“A single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”
– Henry David Thoreau
In most areas of our life, we follow the American cultural norm that more is better. A vacation lasting 7 days is better than one lasting 3 days. Winning a $5 lottery ticket is not as good as winning the jackpot. Even in the realm of the arts, writing a haiku poem of 17 syllables does not garner as much social acclaim as publishing a novel. And in my discussions with people who are building a meditation practice, we believe that 1 hour of meditation is more beneficial than 1 minute.
However, this is not how things are valued in meditation. Meditation is about acceptance, and so if you meditate for one minute, that just is. If you meditate for one hour, that just is. There is no purpose in comparing the relative value of the two meditation sessions.
But in our culture, we are trained to evaluate nearly everything we do. We push ourselves to climb the imaginary ladder to receive the higher salary, to buy the larger home, and even to have a greater number of Instagram followers… Similarly, with meditation, many of us may push ourselves to ‘succeed’ in meditation, but there is no governing body of meditation to define success. Absent a set of defined criteria, many of us look to the duration of a session to be a concrete way to judge the value of our meditation.
The meditation app Insight Timer has a feature called “detailed charts and stats”. A user can click into it to review metrics including minutes per day, average session duration, longest session duration and several others. I believe they included these because statistics can be strong motivators for many of us to set and track towards a goal, and to challenge ourselves to do more.
However, what I found interesting is that on the main profile page, the most visible statistic displayed is number of consecutive days with at least one session of meditation. It seems that if we need a measurable statistic to keep us focused on building a practice, this would be one to pay attention to. Choosing to meditate each day of the month, even for a 1 minute session, will have greater benefit than doing a 30 day session on one day and doing nothing for the rest of the month. Returning to meditation day after day builds a habit, and that is the power of a meditation practice.
Periodically I relapse to judging the duration of my practice. When I notice that I am holding that judgment, I loosen my grip on it, and gently tell myself that at least I made the time to sit on my mat, despite the fullness of my work, family and community activities. When I consider this new thought, my jaw tends to relax, and I can take a smoother breath. My body loosens and settles to the here and now, even if just for a few moments until the next thought arrives in my mind.
So, the lesson for me has been this- whether my practice is 5 minutes or an hour, I am more present just by letting go of the thought that a longer meditation would be better. And being present is indeed the point.
When I told my mom that I was starting a podcast on Mindfulness, she, being the research librarian she is, started avidly researching the topic – online and at bookstores. She came back and told me that mindfulness is “a big trend right now”.
I agreed with her, but I reflected that there are a lot of common notions of mindfulness that I disagreed with. Here are my beliefs about mindfulness:
- Everyone can access mindfulness– you don’t have to be the Dalai Lama, a Zen master, priest, shaman, yogi, etc.
- There’s no way to “do it wrong”.
- There’s no such thing as “not doing it long enough”. Sometimes one moment of mindfulness is what we get, and that is ok.
We don’t have to be in a beautiful/tropical/quiet location in order to experience mindfulness.
We don’t have to attend a week-long silence retreat in order to experience mindfulness. An important corollary to that, we don’t have to spend large amounts of money to experience it either.
My mindfulness journey actually started not with my mind, which was usually running 100 miles a minute with thoughts, judgments, schedules, to do list items, self critiques, and also anxiety. The first experiences of mindfulness I felt were when I followed my senses.
- Tasting and savoring a bite of food on my tongue
- Listening to the sound of the ocean and letting the sound waves (pun intended!) roll over my ears
- Walking and sensing the soles of my feet on the sand
- Smelling the scent of a flower in my nostrils
These were things I experienced without planning or forethought. What I started to realize is that those sensory moments stopped me from focusing on the many other things around me – I was in the moment. And then I started to actively pursue experiences where I would use my senses for slightly more extended periods of time.
- Smelling the aromas of dinner, and feeling the salivation before taking a bite
- Breathing, and sensing the rise and fall of my belly and feeling the breath go in and out of my nose
- Focusing on one body part at a time, sensing any tingling or tension or comfort in each one
- Sensing food and water travelling through my digestive tract
The reason that I have not included “sights” in my examples, is that the sense of sight is frequently multi-tasking, and seems to me to be intricately connected to the part of our minds that is reacting, planning, and therefore can be an obstacle to experiencing mindfulness. I do believe that it is important to cultivate mindfulness sight, but it is a difficult one to start with on one’s mindfulness journey.
Through these practices, I coined a term called Sense-fullness, a state of being when one is receptive to external stimulus through the senses.
Sense-based activities can be an effective way to enter on a mindfulness journey. I am not sure why that is – maybe the senses aren’t as judgmental as the mind/brain, and so we’re able to stay connected to the moment. Maybe our senses are eager to do their thing and have us notice!
So, if you have had the thought, “I’m not doing it right”, try starting with sense-fullness activities. And remember that being connected to the sense for even one moment, is one moment more than if you didn’t start the practice. Do not critique yourself for the judgment that it’s not long enough.
Try a sense-fullness practice
Pick one of the senses: hearing, tasting, feeling, smelling. Think of an experience that will allow you to use that sense prominently, and if possible, close your eyes while you do it as it may heighten the other sense. Some examples:
- Taste – Eat a salty/spicy/sweet/sour food. Drink a beverage, like cold water or seltzer.
- Smell – Sniff aromatics like herbs, essential oils, perfume, bath soap.
- Hearing – Listen to songs a little louder than you normally would. Pay attention to natural sounds like city sounds, birds, ocean, or the ambient sounds in your environment.
- Feel – Place something textured on your skin. Your fingertips, like sight, can be a difficult place to start because they get lots of daily experiences. Try the skin on another part of your body (knees, cheeks, soles of the feet, arms, top of your hands, hips, etc)
As you are experiencing, passively notice the sensations. There is no way to experience it wrong, so remember there is no judgment your brain needs to pass. This is just the way your sense experiences its stimulus. If you try this practice, I would love to hear what you experienced. Or if there are other sense-full experiences that you have had, please share those too!
Try the Podcast: A Mindful Moment
And if you are interested in a mindfulness podcast, try A Mindful Moment. I share short and accessible mindfulness practices for those of us who are busy and can’t travel daily to an ashram to meditate. Some of the practices are as short as 3 minutes! Search for A Mindful Moment wherever you listen to podcasts, or click on the links to connect to it on your podcast platform:
And if you’re read this far, thank you!! I know it’s quite different than my typical post on this blog. At some point I may spin it off to a new location, but for now, here it is, on Accidental Perfectionist!