The hum of the tires forms the score to the predawn scene. A gray specter of trees passes by to the left; a brown blanket covers open prairie to the right. The stars fade as the sky wakes from deep blue to turquoise. The roof and doors are off and the temperature is perfect. I am at ease.
Slowing, I turn left into a break in the trees. There is a small parking area, perhaps just big enough for two cars. I’m in a favorite weekend outfit – fleece over a long-sleeve t-shirt, shorts and hiking boots. A trail leads South and I begin to follow.
The trail is soft underfoot and the air is thick with the scent of earth. But for the morning calling of birds it is dead quiet. Tall oaks, aspen, and pine allow just enough visibility to see the sky continuing to lighten. Off to the left the forest ends into golden prairie. To the right the forest stretches on.
I pause for a few moments on a short wooden bridge over a mountain stream. The trickling water forms small pools as it makes its way among stones and the previous fall’s leaves. My breathing is deep and full. The cares of life seem distant in the magnificence of this tranquility.
Continuing on, the signs of morning are evident. The trees take on their true colors of greens, reds, and browns. The singing of the birds is now accompanied by the rummaging of squirrels and chipmunks. Ahead the trail leads to a break in a rock formation. Arriving I see ten stone stairs leading down to a small hollow.
I descend the stairs slowly, taking a deep breath with each step, counting down from ten to one. Arriving at the bottom there is an archway to the left. Sculpted from white marble an inscription over the arch reads: “Beyond here lies truth.” I take a deep breath, and exhaling, walk through the arch.
Unfolding is a scene of immense beauty. The woods end to rolling planes of golden wheat stretching to the horizon. Below lies a large lake, a mirror of the piercing blue sky above. A small stand of white barked aspen graces the near shore. The far side of the lake to the South rises up to a single snow-covered round-topped mountain. The crisp air fills my lungs and I feel that I have arrived – I am utterly at peace.
Down to the right is a structure both like and unlike a cabin. The near side is of deep red wood, but the roof and the other two visible sides are glass. I make my way down and enter the sliding glass door. Inside awaits a steaming cup of coffee; a warm fire is burning in a small fireplace. Above the fireplace is a projector screen and in front of that screen a large leather chair. I sit in the chair, and with a sip of coffee and a deep breath, the show begins…
The journey above is a fabrication. However, it is very real to me. I make that journey weekly. But how did I arrive here?
In 2018 I acquired “The Way of the SEAL” by retired U.S. Navy SEAL Commander Mark Divine. While there are a number of things I really like about this book, relevant to this post are Mark’s detailed instructions on how to perform several different types of meditation.
Two specific meditations Mark discusses are the “Mind Gym” and “Sentinel at the Gate.”
The story at the top of this post is the path to my Mind Gym. The drive, the path, the stairs, the sights, the sounds and the smells are all designed to focus and open my mind. The Mind Gym meditation uses visualization to aid in improvement. Similar to the Room of Requirement in the Harry Potter series, the Gym has anything needed to accomplish a range of self-improvement tasks. In one layout, hinted at above, a screen displays ‘videos.’ It could be a video of me having a great engagement with my kids; or doing a great job at facilitating a meeting. Whether it is practicing to be a more patent father, or a better meeting leader, or simply working on my power clean – the Mind Gym is the place to improve. I generally do this exercise once-per-week on a weekend day. I want the meditation to last as long as needed and I find it averages between 25 and 45 minutes (it was just over 37 minutes this morning).
The “Sentinel at the Gate” has become my go-to meditation and I practice it every day that I am not doing Mind Gym. In this meditation, I envision a ‘sentinel’ who observes all thoughts and ‘rejects’ any that are unwanted. This is, for me, a very difficult practice. However, I see this as perhaps the single greatest tool to accomplish a few very specific personal objectives:
- I anger easily. And I have worked very hard to increase the time from the ‘sensation’ of anger to the opening of my mouth. Sentinel has been very helpful in this regard – but more work is needed.
- I believe mastering a skill that turns thinking from “something that happens” into “something I allow to happen” as crucial to enhancing mental toughness. Imagine a sentinel that rejects “can’t” or “don’t want to” or “tomorrow.”
For months I practiced Sentinel as a ten minute meditation. About two months ago, however, I upped it to twelve minutes and it has made a huge and positive difference. Despite the fact that this is usually one of the first things I do in the morning, my mind is usually already racing, and it takes some time for the sentinel to “wake up” and start filtering. With ten minutes I would regularly end the meditation feeling frustrated that I’d made little progress. The two extra minutes allows me to reach a calm mind most of the time.
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”Peter Drucker
I have been practicing these two (and other) meditations from Mark’s book for several years – however, it wasn’t until recently that I began tracking how regularly I am practicing them. I use a form of 5-minute-journal; and among the entries I track up to three things I want to improve upon. The things I track changes over time if I feel I’m making sufficient progress, or if I find a new area needing specific attention. I began tracking meditation back on April 22. I would give myself a ‘plus-1’ every day I did some meditation for more than 10 minutes. On July 30 I completed 100 consecutive daily meditations.
What have I found? Perhaps the single most significant outcome, and Jocelyn has confirmed this, is that I am more patient with my kids. This is significant for me because patience is something that I have really struggled with, and because increasing patience has resulted in much richer relationships with my kids. I attribute this to both Sentinel and Mind Gym work. I’ve done extensive mind gym work visualizing different responses to my kids in a range of situations. I’ve also visualized how they might respond to similar situations later in life – and how my reaction to that same situation today may influence them in the future. Am I teaching them the most useful way to respond?
I have also found that I am more self-aware. An odd byproduct since this is not something I have specifically worked on. Perhaps this is a byproduct of Sentinel work. My goal with Sentinel is to lengthen the time from stimulus to response, creating time for thought or analysis. What I have noticed recently is that I just plain talk too much. I’m quick to jump in with my thoughts or opinion. After the fact, I realize that I have not given adequate time for others to respond, or that by jumping in early I may inadvertently guide the conversation rather than having a solid and open two way dialogue. Perhaps a new daily variable to track: Was I successful in listening before, and more than, speaking?
I highly recommend a daily meditative practice. It takes ten to twelve minutes, has a significant calming effect, and has become something I crave every morning. If you are interested in meditation and not sure where to start, I certainly recommend Mark’s book.