Meditation: Never back down from a challenge …
Written by: RJ Lisander
Now for all you Type-A pals, Never-say-die comrades, movement warriors, Pitta personalities I know the thought of sitting still is intimidating. Which is exactly why it is such a challenge to meditate. And, honestly, this challenge is why you should give it a try.
When we meditate we are asking ourselves for rest, peace, silence … for many of us this is the exact opposite of how we spend every moment of our waking lives. Our minds, during waking hours, constantly move from one thought to another. If we were to be hooked up to an electroencephalograph (EEG) this would be registered as jerky and rapid lines, beta waves.
What modern science is finding is something meditation practitioners and texts have been sharing for generations … when you meditate your mind rests, your body rests and you feel better. Returning to the EEG, it has been noted that brain activity changes with meditation and EEGs read smoother, slower brain waves, alpha waves. As meditation deepens, the EEG will register an even smoother, slower pattern of brainwave activity, theta waves. Studies of those who meditate show a decreased rate of respiration, decreased metabolic wastes in the bloodstream, lower blood pressure, and a stronger immune system. So, at the very least, we know meditation teaches us how to manage stress, and you don’t need me to tell you all the benefits, to your health, physical and emotional, when you experience less stress.
I know, I know, you “don’t have time to sit,” and you “don’t have the patience,” or you just plain aren’t interested. If that really is the case, then stop reading here. The rest of these words will be a waste of your time.
If you want a challenge, read on. I’m going to break meditation down into straight forward and manageable steps to lead you to immediate results that will, hopefully, help you move to a deeper meditation practice and the benefits of those amazing theta waves.
Pretty bold statement I just made, I know. But, I am confident that I can deliver, so let’s start …
Simple is best!
Consider that almost anything you do that is repetitive in motion, as long as it is done mindfully, is meditation. So, my overachieving friends, here you can meditate and multi-task! Washing dishes, chopping vegetables for your meal, knitting, walking, running, can all be forms of meditation. When you slow down and pay attention to the action, the feel and the smell, your breath starts to slow, your mind let’s go and the task you are completing becomes a meditation.
Creating time to meditate
Start by selecting a specific time of the day for your meditation practice. For me right before bed and just as I’m waking up work the best because I am either ready to focus on relaxation and sleep, or I am waking and my day has not yet had time to interfere with my state of rest. Some people prefer to take a break in the middle of the day to refocus. There are no rules…just keep trying until you find the right time for you.
Dedicate a certain amount of time to meditation
Most practitioners will recommend starting with 3-5 minutes of meditation. That is not a bad goal, but, if, as was the case with my practice, this is too much, cut back. For me, as much as I tried, at about the minute mark I was climbing out of my skin with the urge to move, my brain was yelling at me to get on with things and I just couldn’t relax. But, not being one to ever back down from a challenge, I decided to approach this meditation thing from a different perspective. I decided to shorten my daily meditation practice to 30 seconds a day for seven days.
(Yes, it is OK to laugh here! I get it! It is ridiculous! But, it was just what I needed and a year later I meditate 45 minutes a day and teach meditation!)
Comfort is key
Sitting still, really still, is really hard. Standing still is even harder. But, laying down is easy, provided you don’t have any back pain, you’re not pregnant, and don’t have respiratory and/or reflux disease! But, walking is easiest, sort of!
Admittedly, the most common form of meditation and the one that allows the best option for finding stillness is sitting. Try sitting cross-legged on the floor, on a cushion or a towel to maintain the natural lumbar curve of the spine. If this is uncomfortable, try sitting on a chair. This will naturally provide support to the back. Just make sure that you are finding a tall and strong spine by relaxing your hands, rolling the shoulders back and down to gently open the chest. The eyes can be open or closed. Your breath should be easy and natural.
If lying down is best for you, try the classic closing pose of each yoga class, savasana. Simply lay on your back, with the neck, shoulders, arms, back, legs and feet relaxed. Props, such as bolsters and blankets under the legs and/or shoulders, blocks under the hands, pillows to support the head and blankets to keep you warm are all possibilities. As you lengthen your meditation practice, you may need to change these props … Don’t be afraid to switch things up!
If sitting and laying down doesn’t work for you, walk. That’s right … walk. Find a path, create a path, walk in a field or on the beach, circle the perimeter of your yard, walk the mall before it opens, just walk. But (oh, come on! You knew there was a but)… walk with intention. Focus on the feel of the heel landing on the ground, the roll of the arch of the foot and the touch of the toes as they follow each step. Trust me, doing this barefoot on the sandy berm of a beach at sunrise is heaven on Earth! And, helps all of your efforts to meditate click into place.
Let what comes natural guide you
On the eighth day of my fledgling meditation practice I started focusing on my breath … I just paid attention to the breath, how I was breathing, long slow breaths, or short, quick breaths. Then I noticed the breath as it entered through the nostrils and existed the nostrils. From there, I started to focus on the length of the breath, steadying the breath by inhaling to the count of four and exhaling to the count of six, then I inhaled to the count of five and exhaled to the count of seven, and finally, inhaled to the count of five, exhaled to the count of six and then repeated this several times.Surprisingly, it was five minutes before my thoughts started to trickle in and my body was antsy for movement. For me, focusing on my breath was the trick.
Others have found that focusing on an object, a candle flame, or a picture of a favorite person or place work best for them. Be willing to experiment. Just as it takes some trial and error in finding the perfect running shoe, it can take time to find the perfect meditation focus.
Defining your meditation practice: Be patient and experiment
Once you begin to find a certain level of comfort with meditation and the benefits you begin to feel, start to consider how you will define your meditation practice. This requires experimentation and modification to your practice. Here are some examples:
Think outside of the traditional image of meditation and consider a gazing form of meditation. This is where participants maintain and open-eyed focus on a set object. Candle gazing is very popular, but any fixed point or image will work. As you focus on the object, observe it’s form, colors, movement, the feel, smell and observe the emotions you associate with it. Let your mind focus on one or more of these things and feel the natural settling into relaxation that allows you to simply observe the object without thought, judgment or emotion.
Another option, though admittedly one that I struggle with, is to focus on a physical sensation that is being experienced in the body. Focus the attention on how hot or cold the hand feels, the strength of the spine or focus on a sensation of discomfort in a particular part of the body. Whatever you choose as the focal point will remain the focus of the meditation.
A final grouping of options for beginners to consider is replacing visual focuses with sounds including mantras, chants and music. When choosing a mantra and/or chant(s), select a grouping of words that are meaningful and that bring you peace. In general the mantra will be repeated 108 times in a single meditation. When selecting music, while most people opt for calming, wordless music, a little trial and error is always best. For most, though I am not one of the majority (!), this style of meditation is the easiest way to calm and focus the mind, meaning random and stray thoughts are kept at bay.
Now you are armed with some really good information and lots of options with which to establish a game plan and then adapt, as and when necessary are you ready to take the meditation challenge? I dare you!
If meditation is still something you aren’t sure you are ready to do on your own, feel free to join me at Empower in Durham on Sunday evenings, 5:30 – 6:15 for guided meditation. You’ll be hooked on meditation.
See you on the mat, or the zufi, as the case may be.
RJ is a member of International Association of Yoga Therapists, Yoga Alliance and is CPR AED certified. RJ holds a 200-hour Prana Flow® teacher certification from Evolve Movement, Raleigh, NC and is working toward her 1000-hour certification in yoga therapy through a combination of intensive study with Joseph and Lillian LaPage at Kripalu and internships. Additionally, RJ holds a Bachelors of Arts in English with a minor in Creative Writing from West Virginia University.