I’m once again taking Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness Challenge, a 28-day series of brief teachings and guided meditations. Much of what she says in this first week of lessons applies, of course and as she notes, to life in general, not just to sitting on a cushion or intentionally meditating.
She refers in the 6th lesson to balancing alert and calm energy forces, which we can also think of as relaxation and investigation. This reminds me of how we can approach noticing: a part of us is on alert, ears pricked, eyes peeled (rather graphic images, no? :-)), a bit like a hunting dog at the ready, but not overly vigilant or anxious — in investigative mode, prepared to explore; another part of us is calm, scanning surroundings — whether geographical landscape, our own mind or body, a social scene, etc. — like a stolid lighthouse moving its beam slowly and steadily from point A to point B, almost hypnotically — we’re not agitated but rather unwavering, constant. We’re scanning without looking for or at anything in particular, much the way when meditating our eyes might rest their gaze on some middle point in front of us, unfocused, not really looking — just resting.
This balance of alert and calm also reminds me of the interplay between noticing and wondering, discussed earlier in this blog series. Noticing, though it often combines alert and relaxed energies as described above, can lean sometimes to the passive side: something makes a noise and we hear the sound, and register it. We take in external stimuli through our senses and perhaps we categorise it; it’s not always a very active operation, and in fact sometimes what we notice disturbs our heretofore tranquil state. Then, having noticed, we might wonder what made the sound, where it is, how it’s mechanically formed, what it means for us — we’re investigating now, actively seeking details and information.
In practice — whether meditation practice or life practice — balancing the energies of calmness and alertness as we live each moment isn’t easy. But it’s interesting to be aware of this possibility as we concentrate on this breath, on this moment.
In Lesson 4, counting meditation, Salzberg brings in the method of counting each breath, from 1 to 10, and then starting over at 1 again. This technique helps us counter distraction, which is the opposite of noticing; distraction is a scattering of attention, an inability to focus. (Distraction can also be thought of as noticing too much, when stimuli impinges on a primary focus and pulls us away from it.)
Personally, I like distraction. I seek distraction or diversion in jigsaw puzzles, online crossword puzzles and other word puzzles, and casual online games. Reading crime fiction is another distraction. All of these pastimes provide relief for a weary executive function, for a brain that spends a lot of time — as many of us do these days — planning, organising, making decisions, paying attention (noticing), regulating emotions, remembering things from minute to minute, and understanding various points of view. What’s perhaps ironic, or perhaps predictable, is that I (along with many others) seek specifically diversions that require noticing, with particular focus (in puzzles, games, and crime fiction) on noticing patterns, relationships, similarities, and differences.
Before I fall asleep I like to soften my mind’s gaze and follow where it leads, which is a place of sensory diffusion, micro-stories, strangers in the mist who resolve into pathways and sounds, colours, shadows and light. The “characters” in these little dramas presented for this audience of one (sleepy me) do what they do, apparently of their own volition, and I follow them with my interested, often amused inner eye until they fade into another scene. Like doing puzzles and games, this sort of sleeptime distraction feel like a way of giving my very active mind a break; I can let go and follow where my unthinking mind leads, no decisions to be made.
When I have trouble falling asleep, or re-falling asleep, one distraction that I think of as actually meditative, maybe, is to count the length of time the bathroom heat runs periodically. (This is a three-season opportunity here in New Hampshire.) I start when I hear it kick on, counting “1” and I continue counting each second until it turns off, which occurs, I can tell you with some accuracy, between 52 and 142 seconds later. But what I’ve noticed over dozens of months is that probably three-quarters of the time, I either fall asleep (excellent result, though not if I’m considering this a meditation practice) or more likely, get distracted by my own thoughts and lose count. Even when I am trying hard to pay attention to each second (each breath), I drift off in my waking mind and lose track. I get distracted while distracting myself! I can bring myself back — Salzberg calls this “the magic moment,” when we realise we’ve been distracted; it’s the moment when “we have the chance to be really different, and not judge ourselves, not condemn ourselves, but simply let go and begin again” — but I usually don’t at two in the morning; I just follow my almost-unconscious mind’s lead while I wait for the heat to kick on and try again, if I’m still awake to notice.