30 Day Meditation Challenge Diary
April 4- May 2, 2011
Charla Gabert 

Monday, April 4, 2011 Day One.
I wake up dizzy from my inner ear issues. Miraculously, I remember that the meditation challenge starts today.
It feels perfect to sit still and close my eyes. Maybe I will feel better when I’m done. I’m drinking my morning coffee at the same time, which I can do with my eyes closed. Ellie Mae Clamcat is curled up on my lap in our regular morning spot—the soft sage green sofa in front of the picture window. Green of every shade and hue from the trees and bushes fills the window. I’m aware of the green sunlight enveloping me.
Then, suddenly, for no reason at all, I completely lose my concentration. A million thoughts of what I need to do come rushing in. Solutions to problems. Thoughts of things I need to buy. Errands I should run.
I feel like I’m inside a pinball machine.
I turn on my iPhone to check on the time. Only halfway through. It occurs to me that it’s Monday, Sangha night, and I could have done my 30 minutes there…..This feels like the longest 30 minutes of my life.
In the afternoon I take a late hike and get home around 6. Too tired for Sangha. I sit outside on the deck and drink white wine while reading my trail map and petting kitty. The sun goes down over the hill, and Sangha starts without me.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011 Day Two
I totally blow it. I didn’t even think about it. It wasn’t on my calendar. I had a busy day with appointments and errands and meetings. Just ran around and felt very productive and energetic. Stillness practice was not on my mind at all. Just grateful not to feel dizzy.

Wednesday, April 6 A “Working” Meditation
Today I try to meditate on the living room couch, but my husband gets on the phone in the next room making a business call. I decide to just go with what’s happening and not fight it. I remember to try focusing on the gaps between thoughts. So I focus on the silences in between, when my husband is listening and not talking. This practice is oddly satisfying because I just let him have all the thoughts, and I take a vacation from thinking.
Meanwhile, kitty tries to help by breathing gently on the back of the couch. Cats are meditating all the time. What great meditation instructors they are!
I remember a passage in The Power of Now where Erick Tolle suggests watching and waiting for your next thought. Just think of nothing and see what your next thought will be and how long you go without a thought. Just watch and wait. Every time I try this, the first thought that finally shows up is: What is a thought anyway?

Saturday, April 9.
I find myself doing my Kegel exercises while meditating. Hold for a count of ten, exhale for a count of ten. Am I the only person who does this?

Sunday, April 10. Day Seven
Meditated 10:30-11 am after getting my mind completely scrambled with indecision about whether to join a Save Mount Diablo hike in the afternoon or not. Decided not since my vertigo had returned.
I sat at my desk in my computer chair with arms and set the iPhone timer. Kitty sprawls in her cat bed nearby. Birds chirp outside. A cup of green tea steams on the desk. I take off my glasses and face the window and close my eyes.
My body falls into stillness quickly, but my mind is like a wild horse or a bucking bronco. I feel like I’m sitting atop a boiling pot and it’s all I can do to keep the lid on. Thoughts fly in and out like crazed crows landing and taking off at a bird airport. I have to smile because it’s comical to picture myself sitting so still while my mind is moving in circles at top speed.
Meanwhile, under all the chaos, or maybe within it, my breathing ebbs and flows like the tide. In and out, in and out. Regular and calm as a grandfather clock stoically sitting in the front hall, ticking away the seconds.
I finally resort to desperately counting my breaths. I cling to each number. I try to hang on but sometimes I fall off, or maybe I drop the number. Either way I was able to reach the 50s without fail, but then my attention would drop off and thoughts would race in like water rushing in when a dam breaks.
Then maybe 10 or 15 minutes in, my mind fell away as I imagined myself back at Steep Ravine cabins and then remembered being at McCarthy Point lookout one time. I recalled looking out the cabin window and feeling my chest lift open and expand. I could actually feel my spirit soar—a phrase that has always felt so trite to me, but I experienced it there—a feeling of great and expansive calm, emptiness and fullness.
As I focused my attention on that memory, the experience returned, and memory turned into present. My mind finally surrendered its struggle, and the last 15 minutes I was steeped in bliss. My mind matched my body in stillness. I was aware of my heart beating in my chest and my breath coming in and out of my chest. I could feel myself breathing, and then I felt the entire universe breathing with me.

Monday, April 11
Trying to meditate every day is reminding me of training my cat to wear a harness and leash. My cat tries to back out of it. She falls down. She pulls away. She fights it as if it means certain death.
My mind is harder to train than my cat. It’s because I’m in a fight with the ego, which is stronger and more wily than even the most fearful and desperate cat.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011 Awakening Without Coffee
I wake up at 8 am very dizzy. I need to do a fasting blood test—no coffee. This causes me anxiety. I often feel anxious when I first wake up and haven’t had coffee yet. It’s all I can do to find my glasses and robe and slippers before I head downstairs to the coffee maker.
I am someone who cannot make coffee properly without having had a cup of coffee. My driver’s license should have a warning label: “CORRECTIVE CAFFEINE,” right next to the “CORRECTIVE LENSES” sticker—“Needs caffeine to operate this vehicle safely.”
And today I’m doubly anxious because I have to wait until after the blood test for that first jolt of java.
Despite all this, I resolve to meditate 30 minutes even without coffee. While I clean up and dress, I discover that just thinking about meditating calms me right down. I’m not really meditating, just contemplating meditating, and yet I feel stillness in my body and my mind. It’s the strangest sensation. My anxiety evaporates, and then I feel wide awake and very happy. My lips open up in a half smile.
Then my husband offers to give me a ride to the lab and go out for breakfast afterwards, so I don’t sit in meditation after all.
Saturday, April 16
My mind: my beautiful, wonderful and amazing mind. I love my mind and all that it can do. I love thinking; in fact, I may well be addicted to thinking. I love to analyze, compare and contrast, judge, evaluate, learn, satisfy my curiosity, play with words, generate ideas, synthesize.
Meditation is asking me to jettison my mind. Just for 30 minutes a day. Why? To uncover, to discover what lies beneath the surface and is always there and has always been there. Meditation promises to turn down the volume of my mind so I can hear the sound of spirit.
Isn’t this what I do when I’m outside in nature by myself? Yes, but at first my mind is busy naming and labeling the birds, the wildflowers, the trees.  I try to remember what species inhabits the no man’s land between chaparral and grassland. Is it the Mount Diablo buckwheat or am I thinking of a jack rabbit??
But eventually my mind signs off and takes a break. Then it’s just me, at one with the natural world. I’m part of the natural world, but as a human so often feel alienated from it, at best a protector and at worst a destroyer. Just as I long to return to and connect with nature, the source of our physical world, so too I long to return to the source of spirit.

Sunday, April 17, 2011
Today I sit on the round cushion. Eyes closed, I dwell on emptiness. I focus on the one and the many and try to concentrate on the truth beyond name and form, as Michael puts it. My mind delivers up an image of outer space: vast, black, spaciousness sprinkled with sparkling stars and planets. All that empty space between. Is emptiness the same as nothingness or is it the presence of something?
Then my mind delivers another image: an IMAX movie I saw at Chabot once. It starts way out in the universe and dives into the Milky Way, then our solar system, the earth, and so on. It keeps exploding down to another order of magnitude, all the way down to a cell and subatomic particles swirling around a nucleus. Then the camera pulls back and goes all the way back to the perspective where we started. The one and the many.
In the midst of this visualizing I have a thought: Do thoughts have to be word based to be thoughts? Is an image a thought? My mind is also wondering: If I am remembering a memory, then the past is now present, and so where am I? In the past or in the present? Or neither? Isn’t carving up time into past, present and future an illusion?
Now I am thinking about the new Electrolux French door refrigerator we’re getting, and then I remember I need a new jean jacket. From the sublime to the ridiculous.

Monday, April 18, 2011 In the still of the night
11:05 PM. I get in bed and realize I haven’t done meditation all day. Husband is already asleep, gently breathing, half snoring. Kitty is passed out between us.
I prop up my pillows and cross my legs, remove my glasses but leave the lamp on. The window is open, and the stillness of the night pours in, rich and deep like dark chocolate. This stillness is a presence, for sure, not just the absence of sound.
I match my breathing to my husband’s. I can feel myself merging into the night and feel the vastness of the night sky wrapping me like a blanket.
I check the clock and it’s only 11:25. Yay, more time! I drop back into the stillness with gratitude. When I check again, it’s 11:35. My body is learning what 30 minutes feels like.
I turn out the light and lie down for sleep. I fall asleep counting breaths instead of sheep.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011
9:45 am In my office, after coffee. Sit on the cushion and face the wall. My nose is stopped up. My mind is busy busy busy. I think of the Sangha sitting from last night. I had forgotten about it until I assumed this position again. Then I spend time reliving and picturing it. I observe this and return to the present meditation. Back to counting breaths. I notice an unpleasant fullness behind my chest: familiar feeling. GERD! Acid reflux. Oh great, need to see the doctor.
Halfway into the 30 minutes, the home phone rings next to my head. My concentration is gone. I get up off the floor and write a note:
Meditation is everything, and everything is meditation. This is what I am learning as I meditate more regularly. I used to think it was a special experience carved out of daily life, but doing it daily, I find it permeates the rest of the day and vice versa.

Wednesday, April 20
Today is my 55th birthday, and I start it with meditation. Then I take a walk on the bike trail and spend the afternoon playing in my art studio. In the evening I enjoy a lovely dinner out with my husband at my favorite restaurant. It’s a lovely little birthday, and I’m as serene as a cat.

Friday April 22, 2011
8:30 am Today I try a different spot in my home office: a nook created by a bookshelf and a file cabinet. My black meditation cushion is uncomfortable but I go with it. I have a blanket over my lap, and it’s not long before Zen Master Ellie Mae Clamcat is curled up in her special feline meditation pose, resting her back against my bent legs. I have no meetings or deadlines so I don’t set the timer. I just put the clock where I can see it when I open my eyes.
I expect to drop into stillness easily. The house is quiet. The cat is exuding that special cat pheromone that relaxes humans instantly. And yet once my eyes close, my mind is instantly consumed with thoughts of doing: tasks, activities, errands, phone calls, emails, projects, and deadlines.
Is it because my body is so still that my mind is focused on action? Or is it just that morning sense of so much to do today, so much to get done? I can count my breaths and think about what I should be doing at the same time. Great, I am multi-tasking even while meditating.
Every time I think I’m getting the hang of meditating, that my mind can drop into stillness along with my body effortlessly….then the next time, I’m starting over from scratch. Each time I sit I feel like a beginner. I have “learned” nothing. I am still practicing, practicing, practicing.
I’m reminded of all the years I played the piano and practiced for hours on end. At the end, I got better. I learned, mastered and achieved. All that practice yielded beautiful music.
That’s what my life has consisted of: learn, master, achieve, then move on to learn, master, and achieve something else. With meditation, I don’t enjoy that intoxicating sense of mastery and achievement. Instead, I wrestle with the experience of “failing” and doing something badly. I desire to have a “successful” meditation. Part of me wants to rate each sitting: “On a scale of 1 to 10, that was a 6.” Another part of me knows that, in fact, each sitting is what it is. There are no good or bad sittings, just sittings. As Woody Allen said, “Even bad sex is good sex.”
I have to begin afresh each time I sit. It’s humbling and unpleasant, but because I have committed to sit in meditation 30 minutes a day for 30 days, I stick with it.
I decided to keep a notebook next to me while meditating so I could capture all those thoughts and “to do” items as they go by so I could release them and be less distracted. However, maybe this is “cheating.” Shouldn’t I just watch the thoughts roll in and roll out without trying to catch them? I imagine asking Michael about this, and his probable answer: “Try it and report back.”
So I try it. OK, I can report back that writing items down while meditating  does release the anxiety that I’m going to forget something important I need to do, but it also returns me to the world of thoughts and words and deeds. When I put down my pen and close my eyes, I feel that my sitting is starting over, and that really, I should reset my timer for 30 minutes.
I often find that after 10 or 15 minutes of wrestling with my mind, quite suddenly my thoughts sputter and go out like a dying candle. They may still murmur in the background for a minute, but then they just disappear. They’re like little children yelling and fighting and running around the room making a racket. I smile at them benevolently; hey, they’re just kids being kids.
Then I’m aware of my breath having slowed down tremendously and my chest opening up. That feels like all I need, and I can relax into this place seemingly forever.
Today, near the end of my sitting, after words have dropped away, I find myself “thinking” again….this time, not in words, but visualizing an image. The image is of a drawing in the dirt in front of the dining hall at the Verite Guest House in Auroville, where I stayed in India. Each morning the village ladies draw a mandala called a kolam in the dirt using colored powders. At Pongal, the harvest festival, they daw special ones.
My first day there, the first photo I took was of a drawing of a flower-inspired kolam at the dining hall entrance. My little sister recently took this digital photo and created a set of note cards for my birthday gift.
I am visualizing the kolam and imaging it and wanting to make a mosaic based on it, so I’m viewing it in my mind as I enjoy watching the reds, oranges, yellows, and blues in the original pattern. Just looking, watching and enjoying like I’m at an art museum in my mind.
Then I remember my mother’s fears about my trip to India. I imagine having a calm and reasoned conversation with her about it. “What are you afraid of? What do you fear will happen?” But instead of her answering, “I” answer this question: “I’m afraid of relaxing into anything and letting go.”
I imagine relaxing into my mother’s love and realize that my mother is not trustworthy, is in fact at times actually crazy, and so I am always on guard and wary.
The part of me that is watching all this happen in my mind just nods, says “Hmmm” and “I see.” “OK then.”
And then, I let go.

Saturday, April 23, 2011
Meditation is kicking my butt. Sit up straight. Don’t wobble. Close your eyes. Watch your breath. Repeat. It’s just thirty minutes, that’s all. How hard can it be? Very, very hard.
I cannot believe how hard it is to sit still for 30 minutes and just breathe. I’ve sat through hour-long root canals at the dentist with less anxiety and more relaxation.

Monday, April 25, 2011
Sangha sitting tonight. Mediation seems more effortless at night. My mind is tired of thinking all day, and my body is ready to sit still. And I feel the group behind me, supporting me. We’re all in this together.
The door to the outside is propped open, and in comes the sound of a mockingbird singing his crazed and frantic medley of other bird’s tunes.
Inside, the heating system fan blows on and off. I’m distracted by the thought of all that warm air going out the door, wasting energy. I notice that I have noticed this. I think about getting up and closing the door, but I don’t. I just sit and watch my breath and listen to the mockingbird.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011
This morning I wake up at 7:15 without my alarm. After drinking coffee, reading Sunday’s newspaper, and petting kitty, I am ready to begin.
At 8 am I’m upstairs in my office. The door is closed, and the Do Not Disturb sign from a hotel room is on my door. I light a 10-minute incense stick from India and set up my iPhone in its speaker. I’ve decided to use a 30-minute guided meditation tape from Jon Kabat-Zinn.
I go about all this with as much awareness as possible, paying attention to the preparation for meditation as if I’m already meditating.
The meditation tape starts with bells and then Jon Kabat-Zinn’s soothing, nasal voice comes on to guide me. I find it helpful to hear his occasional instructions and then to have many minutes of silence in which to practice and watch my breath.
My awareness is on my breath, yet thoughts come in like rain pelting down. They come in from the right and out to the left. Every time I find myself holding on to a thought and following it off into the past or future, Jon’s voice comes on and directs me back to the present moment and my breath. His timing is uncanny, although I suspect he could interject every minute and I would still find my mind wandering and wondering.
When my guide Jon tells me to expand my awareness from my breath to my entire body, I give it a try. Soon my body is like a whole little universe.

April 28, Thursday
I did not meditate this morning. I had to get out the door to an early appointment. All day I’m aware that something is missing. I feel scattered and anxious and race around in my car doing errands. I feel that I’m missing that inner calm that bubbles below the surface like a buried spring on the days when I meditate in the morning. 

Friday, April 29, 2011
Awake at 7:15 am without an alarm. I’m playing with kitty on the family room carpet and drinking coffee when suddenly my eyes close and I start to drop into meditation. My body knows it’s 8 am.
Yesterday I had my first session with a flower essence practitioner—another attempt to heal my vertigo. The session stirred up so many feelings and emotions about the past, and now they show up again during meditation.
Grief, loss, sadness, disappointment, regret….one after another. They march into my mind like thunderstorms. Yet I feel nothing in my body. I am aware more of thinking about the feelings, but I’m not experiencing them in my body. In fact, my body is still, and the thoughts of feelings are parading down below somewhere, but I’m not moved by them.
I feel compassion for myself, but I also feel suddenly bored and tired of “my story.” Not indifferent to the suffering but just—maybe—not attached to it. Really wanting to let it go and pay attention to the present moment: the smell of the incense and the sound of birds singing, the sunlight and the serenity of now.
I let go of the loss, sadness, grief, and regret. They just slip away. I don’t throw them away, or yank them out of my heart, or hurl them to the ground. I just let go and release them gently. I open my hands and drop them and they flutter away, drifting like feathers.

May 2, 2011 Day 30
Today is the last day of the Challenge. I make the commitment to go early to the Sangha to share experiences with the other challenge-takers. I also meditate in the morning at my regular time because I want to.
I decide to reflect on what I learned during the 30 days that I might apply to other areas of my life where I’m trying to create a daily habit or make a change to my behavior. Here is the list of my “learnings”:

  1. Make the commitment. Sign the pledge. I thought long and hard before signing the clipboard signup sheet the night it was passed around during Sangha. Do I have time for this? Can I really commit? I hate signing up for things and then not following through; it’s demoralizing and discouraging. Better to wait and try it later than jump in impulsively and then fail to finish. I decided that I had the time and no trips to interfere, so I signed up.
  2. Find the right time. I experimented with times and once I found the right time, sticking to the meditation was much easier.
  3. Create the space. I also experimented with different spaces and environments. Finally I settled on the floor in a nook in my office. I removed distractions and added props (incense, candle, state of Buddha, and so on). In fact, I created a little altar on top of a bookcase. I left my meditation cushion, Kashmiri pillow, and a meditation pillow filled with Himalayan herbs piled on the floor, right on the spot, so they were always ready when I was.
  4. Plan >Do >Check >Act. Here I used a little mantra learned from TQM in the corporate world. I planned and prepared for meditation, I experimented with different times and places and ways, and if something didn’t work, I tried something else.
  5. Keep a log or journal. Just the act of writing a few notes after I finished meditation helped me stay on track and be more conscious and aware.
  6. Allow yourself to skip. I didn’t meditate every day for a variety of reasons. Usually I had to get going and out the door during my regular time slot. So I gave myself permission to skip and got back to it the next day. I didn’t blame, judge, or criticize myself; I just noted what had happened and resumed my practice. So even though I skipped some days, I ended up meditating far more days than I would have without the challenge.
  7. Make it habit forming. After a while, it started to feel like a habit and when I missed doing it in the morning, all day long I felt like I was missing something. I was missing that quiet calm and joyful feeling bubbling along underneath everything that I did or thought or felt throughout the day.
  8. Make the goal to just do it, not to achieve a certain state or have a particular experience. Just show up and see what shows up!
  9. The goal was not the destination. The destination was the practice.
  10. Perfection is not required to achieve success.

Random Notes from the 30-Day Challenge
What am I clinging to?
Meditation is the answer to all questions even though it teaches me to let go of all questions.
Prayer is talking to God. Meditation is listening to God.
With this 30-day challenge I am dusting off the diamond of meditation and seeing all the facets.
I love the moment when I close my eyes and begin a sitting. The moment when the bell sounds is like  that moment at the opera when the lights go down and the orchestra dives into the overture: pure joy and pleasure and anticipation of the magic that is about to unfold.

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