“Watching your thoughts without judgment.” Andy Puddicombe’s explanation of meditation in a recent session, Headspace
Post UPDATED 2/14/2022: While technology has been introduced into our world as a means of assistance and improvement to the quality of our life, it also has become a means to distract us from being present, from finding balance and from catching our breath. In Time magazine article more than a few years ago, the cover story “The Art of Being Mindful” took aim at the ever more pressing need of being mindful in a digital world that is incessantly grappling for our attention.
And with the mention of mindfulness, the need to master our mind, gain back control when it wanders, and allow it time to reboot on a regular basis, immediately becomes the task at hand in order to live a content and fulfilling life.
Meditation is by no means a new practice. In fact, written records date as far back as 1500 BC when Hindu traditions included meditation, but as more and more scientific research is shown to have direct effects on one’s health, even those who may have shied away from this simple, yet powerful practice are giving it a second thought.
My experience with meditation began in my mid-twenties. For a mind that had not been trained, that upon reflection I now know was not in my control, to sit quietly, to be still, was excruciatingly hard. Why? My thoughts, because I wasn’t holding the reins, loved to run freely and for the life of me, I could not predict where they would go, although they always seemed to find a negative hangout. So I told myself, why would I torture myself by feeding negativity and worry which what would happen when I meditated? I might as well get busy physically and try to control as much as I could in my exterior world. Turns out, I had something right within me that I could control, but I didn’t realize how I could do it. My mind. Which is what meditation would enable me to learn how to do.
Meditation, as you can likely deduce from my experience, was frightening, although I wouldn’t have admitted to feeling that way then. I have a feeling my experience is not unique. My mind used to be a place of constant activity, worry, planning, predicting and in other words, not able to hold myself in the present and savor all that was going well right in the very moment I found myself. The mind can be a tool of destruction if we let it travel down the wrong paths. The key detail in the preceding sentence is “if we let it”. Yep, we can control our minds, and when we do, we elevate our lives, our connection with others, everything changes.
The good news regarding my journey with meditation is that it never left my mind as based on all that I had read, I knew, somewhere within me acknowledgement, this skill would be beneficial if only I could figure out how to do it.
Enter a friend I first met when I moved to Bend in 2015. She had been meditating for quite some time and I found her to be quite calm, reassured, steady and thoughtful. She shared she had been meditating at least 10 minutes a day for quite a few years, so I asked for recommendations on where to begin (again, for me). She suggested Headspace, and I began to explore their platform.
Since 2015 I have logged more than 4000 minutes of meditation (the app tracks and shares this info with you following each session). Now if you do the math you will quickly realize if I had meditated every single day since late 2015, I would not even have meditated for a minute each day, in fact have a minute, 30 seconds, which tells you haven’t been meditating every day, but I will share that over time I have become more consistent.
There are more than many books available to share how to meditate, but I think the best book is the book that tells you to do what works for you. In other words, you can get tripped up by trying to obediently follow exactly how to meditate – how many breaths to take, how to sit, where and how to put your hands, etc., but in my own experience, and with the guidance of my yoga instructors as well as the book after book after book that includes meditation as a skill to add to your every life, below are the keys to a beneficial session:
Simple fundamentals for a meditation session:
- Find a comfortable spot (it need not be entirely quiet, but it can), to sit – either in a chair or on the floor (use a pillow to elevate your hips for more comfort)
- Place your hands on your legs
- Be still
- Begin with your eyes open.
- Begin to breath steadily – count your breaths in and count your breaths out. Don’t worry about the specific number.
- Your thoughts will not stop. That is not the goal. Gradually, you will be able to separate yourself from your thoughts
- Cast no judgment on your thoughts, just acknowledge they are there.
- Close your eyes when you are ready
- Take as little or as long as you need or feel comfortable. I began with 3 minutes, increased to 5 minutes, tried 10 minutes for a while and returned to 5 minutes. Some people do much longer, but do not compare yourself to anyone else.
- End your breathing practice (in other words, mediation practice) with a statement of intention. Place your hands together in front of your heart, eyes still closed. This intention is not only for you, but to those in your world – people you have direct contact with, people who get under your skin, people you haven’t met yet.
- An intention I used when I began came from 10% Happier, a book by Dan Harris, “May you be happy, may you be safe, may your life be filled with peace”.
- I have since created my own to fit my life journey, my values and understanding of how I want to show up in the world. Feel free to use, tweak or be inspired by it.
- May you be Content, May you be Safe, May you be Healthy, May you be Love. May your life be filled with Peace.
- Concluding with Namaste.
And that brings me back to my return to meditation in my current daily health and fitness regimen. The gift of meditation is that it gives you back your mind. What do I mean? I mean, your mind becomes a muscle that you can use to benefit you, rather than letting it run wickedly wild and pull you down with worries and fret.
Jay Shetty, the author of the internationally best-selling book Think Like a Monk includes in his recommendations, the regular practice of meditation. And while simply meditating won’t instill in you the gift of success, and lovability, one of the things a regular mediation practice reveals to me is that regardless of one’s busy schedule, meditation is a simple way of finding balance, finding calm and focusing on priorities. Here are a few other benefits of meditation.
1. A Better Brain
A study in 2004 revealed that Buddhist monks who logged a minimum of 10,000 hours of meditation had brains with more functional connectivity than novice meditators. If you meditate 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening every day, you will reach 10,000 in 16 months. What it demonstrates is that regular meditation does have the health benefit of improved memory and decreased mind-wandering. And more recent studies have proven it increases and maintains grey matter in the brain which decreases memory loss as we get older.
2. Become More Present
When our devices grapple for our attention with alerts, pings and tweets, the moment we direct our attention to our phone, tablet or computer, we remove ourselves from the present. And when we remove ourselves from the present, we miss an opportunity to converse with a neighbor on our walk, notice the first birds of the season chirping away or the texture of the food we have chosen to enjoy. When we are present, we are better able to appreciate and strengthen the conversations we are in, the life we are living and the world around us. Meditation provides the practice to be present as it forces us to step back and observe our thoughts (rather than be controlled by them), focus on our breathing and let our minds relax.
3. Thwart Depression and Anxiety
Mind control, as stated before on the blog, is crucial to creating a life of contentment. When we lose control of our minds, we can drive ourselves batty with worry. But as we practice controlling our thoughts through meditation, we become the master, and the thoughts are weapon of success.
4. Reduce Stress
Scientists have proven that regular meditation can lower cortisol levels (the stress hormone that if secreted excessively and regularly can damage the vessels and weaken the heart) and decrease blood pressure.
5. Increase productivity
Researchers have found that multitasking, focusing on more than one thing at a time in an effort to be more efficiency actually has the opposite effect by lower one’s overall productivity. When we understand that doing more doesn’t necessarily guarantee a better more fulfilling life, we can give ourselves permission to do one thing at a time and do it well. And when we become comfortable with focusing on one thing at a time, being present and not distracted by the past or worrying about the future, we are able to tend to our present task with increased results of grand quality.
6. Emotional Balance
Similarly tied to #3, when we don’t have control of our mind, our emotions control our moods, and we are unable to navigate successfully and consistently through life. But when we realize that our emotions are ours to control and often in response to outside forces that we have no control over, we can take a deep breath, become present and recognize the emotion for what it is. This simple practice becomes easier with regular meditation. Whenever I find myself flustered or emotionally agitated, I do my best to find time in my office or classroom, shut the door and sit down. I place my feet flat on the floor, sit up straight, rolling my shoulder up and back and few times, close my eyes, and breath slowly (in 2 – 3 -4, out 2 – 3 – 4). Often the simple act of breathing, really breathing – using your diaphragm – is not done, but instead shallow, quick breaths are taken. Make sure that when you breathe in, your belly area becomes full and when you breathe out, your belly button gets sucked into your spine.
The practice of meditating is essentially recognizing that we do have the ability to observe our thoughts without letting them dictate our lives. When we can note (mental noting) the thought that is taking us away from the present moment, from being mindful, we are experiencing the benefits of meditation. Andy Puddicombe of Headspace writes,
” . . . when we are caught up in something so completely that we have lost our awareness of the breath or whatever the object of meditation might be. In that moment of awareness, the moment we realize we’ve been distracted, we use the noting to create a bit of space, as a way of letting go, and to gain some clarity and learn more about our habits, tendencies, and conditioning.”
Perhaps it will be difficult for us to see the subtle positive changes in our lives that will regular meditation will bring, but that is primarily because the negative thoughts, thus the unhelpful actions are no longer part of our lives, therefore enabling us each to be free of unnecessary energy depletion and unnecessary worry.
How to Meditate
So now that we know the benefits, let’s talk about how to welcome it into your life.
While I have already shared above a simple approach that I encourage you to tailor to work best for you, I’d like to share what has worked for me. All of the images shared in this post are places I have found myself sitting down, closing my eyes (Norman wanders about gleefully and safely) and meditating. Indeed, Mother Nature provides supportive encouragement for being still. From the ocean waves cresting and ebbing, to the top of a ridge feeling the wind tickle my cheek, to next to a babbling river. Each scenario provides a background music that seems to pulls us away from time and give us space to be.
However, most of my meditation sessions take place in my house before I sit down for breakfast. During the winter months or when inclement weather prevents me from going outside, I plop myself up on my living room ottoman, prop myself up on a pillow for comfort and gaze out upon one of my bird cafés that hangs from the cherry tree in my sunshine garden. Sometimes the sun is just beginning to rise and the birds are flocking and other times the sun is still asleep. Norman will sometimes join me or be sitting nearby, and I let go. I turn on my Headspace app (this is not necessary, but I have found it does help settle and focus me, especially early on in my practice) and begin – sitting, breathing and just being for 5 minutes.
During the summer and warmer weather, I either sit out in my Sunshine Garden as there is privacy from my neighbors and lush foliage offering a quiet space where the morning sun pokes through, or I sit out on my Garden porch as the birds chirp away and I partake in my sessions there, feeling the fresh air and sun on my skin, and losing track of time, giving my mind a grounded place from which to begin the day no matter what is on my schedule.
Find a time during your day when you can most comfortably incorporate your practice into your day. The regular schedule will eventually become a habit, and if you live with others, they will begin to honor your space and time to practice. There is no perfect time of day. I have chosen mornings before I step into the office, before I walk and even before I eat breakfast, but I have also tried to meditate at the end of the day as well, calming the mind before bed. This is yet another way you will tailor your practice you.
Good news to keep in mind when it comes to a busy mind: The key is to not beat yourself up as thoughts begin to swirl. They will. When your mind quiets itself, the natural behavior, because it has been conditioned for years, is for your thoughts to find their momentum. The good news is that by noticing that you have active thoughts is evidence that you are paying attention to your mind and with time, you will be able to slow these thoughts down and eventually step back from them and observe them objectively – without judgment. The best way I’ve discovered to objectively observe my thoughts is to count my breath. I give my yoga instructor Bridgette all of the credit for teaching me a simple, yet very powerful trick. Mix up your counts, breathe in for four and out for two. Breathe in for 4 and out for four. Strengthen your breath and breathe in for 8 and out for 4. You get the idea. When you focus on breathing, your mind isn’t focusing on your thoughts.
I am far from mastering the skill of meditation, but I know that during the past eight months, when my home was being renovated, I veered away from the practice as people were in my house infrequently and at early hours. My entire routine in my house was thrown off, and my being was thrown off consequently. I noticed a difference in my ability to respond well when instead I reacted; the latter being something I do not want to do. The stress built and my ability to ground myself became more difficult. As soon as my house was entirely back in my own company, I returned to my meditation practice, and I immediately noticed an improvement in my steadiness. With each subsequent day, that steadiness has increased and continues to do so.
While there isn’t anything magical about meditation, for me what it provides, is the tool to not take a step or say something or assume something too quickly. Meditation has created the habit of literally taking a breath before taking action. I pause, I step back from the situation and I am able to be more objective than I ever would have been before. It doesn’t mean there won’t be stress in my life nor that I won’t make mistakes, but it increases the odds that I will be at peace with how I engage.
A simple practice that can offer a wealth of goodness into your life. Have a wonderful Wednesday. Namaste.
~SIMILAR POSTS FROM THE ARCHIVES YOU MIGHT ENJOY:
10 Things We Unnecessarily Complicate, episode #210
Responding vs. Reacting: The Difference, episode #145
How to Think for Yourself (and recognize when you haven’t been)