes my sense of connection and going on a long retreat deepens that sense immeasurably. It has truly transformed my default life view. I realized this recently when I came upon a collection of poems I wrote in my 20’s. I am struck by their dark, defeatist and sometimes suicidal sounding bent. Anyone who knows me now might be very surprised to hear that. Was I really like that? Yes! I remember being in a state of discontent most of the time. My feathers were easily ruffled, my feelings easily hurt, and my hopes easily dashed.
Now the causes and conditions of my life have not changed substantially since I wrote those poems. I am still married to the same man, still live in the same county. But Will and I are both much happier than we were back then. He has mellowed through the daily practice of Chi Gung and Tai Chi, and I have mellowed through meditation. In the first decade of our marriage we often waded deep into muddy misunderstandings and got stuck in our positions of opposition. At one point it even looked like there was no sense in going on and we talked about breaking up. Today we are truly happily married and we are kinder people than we were back then. Our mindfulness practices have made a huge difference in both our lives.
So the minute of attunement is a wonderful way to shift energy, to put the pause button on the rapid-fire life we are living, and thus is of great benefit and a great addition to our meditation toolbox of techniques. But just as a pit stop is not the same as a full service for a car, meditation is more than just a sense of relaxed centeredness. The pit stop makes it possible to go on in the short run, but in the long run a car needs more than new tires, and we need more than a minute to come to a deeper sense of connection that leads to inquiry, reflection, insight and awakening.