Sitting lotus-style in a candlelit room, OM-ing to chant music, not a thought in one’s mind. Blissfully relaxed. Supremely calm. Undisturbed by emotions, the fly buzzing around, your foot falling asleep…
This is the image that often comes to mind when people think of meditation.
And last I checked, 99% of the people I know aren’t Buddhist monks who have sat in meditation hours a day for most of their lives. So why hold yourself to some crazy, unrealistic standard?
Meditation does not look just one way. There are so many styles and ways to meditate. And it DOES take practice. And the goal is NOT always getting to a non-thinking place. Sometimes it’s just about calming down. Slowing the heartbeat, slowing the thoughts. Sitting with one thought or feeling in particular. Observing the chaos inside one’s head. Observing the joy in one’s life. Sitting with sorrow until it is truly and deeply felt.
And yes, over time, you can learn to create a still, quiet place inside yourself. You can learn to become relaxed and peaceful. Sounds nice, in theory, right? But let’s really look at this. Why do people meditate? What’s the benefit? How does it work?
I chose to start meditating so that I could learn to discern my inner wisdom from my mind’s conditioned thought patterns, from the expectations, the judgments, the doubts we all carry around like overstuffed bookbags. We get so used to carrying these things we don’t realize how heavy they really are until we set them down. Until we get a break from the weight of it all. And then we go to put that bookbag back on and almost fall over, because WOAH. That shit weighs a ton. So then we open the bag and take a closer look. What’s in there? Why do I still have that textbook from last year’s Biology class? And do I really need the world’s largest thermos, or would a smaller one suffice?
For me, meditation is a way to take inventory of my life. To keep what’s working for me, what’s useful and needed, and what adds to my overall health and happiness… and to acknowledge the things I no longer need. Perhaps some of them I never needed. Perhaps some were very useful for a time, but now I’ve learned that lesson, or outgrown that sweatshirt, or upgraded from a pencil to a pen. I need to take time to go through this bookbag, to open up my head and see what’s really whirring around in there, and do a good tune-up. It keeps me in good working order (not overwhelmed, able to be present with my loved ones, better focused on my work, feeling connected to others and to myself). It calms me down when I start to get stressed or anxious. It’s a way for me to take responsibility for myself, my thoughts, feelings, actions and to live in the world from a place of centered, heartfelt, purposeful action and not constant REaction, always being triggered by emotions stuffed so far down I don’t even realize that I’m actually upset about Y while I’m yelling at my husband for X.
True consciousness is so far beyond the thoughts that circulate in our minds. It involves getting beyond the noisy, distracting chatter and really becoming aware of what’s at play beneath the stress and drama of busy everyday life. Awareness requires stillness, it requires a connection with your heart… with the part of you that dreams and feels and hopes. When we make choices from this place of connection, when we thank the mind for being the amazing machine it is, and then make it work for us instead of run us, when we give the talking stick back to the heart and really, deeply listen… magical things can happen. Yes, magical. Wonderful. Transformative. Uplifting. Delightful. Awesome.
Ok, so now you reallllllly want to meditate, right? With all these promises of magical awesomeness in your life, who wouldn’t? Let me first tell you that life isn’t always either/or. You can have magical transformative delightful happenings, and still get annoyed about scooping the litterbox, or your boss acting like a jerkface, or your sweet, precious toddler refusing to go to bed when you really just want to sit down with the chocolate chip cookies you’ve been hiding from him and watch the last episode of Dexter (because chocolate chip cookies are a GREAT complement to serial killers, let me tell ya). Believe me, I know. I’m not saying your life is going to go from the toilet to a golden palace in a week because you meditated a lot. You will not automatically be as unruffled and glowing with kindness as the Dalai Lama after a month of meditation. Or maybe you will be. That’s not how things have gone for me, though, or most of the meditating people I know.
Meditation is a way to see yourself, your relationships, and the world at large in a new light.
But what CAN and probably WILL happen is that you start to be less triggered by your usual stressors. You’ll start to be a little gentler with yourself once you tune in to how your mind likes to make you feel like dog poop at times. And then you’ll start feeling more empathy for others. And people will respond to that. You might start to slow down a bit. To make MORE time for meditation and LESS time for watching TV. You’ll probably sleep a little better. You might do that thing you’ve been wanting to do for a really really long time but never did because it seemed silly or cost too much money or so-and-so would think you were crazy/self-indulgent/stupid. And you won’t care so much what so-and-so thinks anymore.
But I don’t care what anyone thinks, you might say. Well, it could be interesting to look at what might have led to that reaction in you. What caused you to feel like you had to shield yourself from others’ opinions? What hurt you, annoyed you, upset you to lead to that position?
All I’m saying is that meditation is a way to see yourself, your relationships, and the world at large in a new light. Or multiple lights. To get to the heart of things. And the BEST part about meditation is that you can do it anywhere, anytime, free of charge! Ok, that’s more like 3 best things. But it’s a very empowering and useful resource to have.
Now, as I mentioned, there are many different types of meditation. Guided meditation, mindfulness meditation, walking meditation, etc. For now, I’m just going to teach you how to get to a more calm, centered, relaxed state. From there you can move on to exploring what to do once you get there.
- Step 1: Get in a position you can be comfortable in for more than 5 minutes. Usually, this means either lying down or in a chair with a back and your feet on the floor. Forget lotus-pose or sitting cross-legged for now unless you regularly sit that way all the time. Your knees will hurt and your feet will fall asleep if you’re not used to this position, trust me.
- Step 2: TURN OFF YOUR PHONE. Unless you are using it to play music, which brings me to…
- Step 3: Put on some relaxing music. Instrumental, chants, or theta brainwave type music. Something that will help your mind and body calm down a bit.
- Step 4: Close your eyes and breathe. Deeply and slowly. Use your diaphragm and feel your belly extend out as you inhale through your nose and sink back in as you exhale through your mouth. If your shoulders are moving up and down a lot, you are breathing too shallowly. Deepen the breath into your stomach and feel your stomach expand. To ensure you are breathing nice and slowly, count to 8 on the inhale, pause, then exhale to a count of 10. Pause, and then inhale again. Try to take 20 or so breaths at this pace. Really focus on the breath – on counting in and out, or on the feeling of the breath moving in and out of your body. This helps thoughts from popping up and distracting you.
- Step 5: After 20-30 deep breaths, open your eyes, wiggle your toes, and take note of how you feel. If you were able to complete this exercise, I guarantee you will feel fairly calm and relaxed. If your thoughts distracted you from focusing on your breath, or you felt uncomfortable and couldn’t really get in the flow of breathing – it’s ok. Just keep trying and it WILL GET EASIER. Email me with questions, or join a meditation class or group for extra help if needed. But mostly, just keep trying.
Ok, you’ve got the hang of breathing now. Once you have developed a rhythm of breathing deeply and slowly without needing to count, you can move on to other types of meditation. You might want to try listening to a guided meditation. There are some great ones available online, both for free or for purchase. You might want to go in with a particular question or feeling or issue that’s been bothering you. Feel yourself relax into the breath, and then ask for clarity around the issue or the question. Trust what comes up – it might be feelings, images, or words. Have a journal nearby to write it down, or record your voice speaking. Or just sit with it and see what comes up. Whatever you feel called to do.
You can also use the breathing technique in your day-to-day life. Driving in traffic. Encountering stressful or angering situations. Take a moment and do some deep breaths. Obviously you have heard this before – this is not new advice. But have you really, truly, consistently APPLIED this in your life? The more you do this, and the more often, the better it works. You really will regain your composure, feel a renewed sense of calm, and probably come up with a much better way to handle the situation than if you just reacted in the heat of the moment. Or you’ll feel called to grab some chocolate chip cookies. Either way, you are relieving yourself of some of the stress or upset and replacing it with calm and happy.
If you find you enjoy meditating to receive guidance and not just to feel relaxed, you might consider doing some specific meditations around connecting with guides, angels, etc. There are also ways to blend meditation with healing energy work, to cleanse your chakras or send healing to a specific part of your body. You can become more aware of the flow of energy (chi/ki) in your body and use that to “boost” your meditative state and also promote balance and better health. There are so many directions you can take your meditation practice! But that, my dears, is a topic for another day.