Meditation: A Path Well Traveled
You need to start meditating. You also need to leave all your preconceived notions about mediation behind.
Meditation is not about chanting and candles. It is not about shrines, alters, or a special mat. It is not about a specific end result.
Any of those things can characterize the meditation practice for specific individuals but do no characterize the primary purpose of meditation.
Mediation is about intention. Mediation is about journey inward. Meditation is personal.
Much of what you see and assume is an integral part of meditation is based in tradition or are "advanced" practices. There has been much written about the benefits of meditation (stress relief, recovery, neurogenesis, the list goes on...). I'll skip the argument for the practice and strive to give those interested in beginning - or those who have been previously unsatisfied - some tips and insight into my own personal meditation practice.
How I Began...
Most people have some sort of meditation practice, whether it is intentional or not. Think about some of your habits, especially the ones that bring a calm or a peace to you. Maybe you enjoy taking solo evening walks, maybe you enjoy slowly sipping your coffee early in the morning alone on the patio, etc. The point is that personal, contemplative time is very healthy. If you have a regular habit of drifting into that type of mindset you will have any easier time finding an intentional meditation practice. It's all about the path well traveled (as the name of this post implies), but more on that metaphor in a bit.
My personal meditative habit (before my current intentional practice) was simply to lay on my bed and let my thoughts wander. Upon arriving home after class I would go straight to my bed and just flop down, remaining there for an hour or two. Quite often I would find myself still wearing my backpack an hour later. This habit began unconsciously and unintentionally in junior high or high school and persisted through college graduation. I was not consciously aware that I was meditating, in fact, I was not even consciously aware that I was doing this nearly everyday. My body had discovered something vital and it quickly became ritual. What are some of your personal rituals that have developed unconsciously?
As I transformed from student to engineer I drifted out of this practice. I fell into the daily grind of the 9-5 (rather 7:30 to 5:30) lifestyle and personal meditation time became only a distant memory. This is not to say that I didn't (or don't) have time to meditate but because of the way that my schedule had changed I no longer had the opportunity to unconsciously drift-off for an hour. I now have to make my meditation practice an intentional part of my life (remember from above?...its all about intention).
My transformation from serious CrossFit athlete, Regional competitor, and motivated Olympic lifter to a coach with a deeper appreciation of the holistic approach to overall wellness is a topic for another post. For now, we'll just say: I got injured, gained some perspective, and came to understand what it really means to take care of yourself rather than just train for peak competitive performance.
Shortly after my back injury I took several (nearly simultaneous) major steps. They seemed unrelated at the time but now prove to be intimately connected.
- I began regular acupuncture treatment for my back injury.
- I began yoga as a low-impact transition from injury recovery back to movement and to address my myriad of mobility dysfunctions.
- I became interested in taking as active a role in my mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being as I had with my physical health and fitness.
The Road Well Traveled...
There is a reason why frequently meditating is called a practice. Think about what is means to practice. Repeated performance of an activity or skill to maintain or develop proficiency (that sounds like a pretty good definition to me). The point being that effective meditation is practiced and developed, it simply does not happen.
I like the metaphor of the road well traveled because my personal practice feels like returning a familiar place. "That place" is the emotional, mental, and spiritual state that I'm trying to reach through my practice. Your first journey down a new path is filled with new, unexpected experiences and is likely a slower journey than a path you're quite familiar with. Your meditative journey will feel the same. Once you have been to "that place" you instinctively know the way back.
When I began acupuncture treatment I found after the first several sessions that it was doing so much more for me than just relief of my back pain. It was delivering me to a mental and emotional state that seemed at first unfamiliar. At the conclusion of each session I felt an overwhelming sense of calm and peace. I felt I had a better understand of my life and my emotions.
Having gained comfort in "that place" I found myself able to more easily access it. I found I could take myself there with yoga (once gaining comfort and relative proficiency with the basic poses).
I believe it was important for me to first access "that place" through acupuncture and yoga. I have a deep connection to my physical body and I think it was valuable for me to be shown the way through experiences rooted in physical sensation, be them needles or chaturangas.
I now find myself able to quickly, easily, and free of physical coercion access the state that I call "that place." Because I have made the journey so many times my mind knows the familiar steps. When are able to quickly return to the place that you have previously been, each sessions allows you to take a step further. Your journey inward goes a bit deeper each time venture forth.
So Where Do You Begin?
Forget about what you think you are supposed to do and what you think is supposed to happen. Get comfortable, have the intention to clear your mind, focus on slowly breathing in and out through your nose, and let what happens happen. It's as simple as that!
The primary goal of meditation is bring your mental, emotional, and physical states into strong awareness; to develop a strong union between every facet of your existence and your conscious thinking.
The best place to begin is to make yourself comfortable either sitting or laying down (yes, laying down is ok; you don't need to be cross-legged on an ornate cushion). Close your eyes or leave them open, which ever makes you feel comfortable. Focus on clearing your mind of any thought except the awareness of your breathing. Be aware of all the sensation connected to your breath. The raise and fall of your chest. The slight pause at the top and bottom of each breath. The sensation of breath passing in and out.
When other thoughts enter your mind, simply acknowledge them, push them away and return your awareness to your breath.
You can do this as frequently and for whatever duration you can muster. I great place to start is 5-10 minutes a day.
I found a number of guided meditation resources helpful when developing my practice. These are my two favorite:
- Sam Harris - He is an author, neuroscientist, and philosopher. His blog, and books are quite interesting but he also has several guided meditations available for download.
- Headspace App - This is free app that is the best I've found at guiding you through the early phases of you meditation journey. Give it a try!
I hope this will help you begin or improve your personal practice. Please share a comment if you found this post beneficial or have anything else to offer. I would love to hear about your personal meditation journey and any other tips you can offer.
Thanks for reading.
* NOTE: For acupuncture, I see Krystal Pearson at Blue Jasmine Acupuncture (Facebook). She's wonderful and I love all of my sessions. If you're interested in acupuncture and in the Ventura, CA area definitely give her a call.