Peace. Calm. Relaxation. Thought control. Earthy people sitting cross-legged on a mat with serene expressions? This is meditation, right? Well, some meditators may look like this, but feeling a certain way or looking a certain way isn’t a goal of meditation. In fact, meditation has no goal or outcomes–it’s not about the correct posture or the hours spent trying to control racing thoughts. Meditation is about letting the mind be as it is and knowing something about how it is in this moment. Sometimes it is calm and clear, and sometimes it’s restless and cloudy. Meditation is looking at all states of the mind and body with an attitude of non-judgement. It’s not about getting somewhere else, but allowing yourself to be just where you already are.
But this doesn’t sit well for most of us. As humans we are goal oriented after all. We want to know that there is something to achieve, some reward in sight. If it’s not enlightenment or nirvana, most of us would settle for some peace of mind and a better night’s sleep, or not making a hand gesture at a rude driver or not getting overwhelmed or stressed out at work. These outcomes may happen with a regular meditation practice, but again, they aren’t goals. Being aware of expectations is a good place to start when considering meditation. Is it possible to toss out the to-do list, take a break from goals, and explore what you are experiencing right now?
It sounds simple, but it isn’t. Why? For one thing, many of us have an aversion to silence and stillness. Look around the next time you are taking public transportation or waiting for an appointment. Everyone is busy doing something. Listening to music, a podcast or watching Youtube, emailing, texting or playing a game; but rarely do we see people being still. We listen to music in the bath, we are on our phones during breaks, and we feel uncomfortable in moments of silence (think elevator rides or long pauses in conversations). It’s our culture. So, the first step is to get more comfortable with silence and stillness. Practice sitting for a few minutes and not having anything else to do for those 5 minutes, no place to go, no need for your phone or music or conversation, just taking time to be with your thoughts and maybe reflect on how your body is feeling as well. This is not as easy as it sounds!
Meditation also takes time, consistency and effort — and that can be a challenge when we have grown accustomed to immediate gratification, getting what we want at the click of a button. Or taking a pill and feeling immediately better. Meditation isn’t like that. It isn’t a quick fix. It also won’t cure a person of their problem or ailment– but it can offer a new relationship to their adversity so that they feel better, and have a new outlook on their life and their challenges.
I’ve heard people say they can’t meditate. They try sitting still a few times, and when they don’t reach a certain mental state or feel anything special, they think they are one of those individuals who are incapable of doing it. They’ll announce, “my mind is racing too much,” “I can’t sit still,” “I don’t feel peaceful,” and “I must be doing it wrong.” This isn’t always true. Anyone who can be still, in any posture, can meditate. It isn’t about the length of time that is important, it is about the consistency of practice. That is why they call it a meditation practice- just like yoga is a practice, or learning an instrument or a new sport. It takes training, and the more you do it, the more you notice benefits.
Meditation provides a way to step back from the hustle and bustle of daily life and concentrate on strengthening one of the most important muscles in our bodies–our brains. This training of our “mental muscle,” involves allowing the mind to wander as it naturally will, then gently redirecting it back to our breath. This redirection may happen a hundred or more times in a five minute meditation– and that’s okay. By training the mind in this way, we are more aware of the distractions of our “monkey minds” and we allow ourselves time and space to reflect and respond, rather than to react. Over time, meditation can help us to make wiser decisions, respond more thoughtfully, react less impulsively–and to be less reactive to experiences that arise in our minds and in our lives.
As I alluded to earlier, attitude is the key component to meditation. It’s so normal to judge ourselves, to be freaked out by our intrusive thoughts, or to think of ourselves as incompetent because we can’t control or avoid unwanted thoughts, especially ones that tend to stick around (rumination.) We are critical by nature, and for some, meditation can be frustrating or downright miserable. But it’s okay to allow your mind to wander because that is what the mind does. No need to get judgy. As the common but accurate saying goes, “The point of meditation isn’t to control your thoughts, it’s to stop letting them control you.” It’s true. The practice is just to notice the mind wandering and bring it back, notice yourself judging and criticizing, and bring it back–it’s an exploration of the mind, and like Planet Fitness, there is a definite “No judgment Zone.”
The final misconception of meditation is that it is a replacement for religion. It is not. Although it is practiced in many Eastern and Western religions, it can stand alone as a scientifically proven way of managing stress and promoting well-being. There is a reason it is still being practiced 2,500 years later; it works. The most compelling scientific data shows that mentally, a regular meditation practice can help increase focus and concentration and reduce stress and anxiety; and physically, it has been shown to promote relaxation, help manage pain, improve sleep quality, and promote heart health and immunity.
Meditation is drawn from contemplative traditions, and is widely accepted and practiced in science, medicine, psychology, business and education. It is universal and available to anyone. The best part is that there are numerous types of meditation to discover and explore: Transcendental meditation, Vipassana meditation, Guided meditation, Loving kindness meditation, Chakra meditation, Zen meditation, Yoga meditation, Insight meditation and more…
So why not give it a shot in the New Year? It may not be what you expect; it might be even better.