Jeff: At the most fundamental level, meditation is becoming awake. It's about taking the time to get to know ourselves. This can happen on the meditation cushion or in other ways that together constitute what I call practice.
Practice is about becoming awake to the fact that you have particular habits and patterns. As you start to see them and have more self-understanding, self-insight, and self-knowledge, you can begin to develop more space and freedom around the parts of you that are hard or that you want to change. You can begin to make small calibrations in those patterns to take you toward a healthier and more fulfilling way of existing that you instinctively know is possible. Ultimately, practice is about taking responsibility for your own stewardship of yourself.
Jeff: The skills you develop in meditation I think of as upstream from all the other skills. In seated meditation you develop concentration (the ability to direct your attention), equanimity (the capacity to be with whatever is happening), and insight (the ability to get clear). Sitting meditation is explicitly about building these simple skills, so there's incredible value in it.
Beyond that, there are many other practices that help you develop these fundamentals, each one typically emphasizing one of these skills over the other. There are shamanic practices, body practices, martial arts practices, sports practices, creative practices, arts practices, psycho-therapeutic practices, somatic practices—the list goes on. The forms change, but the core skills are always there somewhere. Any of these practices can be part of how we try to balance and heal ourselves.
Jeff: I've been thinking a lot about this because running is an important part of my practice and I need physical activity in addition to sitting meditation to help me self-regulate. I think practice happens on three different timescales. It happens in the moment. It happens on the level of months and years. And it happens on the scale of our entire life. Most practices affect all three levels, but they'll tend to have one level where they shine.
With something like running or other physical activities, it's a practice that can shift your state quickly, so I think of it as an in-the-moment practice. Of course it benefits my physical health over the years and my lifetime, but I mostly do it to feel better right then, to stop myself from spinning out.
With sitting meditation I do it not so much to shift my vibe in the moment but because I want to build the habit, and I know it's going to benefit me for years to come. It doesn't matter if I'm in a good or bad mood, if it's raining or sunny, if I had a great or terrible day—I sit down and face whatever is there, as it is. This builds the skill of equanimity over time and contributes to what I think the third timescale is all about, and that's the deeper spiritual and mystical experience of knowing that you're complete. Of seeing things on a larger scale and resting in an expansive, open awareness.
In theory I think all practices can be done with the three levels in mind, but with something like running I can manage to run in the moment and even to run in a way that meets what's happening with equanimity, paying exquisite attention to each pixel of my experience. But because I'm usually running quickly, I don't have the bandwidth to open on that larger mystical scale. Maybe some people do, but I think it generally happens with slower movement or stillness.
Jeff: The single most creative thing we have to do in our life is our life. How do we distribute the care and love we have to give to ourselves and others? How do we configure a life of intentional practice without it becoming oppressive, like an endless "to do" list? We can remix our reality like a DJ.
What do you already do that quickens your pulse and makes you feel alive and connected? Whatever that is, that's your practice already. It's there staring you in the face. You don't have to just sit with your eyes closed alone in your house. Take what you learn on the cushion into whatever it is that gives you joy and enlivens you—connecting to people, creating art, doing a physical practice, or whatever it is.
Do the experiment for yourself. You're the only one who can tell you whether you're fooling yourself or if it's really working.
Jeff: Start incredibly simply. Don't make a big deal about it. Just sit anywhere and see if you can be okay with whatever is going on. You don't have to know right out of the gate if you're doing a concentration practice or an open awareness practice or whatever—you can keep it simpler than that. Just sit and be with what's going on.
This will develop equanimity, but you don't even need to know that. And if it's hard to just sit and be okay with what happens, you can lightly focus on the breath or on sounds. Eventually you can move into concentration practices and insight practices where you notice habits and patterns, but you don't need to start there. Start on the wide end of the funnel. I'd also recommend finding a community to sit with or an accountability buddy to help you stay on track. Apps are great too.
Jeff: I have ADD and co-wrote a book called Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, so I know how hard this can be! But I think all of us need to learn to be able to sit still with ourselves. We have to confront our restlessness. If you really can't do it at first, start with a slow movement practice like qigong or tai chi. Then when you develop enough presence and skill from that, let it settle down into a stillness practice. That doesn't necessarily mean sitting in silent meditation. You might sit on the porch or on a bench or on a rock in the woods and just be with yourself and be okay for 10 minutes. And then maybe you can move into a more specific practice—there are so many options available.
It can help to think of meditation as both an exploration and a training. As we practice, we're learning who we are and in the act of looking at that, we change ourselves. It's a paradox. Some people will take to it as a training because they like discipline. Others will think it feels too much like forcing themselves to eat their vegetables and will emphasize the exploratory side. Either way, the point is for you to learn about you. Learning how your thought processes work, what the body is doing, what it means to get out of your head and into your body—these things will change your life. And that will not only help you, but it will simultaneously radiate out into your family, your community, your work—everywhere.
Join Jeff Warren at his program Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, April 24 – 26, 2020.
This interview was conducted on behalf of 1440 Multiversity by Jenn Brown, a freelance writer and editor.