As the new year begins, many of us find this a good time to let go of old habits and start healthier ones. Will you make 2015 the year you start meditating regularly?
I'm a pretty typical Type A personality: driven, busy, and often multitasking, while still making an effort to slow down and enjoy life. For years I considered meditation a luxury of those with much simpler lives, something that I couldn't possibly justify making the time for on a regular basis.
I eventually read this book though, that completely changed my view, and suddenly meditation became positively worthwhile for me- Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, by Sharon Salzberg. I recommend it to anyone curious about meditation, especially for those like me who had tried it at various times in their lives and felt like a failure at it for one reason or another. I'm not going to do the book justice here, but I'm going to try to sum up what changed for me, and what I learned from reading Real Happiness.
Here are some of the reasons I've had difficulty maintaining a meditation practice over the years:
My mind would wander. I felt incapable of clearing my mind for 20 minutes. I figured there were people who could do this, and people who could not, and I just couldn't. I felt convinced there were more important things I needed my time for. Life was passing me by, while I sat! Meditation seemed like a waste of this limited resource. Sitting still? What was the point, really? Enlightenment? Did I even want to be enlightened? I was pretty sure meditation was something that might be a huge benefit for certain types of people, but for me, not so much. I'm more of a doer, not a sitter. Keeping myself busy seemed more rewarding.
OK, so here is what I've learned about How to Meditate:
There are so many ways to meditate successfully, but in order to clear your mind of wandering thoughts, it helps to maintain some kind of focal point. Some practitioners use a mantra, a series of words or sounds mentally repeated. These can have meaning to you or not; the point is to have something to come back to when your mind wants to jump around. Another focal point could be your breath, just focusing on the rise and fall of your chest. Or the subtle feel of the air as it softly passes in and out of your nose. Some use a mental image. Whatever you can gently focus on, and come back to as often as needed, will work.
|Choose your focus. Let the rest go.|
For everyone, no matter how experienced, thoughts will come during meditation. It's not a sign of failure or an innate shortcoming. It's human. It's what you do with those thoughts, how you respond, that makes a difference. Do you follow them wherever they lead? It's easy to do, but bringing yourself back to your focal point, gently and consistently, and being prepared to do this over and over again, will help your practice. Successful meditation involves consistently making the choice to gently guide your mind home, to your chosen focal point.
I use a free meditation timer app on my phone so that I can simply set it and meditate for a decent amount of time without checking a clock. The app I use is called Insight Timer, but I'm sure there are others out there that would be just as useful. Even a small kitchen timer or something could work. I like the freedom of being able to sit without thinking about how much time has passed, and at the end of my chosen time, a lovely chime sound signals that I'm ready to begin the rest of my day.
Another aspect of meditating is simply to sit, and be still as much as possible. Adjust your body during meditation only if you must. Moving doesn't mean you failed. I might switch positions if my foot is falling asleep or something. But those small itches and tingles, sensations of "needing" to move, it's best to just breathe them away. It helps me to remind myself, "This too shall pass." And it will. Sensations come and go. Chances are, that tickling you feel is not anything that needs your attention. Learning to notice these sensations without reacting to them is part of the practice. Notice, and let it go.
|This too shall pass.|
If first thing in the morning doesn't work for you, perhaps it's something you could do on your lunch break, or right before bed. I think it helps to have a daily practice if the time you meditate each day is pretty consistent. When I couldn't manage to wake up before my early-rising youngest child, I'd try to show up a little early for yoga class and just sit in meditation on my mat before class. In general though, I know if I skip my morning practice, I'm unlikely to make time for it later that day.
There is discipline in maintaining a meditation practice, and part of the benefit of meditation comes from consistently making time for yourself this way. Once you decide the benefits are worth it (I'll get to that part soon!) create or find a time that works for you and stick to it.
So, that's How, but the question remains, Why?? Why take the time each day to sit, when we have so much else to do? What is the point of meditation? The answer lies in the title of Salzberg's book: Real Happiness. For most of us, our goals in life, at their most basic, are just about being happy. We want to be happier, we want our kids to grow up to be happy, we want to make others happy. Maybe I'm just a Polyanna, but I think we simply all desire happiness, and pretty much all our other goals are just paths to happiness.
What gets in the way of happiness? Annoyances, sadness, anger, hurt. Big things and little things that cause problems for us of one form or another. Meditation practice helps us maintain an even keel when the world is whipping around us. As it will. We can't protect ourselves from all the storms, but we can train our brains to respond to stress in more helpful, less reactive ways.
Consider it exercise for your mind. My friend calls meditation "mind yoga". When we train our minds to stay focused during meditation, to return to the task at hand (just sitting), it helps us in real life to function in confusing and stressful situations. Life gets hectic and we can remain calm. Our minds don't get carried away with worry and stress in difficult situations. Remember, this too shall pass.
Meditation gives us a calm base for the rest of our life. It doesn't mean we won't get irate when the situation calls for it, but perhaps we won't overreact as often as we used to. This is a change that was really clear in my own life. I used to get quite upset about small things, and I absolutely notice that a regular practice gives me a better perspective on life's little annoyances. For example, things like breaking a favorite dish or being late for an appointment no longer feel like the end of the world. This too shall pass.
Even- especially- when big, big problems arise, meditation is there for us. When my last relationship ended a year ago, I was pretty sure my life was over, worried that my kids would grow up emotionally disfigured from the break of their nuclear family, and convinced that I'd never love again. Fortunately, I was in the habit of meditating every morning, and I maintained it throughout my grief. Some days I was so distraught I could only sit for two minutes, but I still made an effort every morning, through a sense of habit, resolve, and self preservation. I do believe this continued practice, feeble though it might have been on some days, is one of the things that kept me grounded in a reality of calmness, and a sense of the bigger picture, during what was definitely the hardest transition of my life. Read about how my family survived, and thrived, after this change, in my article here.
Remember the instruction to gently guide your mind back to your focal point? This is something we learn to do repeatedly, patiently, and kindly. We learn through meditation practice to be patient and kind with our own perceived shortcomings and flaws. We are none of us perfect, ever. We can focus on the ways we screw up, criticize ourselves, and hope to change through self shame. Or, we can embrace, and love, and gently guide ourselves back onto our path, wherever that might be, again and again. Life, like our meditation practice, is kind of a series of stumbles as we move towards our focus, and choosing to return to the practice with a sense of lightness and good humor makes the whole thing much more enjoyable and effective.
To paraphrase Salzberg, it's not about how frequently your thoughts wander during meditation - for they will wander - but how you treat yourself when your thoughts wander. Learning to do this with kindness and patience positively carries over into real life. We get in the habit of being more forgiving with ourselves, and that carries over into being more patient and forgiving with others. As a parent, I see my meditation practice as a real benefit to my children. In times of turbulence, I manage to maintain a little more grace than I used to.
When looked at in this light, I think it's easy to see why even the busiest among us can benefit from a regular meditation practice. Meditation prepares us to keep a calm and balanced mind through life's small annoyances as well as life's huge curveballs.