Recently, a friend asked about the technique I use for “silent fitness,” referred to in my letters. A summary follows:
There Is No Single Right Way To Practice
A common approach to starting a mindfulness practice is to buy a “how-to” book or listen to a guided instruction. These approaches were not helpful for me. There are many correct ways to practice; the challenge is to find one that resonates with you. For some, step by step instructions like those found in a book are helpful. For others, guided audio sessions help. Some find a “sitting” practice to be best. Others will resonate with a more active practice like “walking” meditation. Selecting one’s approach is like finding a restaurant you enjoy; you have to try a few.
I adapted an approach developed by the Indian spiritual leader Eknath Easwaran.
Before initiating the first practice, it is helpful to download a meditation timer app. This helps avoid the distraction of wondering when the allotted practice time is over. I use “Insight Timer” available for Iphone and Android phones.
Scheduling The Practice:
If possible, it’s best not to “squeeze in” a practice during a busy period of the day. It’s challenging to get in the right “mindset” with impending calendar pressures bearing down on us. I chose early morning for my practice. At first, it was hard to roll out of bed early, but it was the only time of day I could call my own.
Mindfulness practice is hard to initiate “cold turkey.” Preparation, like stretching stiff muscles before physical exercise helps. This might consist of inviting calm by reading inspirational material (my approach) or venting pent up stress through physical activity immediately before practice. Anything that releases stress and calms the mind will be beneficial.
Ok, we are now ready to begin:
Step 1. Find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed. As far as time goes, twenty minutes turned out to be just right for me, not too long, but long enough to slow my busy mind down.
Step 2. Select a short, easily memorized inspirational quote. Initiate the practice by silently reciting this phrase repeatedly, bringing your full attention to it. If thoughts disrupt your focus, notice them, and return your attention to the quote.
(Note: I remained at Step 2 for several weeks before moving to Step 3. This of course depends on the individual.)
Step 3. As mental distractions subside, softly let go of the quote and bring your attention to the light on the inside of your softly closed eyelids. When one’s eyes are softly but not tightly closed in a dimly lit room, light can be seen on the inside of the eyelids. Try it, and you will see what I mean.
Step 4. Notice the color of the light on the inside of your eyelids. Over time, this color may change. Mine changes from red to orange, and then yellow before ultimately becoming green, blue, and finally indigo. No worries if your color doesn’t change. Just bring your attention to the diffused light inside your eyelids. This technique helps us slow down incessant thinking and learn to focus awareness on something other than thought.
Step 5. Allow the light or colors to become the complete focus of your attention. If thoughts enter your mind, softly notice them and allow them to pass like puffy white clouds drifting across a blue summer sky. Then, return your focus to the light. Treat other bodily distractions like an itch or pressure in the sinuses similarly. Continue in this focused awareness until your timer signals an end to the practice.
Once the allotted time for the practice expires, refrain from jumping up and rushing to your next commitment. It helps to do the equivalent of a “cool-down.” Often I sit quietly for a few minutes to re-acclimate and then take a slow shower since I usually practice in the early morning.
Now For The hardest Part:
Resist the temptation to evaluate whether or not the session “worked” or achieved the desired result. It took quite a while before I could focus my attention with minimal distraction. Do not be surprised if you have difficulty concentrating for even more than a few seconds without mental interruptions.
In the beginning, I tried to suppress thoughts. This was counter-productive. Ultimately, I learned to accept distractions by noticing them and softly returning my focus to the inspirational quote or color in my eyelids.
Over an extended period of time, attention will deepen. Ultimately, I found myself letting go of color and simply floating in a peaceful suspension of thought. But please do not make this your goal. I can’t emphasize strongly enough the importance of resisting the urge to track progress. Some days will be better than others. If you have a wonderful practice, don’t expect to repeat that result at your next practice. Don’t be frustrated by a string of distracting practices. Such occurrences are natural; just keep practicing.
Commit to daily practice for a minimum of 60-90 days; the longer, the better. Commit rather than “try.” As Yoda said, “Do or not. There is no try!”
What I Have Learned So Far:
Meditation is a process of subtraction rather than addition. It is about letting go rather than acquiring a skill. Silent fitness is simply a practice. The more you try to achieve a result, the longer the benefit will evade you.
The best example I can think of to describe silent fitness is driving a car.
Let’s say the car is your mind, and you want to stop the car, meaning to stop stressful thoughts. Except, the car you are driving has no brakes. You can’t stop stressful thoughts by suppressing them. Instead, you may choose not to give them energy by taking your foot off the gas and allowing the car (your thoughts) to slowly come to a rest.
Allow me to repeat for emphais, mindfulness is a process of letting go. The process rather than a result is where the benefit lies. Don’t become discouraged.
Believe it or not, you already have practiced mindfulness. During a time of stress, have you ever paused and taken a couple deep breaths? Did you feel better afterward? This is mindfulness.
Everyone needs a starting point. For me, it was the discipline of a “sitting practice.” Sitting practice is not the only way to establish a mindfulness routine. You may resonate more with a more active approach, like this one https://tim-coats.com/2020/05/24/mindfulness/. Letting go, entering the moment, and accepting what is, are the hallmarks of practice. The specific technique is not important.
If you decide to initiate a “sitting practice,” rather than setting any goals, use the time to unplug and permit yourself to relax. And yes, the sitting position is critical. Why? If you don’t sit with your back erect, head softly bowed, and eyes lightly closed; you will fall asleep. This sitting position (very few people can comfortably assume a lotus position) will help you stay alert as you relax. I sit on the floor with my back against a soft piece of furniture to maintain correct posture.
Various practices suggest watching the breath. After 15 years of meditation, I still cannot do that. There is so much happening in a breath that I find it very distracting to watch. Of course, that’s just me.
Over time, as you practice bringing your full attention to your inspirational quote and the colors on the inside or your eyelids, you will find it becomes increasingly natural to “drop-in” with minimal distraction.
“Self” is the product of incessant thought. Over-thinking stresses us out. As we find a way to “Be” rather than “Think,” we discover that we can witness our emotions rather than be our emotions. This is a huge deal, but don’t expect it to happen right away. Simply use your sitting practice to focus, relax, and become aware!
What Comes After “Sitting Practice?”
After practicing for years, I wanted to find a way to integrate practice with daily life. Searching for a way to do this, I found a book titled “Relax and Be Aware” by the Myanmar monk, Sayadaw U Tejaniya. The book offers exercises that bring awareness to our active lives. It contains thirty-one exercises, one for each day of the month. They are all variations on the theme of learning to witness life as it happens, rather than getting caught up in the emotional drama.
I am very fond of these exercises. They don’t require special time to be set aside. They can even be practiced while driving. This is “real-time” mindfulness! Using the exercises, teaches us to witness our life instead of being caught up in the drama.
The book brought new meaning to something I experienced through “silent fitness,” which is, awareness is the source of wisdom. Wisdom is seeing relationships uncluttered by the filters of “Self.” Through mindfulness, wisdom guides our life. There is no need to pursue wisdom; it automatically ensues as we become still and learn to witness the simple feeling of being.
This practice changed my life!