My senior year of college a very wise advisor told me that I should establish a meditation practice. While I didn’t know much about meditation, I took his advice to heart. After walking out of my first meditation class I immediately saw the world differently. Everything was in sharper focus—trees seemed to vibrate, plants glowed, and I felt alive and connected to my surroundings in a way I hadn’t experienced before. I experientially understood the transformative power of meditation. Yet, when it came to practicing on my own, I felt I couldn’t do it. At that time, it seemed my mind was always racing and my thoughts often included a stream of self-judgments, which made meditation a miserable and intolerable experience. Quiet my mind… who was I kidding?
During the following years of self-growth work, my perceived inability to meditate and conviction that I “should” meditate became a burden. I felt it was the one—and ironically probably the most important—practice that I simply could not grasp.
Two years ago, and 18 years later, I found myself in yet another meditation class (Michele Meiche’s class at Agape) and with a little grace, and a kitchen timer, something finally clicked.
Here is what I learned:
Meditation can be a way of living and being in the world. We can bring our mindfulness and practice to our daily interactions and routines.
Meditation can be sitting in stillness for hours, but it can also be as simple as taking a few minutes to connect with the energy of oneness; throughout the day, we can bring our awareness to our thoughts and then return to what is.
When I meditate, it doesn’t matter if my mind races the entire time. The point is that each time it does, I observe the thoughts and then bring my attention back to my breath. Being conscious of my thoughts and returning to my breath is like slowly building a muscle. It becomes easier the more I practice.
A meditation practice may be personal. There is no one way or “right” way to meditate. I discovered I could even pause to write down an insight, or a nagging to-do, or scratch an itch, and then return to my practice.
Here is what I did:
1. I started small. Ten minutes sounded reasonable to me, so I began with five. I wanted to set myself up for a win. Each month I increased the time.
2. I got a timer. The timer was key for me. I needed the structure of the timer to combat my perfectionism and feel safe and in control. I knew I could deal with just about anything for 5 minutes—including my own mind. The timer helped ease my perfectionism because I had an attainable goal—to sit for 5 minutes. That was it. I knew I would do it “right” if I simply practiced for five minutes.
3. I realized I did not need to quiet my thoughts to have a successful meditation. In fact, when I began it was pretty much about sitting there and watching all my thoughts, but the difference was I was okay with that. The goal was not to get rid of my thoughts but to observe and witness and then return to my breath, knowing that each time I did this I was building my “meditation muscle.”
4. If thoughts come up I observed them. I watch the thoughts or say to myself, “there is thinking,” and then return to placing my attention on my breath. My sister imagines a flowing stream and each time a thought comes up, she imagines placing the thought on a leaf and then putting it in the stream to float away.
5. I start my meditation the same way each time with two easy steps: 1) I remind myself to place my attention on my breath. 2) I set an intention. I will say to myself one of the following: “My intention is to commune with spirit or to experience my oneness or to wake up.”
6. I try to be as consistent as I can with time and place. I found a place to sit that inspires me with a great view and a seat that comfortably supports my back. And I found a certain time of the day (after I put my son down for nap) that most days seems to flow.
7. I made a commitment to myself and also Spirit. This concept of committing to Spirit certainly raised the stakes.
8. I took Leo Babauta’s advice in his book Zen Habits and told lots of people about my commitment. Specifically I said: I now meditate every day and I can’t imagine missing a day.
Meditation is now as much a part of my life as brushing my teeth. I hardly ever miss a day and when I do, I really miss it. I find I walk around in a bit of a distracted daze, unable to focus. While at the beginning there was a discipline involved, now I crave it. The inner-transformations I have been experiencing are truly amazing. I have a new sense of space and peace in myself and my life. Sometimes my practice is still done out of sheer will and discipline and I spend the entire time observing my thoughts and getting my attention back to my breath. There are also many times that I easily connect with the presence and enjoy the ride.