One of the frequent assumptions (sometimes explicit, but often implicit) that seems to be embedded deeply in most instructions for various forms of meditation is that the longer you carry out a particular meditation procedure, the deeper and more powerful the results are likely to be. Thus if you're trying to concentrate on a single focus, for example, after 20 minutes or 40 minutes of practice you should be more deeply concentrated than you were at the beginning. This assumption seems so widespread that I suppose this is often the case for many practitioners. My own experience generally runs contrary to this, though. I often have the most success in carrying out various meditation techniques within the first few minutes of practice, and then my mind starts to drift away from the technique more and more as time goes on. Sometimes I'm inclined to think that my mind is so addicted to verbal thinking that the longer it goes without it, the more desperate its need to generate more and more words! And/or my mind gets tired and so naturally drifts.
A few days ago I was sitting outside in the country, looking at a hillside with patches of redwood trees, the sky and the clouds, and intending to meditate. I remembered that in one style of meditation, or "non-meditation" as Dzogchen teachers prefer to call it (because, for one thing, it doesn’t fixate on an object), the advice is to do short sessions, and do them very frequently, rather than prolonged sessions, so I decided to apply his recommendation in a, to me, novel manner.
One of the things I've done for the past few years as I've gotten older is to take up crossword puzzles as a hobby. They were initially quite difficult for me but I have gotten better, and while there are moments of frustration (How dare they abuse the language like that!), doing them is generally enjoyable. Even more, I believe the idea that a hobby like crossword puzzles helps keep your mind flexible as you age is a valid idea. Crossword puzzles exercise my language capacities, as it were, often calling me to remember words that I may not have used or seen used in decades, and often thinking of unusual, but correct interpretations or implications of words. I usually do one or two crossword puzzles each day.
So the style of meditation I did was along the lines of my current understanding of Dzogchen meditation. Dzogchen meditation to me means relaxing your mind, but being attentive to the moment-by-moment experience that is occurring in the here and now in a spacious manner. Thoughts may occur, but you let them go, rather than get caught up in them, and you don’t try to make anything in particular happen. (That’s not a comprehensive or completely accurate description of the Dzogchen approach, but sufficient for this essay.)
I can recall that when I first attempted to meditate, I considered thoughts my enemy, and I still find this attitude in lots of writings on meditation (see “Thought is Bad? Enlightenment Means Not Thinking?” of March 3, 2012, http://blog.paradigm-sys.com/archives/737). I might intend to concentrate on sensing my breath, for example, but a thought would come along, which would lead to another, which would lead to another, and five or 10 minutes later I would remember that I was supposed to be concentrating on my breath! Thoughts did indeed carry me away, far away! I had failed again!
Now thoughts are not my enemy in terms of my understanding. Sometimes I become aware that verbal thoughts (talking to myself) have arisen while they're happening, and they just die down almost immediately as I remain aware, or, if they catch me up, it's only for a few thoughts in a row, and then I come back to whatever kind of meditation I am practicing. (I am especially grateful to Sogyal Rinpoche and Shinzen Young whose instruction has enormously improved my meditation ability)
So I decided that, as I sat there looking out over the hillside, I would alternate, at intervals that felt appropriate to me, between working on a crossword puzzle and simply being present, in the here and now, looking at the view, hearing the wind and the birds, feeling myself sitting in my chair, etc., whatever was happening moment-to-moment.
I was very pleased to notice how well I could rapidly and thoroughly alternate between these two kinds of activity. For a minute or two I would work on the crossword puzzle, thinking about the meanings of various words, remembering synonyms, related words, and the like, and then I would put the puzzle book down and look out over the hillside and be mostly aware of what was happening in the present time, with the thoughts relevant to the puzzle I had just been working on pretty much or completely gone. I would be fairly calm, open, and spacious. After half a minute to a minute or two of this, I would sense my verbal mind getting restless, so I would pick up the crossword puzzle book and get back into the crossword for a minute or two. While doing the crossword puzzle I would keep some attention open to the here and now of sensory perception, I wasn’t completely absorbed in the crossword puzzle, and I was somewhat mindful of what I was doing.
I don't know how useful the meditation technique like this would be for anyone else, but I'm going to continue exploring it. It seemed to satisfy my need to be simply present in the here and now, on the one hand, and the need for the intellectual parts of my mind to keep busy, to have fun with words on the other hand. My current (July 2012) understanding of the Dzogchen path is that it is essential to develop a way to be deeply present to ongoing experience, yet deal efficiently with ordinary reality things, but come back to being present, being spacious, or, if I'm using the phrase correctly, "resting in the nature of mind." Gurdjieff’s concept of being “awake” seems very similar to me.
I tried the same technique yesterday, although I was sitting in my living room rather than out in nature. Besides doing a crossword puzzle once in a while, several times I got up to do short (a minute or two) errands that needed doing. Again I was very satisfied with how readily I switched between an intellectual task like the crossword puzzle and actions and motions, keeping some spaciousness and here and nowness going in all these. Perhaps variant of this approach will also help me deal with the sleepiness that so frequently comes on me in meditation practice – get up and do something, mindfully, every few minutes!
Short sessions, frequently, keeping some mindfulness and spaciousness in between – very interesting…..