February 2, 2014

Meditation 101.


I’m thinking about meditation. (And if you meditate, you think that’s funny. And if you don’t, stick with me).

I am often asked about meditation by people who would like to try it, but who are discouraged because of champa-scented veils of misinformation. This morning, my son said that meditating “sounded cool” but that he’d “heard it was bad for people with anxiety to try to sit still for a long time.”

A friend told me that she’d be interested except she didn’t “have all the stuff you need.” I’m still not sure what that stuff is; I don’t think I have it, whatever it is.

Here at its most basic is what meditation is: disciplining the mind to stop running around, reacting or doing whatever it’s doing, and return to focus on your breath, and the present moment. Not panicking about the future, not ruminating about the past, just being here. That’s it.

It’s not some woo-woo new age-y thing, but a tremendously practical and useful tool. When you cultivate the ability to stop thinking and return to your breath, you can calm yourself and find peace no matter what’s going on in your life, no matter where you are.

I work in an incredibly hectic environment complete with noise, fire and messes. Thirty seconds of on-the-spot meditation keeps me on an even keel.

It’s not supposed to relax you, or help you solve problems, or do anything but stay in the present moment. There are practices aimed at both of those things, but your basic, mindfulness meditation is not that.

Our minds want to do stuff, and we are encouraged from birth to know things, solve problems, and get ahead by “using our thinking caps” at school and at work. Many of us define ourselves as “smart” people and that becomes our shtick, our way to distinguish ourselves as special. Others, like me, suffer from anxiety and have brains that run constantly to places we don’t want to go.

Turning that off is incredibly, incredibly difficult and counterintuitive. It does, however, lead to more peace and less suffering. I promise.

You do not need to view meditation as a spiritual practice. You do not need a mantra, a special cushion, a meditation timer that has special lights, a singing bowl, a Buddha statue, a Ganesh statue, incense, or total silence. You do not have to sit in the lotus position. You do not have to have an “Ohm” T-shirt or a wrist mala. If you like any of that stuff and it makes you feel good, go for it. Otherwise, work with what you’ve got.

Well, except for the silent space. Because, this: what you are working towards is the ability to return to your breath, right here and right now, no matter what. If you are a monk, I guess it might be reasonable to practice meditation in silence. If you are most of us, there’s always going on.

So disabuse yourself right now (see how I used my brain to come up with that thinky word?) of the need to have silence and freedom from distraction every time you sit. Don’t try to meditate in the path of a parade, maybe, but otherwise don’t wait for some perfect moment of silence.

Here’s what you actually do need: a place to sit and some kind of timer.

I used to use a sofa cushion. I use a cheap meditation timer app on my phone, but you could just as easily use a kitchen timer.

First, you sit down, cross-legged, lotus position, or however you are comfortable and able to stay alert. You can sit in a chair, if that’s physically easiest, as long as you don’t lounge. The idea is to be calm and alert, not falling asleep.

Next, you set your timer for 10 or 15 minutes, close your eyes, and focus on your breath until the timer goes off. I started out counting my breaths, returning to “one” every time I found myself thinking instead of focusing on my breath.

You will think all the time. By which I mean constantly.

Here is my meditation this morning: I breathed twice, thought about writing this, breathed once, had a cat on my leg, breathed once, thought about dinner, breathed three times and found myself lost in a long story about a work issue…that’s just how it generally is. Still.

When you find yourself thinking, notice it, and direct yourself very gently and kindly back to the breath. By which I do not mean “you idiot, you screwed up!” Just notice it, and start over again. As many times as it takes.

There is no judgment, there is no success or failure, it’s just a process. You wouldn’t judge yourself if you didn’t become a triathlete the day you started working out, and this is the mental equivalent of that. It’s training.

The goal is not that you stop having thoughts but that you develop the ability to catch them quickly and let them go.

You may also have feelings, which are different than thoughts. A feeling is physical, a tightness in your throat, an ache in your gut. Don’t fight the feelings that rise, but don’t ask invite in and feed them dinner, either (like “I’m sad, I’m still angry about that e-mail, I’m so anxious about everything I have to get done before the party”). That’s thinking. It’s thinking about feelings.

Feelings will pass by, and you’ll acknowledge them, watch them without judgment, and let them go. If you feed them with thoughts they will grow, thrive and take you far from the present.

Everybody has “monkey mind.” Everybody. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t need to meditate in order to be present.

And in calm and abiding presence, no matter who you are or what you believe, there is peace in the midst of any storm.

If I can do it, you can.

And I do.


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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Relaxing Music on Flickr

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