It’s astounding what can happen when you sit for meditation. Psychology Today cites notable decreases in heart disease, thinning of artery walls, and lower amounts of the stress hormone cortisol. The Washington Post interviewed a Harvard neuroscientist who discussed studies proving meditation creates actual change in the brain. Decreasing stress, better sleep, and more compassion—shouldn’t everyone add a little mindful exercise to their daily routine?
Meditation is harder than it looks. One of the hardest parts of meditation is the physical discomfort. My shoulders tend to slouch, and the space between my shoulder blades gets sore from contracting to try to keep them aligned. Others may feel a stiffness in the lower back, knees, or hips. A sit should be as comfortable as can be, while still allowing blood to flow, maintaining alertness, and proper support of the skeleton. Three good rules-of-thumb are nothing crossed (crossing the legs or shins can actually cut off blood flow), knees below or level with the hips to help with energy and blood flow, and a straight spine. One of my favorite sits is on the edge of a chair with my feet flat on the ground, hands resting with palms down in my lap.
So, what’s my mind doing while I sit? First, I pick a method. Either I pick this before I sit down or I take the first few moments to turn inward and focus in on what feels right. There are several methods to meditate from different concentration techniques and tracking energy movement to transcendental meditation. My three favorite methods are:
- A mantra. One meditation sit I worked on a mantra, and I love what I came up with: (inhale) “I need patience” (exhale) “to give my love.” I ask for a characteristic I want to cultivate in my life and offer what I can give back to the world.
- Imagining a glowing ball of energy rising in my body with an inhale and descending through with an exhale. This follows the energy flow in the chakra system.
- Bringing awareness and attention to my whole body, one body part at a time. I start with my toes and imagine energy wrapping around them like an Ace bandage. Then I move up to the tops of my feet and arches, then around my heels and ankles, up the shins and calves, etc. When complete, I’ll imagine the “mummy wrap” of energy pulsing in and out with breath or just do my whole body over again.
As I practice one of these or multiple methods in a sit, sometimes my mind will wander. When I notice my mind wandering, I’ll tell myself that it’s just my mind doing its job. Then right back to it. Cultivating compassion for myself for not being so perfectly concentrated is important. Some meditation sits are harder than others. Sometimes I just can’t stop the wandering. I have a laundry list of To Dos or I just can’t stop thinking about something that happened recently. Those days, I’ve noticed, got fewer as the weeks went by and it started getting easier to re-concentrate. This compassion and focus is the kind of practice that I’ve noticed helping me in my daily life—both in my relationships with others and within myself.
A few other details that I have found helpful for my daily meditation practice:
- Put it on my calendar. I tried without, and there were several days that I sat for 10 minutes just before bed because I almost forgot. Even if I didn’t sit to meditate at the specific time I put it on the calendar, it still helped me remember to do it in the day.
- Use a meditation timer. I use an app, and instead of doing a guided meditation, I just use the timer. It helped me keep from being worried about the time, and I used it to time my sit usually between 5 and 15 minutes.
- Keep a journal. After sitting, I’d write down my experience. Where and how I sat, the method used, and how I felt before and after. This helped me remember what worked and track my progress.
Eventually, I began to notice space between my thoughts. Sinking deeper into myself, I felt at peace. I’ve heard this experience described in a few different ways: a blip in time where time doesn’t matter, a feeling similar to falling asleep but not actually falling asleep, and a sense of, “Where did I just go?” This is dhyana, the seventh limb of Patanjali’s Eight Fold Path in the Yoga Sutras. In continuing a daily meditation practice, I hope to cultivate more compassion and love, reduce anxiety and stress, and someday reach samadhi.