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A few weeks ago I did a talk on meditation for Wine, Cheese & Wisdom. Afterward I was chatting with one of the participants and he mentioned that he usually meditated daily but often his effort was reduced to staring at his drum. He joked that sometimes he came up with some cool new riffs. He was surprised to hear me say it was a successful meditation–both due to his connecting with his creativity and for another reason. Simply sitting for meditation, even if your process feels entirely worthless, brings about some of the effects of successful meditation. Building routine or discipline is part of it, but there’s something beyond that, something I can only describe by sharing my experience.
Even though meditation was taught in almost all the spiritual practices I studied, it wasn’t really emphasized as a daily practice until I advanced to Reiki Level 3 in 2005 and started studying ceremonial magic in 2006. Even with a dedicated mindset and good results arising from the work, it still was easy to see hard-won advances slip away quickly when my schedule caused me to miss even a few days of practice. A month’s worth of daily meditation could be interrupted by a day or two of an upset schedule, and then it would take three months to get back on track again! Six months of daily ritual work could be interrupted when I realized I needed to dedicate time to book study to get me up to speed on a new technique, and then hitting the books took place of the daily practice and again I lost my routine. Lost routines are hard to find!
Friends of mine used a meditation app called Zen Timer, later rebranded as Insight Timer. I wanted that app so badly! But I didn’t have a smartphone. Eventually, in 2013, I received a small tablet as a gift, and one of the first things I did was download Insight Timer. I started using it daily, and then when I got a smartphone, I downloaded it there as well and even paid the $5 to get the deluxe version. (The app has changed hands and is now free, but apparently with ads and in-app purchases; I have since switched to another meditation app, Zazen Meditation Timer.)
I’d been using Insight Timer for over a year when one day after my daily meditation I received a notification saying, “Congratulations! You have meditated ten consecutive days!” WHAT?!? I was shocked. It wasn’t possible that in all that time I hadn’t actually completed my practice ten days running. I dug into all the settings and inner workings of the app and found out that it tracked every meditation I did (I think it had an option to download your statistics from the app’s website). The only consolation I could think of was that sometimes I meditated with the tablet and sometimes with the phone, and they didn’t sync (an improvement that was addressed with the remodeled app). But the truth of the matter was that I was missing more meditation sessions than I realized. If I had a good run of a week or so, I often found that it made sense to take a day off when other deadlines were pressing or a busy day was looming. And so I never hit that ten-day mark. I was finally motivated to get serious.
A Reiki student of mine quipped one time that Insight Timer was peer pressure to meditate. It worked on me! I added some friends and students to my connections on the app so that I would be dutifully embarrassed if I skipped a day. I accepted a friend request from someone who had thousands of consecutive days of meditation. Every time I opened the app and saw him listed as having meditated recently or in meditation currently, I was inspired to stick to my routine. I determined that I was going to meditate every day for a month…three months…then I set my sights on meditating every day for a year without missing a day.
I had achieved more than six months of daily meditation when I took a trip to California for a Reiki training. I meditated on the train during the several day trip. I had no problem meditating in the hotel after a full day of Reiki classes and practice. Then I visited a friend before returning home. We talked until two in the morning. Then she turned in and I turned on my app and meditated. I checked my stats as I had gotten used to doing–it showed a skipped day. The cutoff was midnight! Not fair! My meditation I had just done counted toward the next calendar day. I was so disappointed. I realized I had become too attached to the app. I resolved to meditate for myself and not for the app’s gold stars (actually, yes, it rewarded you with colored stars for achieving milestones!).
I continued to use the app for the rest of the year, and I adjusted my schedule so that if I would be out late I meditated earlier in the evening (as long as I started the meditation before the clock struck midnight it counted!). But eventually I switched from relying on the tracking provided by the app and returned to an old-fashioned method I had employed in the past–I wrote down my daily meditations, prayers, and/or rituals on a wall calendar. I still enjoy filling up every day of the month, but it doesn’t stir up the emotional reliance and need for recognition that the app did. It’s just for me, no one else sees it or knows my routine.
It took nine years to develop my routine. Six years of attempting daily practice and failing. It’s been about three years since I started meditating and/or doing ritual work every day in earnest. And I won’t swear that I haven’t skipped a day in those three years–I’ve been diligent but there have been some shaky days in which the work I did hardly seemed to count. But that’s the next question–what counts and what doesn’t? Why bother if you’re not getting results, whatever that may be? If you’re looking to find the results within the period of the timer counting down, you might be disappointed. Of course, entering a meditative state, experiencing the flow of energy, the bliss of oneness, and the love in connection are all amazing experiences that drive us to the meditation cushion each day. But sometimes you’re just sitting there, staring at your drum. But does that mean you’re not getting results?
Invoking the Ineffable
One of the most important things I learned was the strange, perhaps imperceptible, and certainly hard-to-define benefit of daily meditation. I would go through long phases of feeling disconnected during my meditations. It seemed like I couldn’t properly enter a meditative state. I felt like I was just sitting there. But when I would go in to teach a Reiki class or facilitate a Reiki Share in the evening and I would lead a meditation, immediately when placing my hands in gasshô I would feel a deep stillness and connection. Then as I entered into the meditation I would sink deeply into it very quickly.
Other times I would go through a phase in which my morning practice was turned aside in favor of study, journaling, or writing. During those times when I went to a class or Reiki Share I would put my hands in gasshô and feel nothing. It was a scary experience the first time it happened. I would begin the meditation and feel no connection. Somehow sitting in the morning–even ineffectively–still made a connection that I did not feel nor was aware of, but the results of that connection were experienced clearly during practices later in the day. Likewise, failing to practice in the morning reflected the experience of no connection later in the day. Now I suppose that had I gone home and meditated again at night after the Reiki class I would have felt that connection. Maybe it takes two sessions a day to make that connection. Usui-san, the founder of Reiki Ryôhô recommends placing the hands in gasshô twice a day–every morning and every evening–and reciting the precepts.
A common occurrence I’ve had is that I will start to feel the energy of the meditation or ritual right before the usual time I do my practice each day. As an example, when I do a daily morning Reiki meditation, before I begin the meditation, while still lying in bed, I start to feel the flow of energy in anticipation of the work. And this happens even if my daily routine feels like me sitting there for the allotted time and only once of twice getting the energy to flow. A student said to me once that she couldn’t get her mind to stop for two seconds. “Great!” I exclaimed. “You only need it to stop for one.” If you sit there for your allotted time staring at the drum and only once feeling the sense of connection or stillness or whatever meditative goal you’re working towards, you might only reach that goal for one second out of the full session–usually right before the timer announces the end of the session! But that’s enough. In the past I have compared this phenomena to the symbolism of the tarot Hierophant (see this post or this post for more information).
Another thing that I’ve discovered, particularly when working with Reiki meditations such as joshin kokyu hô, is that performing daily practice is more likely to lead to spontaneous energy flow later in the day. I don’t know how this works for non-Reiki practitioners or those who meditate following the principles of other traditions, but I imagine they too find themselves suddenly shifting into that state of connection, bliss and love at odd times throughout the day.
The practice of sitting daily is not just about the discipline of routine. It does something. We might feel empty or unconnected. But we are siting daily in the promise of that connection, a promise that will be kept.