How I "meditate"
On cherishing every breath
A reader asked me recently: “I had some luck with pretty regular mindfulness sessions back a few years ago but fell off of doing it. Have you written up your typical process anywhere? How you get it into your routine?”"
Today I thought I would write about this. Over the decades I had many fits and starts with meditation but it wasn’t until the last few years that things started to fit together. I’m going to go into a lot of detail. It might be too in the weeds but I write in in the hope it’s helpful to some of you :)
I’ll first describe some of my meditation influences, then I’ll describe the state I’m trying to attain with meditation, and finally details on what I do every day. Feel free to skip around to whatever is most interesting to you.
SOME OF MY INFLUENCES
I first learned about meditation when I was a teenager. I’d try to find 15 to 30 minutes each day to sit and “meditate.” Meditation meant closed eyes, sitting cross-legged or on a chair, focused on the breath or a mantra. After completing this allotted time, I considered myself “done for the day.” If I didn’t have 15 or 30 minutes I would “skip” those days. This was what I considered meditation until just a few years ago.
I gloss over these decades quickly but in reality my practice waxed and waned over the years. Some months after a particularly meaningful event or reading, I would be very mindful and focused. Then I would tail off and I’d go for months without meditating at all.
Some of my main influences over these decades broadly fall into the categories below:
Siddha Yoga - my first introduction to meditation was from a friend whose mother was really interested in Siddha Yoga. I went to a few ashrams and would read its publications. It taught me a mantra in my late teens that I still use to this day (“om namah shivaya”). I absorbed this mostly as a moody teenager - the moodiness which I retained for another few decades.
Japan - another set of formative experiences for me was going to Japan as a teenager and spending time in Kyoto. The beauty and serenity of Japan’s temples was mind-altering and life-changing. I’ve been lucky enough to Kyoto and Nara a few times and each time is centering.
Richard Bach, Paulo Coelho & New Age books: My 20s were shaped by the broad category of “new age books” which I describe generally as “there is more to life than the materialist world you see around you.” I read a lot of these books while traveling around the world and these ideas combined with the serendipity of meeting strangers in hostels made me much more interested in mysticism/religion than before. Overall, I remained moody.
Sufism: At some point I happened upon Sufism. I was really impacted by this book by Hazrat Inayat Khan. This pushed me further towards mysticism, however, I still related to these ideas at an intellectual level and not as lived experience. Even after being exposed to all of these concepts I was often grumpy and uncentered.
Tibetan Book of Living & Dying: At the recommendation of an old friend I picked up this book on Tibetan Buddhism. It completely changed my life. While reading this book in a coffee shop one day I entered a state of altered consciousness and that moment suddenly filled me with extreme happiness and present awareness. This lasted for many months but eventually faded back to normal.
Vipassana: In my mid-20s, also at this friends’ recommendation, I traveled to India and did a 10 day silent meditation retreat. Known as “vipassana” or insight meditation, I meditated for 10 hours each day for about 10 days without talking, reading, writing or consuming any media. Throughout this process I entered the same state as when I read the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Eventually this state also faded since I felt I had to “meditate 2 hours a day” to retain the state and inevitably failed to find the time.
“We’re all doing time”: This book talks about the benefits of meditation for prisoners. I found it in my early 30s and it introduced me to the power of pranayama, prayer, yoga and chakras. I didn’t really incorporate these things into my life until the last few years but it sowed the seeds.
For years I had been circling various forms of mindfulness without fully applying it in my daily life. This started to change these last few years when I rekindled my interest in Zen buddhism through the work of Thich Nhat Hanh. His focus on mindful eating, mindful walking and mindful living was a huge unlock for me since it moved me from “meditating on a cushion” into pursuing it mindfulness all day long… Let’s talk about this.
There is this concept in Buddhism called “right mindfulness” - this is essentially what I’m trying to achieve every day. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes in “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching” (edited slightly):
According to Buddhist psychology the trait "attention” is "universal," which means we are always giving our attention to something. Our attention may be "appropriate", as when we dwell fully in the present moment, or inappropriate , as when we are attentive to something that takes us away from being here and now. A good gardener knows the way to grow flowers from compost. Right Mindfulness accepts everything without judging or reacting. It is inclusive and loving. The practice is to find ways to sustain appropriate attention throughout the day.
More than anything meditation for me is now a tool to calm my mind and then attain this right mindfulness. Sitting meditation is just one of the ways among many others: mindful eating, mindful walking, dream yoga and other paths are all ways of getting to the same place. I’ll describe what this looks like for me every day but first, how do I know I’ve attained this right mindfulness?
Over the years I’ve found a number signs to help me know that I’m centered. They sound very woo-woo as I write them out, but it’s important to say that these aren’t intellectual concepts to me – they are physical sensations and experiences. Here are a few of my signs:
I can focus on 10 slow breaths with eyes open without losing focus on the breath (this is harder than it sounds)
I can “feel” chakras. Many people probably are thinking this is crazy since chakras aren’t really a thing for many people - but they are very real. When I’m centered I literally feel energy in my “third eye chakra” on my forehead and also the “crown chakra” at the top of my head. There’s a reason this idea has been around for thousands of years…
I don’t lose my temper even if something bad happens or someone is mean to me; I can pause after something upsetting happens, recognize the feeling, feel it in my body and then express compassion instead (this all happens in less than half a breath).
I can truly enjoy a walk - I really see the birds, feel the wind, hear the sounds of the trees rustling and take pleasure in it; it feels like I’m high but it’s just pure breathing.
I am not trying to rush anywhere - if I want to breathe for a minute I can do that without needing to open my phone or do anything else.
These are just a few examples of how I know I have “right mindfulness.” The byproduct of this is that I’m then able to enter what I described in my post on “Taming the Elephant”:
Christian mystics called it “a life of continuous prayer” and it turns out that you can find similar references to it in mystics from every religion for thousands of years. It’s achievable for everyone and there are specific techniques handed down… to help one do so…
It’s this insight that I didn’t really understand [before]. I was so focused on “meditation” as this thing which I did and did not do, that I missed the key insight. Mindfulness is a practice that can be done always. The breath is the main tool (it’s with you always, is connected to your body, and more) but it’s just one of many - “dharma gates are boundless.” Putting away dishes, washing your hands, eating, talking, walking, making coffee… these are all opportunities for being present and truly seeing life.
HOW DO I “MEDITATE” ON AN AVERAGE DAY
So “right mindfulness” is the state I am trying to attain with my meditation. In the ideal I am mindful all day, conscious of my breathing and not being taken over by my thoughts. Below I’m going to explain what this looks like in practice during a typical weekday. I’ve never fully written this out before so apologies if this is too detailed…
The day starts with my morning routine (I wrote a bit more about it’s importance here):
First, I wake up and before even getting out of bed I focus on my breath and set the intention to try to cherish every breath. Literally the first few breaths in bed I’m trying to center and be grateful for another day of life.
I then write down my dreams (this is connected to lucid dreaming which I’ll write about more in the future). I find writing my dreams helps me improve my “dream recall” and then I am able to have deeper sleep experiences.
I then take a cold shower. I’ve been doing this for about 8 years now since I find it’s a helpful way of “washing off my dreams” - as I shower I try to appreciate every single thing I’m doing: I’m grateful for my health, my body, having a home, cold water... (Yes, this sounds bananas but I actually do it and I really enjoy this practice. Warm showers don’t really wake me up.)
I then run through my toilette - it’s always the exact same set of actions. As I’m doing every action I try to center as much as possible and notice how my mind is this morning: Am I centered? What am I thinking about? I try to notice if I’m in a bad mood or if I’m equanimous. Every day my mind is different. If I’m more frazzled I make a mental note of this since I’m likely to be more irritated by things later in the day.
I then do about 5 minutes of stretching. I try to focus on each breath while doing so. Stretching helps me avoid getting injured (before starting this practice I was getting hurt more often) so it also has functional benefits.
I then do my sitting meditation (what I previously limited to “meditation”) (side note: everything up to here was also basically meditation-like):
If I’m tired I’ll first try to do pranayama to wake up - 3-5 minutes of deep breathing really center me and prepare me for meditation.
I sit on a meditation cushion and for 5 minutes run through a memory palace with prayers and things I want to remember. This entails remembering about fifty things I think are important. (I’ll write more about using memory palaces for prayer at some future point).
I then open my eyes and do 5 minutes of open eyed meditation. Open eyed meditation is really powerful and I find that this helps me become centered way faster than eyes-closed meditation. This is similar to Zazen in Zen Buddhism. It’s similar to eyes-closed meditation, but instead of closing my eyes, I find a point in front of me and try to focus on it while breathing and counting up to 10 without losing focus.
A note on timing: I find it’s important I do seated meditation before anything else each day (I try to finish all of this by 6:30am). If I have to be at work early, I’ll move my alarm even earlier so I have the time. Going out without meditating is a bit like going out of the room smelly - yes, I could do it but probably unwise. If I really don’t have time or I miss my alarm, I’ll squeeze into 5 minutes. I find even 5 minutes makes a big difference.
If I have more time before 6:30am I will extend my meditation - so sometimes I meditate for 15-30 minutes.
I then go downstairs and as I walk I try to focus on each step and breath (“walking meditation”). I then extend this state of mind into cleaning and making breakfast - every dish I put away I try to do in a centered way. Thich Nhat Hanh describes doing the dishes mindfully like treating every dish as a “baby buddha.”
I then practice mindful eating: before eating I am grateful for all of my food, family and health and then try to eat every bite mindfully (with greater or lesser success depending on the day). I really have grown used to pausing for gratitude before eating to a degree that I find it really odd when people don’t pause to acknowledge the wonder of the food they’re about to eat.
I then leave for work. I try to “drive mindfully” - often this involves turning off music or podcasts and just focusing on the breath and scenery while driving. It feels less “productive” but it provides another 10-20 minutes of mindfulness practice.
I then get on a bus to work and do another 15+ minutes of sitting meditation (often eyes closed).
Then I arrive at work. It’s now around 8am and I’ve been focusing or doing some form of mindfulness for a few hours. My work day is mostly sitting in conference rooms, going to meetings and going through emails. The main ways that I try to stay mindful throughout the day are mindfulness breaks:
Larger mindfulness breaks: When I have time between work I try to do something centering. Either mindful eating for lunch, mindful walking outside or some form of meditation.
Smaller mindfulness breaks: Between meetings and while in a meeting I try to do small breaks (e.g., 10 breaths while waiting in line to get food, a couple mindful breaths while listening to someone speak, mindful walking while going between conference rooms).
These large and small moments help ground me and avoid forgetting.
Once work is done I commute back and try to recenter with meditation and mindful driving. It’s way harder to do in the evening than the morning since I’m much more tired and my mind is active with everyone that happened at work.
Once I’m home I try to put down my phone right away. I focus on eating dinner mindfully, talking and playing with my family and then doing hobbies I find centering: playing piano, painting, and reading non-work books all are sources of joy.
I also make it a point to always reflect on the day with my journal (even 1-3 minutes).
I also always need to do various house tasks like laundry and putting the kids to bed. A few years ago I would have my phone in my hand while I did these things. I now put away my phone and try to just focus on each action. Over the past few years I’ve gone from dreading doing laundry every night to enjoying it as one of my favorite activities (see Monotasking post).
At the end of the night before bed I’ll finally also try to meditate until I’m drowsy. I’d say I do this about 50% of the nights since I’m often already exhausted by the time I’m in my bedroom. When I can do it though, I find it centers my dreams and increases the likelihood of lucidity.
One final note is that this is a weekday schedule: during the weekend I’m able to do a lot more practices since I can basically extend the routines throughout the full day without meetings or emails in between in quasi-Sabbaths. (see Mental Time Zones.)
Another final note is that I also consider what I eat and exercise an extension of mindfulness since if I don’t exercise or eat healthy food I can notice my mind becoming more agitated and it makes it much harder to center over time. (Not drinking alcohol has also really helped for instance.)
Okay. That’s a lot. But one thing I didn’t mention are the things I try not to do in order to have time and space for all of the above:
My phone is not in my room. I do not check my phone in the mornings. My phone is really far away and I try to check it at the last minute I can in the mornings. This is usually it’s about 1-2 hours after waking.
I also try to remove from my phone any social media apps I find myself compelled to use (for me that’s mostly Twitter). This helps me not fall into the habit of just opening my phone when I’m bored throughout the day but instead have space for mindfulness.
At night after a certain time (which varies depending on how busy work is) I put my phone in airplane mode and put it far away. Distance is the best way of not using it. Obviously if you really need it for work I might change this but most days aren’t that.
And so that’s “how I meditate” each day.
If you’re wondering where to start, I’d recommend just choosing one thing each day to be more mindful of and then slowly extend outward. Maybe it’s a few minutes meditation before leaving your bedroom or opening your phone. Maybe it’s washing dishes or doing laundry while not doing anything else. Maybe it’s just eating mindfully. All day there are opportunities for you to grow your awareness. If this also includes sitting meditation, fantastic.
Hopefully that’s helpful. These practices have helped me become much more equanimous than even a few years ago. I’ve found mindfulness spills over into every facet of my life and the returns are compounding: I’m also more patient with my kids, more present at work and overall just happier.
When I write “may you enjoy every breath” this is why I say that. I really do believe you can get to a state where that is possible. Every breath can be centering and can connect you to the wonder of the present moment.
Mori Point - Pacifica, CA