Meditation can sound like some sort of lofty ideal that only secluded monks can do. In reality, meditation can be easy, but to reap the most benefits from it, it takes continued practice.
First of all, what is meditation? In your mind and much like the image on this post, you’re probably picturing a person with their legs all folded up weird, fingers in a strange position, sitting with the perfect posture, and not a single thought going through the mind. My yoga teacher once said, “Well if you’re not thinking…. aren’t you dead?” It’s true! Meditation is not the cessation of all thought. It’s a concentrated effort to allow the mind to be where the body is. In the present moment. Without judgement. Just awareness. What many people think of as meditation is more a method of concentration. Like counting breaths, a body scan, or a mantra. Those are all tools to use to keep the mind from wandering, and to get to and stay in a meditative state. Confused yet? Bear with me.
When you sit to meditate—or stand, walk, lie down, whatever—you are training your mind. The brain has neural pathways, and these pathways have a natural tendency to go a certain direction. By meditating, these pathways can be redefined and over time become stronger until meditation is the dominant path. Think of meditating as working out your brain-muscle. I want to get my bicep stronger. So I do curls with a dumbbell. That’s one method. Just as counting breaths is one method of concentration. Another method: using resistance bands. A mental body scan. Starting to make sense?
Think about your thoughts for a moment. What do you normally think about? Revisiting what happened earlier in the day, contemplating your plans for the rest of the week, rehashing a conversation you had with someone (“Why did I say that? Oh, I should have said this…”), or trying to figure out what you’re going to say at your next social interaction (which never works the way you planned anyways). Think of each of these thoughts as boxes on the floor in front of you. As you think about them, you’re rummaging through and moving the boxes around. Meditation is standing up and taking a step away from the boxes. You can still see them—they are right there. But you don’t have to interact with them. They can just be. You can just be.
Meditating can be done anywhere, at any time. It doesn’t have to be a seated formal practice with the eyes closed in a quiet room. While it still helps to do that formal practice regularly, random moments of taking that step back in your mind are an important aspect of rebuilding the pathways. Whether you are working on your formal or informal practice, below are a few tips to help make sense of it all.
Start by noticing. Notice what your breath feels like coming in and going out. Notice the weight of your body, how your body is being supported (by a chair or the floor, by your muscles and skeleton, by the Earth…), and the sensations you are experiencing in that moment (feel the temperatures and textures, see light and color, listen to the noises and the quiet space, smell the different fragrances and odors, taste what’s in your mouth). Notice your emotions.
Relax. More than likely, in any given moment, you have tense muscles that don’t need to be working. Do a mental scan. Can you relax your eyebrows and jaw? Release your shoulders, arms, and hands? How about your stomach and hips? And your legs and feet? If you start with your head and go down to your toes, it tends to have a natural calming effect. The cherry on top is after the mental scan, expand your mental view to your entire body, and release all tension.
Now concentrate. It does not matter your method of concentration. For some, counting an even breath works quite well (example: breathe in for a count of 3, out for a count of 3). For others, listening to a guided meditation is best (someone talking them through it—there are so many great and free apps available if direct access is not available). Repetitive phrases, a slow body scan, the list goes on. You may have a favorite method, but it’s also great to have other methods available to you. If you just strengthen the brain-muscle with the same weighted dumbbell, eventually your strength training will plateau. The goal is to stay in the present moment as long as possible. Concentrate on what you’re concentrating on. But, as the neural pathways have their natural tendencies, your mind will be drawn like a magnet to those boxes of thoughts. That is fine. It is your mind’s job to think. By meditating, you are training it for a different field of work. The present. As you notice your thoughts distracting you, gently let that thought go and return to your concentration. Step away from the boxes, notice, and relax.
Practice regularly. Just like lifting weights, I can’t expect my biceps to be strong enough to help me lift a giant bag of dog food with ease after only one session. It takes time. Using different methods, in different settings, and for different lengths of time all help to build that muscle and those around it to help lift the dog food. In the same way, varying and regularly practicing meditation can help shift toward the new pathway. This new pathway really is a new way to interact and experience your life. One that can feel better, less stressful, happier and more content.
I hope you find this information helpful. There are many experts in the field and many tools at your fingertips. I just hope to be a voice that may make a difference. Also, below I’ve listed a couple of my favorite resources to use, and no, unfortunately I’m not being paid to mention these! 😛
Online Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Course – Palouse Mindfulness
Mobile Meditation App – Stop, Breathe & Think
Music – Eternal Om by Dick Sutphan
And, of course, practice with me!
I’d love to hear from you! Comments, questions, concerns, feedback, anything… always welcome! Thanks for reading!