I’ve written about weight lifting as a form of meditation but I failed to address what to do if you don’t know how to meditate in the first place. So, meditation as a form of meditation?…redundant? Yes, but you can’t apply meditation techniques to anything until you know the techniques. Here’s to putting the cart back behind the horse where it belongs.
Meditation: What is it and why should it be done?
Meditation is an ancient system of practices that cultivate attention, awareness, inner peace, and calm…even enlightenment. Though there are many (many, many, many) different meditation techniques, they typically fall into three categories:
Open Monitoring (OM)
Focused Awareness (FA)
Combinations of OM and FA
Don’t let that intimidate you, though. Trying on meditation is like trying on new clothes. You have to find the right fit and as you progress, so too will your meditation practice.
We live in a world full of distraction – moving from shiny object to shiny object and our ability to concentrate on one particular item or task has become severely limited. Meditation builds concentration while simultaneously cultivating mindfulness by encouraging the practitioner to sit and concentrate on a particular item such as the breath, other bodily sensations, an idea such as “love” or a mantra.
Invariably, our minds will interrupt our attempts at focused awareness with thinks like, “What’s for dinner?” “Why did Joe say that earlier?” Will my son make the team? “Red Bouncing Ball”
It may also replay an argument, or a moment of passion…we are called not to judge those thoughts as they come into our minds nor should we follow them down the rabbit hole. Rather, meditation encourages us to gently acknowledge the thought and return our concentration back to the object of the meditation. So, if your focus is on counting breaths, you simply return to counting your breaths.
This is where a lot of novices give up. First, they assume they have better control over their minds than they actually do and then they assume that because they’re trying to meditate that they should be good at meditating. LoL That’s like someone believing that they should be good at swimming because they’re trying to swim.
Another point: if you do count breaths, you’ll want to return to the count of one after a distraction. Sometimes we might become discouraged because we got all the way to 100 only to become distracted and have to return to one. The number isn’t important so don’t attach too much significance to it. Truly, even meditation masters have to start over sometimes.
The only way to get good at meditation is by practicing.
The mind likes to think and move: it solves problems, invents scenarios, replays our past and predicts the future. Getting it to stop doing that for 10 minutes is sometimes like getting a cat to walk on a leash but both you and I have seen cats walk on a leash. It’s possible! Similarly, it’s possible to get the mind to calm down and focus only on breathing. It just takes persistence, and a little self-compassion.
We have a tendency of believing that we are “the mind.” We believe that we are the thoughts that run through our heads and consequently, we allow those thoughts to produce unnecessary and sometimes irrational emotional reactions within our bodies.
However, we are no more our minds than we are the wrench we use to tighten a bolt or the clothes we wear. Wrenches and clothes are tools. The mind is also a tool and meditation proves this because rather than identifying with the thought as it emerges from the depths, we instead, observe it as it emerges. You cannot be the thought if you observe it as it arises. Similarly, you cannot be the mind if you observe it as it thinks. In this way, the mind is like one of our senses-like our eyes. We are not our eyes even though they show us the world around us. The eyes are the tool we use to see our world. The mind is the tool we use to make “sense” of our world.
It is our identification with our thoughts and their associated emotional responses in the body that often cause us trouble. We have a thought, believe it to be true or real (because we thought it,) and then act upon it or allow it to act upon us. Regardless of whether or not those thoughts are happy/sad/positive/negative, they are simply manifestations of the mind.
The ultimate aim of many meditation techniques is the cultivation of “no mind.” Said another way, the goal of many expert meditation practitioners is to be able to create and dwell within a state of pure consciousness where their mind is free of thought yet completely aware.
Set a timer on your phone for 5,10, or 15 minutes.
Sit in a comfortable chair with your feet on the ground and arms comfortably in your lap. (Alternately, you may sit on a cushion with your legs comfortably folded in “Indian” style, arms gently resting in lap.)
Make sure your back is upright and straight.
Now, take a slow, deep “belly” breath. The belly breath engages your diaphragm rather than your shoulders. You’ll know you have done this correctly because your belly will extend rather than your shoulders moving up/down.
Release the breath.
Take several more deep belly breaths and settle into a natural breathing rhythm…I.e. one that doesn’t require you to think too much about. Once the rhythm feels natural, begin counting your breaths on each inhalation.
One complete inhale/exhale cycle counts as 1. Then 2, 3, 5, 10 and so on.
As you count your mind will start to wander. Try not to become frustrated at this. When you notice it happen simply say:
Back to breath
Allow the thought to pass by like a cloud and restart your count.
Some thoughts will be “sticky.” They may be about a particular issue that you’re dealing with or a problem you must solve. They may be happy thoughts like the face of a loved one. There’s time for all that later. Right now we’re just counting breaths. Don’t allow the thought to pull you along.
Back to breath
Sometimes we get pulled along without even realizing it and that’s ok too but when you do catch yourself:
Back to breath
With enough practice you’ll find yourself only restarting once or twice, and then not at all before your timer goes off.
The most important parts of this exercise are: cultivation of the mindfulness necessary to stay present with the breath AND being gentle and compassionate with yourself as you have to start over. Remember: you can’t swim until you’ve learned how to. In the same way, you can’t meditate until you’ve learned how to.
This meditation exercise is one that some Zen Buddhists spend their entire lives practicing. It’s called “sūsokukan” it is part of the Zazen tradition.
If you practice meditation, what is your favorite practice? Comment below.
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