Let’s start with the basics…
What is meditation?
Pema Chodron, Buddhist nun, teacher and author, has described meditation as “making friends with yourself”. I always took this to mean that we are stepping back and observing ourselves as if meeting someone for the first time: free of any preconceived notions or assumptions, and yet also an open and positive sense of curiosity.
But that is a tall order with a lot of heavy expectations: how can I be free of any “preconceived notions” about myself? What if I’m not feeling so positive toward myself?
At its simplest, meditation is sitting in stillness and quiet, and just listening.
One of my favorite “beginner” meditation exercises is to practice listening with each of the five senses, one at a time:
Start by listening with the ears. Listen to your immediate surroundings, listen to the sounds in the next room, across the street. Listen to the sounds in your body – heartbeat, digestion, breathing. Account for each sound one by one, without judgement or trying to change or fix anything – just listen. If the baby starts crying, take care of the baby, and keep listening.
Once you’ve gone through this exercise with the aural sense, move onto the sense of smell, trying to “listen” with your nose, smelling just what is present in your immediate surroundings. Take your time, close your eyes, and try to focus on your sense of smell. Name the smells without judging – roses, old socks, stale air, wet diaper, deodorant. How many distinct smells can you identify in one environment?
…and likewise for sight, taste and touch.
If you read the above paragraphs through, chances are you actually experienced a focused attention on just one of your senses for just a few precious moments – and that, my friends, is meditation.
So, why is this good for me?
Any kind of meditation – focused attention on present moment experiences without judgement or fixation – has been proven to balance endocrine disorders, lower blood pressure, reduce dependency on drugs, improve mood, and enhance immunity. (Read more about the scientific studies on the benefits of meditation here!)
Beyond the physical benefits, a regular meditation practice allows for a natural sense of calm, inner peace, and intrinsic worth to arise. Did you read that right? We are not forcing, making, or even creating these things – there is no formula or input that magically manifests these highly coveted qualities. It is by getting out of our own way, in a sense, that these qualities spontaneously arise. We do this by simply observing, with no idea or notion that we are getting anywhere, doing something, or improving anything.
How could this possibly NOT be good for me?
Meditation is NOT good for anybody who practices like I did for the first 10 years of my very serious and (not so) successful meditation practice: in short, I was trying waaaay tooooo hard! I would get up before the crack of dawn and sit for at least an hour; I took and taught meditation and yoga and martial arts seven days a week to hone my ability to sit very still and “control” my mind. The harder I tried to control my thinking mind, however, the deeper I repressed or ignored my subconscious reality. Like a pressure cooker ready to blow, these buried thoughts and emotions came bubbling over in unexpected and unpleasant (and sometimes completely disastrous) ways in my life.
When your meditation feels like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube – an intricate, frustrating, confounding puzzle (for some!) or even a fascinating, engrossing, intellectual exercise (for others!) you are likely creating more stress, weakening your immune system, raising your blood pressure, and reducing your sense of self-worth to your ability to solve puzzles. I hear very often from my meditation students – beginners and veterans, alike – “my mind just won’t shut up!”
Woah…I think. That’s so not what we’re up to here.
Meditation is NOT about making your mind shut up….or do anything, really. The mundane nature of the human mind is to think. Just like our eyes are made to see, our ears are made to hear, and our nose is made to smell. The mind is just another sense, a way that we interact with and interpret the world. My advice to these students is to step back and just watch the mind in the same way that we noticed our other senses. Let the mind be as noisy as it likes – the mind will manufacture all sorts of crazy thoughts, memories, fantasies and plans – just let it do its thing, as you step aside and observe. The moment we are carried away by one thought or another, we have picked up the Rubik’s cube, determined to solve it now, or in my way, or to make it something that it is not.
Tell yourself there is plenty of time to solve the world’s problems, and promise yourself you will get back to that brilliant thought, or that important task, or that strong emotion – at another time. Don’t worry, it will all still be there when you’re done meditating. The difference, however, is that you will be able to give a fuller attention to these thoughts because you’ve trained in staying present. And after a while, you may notice when you are feeling confused, frustrated, or overwhelmed, that you have a greater capacity to simply put it down until you are ready to come back with presence, clarity and compassion.
And finally, with practice, you may come to notice the difference between your being and your thinking – you are not your crazy thoughts, you are not your wild emotions, you watch them with a gentle presence, without judging or fixating, you pick them up when you are ready and willing to play, and you put them down when you’re done.