Meditation has been touted recently as the solution for everything from ADHD to PTSD. It's being introduced in schools, workplaces, and hospitals. A meditation instructor of mine calls this growing popularity "McMindfulness." The research does seem compelling as scientists the world over try to understand the neuroscience and physiology behind the success of mindfulness meditation. So far results have shown meditation can help us reduce stress and emotional reactivity. It also seems that meditation may lead to enduring changes for those who practice it. There's a reason people have been doing it for thousands of years, but there is also a lot of misunderstanding that gets in the way for those hoping to benefit from this ancient practice. Here are some things to consider if you're interested in what meditation has to offer.
Meditation is not something to be mastered
"I just couldn't nail it," I heard an acquaintance say recently. "I couldn't get the breathing right." The fact is, it's called meditation "practice" for a reason and no one "nails" it. I have suffered with anxiety all my life. When I first started meditating years ago, I found focusing on my breath, as I was instructed, just made me feel more anxious. Instead I developed my meditation with an open awareness, eyes open, focusing on nothing in particular. Meditation eventually helped me with my anxiety making it possible for me to focus on my breath but there was no perfect way to do it.
The only wrong way to do meditation is by not doing it at all. One of the most important ideas of the practice is that you don't judge yourself, your thoughts, or your meditation. Not judging oneself is a tall order, but meditation is where you can practice, and you begin by not judging the way you do it. The basic idea is to take some time to try to be present in the moment. If you sat down and you tried to do this, consider yourself successful.
Your mind is not empty during meditation
For every person I've heard say they've been turned on to meditation, I can count two or three who say, "It doesn't work. My mind is too busy." While it's true that meditation is practicing the skill of letting go of the stream of thoughts that pop into our heads, it doesn't mean your mind is a blank--our minds are never blank. But we sit and practice letting go of those thoughts again and again so that we get better at letting go when we are not on the meditation cushion. Happify has a cute animated video that explains this well: Meditation 101: A Beginner's Guide.
"We don't meditate to become better meditators," says Jane Kolleeny, retreat director of the Garrison Institute in Garrison, New York which holds many workshops in mindfulness. "We meditate to become better human beings." Kolleeny has been meditating herself for decades and also teaches meditation on weekends at the Westchester Buddhist Center, in Irvington, NY.
Meditation doesn't take all that much time
One could devote hours to a meditation practice, but there are benefits to doing it just ten minutes each day. I've found ten or fifteen minutes each morning is usually all I can afford but I have found it to be helpful. I am at my most alert in the morning. I know I'll have a busy day ahead of me as a teacher and I have a mental checklist of a million things running through my head. It's easy to want to jump up and take care of a few things to get my day started. But every day, I have a chance to resist the urge to do that. I get the chance to stay present, not running with an impulse but just staying with the moment. There are a lot of times in life we need to stay with something when we'd rather be doing something else. Meditation is the place to practice not running and the results of that practice have shown up in my daily life. I have been a master procrastinator all my life. In the last couple of years, I've gotten better at not putting things off and I attribute it to meditation.
Meditation is not relaxing
While meditation will ultimately bring you a sense of peace, it's not going to happen right away. Deep breathing is relaxing. Meditation is often anything but that. The act of meditation is one of heightened awareness both physically and mentally. In fact, it's the point. You are supposed to be aware of how you feel at that moment. You'll want to have the proper posture and keep your back straight. You'll focus first on the breath sensation but you'll also want to be aware of anything you hear. see, or smell without specifically engaging with them. Then, because you're not engaged with anything else, you'll find your mind filling with the noise of your inner self. Those thoughts are annoying at the least and overwhelming at their worst. It was in meditation that I began to learn how not to engage so much with the negative thoughts in my head. What I had to learn to do was what Pema Chödrön, the Western Buddhist nun, and author of the book, How to Meditate, calls resting with discomfort, rather than running from it or engaging with it. Starting this, she says, is like a "detox period" because suddenly you're left with all those feelings you were trying to avoid. But if we're "willing to stay even a moment with uncomfortable energy," she says, "we gradually learn not to fear it."
And sometimes, when the noise gets quiet, some pretty uncomfortable stuff can come up out of the subconscious. Those moments are not relaxing, but they are important and they may lead to us developing a better understanding of ourselves.
"Meditating is really becoming friends with your own mind," Says Jane Kolleeny.
Meditation can be for anyone. But just as in starting an exercise routine, in which case the hardest part is often getting to the gym, the hardest part of meditation is often getting to the cushion (or chair). Some say it's got to be as routine as brushing your teeth. If you're willing to start, the payoff in self awareness is worth it.