Meditation: What, Why, and How, Troubleshooting & Tips
A Personal Quest:
After undergraduate college, I moved from the east coast to the rocky mountains in an effort to exchange my stressful, go-go-go attitude for a tranquil, slower-paced life, via which, I hoped to reset, reflect, and process. A winter job at a lesser-known ski-resort in Wyoming did the trick; for almost a year, I lived in a small cabin with spotty cell phone service, no tv, and no internet. Besides snowboarding and hiking, my daily activities included drawing and teaching myself yoga and the harmonica. Life was simple and I was happy.
Unfortunately, the tranquility I experienced didn’t carry over to life after the cabin in the woods.
When I decided to attend grad school, I resumed the busy mindset I’d cultivated throughout my years of schooling (especially private boarding school, where the entire day was scheduled, down to the hour) and from witnessing/adapting the habits of my parents, whom both worked constantly- weekdays and weekends- with little-to-no relaxation time.
As I found myself, once again, a victim to my to-do list, sabotaging self-care and adequate rest, and filling my schedule with multiple jobs on top of classes, I wondered why it was so difficult for me to slow down, live in the moment, and truly appreciate life.
A dear friend, born and raised in a quiet, rural town of New Mexico, offered me an insight that has remained with me over the years. He compared the momentum of my life to the momentum of a bicycle: It’s not easy to slow a bike down when you’re going fast, just as it isn’t easy to slow your mind and pace of life down. A slower pace of life may be simpler but, achieving ‘simple’ is not easy!
I think many people, especially the millennial generation, can relate to what I’ve termed a ‘go-go-go attitude’. An article that recently went viral, “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation”, by Ann Helen Petersen, sums it up perfectly (find a link to the article in reference section below). It points out a sad reality of the culture we live in, where even pleasurable activities can be experienced as nothing more than things to cross off a never-ending to-do-list. Petersen writes, “instead of living life, we try to optimize it”.
If you can relate to this struggle, meditation can be one of your greatest allies, as it has been one of mine.
What is Meditation?
Many people believe the point of meditation is to ‘silence the mind’ or, clear it of thoughts. Instead, the point of meditation is to simply observe the mind. When we meditate, we are taking a step back to recognize and accept, without judgment, the mind’s activity. It is a practice, that develops and changes over time.
Think of the mind as a tool and meditation as the practice of honing, or sharpening that tool- much like a pencil and a pencil sharpener. Once, we become aware of the continuous flood of activity passing through our brains and we learn to simply recognize it, without judging it or resisting it, we start to cultivate an inner sense of peace and self-acceptance. The sensation we cultivate during meditation can become a reference point for calmness, steadiness, and confidence, and over time, we can invite these sensations into our day-to-day lives.
“There is no way to happiness; happiness is the way.”- Thich Nhat Hanh (Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist).
Buddhist philosophy teaches us that as humans, we are born wired to suffer. It also teaches us that we are separate from our thoughts, feelings or perceptions. Continuous practice of meditation will help us learn this at a deep level. In doing so, we avoid identifying ourselves as our thoughts/feelings/perceptions, and can thus, avoid the suffering that would otherwise, come naturally.
As we recognize our minds, we recognize that everyone experiences the same emotions and feelings so, the line between self and others dissipates. And as we become more compassionate, others show compassion toward us, in return (Reference 2).
Finally, not only do we recognize the continuity between self and others, but we begin to understand the continuity between our minds and ourselves and, we begin to think of ourselves as observers of our minds. When we realize and understand that we are both our thoughts/feelings/sensations and the observers of our thoughts/feelings/sensations, we gain a sense of freedom and space and ultimately, a sense of power and control that we can apply to any situation.
How do I meditate? Strategies:
There are endless ways to meditate and, you do not need to sit cross-legged on the floor with your eyes rolled up in your head! Experiment with positions that are the most comfortable to you but, make sure to keep your spine straight. You can sit in a chair, on a pillow or meditation pillow (a firmer pillow), or even lay down. If you choose to sit, it’s helpful to use a pillow or rolled up/folded blanket so that your buttock is elevated. Also, try to ground down into your sitz bones (If you don’t know what your ‘sitz bones’ are, see reference 3 below). Ideally, you should feel your sitz bones pressing into the pillow/floor. To help achieve this, you can use your hands to spread your buttock muscles apart. Also, if sitting, try keeping your feet flexed, as it will take some pressure off your knees.
You can meditate anywhere. In fact, meditating for short durations frequently throughout the day ensures you will keep up the practice. Be sure to set realistic goals that will be easy to maintain for the long term.
All you need besides a straight spine, is focus.
A nice way to start meditating may be with the same visualization I was offered when I began: imagine you are sitting by a stream, watching the water pass. Every now and then, leaves float by. The river is our mind and the leaves are our thoughts. If we choose, we can pick up a leaf, look at it, then place it back on the stream and watch it float away. When you pick up the leaf, you observe the thought, without interacting with it- then, you simply place it back in the stream or, let it go, until the next thought/leaf appears and you repeat the process.
Or, if you prefer, try visualizing each thought that arises as a bubble that forms from your head and floats away.
5 Additional Meditation Methods That May Work For You:
Focus on the Breath: Place all of your attention on your inhalation and your exhalation. When the mind drifts, simply return to focusing on the breath. If you’d like, you can silently repeat to yourself, “I’m breathing in” when you inhale and “I’m breathing out” when you exhale, as this self-talk will help maintain your focus.
Sound meditation. Especially, if you are an auditory learner, using sound can help you maintain your focus. Simply place your attention on any sounds that may arise and, on nothing else. This is a great technique to use when meditating in public or, distracting environments, such as while waiting in line at the bank or the grocery store. Of course, you’ll keep your eyes open if you are in public but, otherwise, it would be helpful to close your eyes so that you can fully place your attention on the sounds.
Visual meditation: For this meditation, your eyes will be open and you will fix your gaze on an object of your choosing and focus entirely on that object. A candle flame is a popular choice but, it can be anything. Don’t be afraid to blink! When your mind (inevitably) wanders, simply bring your attention back to the object.
Focus on sensations: In this method, your focus will be on any physical sensations that are present or that arise in the body. Feel the heart beat, the tension in your muscles, your hair touching your face, etc. If you are experiencing pain, it may be helpful to visualize the area of pain as a block of ice. Use your breath to breathe into the area of pain, visualizing with each inhale, that your breathe is occupying/filling up/expanding, the area. Then, with the exhale, visualize the area is softening or, if you are visualizing the area as a block of ice, visualize it melting.
Mantra meditation. A mantra is a word, sentence, or prayer that is repeated over and over, silently in the head. There are many mantras you can use. A simple one is “Ohm”. Ohm is the vibration of the earth so, it is grounding. Simply repeat “Ohm” silently in your head,over and over. When your mind (inevitably) wanders, start repeating it again. Google “meditation mantras” for additional mantra suggestions.
“I can’t hep judge myself when my mind wanders”: If this is happening to you, simply feel the regret, anger, or whatever emotion you are feeling and focus all your attention on that feeling. As with any feeling, you will likely notice that once you allow it to be, and even “lean into it”, they tend to dissipate or change to another feeling. If the feeling does not dissipate or change, that is fine, too. Just keep the focus on whatever you are feeling. Another strategy to counteract this is to simply rest in the present moment and shift your focus to physical sensations in the body.
“I can’t meditate because I’m in pain”
Pain is our body telling us that something is not right. As with emotions, when we recognize and allow the pain to communicate with us, it often dissipates or changes. See the tip above for easing pain by meditating on it with the visualization of melting an ice cube. Please do not force yourself to maintain any posture if you believe it will exacerbate the pain.
“What if I get sleepy?”
No problem! Simply, bring your attention to the feelings of sleepiness- use the sensation as opposed to letting it use you (reference 2). If you need to lay down, that is fine but allow your spine to be straight. It may also help to adjust your gaze upward, even if your eyes are closed, as this lifts the energy of the body.
In order to cultivate a long-lasting meditation practice, there two essential things to remember, if nothing else.
View meditation as a practice: If you want a quick, easy fix, meditation is not for you. Our minds are incredible tools. By practicing meditation, we are cultivating our minds to work for us, not against us. If our mind is a pencil, we are sharpening the pencil. It takes persistence, discipline, and patience. It does not happen in a day, a week, or even a month. It’s a continuous practice with cumulative benefits. Trust the process, every day, and have faith that the benefits are worth it.
“Discipline is remembering what you want.” - David Campbell
Eliminate expectations. Some days you meditate, you may feel blissful or relaxed. Other days, you may feel agitated and impatient. Some days, your body may feel tight or painful and other days, you may feel flexible and relaxed. Whatever you feel is just information. Try to let go of any and all expectations; this will cultivate self-acceptance and allow you to resume your practice, day after day.
Thanks for reading! As always, I love to hear your feedback so, please reach out if you have any questions or comments.
Allison, Licensed Acupuncturist
Basic Balance, PLLC
2. “The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret & Science of Happiness” by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
3. Influential people in my life including, but not limited to, Dylan Garrison, Stacia Shiffler, & Dr. Ehrland Truitt