Meditation is the mental health equivalent of going for a jog, having an orgasm, and drinking one glass of red wine per night. In other words, it’s really really good for you. There are many ways to approach meditation, such as mindfulness, Zen, and transcendental. My experience draws from many different teachers and traditions that I’ve studied, and I’ve developed an approach that works for me, which is what I want to share with you now.
The benefits of meditation are well documented, yet surprisingly few people set aside time to meditate on a regular basis. Why not? Because it looks so simple, yet when you try to just sit there, you get restless and irritated. After a few tries, most people give up because it feels pointless to them, but anyone who has ever felt the effects of meditation knows its value and will always come back to the practice. If you’ve never had an apple, I can try to describe it to you, and you can almost imagine an apple that way. But experiencing it for yourself is still completely different. Meditation is like that, so I sincerely encourage you to try it yourself rather than just reading what I or any other teacher have to say about it.
Here’s what happens when you start meditating. For the record, this happens to everyone, so don’t let it discourage you! First you feel self-conscious and critical. You wonder if you’re doing it right, and every time you catch your mind wandering you think, “What the heck? How am I supposed to stop myself from thinking?” It’s very frustrating. Once you start to get the hang of it, it’s like a kid learning to ride a bike. You find yourself thinking “Oh, look at me! I’m meditating!” And then you realize that you’re not meditating because you’re busy patting yourself on the back. That’s ok. Just smile at yourself and bring your attention back to the present moment.
The trick to getting the mind to be quiet is infuriatingly simple: Don’t force it. The mind gets involved in everything we do because it wants to help. It says, “Oh, cool, you go meditate, and I’ll be over here making your grocery list and solving the world’s poverty problems!” Of course, that’s a huge distraction.
Invite the mind to join you in meditating instead. Give it a task: “Ok mind, your job is to count the breaths. Every time you think about something else or lose count, start over from one.” The mind will enthusiastically embrace this challenge because it wants to show you how good it is. It will probably make a mess of things sometimes and get frequently distracted, but with consistent practice, it will settle down.
Eventually, you learn to watch the breath, and slowly you get better at paying attention only to the breath. When you do that, your awareness becomes absorbed in the breath, the movement of air and energy through the body. Then you begin to explore this deep inner space. Just like there’s outer space that’s apparently infinite and full of interesting things, there’s this depth in your own mind. Mentally, you’ll move around, exploring this space. Sometimes, this is just another form of distraction, but it’s interesting and can teach you things about yourself. Take your time here and enjoy the experience! Maybe you’ll experience a sense of spaciousness, deep relaxation, or even see colors in your mind’s eye. None of this is particularly important, so don’t get stuck on trying to figure out what it means.
The internal landscape can be very peaceful, but it can also feel scary like swimming in deep water. If you don’t know what else is swimming in that water or you can’t reach the bottom, you might start to feel vulnerable and anxious. You might feel afraid that you’ll find something scary inside yourself. There’s no guarantee against this, and that’s why it’s good to practice with a teacher at this point — someone who can help you navigate that fear and deal with whatever it brings up. As you get more used to that inner depth, you can settle in and rest in this very peaceful place. It helps to have a focal point in the body to prevent the mind from wandering too much. Letting the awareness rest at the heart center can help cultivate a feeling of restfulness, gratitude, and self-love. Or you can focus on the point between your eyebrows, the center of intelligence, perception, and intuition. Pick the focal point that feels natural to you, and experiment with letting your awareness rest in that place.
As you meditate on the infinite within you and the infinite beyond you, you cultivate the understanding that we truly are all one, which can profoundly change your relationship to the world at large. Scientific studies have shown striking similarities between brain activity during meditation and sleep, suggesting that in meditation, we are actually cultivating the same restful state as in deep sleep. The more you practice, the deeper your meditative states will become. You can experience a profoundly satisfying sense of being connected to your world. You can cultivate the ability to be present in difficult situations. You can choose to be peaceful amid chaos. These are the benefits of meditation, which can be applied to absolutely every area of your life.
Sounds pretty nice, doesn’t it? Wanna give it a try? Check out my five-minute meditation video to experiment with it right now. In the next installment, we’ll talk about how to prepare the body for a deeper meditation practice.
Do you have questions about meditation? Please share them in the comments or e-mail me through the contact page, and I’ll do my best to answer them!