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Health Hack #57 - The Wonders of Stillness

Just this week, I came upon a pretty mind-blowing article that was published by ESPN. The article explores the physical rigors of chess playing at the highest level. An oxymoron, one might think, due to the immobility that the “sport” requires. Sitting in a chair for hours at a time. How could this be physically demanding?

As it turns out, a chess player can burn up to 6,000 calories per day by way of doing nothing but playing chess. Their heart rate can increase threefold, and blood pressure found at the highest level of active participants matches that of elite marathon runners. The upper echelon chess competitors have now largely begun training like more traditional “athletes”, prioritizing exercise and diet as means of better conditioning their bodies and brains for competition. The physical demands of modern day preparation are completely on par with those of professional athletes who compete in mobile sports.

Knowing what the topic of this week’s post would be at the time of my stumbling upon the chess article, I noticed a strong correlation. The tale of the elite chess player represents the inverse of most forms of meditation. Honing our still energy to the point where our concentration is so intense - and our brains are in such amplified overdrive - that our heart is ready to burst through our chest. This is what a conventional meditation practice helps to combat.  

One of the grandmasters cited in the article does two hours of cardio exercise each night, as a way of fatiguing his brain so that dreams of chess moves don’t haunt his soundness of sleep. This reminded me of cramming for a college math exam, equations and formulas swirling through my head all night, waking up feeling as though I’d gotten no sleep at all. I’m confident that most can relate to this chaos of mind in some capacity, where stress weighs heavily on us while we sleep, completely interrupting our brainwaves. It left me wishing that this particular competitor would try on some meditation in lieu of the seemingly chronic cardio he’d committed to using as a hack towards stress reduction.

My Personal Journey to Trying Meditation

Upon hinting towards the subject of this article last week, a long-term reader reached out to express their excitement and to share some of their inspirations and resources for their own personal journey in meditation. I joked that he should write the article himself, as I’m a total beginner and the furthest thing from a scholar. However after digesting the exchange, I realized that my neophyte status puts me in a unique position to write, especially towards fellow beginners or non-practitioners. It’s so often during the introductory phase of a new exposure that we quickly begin to see a permanence and obsession beginning to emerge, or a healthy addiction as this kind of thing is often called. Years in, things can start to feel habituated. Granted, our pursuits in all interests evolve in time, and time can work to strengthen these bonds we have towards our pursuits. But that feeling of falling for something is generally most palpable early on. I happen to still remain in that youthful stage with my practice, able to easily recall my early epiphanies.

Meditation peaked my interest a few years ago as someone who struggles with controlling their temper. It struck me as a potential tool for building a calmer resolve. I’ve always seemed to blow my top prematurely, and I’ve always admired those who possess a multitude of patience.  

Finding yoga was the first stepping stone. To anyone who’s practiced yoga, there’s a deeply embedded meditative aspect to it. The rhythmic breathing that most practices involve helps to keep the mind at ease while the body is ready to buckle. As my first teacher would often say during a strenuous moment in class, “yoga is not about being comfortable. It’s about learning to tolerate discomfort.” There’s a clear analogy to life, here. We’re not going to nerf the world for you inside this room. We’re going to strengthen your armor so you’re more prepared to withstand life’s battles. A yoga practice seeks to achieve this by way of the body, first and foremost. A meditation practice does so by way of the mind.

My Personal Experiences Thus Far

Note: I have no personal experience in any practice outside of Mindfulness.  And even so, my mindfulness practice is quite young. This article is in no way a deeply nuanced recommendation for the specific practice of Mindfulness, nor for any other specific form of Meditation. It’s merely a broad overview of what a meditation practice (of any kind) might yield to an open-minded reader as far as improving their well being, shared through the lens of my own, rather brief experience.

Mindfulness, as it was so elegantly described to me by an instructor in a seminar, is the practice of “being mindful, on purpose, without judgement, of any thought or sensation that arises.” It is living within the present moment.

As I often do, I decided to explore meditation by way of diving in head first. I attended an eight week intensive beginner’s class on Mindfulness this past winter at ClearLight Meditation Institute, a center now very near and dear to me and one that I’d recommend to all looking to explore meditation as a beginner or looking to explore an existing practice more deeply (their live courses are obviously stifled now due to COVID restrictions, but they’ve converted to Zoom-style sessions for the foreseeable future, which I’m hoping will help expand their reach and take their business to newer heights).

In the first class, each attendee was asked to share their reasonings for becoming interested in taking the course. As noted earlier, I was primarily drawn towards lengthening my pathetically short fuse. I figured everyone in the room was likely there to do more or less the same.

As it turned out, virtually everyone had a different story to share. Constant anger was offered up. Depression was mentioned by a few. Anxiety by a few others. A woman had a particular debilitating condition that left her in immense physical pain. But for each vice or ailment that attendees brought forth, there was someone who simply wanted to try on something new. Well people, seeking to improve upon their wellness. It reminded me of the tribe formed within my former yoga studio. People coming to the space for a variety of different reasons, but everyone ultimately leaving the room better than when they had entered. Granted, meditation is traditionally much more of a solo act. But like yoga, the practice can be heavily elevated in the presence of an instructor, and even more so in the presence of other participants.

Despite the varying inspirations for establishing a practice, there is a general tie that binds the need for a practice, probably more now at this point in human history than ever before. There is an immense, spinning world that is churning all around us at all times. Our bodies and minds are so distracted from what we perceive as real life that we very easily detach ourselves from the mental and physical sensations that make us tick. For example, we take breathing for granted, because we’ve set it on autopilot. By doing so we can allow bad habits to form, which can manifest into larger problems down the road, as there is actually a right way of doing something so simple as breathing that our modern world has forced us to un-learn (Am I Breathing Correctly?). The same is true of the way we eat food (Eating Mindfully). But beyond merely creating bad habits by way of our go-go-go nature, we begin to completely lose touch with our intimate awareness of ourselves.

By becoming conscientious of the moment, everything slows down. Our racing minds slow their pace. Our bodies come to stillness. The outside world feels more and more distant.

Physiologically, we encounter a slowing down that matches our mental state. Our heart rate begins to slow. Our blood pressure is reduced. We’re generally motionless like the chess player, but our physiological behavior is the opposite.

Living and focusing within the present moment is actually a highly difficult endeavor. We’ve so diligently trained ourselves away from stillness, that even when we attempt to remain perfectly at ease, that machine in our head is still churning. I found my earliest sessions to be frustrating as hell in the moment, and amusing in retrospect. No noise, no humans, no nearby technology, no nothing other than myself and my mind. But as I closed my eyes to sink into stillness, all of it came rushing back. “Wait - I was supposed to send that email before I did this mediation session. Shit. I don’t want to do it later because I want to ride this wave of bliss that’s supposed to come post-mediation session. I can’t pause this session now, though. Whatever.” Pinballing back and forth between distractions, like playing whack a mole with my countless distractions until boom - my time is up. So much for that.

But as alluded to earlier, there can be magic in the early stages of a new pursuit that grabs you hook, line, and sinker. For me, it was while attending a full day silent meditation retreat. I’d been honing a practice for a few months, having completed 8 weekly seminars and practicing daily on my own. Even still, it was rare that I’d capture a solid session. I was falling asleep, getting distracted, and - not so ironically - losing my patience. I figured that a full day obligation would put me into a position to learn whether this was a worthy pursuit or not, since if I couldn’t hit my stride at some point within 8 hours, I probably wasn’t a good fit. (Note how much I was judging myself and my progress during all of this, completely ignoring a cardinal rule.)

Very early during that full day guided meditation session, I came face to face with prolonged stillness for the first time in memory. Probably for the first time since I was baby, fascinated by the different sensations on my body and acclimating to my senses for the very first time. How much we manage to un-learn by way of our growth in the modern world.

Through that success, I brought more vigor and focus to my practice, vowing not to miss a day. That lasted for a few months, at which point my daily routine began to slip away. It’s hard to say why it did. Again - finding 10-15 minutes during an average of 16 waking hours should be a synch, but I found myself consistently missing the boat. Before I knew it, my practice had disappeared.

I probably went four full months without a single session, up until a few weeks ago. In researching a recent article on exercising towards heart health, I was reminded of meditation’s ability to slow down our heart rate, and I actually learned for the first time it’s ability to improve heart rate variability, which is a rather new finding consistent across multiple studies these past few years, like the one here. It fit perfectly in line with some concerns I had entering our first COVID winter, where gyms and yoga studios might be closed, and the outdoor exercise I’d become so accustomed to would be pretty undesirable. How can I get the best of all worlds, in this new climate? I want that holistic mind/body jolt (A Holistic Road Towards Happiness) that I get from traditional exercise in so many ways much of the year that are now virtually all inaccessible.

I laugh now, thinking of what a tool I’d sound like had I volunteered my reasoning for attending a course on meditation as “to improve my heart rate variability”. But it’s actually quite telling, and one of the reasons I’ve come back to thinking that a meditation practice is such a vital part of an arsenal geared towards making us better humans. Making us better to ourselves, yes, both physically (in the Heart Rate Variability case) and mentally. But what is so special about meditation is its uncanny ability to make us better towards others. My initial motivation was to be a better person in the world. My latest motivation is to be a better person in my own body. What I really want is to have both. Anyone in their right mind would really desire both for themselves as well.

As predicted last week, we’re basically encountering Lockdown 2.0 as we now head into winter. No indoor dining. No gyms. No theaters. No large groups of any kind. This is heavily compounded by the time of year. Very little sun exposure. Very little outdoor play. A time of joy and shopping and travel and dining, all of which are bound to be severely stunted, if not completely wiped out. As we hunker down, it seems like we have a unique opportunity here to really work on ourselves. At the very crux of many meditation philosophies is the notion that everything around us is merely a distraction. Bliss is a spiritual state that is locked away deep in our minds. A meditation practice can provide us with a map for where it might be located, and if we can learn to be patient and calm and enduring enough, it might even furnish us the key we need to unlock it.

Be mindful, or at the very least, strive towards being so...