further proof that less is more

We can all agree that I already spend a dangerous amount of time living in my own head. For proof of this, read every other post I’ve ever written. So my decision to systematically and consistently devote even more time to the space between my ears should probably trigger alarm bells.

For years I’ve sporadically tried to achieve some degree of enlightenment by meditating. But, kind of like running (up until last year), it never stuck.

Most of my earlier failed attempts arose out of guidance delivered by Buddhist monks in various books on the subject. To the extent that they delivered “instructions” on how to meditate, they focused much more on the broader spiritual context within which meditation traditionally occurs than the actual ins and outs of how to do it.

My other notable unsuccessful meditation effort occurred at a local Buddhist center that I went to for maybe a month about a decade ago. The people there were lovely, but the particular meditation methodology seemed just as dogmatic as the Christian services I had rejected in my youth. To me, the wonderful thing (in theory) about Buddhism was the absence of dogma, of rigid structure, and the reliance on individual experience to verify the nature of what is “real.”

But the most unnerving part of this group experience was the amount of time we meditated about (worshipped?) the lineage master for this particular center who – I’m embarrassed to say – was one of the strangest looking men I’ve ever laid eyes on. (His picture appeared on the front of all of his books.) Every time we went through the various steps of referencing him during the weekly meetings, my brain would revolt because I couldn’t conceive of someone who looked that goofy leading anything, much less a flock of (seemingly) intelligent human followers. I clearly wasn’t evolved enough yet, spiritually speaking.

As a result, I’ve spent the last decade or so generally aware of what meditation is but having no discipline or ability to actually do it. It’s therefore ironic that after a decade of also having no discipline or ability to run long distances on a regular basis, the avenue to meditation reopened to me last month. After completing the San Diego Triathlon Challenge in October, I found myself unable to run as a result of a foot injury I sustained the week before the race. All of a sudden, my early mornings no longer included 30-60 minutes of physical activity. Looking to fill the void, I searched amazon.com for basic “how-to” books on meditation, hoping I’d stumble across a text that did a better job of explaining it than what I’d found over the previous 10-15 years.

It was the “bonus teaser” that snagged me. As I read quickly through it on my Kindle, I realized that I had found a book about meditation that was decidedly secular in its language and approach. But the author was a former Buddhist monk. Since I’m a secular Buddhist (if that’s possible), this seemed like a good sign.

The second reason that I rushed towards the teaser like a moth to light was the author’s name: Andy Puddicombe. Puddicombe? At first I wondered whether this was a nom de plume, as it seemed so impossibly English that I half expected Winnie the Pooh and Tigger illustrations to adorn the book’s pages. But then I realized that no one would make up a name like that. It reminded me of Stephen Colbert’s Election Night coverage lamenting Barack Obama’s win:

You could’ve gone with that nice Romney boy. What was his name? Mitt? No that can’t be right, Mitt’s not a name.

After reading the teaser and deciding that something devoid of mysticism, chakras, historical explanations of Siddhartha, and penned by a man named Puddicombe was too enticing to reject, I purchased the full book: Get Some Headspace: 10 minutes can make all the difference. After blasting through it in a few hours, I followed its links to Puddicombe’s website, which includes an iPhone app that allowed me to follow his simple, non-religious, guided meditations. I learned two things from this.

First, if you’re going to lead people through meditations via audio, it’s really helpful to have an English accent. It sounds sophisticated and soothing. If Puddicombe hailed from Brooklyn, this whole endeavor would fall flat on its face. Second, I began to see that my physical and emotional balance were both slightly off.

I realized that when I sit in a chair while wearing my prosthesis, both feet flat on the floor, I still rest my weight more heavily on my sound side than my prosthesis. I learned that I actively apply pressure on the ball of my sound foot to stabilize myself when sitting rather than balancing weight equally on the heel and toe. I discovered that if I meditate while not wearing my prosthesis that these imbalances become more pronounced. Having lived with one leg for nearly 16 years now, discovering something new about something I do the majority of every day (sit in a char) came as a minor revelation. I also started to see how I constantly and reflexively react to stimuli without thinking or understanding why that’s the case.

Puddicombe asks people to begin by taking just 10 minutes a day for 10 days. Then 15 minutes a day for 15 days. I’ve now completed Day 6 of the 20 minutes/20 days section, meaning I’ve finished a total of 31 sessions and have 334 days left on my “Headspace Journey.” (All stats courtesy of the very good Headspace app.) I find myself waking up early to dive into my 20 minutes and feeling calmer and more centered afterwards.

I began running again 18 months ago not to finish races or log fast times, but rather, to simply become more healthy. This was a sea change in my approach to physical activity. When running temporarily disappeared from my life due to injury I found Puddicombe and meditation and embraced it not as a potential path to enlightenment (as I had in the past), but rather, as a way of becoming incrementally more self-aware. It seems to me, at least in these two instances, that the less I try to achieve, the further along I get.

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