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Meditation has been practiced all over the world. The flavor of meditation that I see most often is based in Buddhist traditions. But all major religions and traditional cultures have some form of meditation that they practice. Humans have experienced the benefits of meditation for millennia. It’s just our modern society that has forgotten.
The idea of mindfulness comes up time and time again for me. It weaves through nearly everything that I want to talk about. Mindfulness is based on compassion and curiosity, which you may remember are also keys to the good life. Meditation is a direct way of cultivating mindfulness.
Meditation is a practice that gives you insight into yourself. It allows you to calm your brain, to pause. It gives you the space to make conscious choices instead of automatically reacting. It can help you to build the good life for yourself.
What is meditation?
In meditation, you bring your awareness to an object. This object could be a
- word, phrase, mantra, or prayer
- physical object such as a candle, flower, or wall
- action such as walking, a series of yoga poses (vinyasa), or eating
- sound like running water, wind, a bell, or whatever sounds arise
- physical sensation such as where your body is touching the ground, wind on your face, breathing, or even pain
- emotion. For example, you could think of a person or a situation that brings up strong emotions and, in a safe space, allow yourself to feel that emotion. 1
The most popular object I see used is your breath. Your breath is always there. And, as I heard in a podcast recently, as long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than wrong with you2. The mere fact of your breath can be a call to gratitude, especially in difficult times.
How on earth do I meditate?
The basic direction for a breath meditation is simple, but not easy. Notice your breath. Wherever the sensation is strongest for you, focus your attention there. When you notice yourself getting distracted, acknowledge the distraction, and gently notice your breath again. Here’s a fun, quick video: Learn to Meditate in 5 minutes with Dan Harris.
I notice my breath most strongly in my chest – feeling my ribcage expand and contract with every breath. I also begin to breathe in a way that makes my breath more audible. It is called an Ujjayi breath in yoga. When I do this, even when I’m not trying to “meditate”, I notice my thoughts slow and become more clear.
Meditation is a practice.
Practice is a lifelong journey towards improvement. Practice can never be perfect, and perfect is not the aim. Practice is a humble acknowledgement that there is no such thing as perfection. Practice is the point, and there is no performance.How to Change Your Life – Foundations for the Good Life
You’ll never become a perfect meditater. There is no such thing, and that is not the point. The point is to learn the patterns that your mind falls into. The point is to learn to notice your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. The point is to know yourself.
Meditation gives you insight into yourself
You may occasionally have a meditation session where you mind is blank and you feel perfectly at peace. If you’re anything like me though, most of your meditation sessions will have you thinking you have a serious case of squirrel-brain.
When you meditate often, you’ll notice that even when there is nothing external to distract you, thoughts will arise in your mind. You’ll begin to notice patterns in your thoughts. And you’ll begin to notice that sometimes, your thoughts are entirely meaningless. This is something that every human has in common.
The observation that thoughts can be meaningless, is a crucial insight. It is especially important for people who experience depression and anxiety. Thoughts have the power to either worsen or lessen your symptoms of anxiety and depression. You may not be able to think yourself out of your symptoms, but that doesn’t make thoughts less powerful. That’s especially when true we believe those thoughts.
When we don’t notice the thoughts or we don’t examine the thought, we will automatically believe them to be true. That’s how a person can be a perfectionist and not even know it for years (like me). It took therapy, reading a few books on the subject, and copious amounts of journaling for me to accept that my perfectionist thoughts may not be true. It was only after coming to that realization that I was able to start this blog here.
Of course, there are many other ways besides meditation to get insight into yourself. My little story shows 3 other ways. Purposeful reflection is the key to gaining that insight. Noticing what thoughts distract you in mediation. Keeping a journal and noting the themes, ideas, or patterns that arise for you. Talking with a therapist. We’ll get into the idea of reflection more at the end of the month – just in time to set you up for New Year’s Resolutions. (So be sure to get on the list to get those delivered to your inbox!)
Meditation helps grow the space for you to choose
Back in October, when we were talking about eating, I wrote a fun article titled “Why emotional eating is a good thing“. In it, I shared the following way of thinking. I’m bringing it back because meditation is very helpful if you’re trying to use those ideas.
When you meditate regularly, you are more likely to notice the situations that trigger you to act. That action could be eating, getting angry and yelling, getting anxious and avoiding, or any number of things. That trigger causes you to think and feel a certain way. If you don’t fully feel the emotion or notice the thought, you will perform whatever habit you have programmed in your mind.
Now, habits can be a super useful thing. A habit saves you from having to make a choice. It saves you bandwidth in your mind to think about things that are more important. But most habits we have are not intentional. They are simple reactions. And that means that they might not be the best thing for you in the long-run.
That is where the PAUSE comes in. That pause allows you to notice the trigger, feel the emotions and think the thoughts. You take a moment to be completely present with whatever is occurring in your mind and body. And that allows you the space to make a compassionate choice for yourself.
When you meditate, you have a greater capacity to pause. You can be present with the difficulty and discomfort of whatever has triggered you. Leo Babauta of zenhabits.net talks about this pause, this space, in nearly every article he writes. If this is an idea that has aroused your curiosity, his writings would be a great resource for you.
Meditation can lead to the good life
At the top of this article, I stated that both meditation and ‘the good life’ are based on compassion and curiosity. Jon Kabat-Zinn has the most widely accepted definition of mindfulness. https://www.mindful.org/jon-kabat-zinn-defining-mindfulness/ (Mindfulness is the state that meditation cultivates. ) In that definition, he stresses the importance of being non-judgemental.
We put judgements on ourselves constantly, and we don’t even notice it. Even in meditation, you will find yourself becoming distracted. Your instinct, if you’re anything like me, is to chastise yourself. To tell yourself, “I’m wrong. I’m bad at this. I’m never going to get it. No wonder I can never see anything through. I’m never going to get it right. I’m never going to…”
And then, once you realize that you’re not supposed to judge yourself, you start judging yourself for judging yourself!! And you get stuck in this loop of judgement.
The way out of that loop? Compassion and curiosity. Bring a sense of understanding. “This is what minds do.” Understand that our thoughts are habits too. Sometimes even remembering the word compassion is enough to remind me of my intention.
If I want to bring a sense of curiosity, I will picture a happy puppy or child. They want to figure out every sight, sound, and smell. What is it? If it exists, they want to investigate (usually by licking or putting it in their mouth). That pure wonder and joy in their curiosity is a great example to try to follow. (Also, they’re pretty darn good with the whole forgiveness and compassion piece, wouldn’t you say?)
Is meditation right for me?
Right off the bat in this article, I listed a whole bunch of different objects for your focus – different ways of meditating. I believe that one of those will work for you. If you have a cold or lung problems, it might be anxiety provoking to start by focusing on your breath. It might be better for you to focus on a mantra or the flame of a candle. You might find that a guided meditation helps you focus or you might find it distracting.
Try all the things until you find one that clicks for you. I’d also encourage you to try something new from time to time, even once you do find something you like. As they say, variety is the spice of life. 🙂 Besides, having more ways to be more mindful can lead to an even greater sense of living the good life.
Where else can I get more?
I’ve talked about mindfulness and meditation a bunch already, even this early in the blog- feel free to enter either of those terms into the search bar. Other people that I reference often are:
Jon Kabat-Zinn – I love his Mindfulness for Beginners book. He doesn’t have a blog, but you can find his books at any book or ebook vendor. If you listen to podcasts, he has been a guest on several, search his name in you chosen podcast player to take a listen.
Leo Babauta – His blog is zenhabits.net. The way he describes meditation and mindfulness was my gateway into this world. Compassion, mindfulness, and being grounded are the main themes in his writing.
Dan Harris – 10% Happier – Blog, app, book, and podcast. His take on meditation is very approachable and appealing, especially to type A personalities and high achievers.
Meditation has been one tool that I’ve used that helped me through a very difficult time. If you are in the slighted way curious about meditation, try it. If you try it and it doesn’t seem to be working for you, try a different app, instructor, or flavor of meditation. Every tradition has its own flavor of meditation, you are sure to find one that suits you.
Meditation is a way to bring more mindfulness, awareness, curiosity, and compassion into your life. It can help you get to know yourself and your patterns better. It can be a key piece of changing your habits or you habitual thoughts because it gives you a bigger space between a trigger and an action.
Let me know: Have you ever tried meditation? What was that like for you?
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- This is a kind of exposure therapy. If you choose to try this and you’re not sure how you’ll react, make sure you get connected to a counsellor, therapist, or psychologist first. You might even do this strategy in their office as a safe space.
- Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations Jon Kabat-Zinn: Mindfulness 101