More and more often, these days, I’m hearing from folks who are trying to begin meditation practices. They’ve read a book, downloaded an app, found someone with a nice voice on youtube or they’re going it alone, just sitting there, waiting. What adventurous people!
And then I hear from people that they aren’t suited to meditation because they tried it and they failed. Aw, well. Please let it be known: meditation is accessible and meditation requires practice. We can learn how to do it and we can decide to do it with patience and compassion towards ourselves. If we expect to become enlightened unicorn guru masters at the first go, we’re in for a great big sad. So how do we approach this? With total friendship toward ourselves.
Here’s the thing. Sitting down to meditate cold is about as comfortable as doing anything else cold. Let’s face it… most cold things are uncomfortable. At first. Until we warm up. So why not cultivate warmth and comfort?
It seems that meditation is becoming pretty hip for a few reasons. Some of them are pretty awesome. These are the ones that acknowledge how unnecessary it is to remain in anxiety, to languish in sleeplessness, to suffer chronic pain, to deal with constant distraction. Sometimes, I hear meditation is used to improve a love life or advance a career. That’s all well and good, but it might be a little ridiculously tunnel-visioned. In other words, it’s pretty likely that your love life isn’t awesome for a variety of reasons that are going to require a bit of self-examination. Likewise with your business. Let’s just acknowledge the appropriate starting ground. Realize and soften the impact of you on you (be a friend!) and your world improves.
This is where the concept of meditation may be helpful to understand. In the West, a lot of folks simply think of it as ‘sitting there.’ Some folks consider it daydreaming or spacing out. The contrary is true. Meditation is the practice of cultivating a single-pointed focus so the mind’s chatter quiets down. We can call it contemplation (originally, ‘the act of looking at’) as well, acknowledging that this means a high concentration on a single object.
Over the millennia, the focus of attention may have been light, God, love, breath. Whatever it is, it is only that in meditation. The process of being in that focus, over time, cultivates a merger with that object. What begins as an inward focus develops into an absorption in the one-pointedness. This has been called emptiness by Zen practitioners and fullness in the yoga tradition. Same same.
(In fact, the word zen is the Japanese word taken from the Chinese word dzjen or chan which is taken from the Sanskrit word dhyana, or meditative state. All paths get you there.)
Patience, grasshopper. It takes practice. The practice of meditation offers an abundance of gifts in itself. As you learn how to redirect your mind again and again, you will discover that this process is also available when you are not intentionally meditating. When we develop agency over the mind’s pursuits, we learn how to direct it to our benefit or the benefit of any situation. We become calmer because we aren’t ricocheting from thought to thought to thought without relief.
The kindest thing you can do for yourself as you begin is to prepare wisely. Choose a quiet space, turn off distractions, assess the condition of your body, pay attention to the speed of your mind.
For the space, let it be clean and comfortable. Make it special for yourself so you can develop a relationship with the space that will support your endeavor. You may like to light a candle, water a plant, or gaze on a pretty picture to settle your energy as you start.
For the body, ask yourself and answer honestly your ability to sit with an upright, extended spine for more than 5 minutes. If this is an impossibility, you’ll simply work your way up! Though it seems like yoga asana may be strictly for the purpose of instagram, the truth is, most of the poses are meant to prepare your body, energy and mind for the rigors of sitting still over extended periods. A simple sequence of gentle forward folds and simple spine extensions will increase your body’s acceptance of the position you will take. You may be interested in doing the simple, short practice here to prepare.
As you begin, please consider sitting just on the edge of a chair with your feet firmly resting on the ground so that you can lengthen your spine comfortably. If you insist on sitting on the ground, please lift your bum onto a bolster so that your knees are lower than your hips. Most importantly, be gentle with yourself. If you need to move, do so mindfully to relieve whatever ache is developing. As you continue in your practice, over time, these instincts to fidget will diminish.
For your mind, as you get started, simply listen to the burbling brook of babble in your mind. There’s no need to judge it. Sometimes, I like to thank it when it’s particularly raucous. ‘Thank you, wonderful mind, for all of this amazing activity.’ That way, I remember that mind is a treasure that like a pile of gold coins with a tendency to scatter itself all over the place. It’s also nice at the start to simply notice the patterns of thought. I like to say, ‘Oh, you again. I hear you but now we’re focusing on …’ Sometimes, my mind will offer up a series of startling images or ideas. I say the same thing. ‘Oh, I hear you. Right now, let’s focus on …’ Constant redirection. And if I get lost in one of those images, it’s no problem. As soon as I realize I’m lost, I say, ‘Oh dear, we’ve wandered. Let’s get back to our focus on…’
Over time, with practice, the thoughts start to come more slowly because the mind has become more adept at remaining with its focus.
It’s not unlike strengthening muscles. At first, it seems impossible to lift a certain weight or run a certain distance. Over time, with training, it’s not only possible but pleasant. We learn about our capacity and the obstacles we put in place to enhancing it.
Most importantly, and I know I’m repeating myself, always remain friendly with yourself. That means all parts of you. A meditation practice does no good if we push and punish ourselves. I always loved when my teacher would remind us, ‘if you insist on being an asshole when you meditate, meditation will make you a bigger asshole.’
The best preparation is choosing how to be kind to yourself, to be comfortable, to be a friend. Please don’t be an asshole.