Meditation is relatively new to the mainstream culture in the United States, but by no means is it new. Meditation is thought to potentially be over 7000 years old, with ties to ancient China and Egypt, and of course religions such as Buddhism.
Meditation seems to be surging in response to the constant barrage of stimuli we’re faced with every day. Our modern world is busy and loud. Even in the privacy of our homes, we are barraged with messages. “You don’t have enough.” “You’re not beautiful.” “The world is going to end.” “The opposing political party is doing something evil.”
And not that we need any help filling our minds with endless worries. It’s what your brain does. It’s trying it’s best to keep you alive. In a world where there really is danger around every turn, a mind that is constantly scanning for the negative is evolution at work. The cavepeople who never worried probably didn’t make it very long. That rustling in the bushes is 99 times out of 100 just the wind, but that 1 time it’s a bear meant your life.
Are our modern lives really filled with constant danger? Sometimes, in some places, yes. I would assume that is not the case for the majority of individuals living in the United States, or most developed nations, in the 21st century. Even in a time that we find ourselves in, with a global pandemic, we are not in constant peril. Social distancing and mask wearing drops your risk to near 0. We do not need to fill our minds with constant worry about what might happen to us. Generally speaking, we are safe.
So how do we fight against this constant barrage of thoughts that the world delivers to us and worse, that we deliver up to ourselves?
The best answer I can find right now is two-fold.
First, remove the negative messages from your life as much as you can. Drop your toxic “friends”. Delete your Facebook (and all social media for that matter). Don’t read the news. Cancel cable TV with commercials, and generally avoid advertising (unsubscribe from marketing emails & cancel junk mail).
For the uninitiated, as it was for myself, meditation seems very hokey. Sit still and focus on your breath? The reason I call it a “Foundational Habit” is that it helps you build the mental focus, patience, and self-compassion to more easily accomplish your other goals. Put it up there with building good relationships, saving money, and exercise (it will also help you do these things better).
Meditation trains your focus and your patience. You learn to see thoughts as they are, just thoughts. You do not need to act on or make real the thoughts and feelings your brain serves up. If the thought or feeling is not useful or productive for you, meditation teaches you to notice it for what it is (just a thought or sensation in your body), and let it pass.
For a practical example, let’s say your child is having a bad day and acting out. They just can’t seem to sit still and demand constant attention. What might happen normally? You may feel frustrated, and say something you don’t mean to. What meditation trains you to do is stop for just a moment and see your thoughts and emotions for what they are, let them pass, and then act with intention. Perhaps then you are able to see that your child just didn’t sleep well the night before, you’ll get them to bed early, and hope for a better day tomorrow.
I’m sure an example popped into your head during this. Just imagine, having a tool to interrupt your automatic responses to thoughts and emotions and being able to act with more intention more often. That’s what meditation can offer.
How to Meditate
Although you can get more into it than what I will describe here, this is definitely enough to get you started. Meditation is not easy, but it’s really quite simple. First off, you don’t need anything new to do it. No new stuff, no special clothes, or fancy mat. All you need is a quiet space and your own mind and body. As Henry Thoreau once wrote, “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”
Find your quiet space, and make sure that you can be uninterrupted (if you are interrupted, that’s okay, just roll with it and start again). Sit comfortably, either cross legged on the floor or on a chair, or laying down. If you decide to lay down and accidentally fall asleep, that’s okay, but probably best to sit upright next time.
While meditating, you can set a timer for as little as 5 minutes. Over time, you can build the length of your sessions. I currently meditate for 10 minutes per day most evenings, and every so often in the morning. I plan on growing this over time, but find even this short practice to have meaningful effects on my daily life.
Just start taking natural breaths. You don’t need to manipulate the breath in any way, just let them come and go. Focus your attention on your breathing. What does it feel like? It’s cold on the way in, warm on the way out. Maybe it’s the rising and falling of your chest as your lungs fill with air. To help you focus, perhaps try counting your breaths to 10 and then starting back at 1 (don’t be surprised if you lose focus before 10).
Your focus will inevitably leave your breath and that’s okay. Try to notice that your mind wandered, and bring your attention back to your breath. Don’t judge yourself for losing focus, this is what our minds do. The point of meditation is not to entirely eliminate the wandering, that is impossible. The point is to build the awareness of the wandering. And come back to focusing on the breath. Again and again. THAT is meditation.
Every time you’ve caught your mind wandering and bring your attention back to the breath, you are building your attention and focus. You are building the capacity to notice when your mind is wandering, when you’re not present, or worrying. However, we’re not meditating to get better at meditation itself (that’s just silly), but to be better people. The goal is to take what you practice in meditation and apply it to your daily life.
What do you think?
Have you tried meditation? Has it worked for you? If not, how come? Any challenges you’ve run into? I’d love to hear your thoughts, just leave a comment below!
Resources for further reading
I discovered meditation through the 10% Happier podcast. Dan Harris, the host, published a book by the same name that I highly recommend. I have since also read Sharon Salzberg’s book, “Real Happiness“, that I found to be a great overview of the practice, it’s benefits, and walks you through a 28-day practice.