I’ve been studying Tibetan Buddhism for over 20 years, and I have to be honest – I always thought I sucked at meditation.
I would cry on the pillow because thoughts would loop obsessively around and around in my mind. And I mean loop – I could have the same fight with the same person at work every day for months and months in my head – or longer!
It took me many years to realize that the thoughts are part of the meditation process. We are always going to have thoughts pop up in our mind – that’s part of human nature. And I eventually realized I was making progress because I was aware of the thoughts and I could hear them – for lack of a better word – in my head. It’s the awareness that’s key. Once you know something, once you are aware of something, you can identify it and do something about it.
In Buddhism, I learned that meditation is like cleaning a shirt caked in mud. When you first put the shirt in the water to clean it, all the water becomes muddy. Our minds are the same. Eventually, the dirt will settle to the bottom of the water and both the shirt and the water will become clean. The dirt will still be there, but it will be at the bottom out of the way (unless, of course, you agitate the water…).
There are people who make meditation out to be something only spiritual masters or teachers can do effectively, and they make it seem out of reach for regular people like me. I say that’s a bunch of malarkey. Meditation is very simple.
All you have to do to meditate is breathe. Period.
The most basic, and I think most powerful, meditation is to simply focus on your breath. Breath in, hold for a second or two, and then breathe out. Because my mind wanders so much, I also find it helpful to count to 10. Breathe in 1; breathe out 1; breathe in 2; breathe out 2 – until you get to 10. Then start over at 1. Don’t get upset if your mind wanders before you get to 10 – that’s completely normal.
That’s it! Just breathe. When you’re sitting quietly, thoughts are going to pop in your head. For many, they will rush in and swirl all around your brain. And that’s okay. Just don’t go into them. It’s going to be very tempting, but don’t start baking bread or figuring out dinner or arguing with a spouse.
There is no special skill; there is no advanced degree needed – simply become aware of your breath. The challenge is not the meditation; the challenge is the endurance this takes to do consistently, day after day, for a specified amount of time. So it’s not meditation that’s the problem – it’s you sticking to the act of meditating that becomes challenging.
If you have a thought, you simply say to yourself – “Oh, a thought. Hmmm.” And then let it drift away. Okay – I sometimes have to push them away because they really want to root inside my consciousness…. So when you realize you have a thought, acknowledge that you’ve had a thought and then focus back on your breath. That’s it!!
Meditation is simply the act of becoming aware.
For some people – like myself – focusing on my breath was too much when I first started. For people with anxiety, especially right now with the coronavirus pandemic, you might find focusing on your breath a bit too much.
No problem. Wash your dishes by hand. Take a shower. Do anything, and I mean anything – just focus 100% on it. If you’re washing the dishes, feel the water, feel the suds, feel the plates and glasses under the water. Do you smell chlorine from the water? How do your feet feel rooted to the floor? Focus deeply on what you are doing. That is meditation.
I’ve been told that in time you can reach deeper states and all these enlightening things can eventually happen, but none of that is important – it can actually be a distraction. This is not a race; this is not a competition – this is simply you becoming more aware of you. From there, your heart will open.
So my meditation advice – just breathe.
I know people who meditate for hours a day and more power to them. It’s not my thing. I’m lucky to get 10 minutes a day twice a day in – if I do that, I feel like I’m making progress. If you can do 15 minutes a day, twice a day, you’re set. I don’t think you really need to do more than that. And if you can only take 3 breaths, or meditate for 5 minutes – celebrate! You’re making progress.
There are many, many wonderful meditation teachers that you could learn more from. Insight Timer is an app where you can find meditations that suit you. And you have to feel it out – there are guided meditations where instructors talk you through it; there are meditations that are chanting; there are meditations where you breathe in silence.
I found that I don’t like the guided meditations where someone’s talking to me (I don’t want them in my head!…) and though I was introduced to meditation through chanting, I now prefer breathing or single pointed focus as it’s referred to. But it took some time for me to know what I was suited for – and it changes depending on circumstances. Bottom line – do not stress over it.
I also find while working at home it helps to put on YouTube on my iPad or TV and to play meditation/relaxation/nature music videos. As I write, I’m looking at the Himalayas and snow capped peaks. Because we can’t really go outside right now, I think it helps to have some nature to look at and to have some meditative music playing softly in the background. It can help with anxiety.
It might not be meditation per se, but I find it relaxes me if I’m working, cooking, cleaning or reading a book. And it keeps me from looking at the news! Seriously try to limit the amount of news you’re watching – it will only increase your blood pressure and anxiety levels if you watch too much.
If you find yourself getting anxious and self care is not working, reach out. Call someone – you don’t have to talk about your anxiety, talk about what you’re baking – like, why is everyone baking bread and hoarding toilet paper? Is there a connection? Hmmm.
Just reach out. And breathe. It will be okay.
Diane Hatz is the CEO/founder of Whole Healthy Group and Change Food®. This article is from Whole Healthy Life – an exploration and celebration of food, spirituality and unapologetic aging. This is life from the wiser side.