Mental Discipline: I Has It?

While I did keep a five-month meditation journal, I opted to write an essay for review rather than submitting my 6000-word journal. Here is what I wrote…

This was, hands down, above and beyond, the hardest part of the Dedicant Path for me to walk. I have a very active mind: in my work as a fiction writer, I live almost entirely in my imagination, while in my work as a reporter and blogger, I am perpetually analyzing the world around me. I daydream to fall asleep, while I’m running, when I’m listening to music, when I’m washing the dishes, in the shower… Any time I’m not actively working on something, my mind is wandering. It took my three tries to complete a five-month period of meditation, and I believe it’s finally ‘stuck’: I muddled my way to an understanding of the Two Powers, I developed two specific and regular uses of meditation in my daily life, and Brighid worked her way into my meditation, just as she works her way into almost everything that I do.

First, to get some logistics out of the way, the date I managed to begin a consistent meditation practice was November 28, 2011, and I continued journaling my meditation experiences through May 2012. While I continue to meditate, I no longer journaled after that point, simply because of the sheer busyness that came from planning a wedding. During that November to May period, I averaged meditating about three times a week, some weeks containing five or six sessions, others just one or two. However, I discovered that tying meditation to personal devotionals at the least (i.e., I do meditate at other times), kept my practice consistent.

My previous two attempts (December 2010-April 2011 and June 2011-August 2011) both ended abruptly when emotional disturbances disrupted my practice: the first time, my husband and I moved across the country, and the second time, my grandmother died and we learned about my mother-in-law’s breast cancer in the same week. While understandable, perhaps, this pattern is very telling: I was not associating mental discipline with my heart in any way. As soon as I became upset, I became unable to retain control of my thoughts—though, in the second instance, I quite excusably just didn’t care to try. This taught me for the third attempt that I needed to try to integrate meditation into my life in a more real way, and, because I perform devotionals at least once a week, emotional rain or shine, associating my meditation with my spiritual work made it far easier to do the bare minimum.

Overview aside, let’s talk about what I did. When I began, I found it necessary to use a prerecorded script of the Two Powers meditation to keep me focused. As I’ve said, I have a very active mental life, and stillness is hard for me to achieve. By having someone describe the Two Powers and how I should be relating to them, I could follow along with less effort than if I simply tried to still my mind on my own. The recording gave me a focus and even after I ‘graduated’ into working without it, I found that returning to the recording helped me concentrate on days when my mind refused to stop bouncing. Over the course of all my attempts, I can see a pattern of experimentation (moving meditation, meditation on questions, strict breathing-regulation, etc.), but I did find that the tried-and-true Two Powers worked the best for me. Eventually, the experimentation faded and I found myself using one form of the Two Powers or another to ground and center myself.

In general, I found that giving myself a single thing to focus on helped me more than anything else, whether that ‘thing’ was a recorded voice, a crystal, the ground beneath me, or the tree I was leaning on. I found that really enveloping my mind in an object kept my ‘monkey mind’ occupied and quiet. This is, however, a very limiting form of meditation that (for me) keeps the mind bound to the focus, thus preventing trance or any sort of detached mental exploration. One type of focus-exercise that did work well for me, however, was controlling my breath in a 3-counts-in, 3-counts out pattern and then concentrating on individual body parts, tensing and then relaxing them, until I reached my mind. I found that I could, from that relaxed state, then dissociate from my body quite easily.

This type of physical meditation helped me develop the strongest practice I still have, that of knowing the “feeling” of the Two Powers in my body and calling them up by concentrating on the sensation. (It’s very difficult to describe, but I’ll do my best.) After relaxing my body, I draw up the Earth power, feel it pooling in my body, healing and providing raw energy that replaces the physical tension I relaxed away. Then, I draw in the Sky power, illuminating the pools of earth power and electrifying my relaxed body. The resulting sensation, what I called in my journal, “the flowing-glowing feeling of connection to the earth and sky,” is one of potential energy, simultaneously relaxed and ready for action. While there’s no way to put the sensation into words, I can say that by imagining that feeling in my body, I could quickly ground myself and center my energies. This was a method that I could only build by experience: once I knew the ‘feeling,’ I could call it up without a very long visualization.

And no, the irony is not lost on me that the mentally-active girl found a physical way to get centered.

My flame-keeping shifts for Brighid also played a prominent role in my meditation. In March, I wrote, “I really love having these Brighid days to re-center on my hearth. It gives ‘grounding and centering’ a new layer of meaning, because, for me anyway, my hearth goddess is my grounding and centering. She is, at least, the center of my home and in the center of my heart. Focusing on her for a day realigns me. I found it much easier to perform a scripted Two Powers meditation when I was already focused and calm because of my time spent with her.” There are many instances in which I describe centering on Brighid, which is appropriate, given the hearth goddess’s central place in the home and practice. Brighid in particular is also a fitting deity for the Two Powers, given her association with both fire and wells.

Over the course of my journal, my ability to draw on the Two Powers and the “flowing-glowing feeling” grows strong enough that I mention using it to stay calm in tense situations. For example, I meditate to get centered and help myself fall asleep or I call on the Earth power to “ground” my temper when dealing with an unpleasant customer. I even once meditated to stay relaxed during a dental appointment! In April, I wrote, “It seems to me that I’ve developed two branches of meditation: an active meditation, that prepares me for ritual/magic/spiritual questing, and a passive meditation, for lack of a better term, that just relaxes and centers me.” This was not an intentional development, and I don’t think now that it’s quite as simple as two branches: rather, it’s two uses of meditation, two ways of directing the Third power, as I discuss in my Two Powers essay. For the active branch, I harness the Two Powers to do creative work, while for the relaxing branch, I allow the Two Powers to burn and wash away my stress.

So there you have it. I had to learn how to incorporate my meditation into my practical life in order to overcome my emotional upsets, but I discovered that associating meditation with something I do regularly helped me develop an ongoing practice. I developed my own personal understanding of the Two Powers, and I saw how my work and spiritual life are both influenced by the powers. My patronness showed me yet another aspect of the Two Powers and taught me another meaning of ‘centering’. I even learned a technique for staying calm while someone wields a drill in my mouth. I have, in spite of my best efforts, learned to quiet my overly-active mind. I’ve also become a Two Powers convert. I’d say I learned a lot, and I have a bizarre desire to make an Academy Award-style acceptance speech in which I thank ADF for finally teaching me the value of meditation. Instead I’ll just say that what felt like a chore at first ended up developing a skill that will help me in all aspects of my life.

Meditation Journal: COMPLETE

I sat down today to update my meditation journal and realized… it’s DONE. Five months have come and gone since I (re)restarted the silly thing, and it’s finally finished. Between the false starts and the derailment last summer, the silly thing is over 6,000 words long.

I won’t burden my reviewer with all of it, though. I’m not quite that cruel.

What a relief to have it done—but as many times as I said, “When I’m done, I’m never doing another $*&^ing meditating again!” I now realize that’s just not true. It’s actually come to be a part of my life: I meditate quietly before my altar when I’m too tired to do a ritual; I meditate by regulating my breath in situations of stress; I meditate before each and every ritual with my grove; I meditate because it takes me closer to the deities and spirits I love.

The meditation was much like the Nine Virtues essays. I complained about it, I dragged my feet, I gave up because I felt my work wasn’t good enough, but I kept trying again and, in the end, I did learn something from it.

I’m still going to celebrate this milestone, though. :)

Insomniac Ramblings

Oh, dear fellow druids, it’s 3:40 a.m. and I’m wide awake. I’ve tried meditating, I’ve tried memorizing a prayer, I’ve tried rereading Anne of Green Gables for the zillionth time, and none of it’s helping. I posted on my other blog, and now I’m posting here because, well, one person is lonesome sitting in a puddle of computer-light, surrounded by the dark, and it’s nice to pretend you’re talking to someone when you’re wide awake and the world is asleep.

I think there must be some sort of neurological-wiring connection between difficulty sleeping and difficulty meditating. I’ve always had trouble sleeping, and it seems that meditation has been getting harder and harder for me. My brain refuses to quiet down, to focus on a mantra or an image or anything. The only thing I’ve managed to focus on lately is writing, and even that was a struggle last week.

How, how does one achieve mental discipline? I like to make comparisons to running, but the mind is a much more slippery muscle than those in the body. It’s not as simple as run, rest, repeat to get in better shape. No, if I continue repeating what I’ve been doing, my mind will just bounce about more wildly than ever. Rather than training it to run more smoothly, more quietly, I’m training it to run around like a kid in a candy store, touching every interesting or pretty thought just briefly before moving on to the next. It’s even irritating to ME, and it’s MY mind.

I fear I’m not making sense, and you’re not even getting half the thoughts and metaphors that cross my mind as I type this.

Advice?

Meditation Week 11

I’ve been meditating every day this week as part of my new daily devotionals.

I’m having a hard time, though. Every night this week and last week, I’ve been plagued with really vivid dreams, and I wake up throughout the night feeling unrested and miserable. Some of the dreams are terrifying (a werewolf chasing two young boys who then bloodily kill him by tearing up the piece of paper that carries his name), some are odd (I’m pregnant and buying maternity clothes — and I have no desire to have this experience at this point in my life), others are pleasant (I wake up in the dream with a cat purring on my chest).

But they’re all extremely vivid and keep me from achieving a restful sleep. I desperately want to stop dreaming. This is odd, because I usually love my dreams. The book I’m writing right now is based on a dream I once had. I’ve gotten dozens of other story ideas from my dreams.

Now, though, my sleeping mind jumps from strange scenario to strange scenario, and when my alarm goes off in the morning, I feel dreadful. It’s effecting my waking mind now, and when I’m trying to meditate, I cannot focus on any single thing. Instead, my imagination leaps about recklessly, and I never achieve the feeling of true closeness with the Kindreds that I’ve gotten accustomed to.

Last night I made offerings to Morpheus, begging peaceful sleep and protection from my nightmares, but I ended up only having vivid benign dreams rather than a dreamless sleep. While I appreciate the change, I’m still exhausted.

I’m nearly at my wits’ end. I have no idea what to do, except resort to sleeping pills.

I’m off now to make my daily devotionals. Tonight I’ll beg my patron for help, even though this isn’t really his area of expertise.

Meditation Week 10

In high school, I had a trumpet instructor who told me once that, in terms of conditioning, every day I didn’t practice would cost me three days of practice. They say similar things about running, about learning a language, anything really. I’m currently teaching myself to play guitar, and I am discovering that if I don’t practice every day, the muscle memory doesn’t gel the way it should.

When I do practice every day, however, I notice that even if I’m struggling with a lesson during my session, somehow, the next day, that lesson has just suddenly fallen into place. My fingers remember where to go.

I’ve been thinking about how this relates to meditation. During our ten minutes, or twenty minutes, or however long, we work to make our mind concentrate on the Two Powers, or a single concept, or whatever our focus is that day. But in between practice sessions, the things we focused on or the lessons we learned during the practice time are still there in our minds, developing a structure beneath the surface of our thoughts, changing the way we see the world.

I’ve noticed, particularly this past week, that suddenly I’m able to concentrate much more easily. When writing, I can clear my mind of the thoughts that belong to me and allow only  the character’s thoughts to have a voice on the page. When I want to offer thanks to a spirit or a god, I can brush away my other concerns and focus on a spiritual offering.

I’m beginning to understand what it means to have mental discipline.