Posts Tagged ‘meditation’

On Morning and Evening Routines

I have this routine I do in the morning now. I wake up, and after bumbling around in a bit of a fog, I settle down and I stretch my neck. (Specifically, for all you bodywork types, I stretch my scalenes, which are the ropelike muscles on the side of the poor apparatus that has the burden of holding your thick, heavy skull up.) Then I meditate for a few moments (often doing my cheat-y meditations) and then do a bit of cheat-y yoga, too. And then I make a cup of something caffeinated and then settle down to write, whether it’s on my personal creative work or my job assignments.

The writing is the work, of course, but leading up to it is important. The routine is what launches me into the writing; it’s like a nice little platform or foundation for the day. Interestingly enough, the most important part of the routine are the neck stretches, not the meditation or the caffeine. (Those things are definitely nice, though!) I can truncate or skip the beverage or the Yoda mindfulness stuff, but if I skip the neck stretches, all hell breaks loose in terms of my day’s output. It’s a weird, pedestrian yet quasi-mystical thing, this morning routine.

It sounds very high-minded when I write it down, but honestly it is actually super-practical: the stretches and yoga are to counteract the beginnings of carpal tunnel I began experiencing late last year. (A lot of hand/wrist pain is related to very tight scalenes and sunken chest muscles, apparently.) A massage therapist I went to suggested to stretch out my super-tight neck muscles morning and evening — and yes, it makes a difference for my particular body. I started doing the neck stuff, and then just plastered on other things that felt nice, experimenting with the order, etc. And lo and behold — morning routine! And I didn’t even make a resolution to find one! Score!

But I’ve always had a fascination with people’s routines for the morning and evening. There’s something so personal and intimate about how people begin and wind down their days and evenings to me — something beautifully ordinary and yet very idiosyncratic. I love hearing how people deal with the practicalities of food, eating, caffeine and exercise while still trying to incorporate their creative and intellectual passions into their lives.

There’s something both humbling and inspiring about hearing how legit creative geniuses start their day, and there’s no predicting who does what in the morning. James Joyce apparently would get up at 10 but stay in bed, breakfasting and occasionally talking with his tailor, until 11 or so. Then he would get up, shave and then play the piano before he got down to the business of creating modernist prose. (This makes me feel better when I try to wake early to work on my novel and suddenly instead decide that clearing out my magazine piles and restringing my guitar are a better use of my time.)

Others are intimidatingly productive. Ben Franklin was a famously busy polymath, but found an hour every morning nevertheless to read while naked, a practice he called “air baths.” Le Corbusier started early with 6am gymnastics and painting, while Haruki Murakami gets up at 4am, writes for 5-6 hours, then goes running in the afternoon. Twyla Tharp mentions in her book The Creative Habit that she takes a cab to the gym hella early every morning to work out with a trainer to start her day. The important part of the routine isn’t the workout, it’s the cab, she specifies, which I loved.

Interestingly enough, there isn’t as much info out there on evening routines as there is for mornings — maybe because evenings feel more intimate, I’m not sure. I’m trying to find the evening equivalent of my morning routine, but surprisingly, that’s proved more elusive, and I haven’t quite settled on anything yet. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t quite figured out what the purpose of the nighttime routine is. If morning routines are to create idylls of quiet and focus, or perhaps momentum and energy — depending on who you are and what you need — then what are evenings for? To wind down? Empty your mind? Relax? Set yourself up for the next day? (For me, it should probably involve squelching the impulse to squeeze more out of the day.)

I haven’t figured out what I particularly need from my nighttime routine yet. But it’s cool. Hopefully it’ll happen as organically as the morning routine did. If there’s anything I’ve learned, routines that bookend your day are a unique extension of the person practicing them — and you can’t top-down force uniqueness, of course…it’s an inside-out thing.

Four Tiny Meditations

I grew up Buddhist, and my parents took me and my sisters to temple on a regular basis. I was always really intimidated by temple: no one spoke any English, I didn’t understand the rites, rituals or reasoning and I was hugely terrified of doing something wrong around the monks. As a Buddhist, you learn about meditation pretty early on, about how good it is to still your mind, how it soothes your tumultuous quasi-self and it plays some weird, vaguely grand part in achieving nirvana. But as a kid, of course, you basically just sit there and try not to fall asleep.

I remember taking a class called “Systems of Meditation” at Duke that explored different methods that various religions taught to either still the mind or access another level of consciousness, whether it was Sufi chanting, Theravada Buddhist “insight” meditation or a Wiccan moon ritual. I remember one of the main assignments was keeping a journal of our experiences and insights, which we’d have to turn in at various intervals to the professor. He’d comment on my meditation journal, “You’re doing it wrong!” but I didn’t take it personally. Some friends of mine who’d taken the class basically made up their journals at the last minute, often by smoking pot or mushrooms and then writing out their various “thoughts” while stoned out of their minds. Those got a “Wonderful!” from the professor, so you know, maybe he had a certain idea of what altered consciousness meant from his old hippie days.

Then I lived in San Francisco for awhile, where yoga and meditation are basically municipal requirements for residence. Everyone and their guru was into some kind of Eastern-based or New Age practice. I dated a guy with a formidable collection of meditation CDs and special Zen meditation cushions. He was super-dedicated to his meditation practice and would spend hours in that perfect meditation posture.

Me, though? Despite the serious, high-minded influences around me, I have never been able to maintain a “serious” regular meditation practice, despite my best efforts and intentions. I knew the benefits of meditation: you really do feel calmer, chilled-out and more centered after you meditate. Over time, it alters your brain in interesting, good-for-you ways. It makes a big difference in your life if done regularly. My problem? Keeping it on the regular, you know? I used to think this was a big flaw, at least for a little bit. Everyone is like, “Kat, what’s up with you? You’re so disciplined already! You just need FIVE MINUTES!” But in my mind, this translated to Oh my god I need to sit in lotus position with the perfect mudra and chant and have a good cushion and blah blah blah. In other words: I had this Platonic ideal of what meditation was, and if I couldn’t reach that, I didn’t do it because it wouldn’t be “real.”

Of course, this idea is super-ridiculous and I snapped out of it. Because deep down, you shouldn’t be attached to what something is supposed to “look” like, whether it’s your livelihood, your romantic/life partner, your career trajectory or whatever. You can meditate in a million ways. You don’t have to “carve out” time to do it; you can do it on the go. (Though, please, don’t do it while driving, ya bish?) You don’t need a fancy cushion or lotus pose; you can just lie on your bed or recline on a sweet grassy knoll. You can do it while walking or sitting on the train. You can keep your eyes open.

Some people can get really purist about adapting Buddhist or other Eastern practices to modern lifestyles, yelling about how you’re stripping it of dogma and the “real ideas.” I say “pah!” to that; adaptation is precisely how these ancient and wise practices stay alive and endure. (Buddha himself would be way chill about it.) And most people have something to gain from incorporating even just a tiny soupcon of meditation into their lives, in whatever manner suits their temperament, glamour factor or lifestyle. Here are my favorite tiny ways to do meditation…no fancy zazen cushions or lotus pose required.