Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Two weeks ago I talked a little about meditation. I didn't post last week because I was on vacation. This week I'm going to share a few techniques I've found useful. I have no expertise or certification in the practice. I have 20 years of personal experience, so take what I say with that in mind. Remember my idea of meditation is really just spending some time alone with your thoughts and noticing; whatever that means to you. I prefer sitting meditation in the fairly traditional sense but I have also found similar benefit in other activities. I used to be a pretty serious cyclist and I have definitely reached a reflective place being on a bike for extended amounts of time. Also, as a musician, there is a certain meditative quality to playing, though in an ensemble setting it is a much more active group meditation. I just got home from a fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico and while I am by no means a serious fisherman I can definitely see how an activity like that can be very meditative. 

The first technique that I use is a connection with my breath. This can be as simple as just regulating our breath with a simple count on the inhale and exhale. Basically exhale fully. Inhale and count the time it takes to inhale. Match your exhale. Wash, rinse, repeat. In yoga this is called sama vritti breathing or equal breath. There are a whole variety of breathing exercises and I won't go into them here. What I will say is that whenever I find myself in the process of finding a meditative place or needing to re-center myself I go straight to focusing on breath. 

Connection with breath can also be used in movement activities. In yoga this is called vinyasa. Breath syncronized movement. A connection with breath can be part of any activity. I have runner friends that talk about it. I know I used to do it cycling. It can really be part of any activity.

The next step for me is to let my mind do what it does. Some accounts of meditation call it a quieting of the mind. The problem with trying to quiet the mind is the act of trying is getting in the way. What I do instead is "try" to get out of the way and let my mind go where it may. In this place I just notice. One of the benefits I find of this activity is it allows me to experience thoughts as almost a third person observer. One visual metaphor that I've enjoyed is thinking of thoughts as leaves falling off a tree into a stream. As the thought comes just observe it, then watch it "float" away in the stream. At first I thought this metaphor was a little new age touchy feely but I have really come to enjoy it.

Another interesting technique is to do the opposite and try to focus on sounds in the environment. I find this easiest to do if there aren't any prevailing sounds like a lawn mower or construction noise. An activity I enjoy is to try to direct your hearing to different distances from your body. Start with noticing body sounds, then room sounds, then house sounds, then street sounds, then beyond. You can hear some pretty crazy stuff.  You also notice that there are lots of sounds around us all the time that we filter out.

I'll tell a funny story. I get frequent MRIs of my head and spine as part of the aftermath of my brain surgery and monitoring of lesion activity as a result of MS. Anyone who has had an MRI knows they are loud. Really loud.  Also many of the sounds they make are similar to the sounds we've been conditioned since birth to equate with danger. All manner of siren type sounds. The machine even shakes and vibrates. The sounds are also rhythmic which makes it interesting to try to sync breath with them. The techs will "narrate" the MRI basically introducing each scan. I've had so many I just tell them to plow through it and skip the talking. About 3/4 of the way though the 45 minute test they come and inject me with a gadolinium contrast to see if there is any new tumor or lesion activity. In order to do this they have to take you out of the machine for a minute. Now, often people are a little anxious about the whole thing and I can see why but I actually have grown to enjoy them. You are forced to spend 45 minutes alone with your thoughts. So the funny part. The tech comes in and rolls my little bed out of the machine and I am in a pretty deep meditative state and he says "are you actually relaxed in that thing?"  My reply... "yup."   

So I offer to you my thoughts on meditation. It is not a big thing and there is no wrong way. For me the most distracting thought I can have is "am I doing this right?" If there is no wrong way then guess what... you are.       

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


“Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.” –Steve Jobs

This week I am going a little of script. In previous posts I have talked about different kinds of balance. Being non-judgmental. Allowing fluidity to what you consider your baseline or normal. Pondering a ‘fluid normal’ is a fun mental exercise but at some point it feels a little like the “dancing about architecture” thing. Getting your mind to that place is quite a different story. Here are my practical observations.

Let me preface this with the notion that I have always had a severe allergic reaction to dogma. Dogma is merely a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true. As the quote above states this is living someone else’s truth or life. We often think of dogma in the context of religion but it can definitely be applied to secular things too. Anything that has a prevailing paradigm has dogma. It is not necessarily insidious. This definition encompasses many of the things we come into contact with. Rather than get on a soapbox I wanted to just preface my experiences with meditation with the idea that anything can have dogma.

So what is meditation? We often think of mediation as some kind of mystical experience that involves sitting on the floor, twisting up like a pretzel, closing your eyes, and listening to tapes of waves crashing while incense and candle burn. We buy stuff, maybe a special pillow or special meditation clothes. We buy books and tapes. We even go places to take classes in how to do it. I have been practicing meditation on and off for 20 years and while that stuff can help none of it is meditation. I find it actually a little antithetical to what we want from a meditation practice. I’ll elaborate later but this is where the idea of dogma comes in for me. Americans are very good at thinking that there are steps and technique in “doing it right”. If we don’t follow those steps we are “doing it wrong” and “failing”. That is the beauty of what meditation is for me. There is no right or wrong. That creates a severe case of cognitive dissonance in a culture that has been taught from the time we were children that there is right and wrong and that’s it.  

Unfortunately that gets us no closer to understanding what it is. I think, at the core, meditation is just being alone with your thoughts. I think one of the common misconceptions about meditation is that it is about learning to control your mind. In my experience it is quite the contrary. It is about learning to get out of your own way. What the heck does that mean? That is where this dogma idea comes in for me. If the idea of meditating is to get out of our own way, dogma is actually putting steps IN the way. Technique. Levels. Steps. Gear. Stuff.

The number one thing I hear from people considering mediation is that they “don’t know how to do it”. So they take a class. They buy a book or a tape. They seek out a guru (who you jivin’). They grade themselves based on how long they can stay sitting. I remember distinctly being in a conversation where everyone was standing around comparing how long they meditate for. I don’t think people were intending to brag but they were measuring and comparing. We’re good at that. So we do things to “push” ourselves to sit longer. Longer is better, right? I’ll be more relaxed and centered, right? Stress melts away, right? I’m get one up on this life thing, right?

All I can relate here is my own experience. By saying this line of thinking is right or wrong would contradict my central theme. All these thoughts are valid and important. Any ‘steps’ are valid and important. But to me that is what meditation is. It is whatever comes up. Noticing. For me it can be a sitting meditation but I also feel like I get the same benefit out of going for a bike ride or walk, listening to music, taking a shower, gardening, cooking, even mowing the lawn or doing chores. I find when I get out of my own way my mind comes up with some pretty wild stuff, like the ‘bacon’ movie or this post.

So what is meditation? Whatever works for you.

In my own meditation, when I notice I’m trying not to try, I start laughing.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015



Like many restless minds before me I was at the point in my life where I could no longer see the point of it all. I found myself asking the big questions. What is my purpose in the universe? What is the meaning of life? I didn't know how to begin answering these questions so my mind went back to stories from my childhood and tales of ancient heroes. One problem. I didn't know of any dragons to slay, any damsels to rescue, any towns being terrorized by a horrible beast, or any souls trapped in the underworld. So much for that. I decided to look for meaning in the meaningless. The benign. My shoulders slumped but then an old adage popped to mind, "breakfast is the most important meal of the day". Maybe that's it. I know mom is always right. My quest began.

I started where all quests should, at the beginning. Every morning for the past eight years my day has started my getting my son a bowl of his favorite breakfast cereal. Wait. Cereal. Serial. Cereal. Serial. It can't be that easy. Could the meaning of life be hidden in homophones? I set to work combining the two concepts. Breakfast cereal and the Serialist style of composition made popular by Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Webern, and Berg. The twists and turns of dealing with each type of cereal/serial started to give me a glimmer of insight into the strings that bind everything but I still found myself feeling empty. Fine. Everything is connected. So what? With a pounding headache I took an aspirin and decided to go to yoga class. Yoga has always helped me find some stillness.

That day the yoga class was particularly intense (which sounds like an oxymoron to non-yoga folk) so I decided to stop over at a breakfast place close to the yoga studio after class. I had brought a backpack with me that had a book and some manuscript paper in it. A waitress came and filled my coffee cup. I got out my book and started reading. I must have gotten sucked in because the waitress came back and asked if I was ready to order. I hadn’t taken a look at the menu yet so she topped off my coffee cup and left. After a quick glance at the menu I chose what I was going to order. When the waitress returned I placed my order and she topped off my coffee cup. I relaxed back into my booth and started reading 
again. I was feeling very at peace for the first time today.

After about 15 minutes the waitress returned with my order and warmed up my coffee again. I ate my breakfast.  When I was finished I pulled out the manuscript paper and began to think. I was hoping to be struck with inspiration but no ideas were really coming to me. The waitress returned to get my plate, topped off my coffee, left my check and headed back to the kitchen.

By now I was starting to feel the effects of the coffee. I stared at the manuscript paper. As caffeine is known to do it was starting to make my eyes dart back and forth and it made tracking the five little black lines on the paper difficult. I was still feeling the after glow of the yoga class and I was in a state of inner peace but my body was definitely not at peace at all. I’m not sure how much coffee I drank but I was starting the sweat and my feet were shuffling.

Suddenly the humor in the strange juxtaposition of those two feelings hit me all at once. I had a deep sense of inner peace but was very caffeinated. I laughed out loud. Fueled by prana and caffeine I put pencil to paper. In about 15 minutes I had it. The piece I was hoping for. Caffeinated Om.  After I was done I felt a deep sense of satisfaction.  Was coffee and yoga the answer?  Something was still missing.  I was hoping coffee and yoga would give life meaning and it had helped but alas...

As heroes are want to do I decided it was time to return to the source. A physical quest into the deep dark woods. What did I hope to find there? I wasn't sure but I was determined to find out. I bundled up and headed out into the snowy forest armed with only my iPhone and my earnest curiosity. My quest took me deep into the woods. The journey was hard. It was cold and the snow was deep. What I found there changed my life forever but I also got more than I bargained for. I had found the meaning of life but was I ready to see the truth? Was I prepared to see the interconnectedness of everything in the universe? Was I ready to wake up?

as printed in The Chicago Progressive