Reader Question: I want to become more mindful in all parts of my life especially my relationships and have heard a lot about meditation. Can it really help? How do I do it? It sounds so hard! ~ David
Meditation is one of the best ways to become better connected to yourself, which is your primary relationship. In fact, all our relationships are just variations on our relationship with ourselves. So anything that helps you become more in touch with your true self is good for all your relationships and your life in general.
Most of us live lives disconnected from our inner selves. We charge through our days mindlessly, chasing our to-do lists, bemoaning our lacks and gaps, assaulted by that relentless inner voice detailing what we don’t have and don’t like. If we come at meditation as if it’s just another thing to get done, it’s no wonder we think it’s difficult. On the other hand, we also don’t have to become monks and retreat to a mountain top in order to mediate.
Perhaps it would help to think of meditation as a way to retrain your mind similar to how fitness retains your body. And just as there’s no one correct fitness regimen, there’s also no single correct way to meditate. Different traditions and different types of meditations have their own general practices; and within those practices, individuals have their own preferences. Some folks like to sit cross-legged on the floor or a cushion; others prefer a comfortable chair. Some like music; others prefer silence. Some like guidance or sound wave technology; others go it alone. Some like to mix it up. The “correct” way to meditate is the one that works best for you.
One thing that is generally true is that it’s virtually impossible for beginners to sit for hours and think of nothing or attempt to have an “empty mind,” which is a common misconception of what meditation is. That said, it’s pretty easy to take baby steps and get started.
When I first started meditating, I couldn’t even sit still, much less quiet my chatterbox mind. So I started by setting a timer for 5 minutes, playing soft soothing music, and just relaxing. I didn’t worry about what my mind was up to and didn’t try to control it. My goal was simply to learn how to be still for 5 short minutes without fidgeting. That was enough of a challenge.
It was amazing how quickly my body agreed to be still once I gave it permission and set aside this time. And it was also amazing how quickly my mind began quieting in response. And then I discovered movement meditation, and have now found the combinations and traditions that worked best for me.
The 4 aspects of meditation:
Focus meditation involves concentrating on a single point. That might be repeating a single word or mantra, paying attention to your breath, staring at a candle flame, listening to a repetitive sound like a gong, or even counting beads on a rosary. When your mind wanders, and it will especially when you are just getting started, you bring your attention back to this singular point. Rather than chasing all the random thoughts that intrude, you let them go and refocus on your chosen point.
Like any new work-out routine, meditation takes practice. In the beginning, you might be able to focus for only a couple of minutes. That’s just fine. Just as with physical fitness, you’ll work up to longer durations and your ability to concentrate will improve.
Mindfulness encourages you to notice the thoughts that parade through your mind without engaging with them or judging them. As you do this, persistent topics and patterns will emerge. You’ll probably notice a tendency to quickly judge your thoughts as “good” or “bad.” That’s normal, but they’re really not good or bad. They’re just thoughts and have no meaning until you give it. What this awareness can do for you is to help you achieve a better balance. If you habitually get bogged down in negative, critical, or blaming types of thoughts or frequently dwell on unhappy moments, you will become more aware of that habit and can choose differently if you so desire.
Mindfulness is often practiced along with focus. As you sit quietly and notice your thoughts, it may help to have a focus to concentrate on and to help bring your mind back to as it wanders. Some teachers advocate stillness, but I find mindfulness works equally well with still or moving meditations.
There’s a lot of power and benefit in creating daily practices. A practice of gratitude could consist of writing down all the things for which you are grateful every day, then thinking on them. It could also involve daily reframing – looking for the good within less-than-savory moments. A practice of compassion could consist of focusing on opportunities to show compassion to yourself and others, especially when your knee-jerk reaction is to show judgment, criticism, or sarcasm. Julia Cameron advocates for Morning Pages, three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. Will Bowen promotes A Complaint Free World. All of these can become habits and as we spend time with them each day, they can also become waking, conscious meditations.
Guided meditation is both an easy way to get started and a practice I find extremely beneficial. You simply meditate while listening and responding to the guidance provided by a trained practitioner or teacher, either in person or via a written text, audio recording, or video. It often combines verbal instructions or visualizations with music.
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Practices such as Tai Chi, Nia, or even simple mindful walking help us become more aware of where we are in our bodies, in our moments, and in our minds. They also offer the added benefit of movement for your body.
Walking meditation is incredibly simple and pleasurable. It simply means becoming aware of each step, instead of rushing from one place to the next. In nature or around your neighborhood, it can include noticing and enjoying the sights and sounds. On a crowded street, it might mean tuning out the noise and finding the quiet within. Leisurely strolls are lovely, but you can practice walking meditation anywhere, anytime, even going to an appointment or from the parking lot to the store. The key is allowing yourself to be calm, relaxed, and unhurried. Walking meditations also offer the miracle of release. It becomes much easier to leave your worries behind when you are literally walking away from them.
Benefits of meditation:
The only goal of meditation is to learn to be present and enjoy the truth of each present moment. That said, there are number of benefits to incorporating meditation into your life routines including:
- lower blood pressure
- improved circulation
- lower heart rate
- slower respiratory rate
- lower blood cortisol levels
- less anxiety
- less stress
- more feelings of well-being
- more relaxation
- more peacefulness
- more connection to self and others
Everyone is capable of meditating, and there is a style and practice suitable for everyone. There’s no need to force it. That’s counterproductive. It’s not an assignment and you won’t be graded. You also won’t get a cookie for getting it “right.”
The results won’t be like you expect, especially in the beginning. Impatiently expecting an immediate tangible result will only cause frustration and make you feel as if nothing is happening. Kind of like starting a workout routine and expecting to instantly lose inches or gain stamina. Often, I become aware of the results only in hindsight, after they have already infused my life.
Think of meditation as a lifelong gift to yourself. It isn’t something to be accomplished overnight. It isn’t something you check off and call done. However, as it becomes part of your routine, the results become part of your reality.