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Journey to the center of my mind: Notes on meditation practice and wellness

By Senior Judge Susan R. Miles


0921-Meditaion-300On its surface, you might regard the practice of meditation as mysterious at best, and utterly boring at worst. But what appears to be doing nothing is not that at all.

The title of Don’t Just Do Something—Sit There, a book by Sylvia Boorstein, at first blush may suggest that meditation is a practice of disengaging and doing nothing. Far from it. As Dr. Boorstein explains, the emphasis is on the word “just,” meaning that “sitting there” is an active practice yielding specific benefits, most notably a greater capacity for resiliency. Whatever the task at hand, be it fighting for racial justice and police reform, getting the kids back in school, or preparing for trial, a meditation practice builds your capacity to clear your mind of detritus collected and recycled over a lifetime, through the act of bringing awareness to your ingrained thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations.

Awareness is another name for mindfulness. Not any kind of generalized awareness, but an intention to pay attention to what is arising in your mind in real time. Development of mindful awareness is, like riding a bike, a skill that looks deceptively simple but doesn’t just happen overnight. It takes practice. Following a daily formal meditation practice will, in a few short weeks, build your capacity to recognize and harness thoughts and emotions before you react to your personal triggers in anger or avoidance. Who wouldn’t want to reason with our spouse, child, opposing counsel, or even a judge instead of blowing up at them and having to repair the damage afterward?

To a casual observer, meditation may look about as fun as watching paint dry. If you tend to be impatient, watching someone meditate for more than a moment may be agony, and imagining yourself sitting with your own eyes closed a fate worse than being stuck in rush hour traffic when there are a thousand things demanding your immediate attention. “After all,” you might think to yourself, “I’ve got more pressing needs than to waste my time doing nothing.” But that would be based on the erroneous assumption that the meditator is just checked out. 

Let me invite you to journey into my mind, for better or for worse, on a reality-based meditation session, with all its twists and turns, moments of being lost, and, on a good day, an occasional insight. 

My practice

I begin by finding a quiet spot—my home office, or in nice weather, my deck. My phone, which doubles as a meditation timer, is set to Do Not Disturb. My preferred posture is kneeling on the floor, supported by a small wooden bench. Lacking a younger person’s capacity to sit cross-legged atop a little cushion, I find kneeling to be my ticket to comfort. If my bench is not at hand, then a straight-backed chair or stool suffices as long as my feet can reach the floor or a rung. Physical torture is to be avoided.

Once seated, I close my eyes and align my posture: creating a small hollow in my back, chest slightly lifted, shoulders relaxed, chin lowered enough to allow the vertebrae in the cervical spine to open and relax. Hands resting in my lap, fingers lightly touching.

As I begin, I form an intention, such as noticing whether my thoughts, feelings, or bodily sensations are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Settling in, I purposely travel to each of my sense doors, observing if any sight sensations are happening (a little difficult with your eyes closed, but you would be surprised), sounds (quite common if you are within earshot of an HVAC system), smell (lingering odors from breakfast), taste, or touch (fabric contacting the skin on my shoulders). The final sense door, my mind, I save for later. 

Next I select an anchor for my awareness, usually my breath, and I hone in on the belly, chest, or nostrils as a locus to observe it. In my early days of meditation, I often switched affinities between these three focal points, unable to decide which I preferred. With the benefit of experience I have settled into a monogamous relationship with my belly. Its up and down movement, the empty spaces between inhalations and exhalations, differences in length and temperature, smoothness and roughness, are all fodder for my concentration. 

A minute passes and I’m still with my breath. Minute number two arrives and my mind has wandered off into plans for the day ahead, and by minute number three, I am aware that I’m working on a shopping list and trying to fit a grocery run between the end of court and a date with a friend. That’s just what minds do. I note “thinking; neutral,” then let go of the thought and, without punishing myself, gently guide my awareness back to my breath. Three or four breaths pass by before the next thought comes galloping into view. I have an opinion due next week in an acrimonious divorce and I still haven’t decided who gets the Elvis lamp. Unlike the banal planning thought I had moments ago, this one is cloaked in a veil of anxiety, which I detect by feeling a quiver in the area just below my sternum. I label the feeling unpleasant. So I note “worry,” let go of the thought, and gently redirect my attention to my breath. So far, so good.

Eons ago, I took to heart some advice given by Sharon Salzberg, a founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She counsels, “The heart of skillful meditation is the ability to let go and begin again, over and over again. Even if you have to do that thousands of times during a session, it does not matter.” 

With patience, I await the next event. It could be a sensation in my body or a noise from outside. Noting whatever has happened as, say, itching or hearing, and without getting lost in a story, I might even decide to shift temporarily to the new sound or sensation as an object of awareness in place of my breath. Other times I may decide to devote the entire session to concentrating only on my breath, guiding myself through distractions by counting the length of each inhalation and exhalation, or whispering to myself “inhaling” and “exhaling.” Even a meteor shower of thoughts can be tempered by softly repeating “one, two, three, four.” 

On days when I am less distracted by everyday thoughts, I practice “choiceless awareness.” Sitting quietly, a vivid thought about a person or event in my distant past might show up without warning, much like a dream. These complex thoughts often are accompanied by emotions and physical sensations, warranting further investigation with a gentle curiosity. Does this thought of my mother make me feel sad? Where am I feeling the emotion in my body? Is this a familiar feeling? 

The power of this deeper practice is the discovery of long-held, latent perceptions affecting my self-view and resulting behavior. For example, anger over my spouse’s failure to put out the garbage bins leads to an insight that I have a deep insecurity that no one ever takes care of me. And that insecurity can be triggered by the person who pushes my patience a bit too far, causing an angry rebuke. The trick, however, is that after realizing a particular thought or emotion is profound, I remind myself to set it aside to reflect upon after the end of the session. Don’t get wrapped up in identifying with your thoughts, my teachers advise.

Nor is every day a struggle. Sometimes my mind has the airiness of a fluffy cotton blanket hanging from the clothesline and waving in the breeze. My upper body feels porous, my arms almost weightless, vivid splotches of lapis and army green floating inside my eyelids. No thoughts arising, other than regret when the bell signals an end to my session and my momentary sense of peace.

Coda

Remember Forrest Gump sitting on a park bench offering to share with a stranger a piece of chocolate? “My momma always said, life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you gonna get.” That’s what meditation is like. When I sit down to meditate, I have no idea what is going to show up. The point is watching each event arrive, observing its qualities, and bidding it farewell, building neural pathways to exercise throughout the rest of my day. I can observe thoughts and emotions with greater discernment rather than being sucked into old conditioned stories. And the next time I feel angry with my husband for not taking out the garbage, I can take a deep breath and realize that it’s just not a big deal. 


Senior Judge SUSAN R. MILES was a judge in the 10th Judicial District from 1997 to 2018 and served as assistant chief judge of the 10th District, as well as president of the Minnesota District Judges Association and Minnesota Women Lawyers. She teaches mindfulness-based stress reduction at the University of Minnesota and is founder of the TheSettledMind.com


 

Learn more: Meditation resources

NY Times Wellness Guide: How to Meditate (www.nytimes.com/guides/well/how-to-meditate): Simple and comprehensive, with guided meditations and lots of tips on establishing a practice. I love the tips on how to deal with the wandering mind. The Times also has a separate guide on applying mindfulness at work: How to be More Mindful at Work (www.nytimes.com/guides/well/be-more-mindful-at-work)

Insight Timer app (Insight Network, Inc.) (for Apple and Android devices): “Learn How to Meditate in Seven Days” is a free introductory course taught in 12-minute increments. Thousands of courses, guided meditations, music and networking opportunities; easy-to-use filters. Particularly helpful: talks and music for falling asleep.

Mindfulness in Law Society (www.mindfulnessinlawsociety.org): Holds 30-minute on-line meditation sessions every Monday and Wednesday afternoon; no experience necessary. Also sponsors retreats and conferences for lawyers, judges, and law students.

University of Minnesota Center for Spirituality and Healing (www.csh.umn.edu): Offers eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course online and on campus; also a six-week online Mindfulness at Work program. Free online guided sessions in meditation and mindful movement offered at noon on Mondays. Just click the For the Community link on the CSH home page to reach a calendar that includes the Mindful Monday link.

The Anxious Lawyer, Cho, Jeena and Gifford, Karen (ABA Publishing, 2016). Very clear advice on starting a meditation practice and the benefits of sustaining that practice, plus tips on applying mindfulness to professional tasks.

Wherever You Go, There You Are, Kabat-Zinn, Jon (Hyperion, 1994). A comprehensive, concise primer on applying mindfulness meditation in everyday life, by the creator of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program taught throughout the West. A YouTube search of the author yields hundreds of videos of his guided meditations.