I personally believe that a combination of Western modalities and Eastern wisdom has been crucial to my health (and I use many tools to foster health for myself). However, one thing stands apart as a critical ingredient for my wellbeing: every day I sit quietly for at least 10 minutes and I focus my attention on my breath. Inevitably, at least a few hundred times, my attention will stray and I will smile and take a deeper breath and return to the present moment. This simple practice has profoundly changed my life in ways I cannot even begin to comprehend.
You need a few things to get started, no need to be fancy:
- A comfortable place to sit.
- An object of focus. You pick what! Examples: internal focus on the breath, external focus on a beautiful object, a candle, or the sounds in your environment.
- A timer. (There's an app for that! Search meditation timer.)
And it’s not just me. You can find hundreds upon hundreds of studies citing the benefits of this simple practice. The short list? Meditation: regulates stress hormones, increases mental resilience (including after trauma), improves cognitive function, improves focus, decreases loneliness, increases immunity, helps improve sleep quality, aids in the treatment of depression and anxiety, reduces blood pressure, helps relieve pain, and helps you be nicer to those around you. Whew. Still, I believe that the profundity of this experience cannot be described in words or captured in studies; it must be experienced.
Convinced and ready to try it? It’s challenging to set up a sustainable practice and even many long-time yoga practitioners I know have a hard time making the time every day. Here are my five top ingredients for a successful, sustainable meditation practice. I have given them a good run for their money. See the reference list below or come to class for more information. All credit for this knowledge goes to my teachers, especially Ani Pema Chodron.
1. Planning. OK, I’ll admit it. I had a lot of false starts. This did not come easily to me. At all. Part of creating a new habit (or samskara as we’d say in yoga) involved learning how to outsmart that lazier part of myself that rebelled at the idea of … just sitting there. Practice suggestions:
Set the space. Create a special spot in your home for your practice. If possible, adorn it with inspirational images or objects. Place it in a prominent location where you are reminded of the importance of your practice
RPM: Rise, pee, meditate. It works for many yogis, including me. Try it out. Do it before you look at a screen. I personally have to add a "C" to this: coffee. Make it work for you, no need to be harsh.
You might not feel like it. I rarely do, and I talk about how great meditation is to anyone who will listen. That’s OK. That’s an old samskara resisting the new. Resolve to practice, whether you feel like it or not. Even if you’re just sitting there not counting a single breath, you have made the commitment to your new practice.
2. Compassion. My main meditation teacher, Ani Pema Chodron, emphasizes time and time again, “Harshness is an obstacle to meditation.” Harshness, or any other form of escapism, is not the way to enlightenment. It’s moving in the opposite direction of connection with the true self. When I started, I received basic mindfulness meditation instruction: notice the thoughts as they arrive, acknowledge them with the word thinking, and return to the breath. Well, it wasn’t long before I became like that old cartoon of Elmer Fudd hunting rabbits. Every time a thought even dared to peek around the tree, I was there firing off my bazooka and yelling THINKING. I gotcha! BAD. Which spiraled into I’m a bad meditator. I can’t do anything right. I quit. This harshness did not take me further into peace (surprised?). It took me further into anger and confusion and self-aggression for several years. As Gary Kraftsow says, “A jerk can walk into a meditation hall and emerge a more focused jerk.” That was pretty much what I did for a while. It's possible, even with the best of intentions, to use these practices to become harsher, more narrow minded, and profoundly unhappy. Practice suggestions:
Smile. When you get distracted, regard your mind as you would a child you love very much. Smile, take its hand, and guide it back to the breath. It’s really hard to be happy if you are mean to yourself all the time. Trust me.
Be realistic. You are not trying to eliminate your thoughts. You’d probably have to sever a part of your brain off to do that. I’ve never been given that instruction in any of the traditions I’ve studied. Thoughts will come and go. Soften and allow that process. Use gentle persistence and lighten up a little.
Focus on something external. In many traditions of meditation, the breath is the main object of meditation. But it doesn't have to be for this to work. Other objects to try: a candle, a piece of art you love, a plant, the feeling of the ground underneath, the sounds in your environment, a short phrase (or mantra) of your choice.
3. Curiosity. Ram Dass says, “Everything changes once we identify with being the witness to the story, instead of the actor in it.” Learning to be mindful is the process of learning to take a step back and become the observer. This means that we practice realizing that we are not any of the endless streams of thoughts and emotions that parade through our minds. We cultivate the witness by becoming curious about what’s happening. As Ani Pema teaches, whatever is happening (even the most terrifying of emotions) is an opportunity to become more aware of what goes on in our minds and in turn more compassionate for ourselves and for others. Practice suggestion:
“Isn’t that interesting.” This is my favorite phrase of all time. When you catch yourself getting caught by a thought or emotion, step back, take on the role of the curious observer, refrain from judgment, and say to yourself, “That’s interesting.”
4. Bravery. One of the most profound misunderstandings about mindfulness meditation is that it’s a “relaxing” activity. Some forms of meditation I do find to be relaxing, but sitting quietly and attending to the various thoughts that vie for my attention? I don’t find that relaxing all the time. Ultimately, it leads to greater overall relaxation through a greater ability to stay in the present moment. So it’s more like training, really, and sometimes training in mindfulness can feel uncomfortable, boring, or even downright scary. All that we have been trying to avoid, repress, keep quiet, annihilate resurfaces; it all comes up because it never really went away. So, my dear friends, we must be very, very brave to be meditators. We must be powerful warriors to sit in stillness. Practice suggestion:
“Everything in life is a vehicle for awakening. Nothing needs to be rejected.” Pema Chodron. That flat tire? Your outburst of frustration? Yay, a promotion! That grand moment of forgiveness? Uh, oh, rejection! That “fantastic” meditation session? The friendship that ended in betrayal? It’s all part of the path. All of it. Pema teaches that every event, however big or small, is a chance to wake up. This is because all of it is a chance to soften, to find compassion for ourselves, and ultimately to create greater understanding of ourselves and of others.
5. Community. I truly believe that we were meant to work toward our goals of peace together. This is why the community at Room to Breathe has been such an important aspect of keeping my practice sustainable. As a student, I find that the support of an entire room holding space for meditation is incredibly powerful. I also find so much guidance and support from my friends and teachers in the community. All of our teachers are here to support you in your practice. Please feel very free to ask questions or for further resources! You can also always email firstname.lastname@example.org or post on our social media sites and we'll be sure to follow up.
This practice has tremendous power for transformation, but you absolutely have to put in the work and commitment. I wish you really well on your path, and I hope to see you soon.