"I can't meditate."
As a meditation teacher, I hear this all the time. I used to say it myself, in fact. The reasons are many:
- I don't have time. I have kids/a job/kids and a job. A half hour to myself? You must be dreaming.
- It's not my thing. I'm a high-flying, high-powered person/down to earth kind of person/skeptical scientific sort of person, and that woo-woo stuff falls flat with me.
- I can't relax. Even Ativan and Paxil don't help -- you think meditation will?
- I can't stop thinking. I'm constantly thinking, and so trying to make the thoughts stop is maddening.
Yes, I've heard them all - these and many, many more. So, herewith my sage advice on how to meditate without a lot of time, without any woo-woo, even without relaxing and stopping the torrents of thought. The irony: if you meditate without any of these delusions (e.g. that you have to be some ultra-relaxed yogi to do it, or that it's about spiritual woo-woo), you might actually make more progress, rather than less.
So, first myth to debunk: you have to sit on a cushion for 30 minutes in order to meditate. False! Meditation is the process of focusing and watching the mind. That's it. It doesn't matter how you sit, if you sit, or even how long you do it, as long as you give the mind time to slow down. You can meditate while eating, running, even going to the bathroom (more on that in a minute). Why? Because it's in the intention, not the action -- it's the how, not the what.
The point of meditation is not to sit in the shape of a pretzel or chant in Sanskrit. Yes, some people do those things, but they're the means, not the end. The point is: focus and watch the mind. Mostly, this is accomplished by not-doing: not thinking, not getting things done, not rushing, not trying to accomplish a goal. Just sit for a moment, right now, without seeking or desiring anything at all. Just for one breath - try it. Non-seeking, non-desiring, just-being right here. No need to feel anything special - just let the internal chatter stop for a moment.
Do that over and over, for 15 minutes or so, and you've got it.
Of course, in those 15 minutes, the mind will pop up a thousand times. "Here's something you should do!" "Here's something to chew over!" "Here's something you did wrong!" The mind does this not because you are a poor meditator, but because you are human, and this is what our minds have evolved to do. So, each time this happens, you can say "Thanks, Mind. I'm not going to follow that thought now."
Instead, in meditation, you choose an object for the mind to focus on. The mind has to have something to do, after all, so instead of thinking, worrying, planning, etc., meditators say to the mind "Okay, just notice the sensations of breath. Let me know how that goes." In about five seconds, the mind responds "That's boring! Here's something to think instead!" At which point, you reply, "Thanks, Mind. I'm not going to follow that thought now."
See the pattern?
What happens after a few minutes, hours, or days, is that the mind slows down. A few minutes, it slows down a little. A few months, and it really, really slows down, so much so that you can really see how the mind works, how stimulus dictates response, and how we're often enslaved to our desires and needs. But my advice is -- forget about all that. Try to approach meditation without any sense of goal or purpose. It's easier that way.
Now, since all you're really doing, when you meditate, is focusing and watching the mind, it makes sense that you can do that at any time, not just when you're sitting in lotus position. One of my favorite times to meditate is, that's right, sitting on the toilet. This may be the only "alone time" you get all day, and best of all, you can usually cheat and stay longer than you need. So, if you find you have no time to meditate, try doing it on the toilet.
Here's how it works. First, stop doing other things -- reading or worrying or texting (admit it!). Let the mind take a vacation, just relaxing into whatever is going on. On the toilet, there are all kinds of things for the mind to notice: lots and lots of physical sensations, and, most likely, all kinds of emotions too (embarrassment, relief, shame, joy, etc). This is good for busy minds. Just notice, notice, notice. Don't judge (that was gross, that was great), but also, don't judge the judging -- just, whatever happens, notice, notice, notice.
Here's a secret: you don't have to push away feelings or thoughts, because the point isn't what's going on, it's how you relate to it -- it's the how, not the what. When a thought comes up, fine. Just note it, and then return to the physical sensations you were watching. Feel weird? No problem -- just note it, then return to the physical sensations. When you're done, see how your mind is, compared with how it was at the beginning.
The same process works in all kinds of unlikely places. Waiting for the subway to come? Great time to meditate. You can focus on the breath, or other physical sensations, even on the sensations of anxiety or irritation. It's the how, not the what. You can learn a lot about yourself based on what goes through your mind during five minutes on the subway platform.
Same with eating. Right here on the Huffington Post, I've provided an eight-step eating meditation process which you can do in the middle of any meal or snack, even a fast-food one, or a rushed one, or one with a noisy group of friends. It's the how, not the what -- eating is just as good an object of meditation as breathing or walking is.
You don't need to relax to be a good meditator, or to make thoughts stop. To do so is almost impossible anyway. You also don't need an hour of spare time. All you need is some period of time during which you set the intention on focusing and watching the mind.
Nor do you need any weird or funny beliefs. As neuroscientists have now verified, these practices are just like lifting weights: they cause part of the mind to strengthen, and grow. More time spent with meditation, more synaptic connections in the pre-frontal cortex. Of course, you don't need to know the science, but it's nice to know that meditation is a straightforward form of exercise that anyone can do to become more relaxed, more aware, and more sensitive to the things going on around them. And "anyone" includes you!