Meditation: Just the word itself conjures up an image of somebody sitting cross-legged in a state of blissful contemplation. For many of us, however, the thought of stilling the mind and letting go of all the business in our brains is just too much to even consider.
I got my first taste of meditation at the feet of Tibetan Buddhist monks. The atmosphere was perfect, ethereal, even: A majestic temple replete with a giant, golden Buddha and the haunting chanting of the monks and nuns in the background. I sat cross-legged on my mat, and closed my eyes. So far so good. Then I tried to let the thoughts go, and the more I tried, the more thoughts crept in, reminding me that this wasn’t going to be easy. Sitting with my eyes closed made me feel a little dizzy at times, so I opened them to a soft focus. (I had heard that this was acceptable, too.) Good, that felt better. Back to the thinkin—or more to the point, trying not to.
Next, I became conscious that sitting cross-legged wasn’t that comfortable after all, so I began focusing on this discomfort as opposed to emptying my mind. I tried to jiggle my legs a little without disturbing those meditating next to me (who, by the way, had not yet moved even a bit during the whole process).
When the the gong of the Tibetan singing bowl signaled the end of the practice, I gingerly released my aching legs from their unnatural position, and left the temple feeling a complete failure. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t empty my mind, I couldn’t sit still long enough, and I basically could not meditate.
I continued trying, at least, to meditate for months, trying to reach that place where my mind was still, where no thoughts invaded and still, it didn’t get any easier. Still the chatter came. Resigned to the fact that I would never really “get it”, I settled for considering my meditation practice as some quiet time; surely that was better than nothing.
A little while after this revelation, I was lucky enough to go see His Holiness The Dalai Lama give three days of teachings in Nottingham, England. It was here that it all finally made sense to me, thanks to something he said: You can’t empty your mind completely—the thoughts will come—but it is what you do with the thoughts that matters. Bingo!!
Armed with this nugget, off I went and “learned” to meditate again, this time allowing the thoughts to come, to acknowledge them, but not to engage them. Still not easy to do, but certainly more doable than trying to empty my mind completely. I was still doing the cross legged thing and still not totally comfortable, but I persevered and began to learn more about what meditation was—and, more importantly, what it was not.
Meditation is not doing nothing. You are not sleeping sitting up. You are not having a little rest. You are not thinking of nice things. Meditation is not a breathing exercise. It is not an escape from reality. It is not about concentrating a lot. You are not just sitting and thinking.
I have been told several times by a dear friend and monk that meditation cannot be taught. It is a very personal practice, and, even though the basics are the same, there are many ways to achieve a meditative state. It is a matter of determining what works for you. In fact, the one thing that is common to many people’s meditation practice is this resistance.
Meditation can be perceived as being hard or difficult, given that most people struggle to stay still and just be. We have need, as humans, to stay in control. We tend to put obstacles in our way, and protest that it is impossible to switch off one’s thoughts. The reality is that we are vulnerable, and letting our thoughts go makes us feel uncomfortable. It is unnerving! Thinking is a habit we have cultivated from birth. If we can break that habit, however, even for just small amounts of time, it will result in our bodies becoming more relaxed, and we will see a reduction in anxiety and negative emotions.
Another thing I learned is that meditation is not a competition; what is good for one person is not necessarily appropriate for another. Meditation is a journey of discovery, and it can constantly change. One day you may crave quiet, another you may wish to meditate to music. Some work better with guided meditations, whilst others prefer to work with their own breath, or focus on an object like a candle or statue. And you certainly don’t have to meditate in any particular position: While I find that cross-legged position to (finally) be more comfortable now, sitting on a chair works just as well.
I prefer to meditate outside in my own “peace garden”. However, I also try to take some quiet time on a plane, train and in the office, which just goes to prove that your practice can be taken anywhere. At my Buddhist Refuge ceremony, My Rinpoche dared anybody to say that they didn’t have a quiet space for meditation; after all, we all need to use the bathroom. (I put this a lot more politely than he did, but you get the gist.)
This brings me to another great bonus of meditation: Just a few minutes of being quiet in the moment can bring huge benefits. A practice doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out affair; even just ten minutes in the morning will set your day up right. You will find that as time goes on, you want to stay in the moment for longer and can take your practice into your day.
For those who are just setting off on their meditative journey, there is a lot of different practices out there, all with the intention of getting you to a place of being in the moment, and cultivating a calm and peaceful but alert state of mind. The practice continues to evolve and change even for those who have meditated for a long time, and for whom practice is a way of life.
I still find some days easier than others, and on the days that I struggle or lose sight of my practice, I turn to a great app called Calm, which is a huge support to get me back on track. The app offers guided meditations ranging from 2 to 30 minutes, each of which is great for use throughout the day. (You would be surprised at how just two minutes can be beneficial for the body, mind and spirit!) Calm also offers meditation on differing topics such as calm, gratitude, self-esteem, creativity, managing stress, focus and calming anxiety, meaning that there is a practice to cope with most life challenges and mood changes. (The app is available for iPhone and Android, and is free to download. Bigger scale programs require a subscription. There are a number of helpful apps that support a meditation practice, and can be effective in supporting an ongoing practice at a moment’s notice.)
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