July 10 journal

Went to bed last night at about 10:30. Woke up around 8:30, apparently needed to catch up on sleep from Monday. Meditated about 20 minutes on my own (skipped morning Zazen). Skipped swimming (too late/sunny). Did some light yoga.

Got into the office late, ~11:30. Brain feels foggy. Feel some slight anxiety; compare with Monday: Monday, woke up early (6) in time to eat breakfast before Zazen. Swam at 8 am, body was tired from running on Sunday so cut workout short by about 5 minutes. Felt very relaxed and focused on Monday, compared to today. Didn’t sleep enough Sunday night, perhaps too much time on computer. Morning workout makes the difference for the whole day. Waking up early and getting out of the house clears my head.

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Thoughts on cause and effect (aka action and reaction)

During a zen meditation day, one is silent (or as much so as possible); this is called a Zazenkai (day of sitting). Longer meditations may last several days to a week (sessin).

The meditations themselves (i.e. sitting and walking meditations) are just longer lasting versions of a single meditation sitting (which may last 20 to 40 minutes); the goal is to focus one’s attention on the breathing (or other focuses) and observe the thoughts that arise with objectivity and compassion.

Because participants are nearly silent during these periods, the mind also becomes quieter.

Then, during the meditation session (day or longer), there are periods of work including cooking, cleaning, or other tasks. For instance, one might choose to clean the bathroom as a work task.

What is fascinating is that turning down the volume on one’s thoughts liberates one to act with more focus and attention: this is because the thoughts create a divide between you and your actions. The example of cleaning the bathrooms would work as follows: The teacher/meditation leader announces tasks to do for work practice. In your mind, you might think “I do not want to clean the bathrooms. How disgusting….” This might turn into an entire internal dialogue with yourself, in which you create a whole story and scenario surrounding the cleaning of bathrooms. You might even bring up opinions you have formed regarding cleaning of bathrooms–for instance, “that is below me” or “only poor or uneducated people clean bathrooms” or “I am too good to clean bathrooms” or “cleaning bathrooms is dirty and disgusting work.” This story process might last for seconds or minutes, clouding your attention and distracting you from whatever else is taking place in your environment. Meanwhile, if your thoughts are quieted down, there might be no gap between the announcement that the bathrooms need cleaning and your action of volunteering to help. Without the judging, analyzing, and storytelling taking place in your mind, the action of cleaning follows directly as a response to the announcement of the need for a bathroom cleaner.

A personal example is that I frequently fail to ask for help or ask questions, for instance when doing a homework assignment for school. The thoughts that say “I don’t really understand but I’m not going to seek help” can get in the way of reacting to the need of getting help and ultimately harm my understanding.

To encapsulate this theme: Events (causes) occur which, under ideal circumstances, would lead to a person taking a direct action to address the event. An internal effect of the cause is a cascade of storytelling, self-judgements, and analysis within the mind. These may ultimately lead to failure to take action that would otherwise be an optimal response to the event. Often there are many, unnecessary thoughts and stories that prevent efficient action.

This relates to another concept. That is that when the (or at least my) mind is faced with a challenge–for instance, a cause the requires action, like feeling hunger and needing to decide what to eat–it will naturally dig and find resources to solve the problem. However, the extra thoughts that I mention above cloud this problem-solving process. In other words, internal stories and self-imposed restrictions (in the case of the bathroom cleaning, “I am too good to clean a bathroom”) prevent one from solving the problem at hand. Other false beliefs I have observed include things like “I am not good at math” or “I am stupid.” These beliefs are actively blocking the believer from taking actions and problem-solving in response to causes.

Training Plan

Goals: Self-Mastery; enduring mental focus; maximize duration and efficiency of studying and research. Develop the ability to direct my attention at will and avoid distracting emotions, behaviors, and people, while maintaining friendships and social connections.

 

6:30 AM Sit every morning

9:00 AM Swim

10:00 AM GRE study with other students

11:00 AM research until 6 pm or later, if focus is strong.

9:00 PM light yoga, bedtime tea, turn off all electronics beside alarm clock

10:00 PM play recorded sleep-inducing meditation

Sit every time my mind wanders into a habitual process (for instance facebook) that is distracting. My physics studies are part of my practice, so when I become distracted from studying I will sit for 5 minutes in order to check the urge to distract myself.

I will enter this into a Google spreadsheet so that I can track my progress. Must have a method for tracking daily experiences.

developing consistent focus

I find myself unable to focus during times of stress. This is pretty inconvenient, especially when there is an exam coming up that I need to study for.

There is a certain mindset that enables one to overcome this exam anxiety. It is one in which the thought of grades, judgement, and performance are not allowed to enter ones consciousness; instead one has thoughts focused on learning as much as possible about the subject, and mastering every possible bit of material.

With thoughts focused in such a way, exams become opportunities to learn more. In fact, exams that are repetitive become boring and one wants instead to learn new material on exams. Which is good because in Physics, often teachers will put new material (or combinations thereof) on exams that require you to think and learn something from scratch.

This mindset is difficult to develop if your mind is not trained to avoid the pitfalls of self-judgement and comparing your performance with that of others. The self-judgements, comparisons, and performance anxiety interfere with the process of creative insight and deep focus necessary to study physics.

Although I naturally tend towards creative insights and focus, stress and self judgement clouds my thoughts. Meditation training seems to enable me more space and energy to remain creative and objective.

The observations reported in this posting have been developing gradually over the past few years in my mind. Last academic year I unintentionally performed an experiment in which I meditated intensely and consistently the first semester of school and only sporadically the second semester.

In Fall semester, I was sitting at least 3 times per week, for at least 40 minutes per session, plus yoga and meditation in mornings and nights (inconsistently). I also did Zazenkai (day long sittings) once a month. I also meditated for 5 minutes at a time and sometimes longer during the course of the day at school.

In Spring semester, due to a night class, I sat much less frequently–perhaps twice a week, and skipped most of the weekend meditations (including zazenkai’s). I stopped meditating during the day.

Overall, my mood seemed better and my focus more stable during the Fall semester.

In spring, I found myself falling into repetitive habits of distraction and procrastination (checking email/facebook more and in general having less self-control). My mood took a steep dive in mid-spring, to the extent that I decided to go on an extremely low dose of antidepressant. However my depression was a factor in the Fall as well, but perhaps it was more under control due to the consistency of meditation.

Regarding depression, I may be mis-diagnosing myself (since doctors don’t do any diagnosing, this is the only process I have available to me). A recent blood test that I requested was positive for “Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis” which is an immune-induced depletion of thyroid function; I am suffering from hypothyroidism, which results in low energy and other symptoms of depression.

Regardless, I have my life goals to pursue; I hope that meditating can help improve my condition (research says it improves just about all conditions).

With all of this data now in mind, my goal is to develop my meditation practice, as well as optimize my health/fitness, in order to develop stronger and more consistent focus.

Next post will outline my plan; in the future I will post my daily progress.