Although Saves The Day frontman Chris Conley comes off like a fairly enlightened guy with his Zen approach to life, he wasn’t always that way. In fact, when the band formed in the 90s, Conley was far from being an emo guru. He was once an angry teenager frustrated by the world, and he channeled that teen angst, along with some Lifetime-inspired riffs, into the band’s debut album, 1998’s Can’t Slow Down. It wasn’t until a near-death experience in March of 2000 that Conley’s entire perspective shifted and he discovered meditation as a way to deal with the anxiety and angst that consumed him during his adolescence.
Learning to practice meditation can be a frustrating endeavor, though, especially for beginners. So ahead of the release of Saves The Day’s ninth full-length, 9, we caught up with Conley to learn more about his own spiritual path, the way he developed his meditation techniques, and what to do when you’re struggling with the way your brain jumps from topic to topic once you start trying to pay attention.
How Chris Got Started on His Spiritual Path
I was in a van accident touring on [1999’s] Through Being Cool. It was this near-death experience, and I think when those types of events happen, it forces a person to wonder what life is all about. I just had this realization that life is this precious moment, this incredible gift, yet I was still squirming trying to get out of all these feelings of being a human. After realizing that my life was this precious gift, my struggle was incorporating the human experience as part of the beautiful mystery.
One of my early feelings was: “I wish things were better for everyone, I wish there weren’t so much pain.” But the fact remains that there is pain and death and suffering, so what are we going to do about that? We can’t make it go away but we can certainly have a different relationship with life. At the time, I was just too overwhelmed by anxiety and fear and frustration that I didn’t feel good or healthy or happy. So the way that I got into the inner space—instead of rejecting the outer space with my feelings—was learning how to notice my breathing. Because all of those overwhelming experiences of life are just constantly there. It’s like the weather—sometimes it’s rainy and sometimes it’s sunny and you can’t make it sunny all the time. So what are you going to do when it’s raining?
How Chris Developed His Meditation Technique
It started in 2004, 2005 when I was writing Sound The Alarm. That’s when I started to pay attention to my breath, and I wish I had done that much earlier because it was instantly helpful. There was a technique that I found that I really loved in the book Breathe, You Are Alive! by Thich Nhat Hanh. It just involves counting your breath. He does it a little differently than I do now but, essentially, every time I inhale, I count the breath and then the next time I inhale I count “two,” and then “three,” up to ten, and then start over, and that was the beginning of my meditation practice. While I was doing this, I noticed that my mind was constantly jumping around from one problem to another like it normally does. But consciously sitting down and focusing on my breath instead of getting caught up in the swirling feeling was a total miracle and revelation, and from there I found my own simple method of meditation that works for me.
Basically, what I would do is set a 20-minute timer and just sit there and count my breaths—and every time I found myself lost in some thought, I would just bring myself back to my breath. I wasn’t angry that my mind was wandering, but when I noticed I wasn’t paying attention to my breath, I would just come back to it. In my opinion, the best spot to notice your breath is right in the space of your heart, it feels absolutely beautiful and peaceful in there. If you can just tap into that space in your heart where your breath is coming and going, it just feels so good. And that was the beginning of an incredible process, because once I started to pay attention to that space in my heart, I started to notice my body around that. My body was just this vehicle for my breath to happen, and through that process it helped me lean into the elements of human experience which I was trying to avoid before meditation.
Chris’ Tips for Meditation
Before I sit down, I think it’s important to accomplish any of the tasks that might enter my mind like paying the bills or calling back my dad or mowing the lawn, stuff that you really need to do and it’s going to come up when you’re sitting there. If you can get those things done, that’s great, because then you don’t have to pay attention to those thoughts when they come up or they won’t come up at all. I only have two techniques. One is counting the breath and the other one is naming the experience, which I learned from a book called A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield. Naming your experience can be as simple as “it feels like my foot is falling asleep” or “I’m remembering that scene from that movie I watched last Thursday.”
By naming those things, you’re not chasing them away, so you’re not creating that tense, warlike stance where you’re trying to fight those feelings away because that’s what makes your body clench up. Naming is my favorite technique to get through moments, and when I started writing Sound The Alarm, it became my place where I would name things. Things would just pop up like the first line, “burning a door in the back of my mind,” it’s just about those thoughts that creep up that you can’t control. At first, I wanted them all to go away but I had to learn how to stay with them, and naming the experience for me seems like a very simple thing to do. There are some times when things will come up and even naming it doesn’t make it go away, but, for me, it works most of the time.
Chris’ Advice for What to Do When You Feel Like Quitting
When I feel that way, I would go back to the naming and I would name The Critical Voice. Sometimes there are things that it wants you to pay attention to that you can do something about. Like, if it says, “you’re lazy,” you can work harder and that might help. I think most of the thoughts are trying to help, or at least get us to pay us attention to something real that actually occurred that we didn’t acknowledge. But if The Critical Voice is telling me something that I just can’t change, that’s when I take out what I refer to as my flaming sword to cut it down.
Early on in my meditation, I called that critical voice The Judge—both of my parents were judges so that worked for me—and I could see these different sides of my personality or psyche as different characters, and it was helpful to have them each represent some sort of character. But, slowly, there was this one space in me that noticed all of them, and I think the naming technique helped me get to that point where I noticed all of them. Some people call that The Witness. But, ultimately, it’s just you there and you don’t need to have fancy words for these things, it’s just you paying attention, and once you start paying attention then you see so much.
Does Meditation Help with Creativity?
I think so, just because it helps me feel calm and at peace so when I sit down to work on music I don’t have that sort of excess baggage. I’m not carrying around a lot of different thoughts and feelings because I cleared it out, I breathed it out. I think in general it helps with every single aspect of my life, especially when there’s a tragedy. Even with a joyful experience, you notice yourself wanting to cling to that feeling because it’s so wonderful to watch someone smile in the sun and you just want it to last. But you also notice you’re sad that it won’t last. That’s where the breathing comes in, because it’s back and forth. It’s constantly reminding us there is a space where all that happens, which is the ever presence of your body. I’ll notice the joy and notice the sadness and it’s just like weather, it comes and goes. I’m not holding onto it or trying to make it into what I want it to be.