I went on a meditation retreat a couple of years ago, determined to master meditation in 3 days (seemed reasonable at the time). I had been exposed to meditation here and there throughout my life: growing up, my Stepdad used to sit every morning at 5am–or at least he claimed to. I was never up at the ungodly hour to confirm his alleged practice, but sometimes his “meditation stool” (wtf?) would move around, as evidence of some activity. Then, curiosity (and more-so a crush on the good-lookin’ leader) made me check out the “Meditation Club” in my undergrad (I stopped attending when I lost interest…in the guy). After that, yoga became the only place I “meditated,” and I put that in quotations as more than half of that time in savasana I was dozing off or planning out the rest of my day (sound familiar?).
My feelings about meditation were similar to those I have now about the Grouse Grind: I was skeptical of its cost/benefit ratio, I both envied and criticized people who make a habit of doing it, and I wasn’t so sure people would do it if they couldn’t tell people they did it (come on, would YOU choose a 10-day silent meditation retreat over a tropical vacation it didn’t scream “enlightened” or “centered?”). Anyways, with those thoughts in mind, I coaxed a reluctant friend into joining me (“It’ll be fuuuuun. We’ll like, meditate and shit.”) and attended the “beginners” retreat. The result? Well, shockingly, I did not become a meditation expert (and I’m still not), nor did I have any giant revelations or decide to become vegetarian. What I did realize, though, is that there seem to be several misconceptions about meditation that hold people back from practising, and that I was actually already practising meditation. This article will by no means dispel all myths about meditation, nor will it give you an extensive overview, but it might be worth reading if you think meditation is a bunch of crap!
When I ask clients if they’ve ever practised meditation, I usually get one of three responses:
1) “Yes, I practise regularly.” (this is rare)
2) (…as they suck back air and make an apologetic expression) “Oooo, yeah, I’m not really into that kind of thing. Sorry.”
Or 3) “I can’t do it. I’ve tried. I just can’t stop thinking.”
Those of you who fall into categories 2 and 3, humor me for a second (or maybe 30). Meditation may bring up visuals of religious and cult gatherings (insert stale “Kool-Aid” joke here), but it’s gaining more and more support in the scientific community. Evidence shows that meditation alters brain plasticity and improves attention, and those are just a couple of the many benefits. You don’t have to sit cross-legged for an hour or say “Om.” You don’t even have to sit, period. And meditation is not about reaching “enlightenment,” “stopping thinking,” or “clearing your mind.” It is not about relaxing (although it can have a relaxing effect), or sleeping, or tuning out (that’s what “listening” to me is for! Kidding). Meditation is actually synonymous with “paying attention” or “awareness.” So, if you’re thinking, you’re doing it right! There are two categories of meditation that I’m going to describe today: Insight Meditation and Concentration Meditation. I once read a great analogy comparing the two (unfortunately, I can’t find the article to give the writer the credit) that I will shamelessly reproduce for your benefit:
Think of your brain being a dark room: Concentration Meditation is like having a flashlight focused on one thing in a room (e.g. counting your breaths, the flame of a candle, a word, a sound). As your attention wanders, bring it back. Insight meditation, however, is like having a lightbulb at the center of that dark room, illuminating–or “shedding light” (touuuchhhhhe, Megan)–on several things. Concentration meditation involves focusing the attention on one thing, while insight meditation means becoming aware of your experience. Either way, meditation is being fully awake, alert, aware, paying attention to your present experience, a mantra, or a visualization, and focusing that attention in the present, rather than being swept away by rumination over the past or anxiety over the future. I was once in my friend, Elizabeth’s yoga class, and she described it beautifully: she said, “Imagine you are standing on the platform at a train station. That platform is your breath. There are trains coming and going around you. Sometimes they are loud; sometimes they are colourful; sometimes they are frightening. It’s tempting to be affected by one or multiple trains–to hop on and get carried away–but try to remain on the platform, watching the trains come and go. Watching the thoughts come and go. It’s normal to get swept away by them from time to time; but, once you notice, hop off and return to the platform. Return to your breath.”
There are hundreds of types of meditation, but here are a few that I practise regularly:
Mindfulness meditation is about being fully present, observing, and refraining from judgment. It is about fully participating in the task at hand. It can be helpful to describe what you are doing (aloud or in your head, your preference) as you’re doing it. For example, I tend to do this when I am driving (uhhh meditation and driving? I would think that’s not a very good combination, Megan. Read on). Rather than let the thoughts of the upcoming day sweep me away, I become aware of my foot on the gas pedal, the scenery around me, my breath, my back muscles tensing. I might say “I am shifting into third” or “I am turning the steering wheel slightly.” The key here is to avoid judgmental observations and interpretations. For example, instead of saying “That ugly car in front of me has a really terrible driver” or “That person is definitely doing a walk-of-shame,” I might say, “The burnt-orange-coloured car in front of me is currently going 15kms/hr in a 50 zone,” and “The person crossing the street is wearing a cocktail dress and 8-inch heels on a Sunday morning at 10am.” By practising describing objectively and being nonjudgmental, you will notice yourself being less-so in daily life, and less critical towards yourself. I sometimes say that curiosity and judgment cannot coexist, so if you find yourself jumping to judgements (we all do it!), try to approach whatever (or whomever) you are judging with curiosity instead (“I wonder what’s causing the person behind me to believe tail-gaiting is an adaptive driving strategy right now?), and bring your attention back to your current experience.
Vipassana meditation is about introspection and self-awareness. It involves watching your thoughts and feelings–observing your process. This is a particularly useful technique when you’re finding you’re feeling anxious or low, but can’t pinpoint why. Moreover, it can be a great place for noticing self-criticism or if you are “shoulding” on yourself (I “should” clean/go to the gym/be productive/visit my Aunt). Some practitioners might argue with this, but I tend to practise Vipassana meditation when I’m running or sitting on the skytrain. I simply tune into my physical, emotional, and mental experience, and just notice my experience, my feelings, and my relationship to myself. Vipassana meditation is an excellent starting point for recognizing spaces for positive changes in your thought patterns and habits.
Can’t stand your mother-in-law? Butting heads with your boss? Struggling with self-defeating thoughts? Loving-kindness meditation can work wonders. I generally do this if I’m feeling frustrated with a family member or client (yes, I am human and feel frustrated with clients sometimes). Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, and bring your attention to your breath for a minute or so. Then, visualize a compassionate image–perhaps it’s a parent, a teacher or coach, a friend, a partner, a religious figure or a pet. If you can’t think of anyone who has given you compassion, you might want to think of a scene or picture that brings you a sense of safety, calm, warmth, or pleasure–for example, a beach, a tree, a wave, a flower. Now, picture the person to whom you would like to send compassion and loving kindness (this may be you). Picture their struggle, their suffering. Send to them the feelings of compassion and loving-kindness that were given to you by your compassionate image. As feelings of anger and resentment arise, bring your attention again to the person’s pain and struggle. You might even want to say something like “I understand why you managed feeling threatened by insulting me” or “If you are critical to me, I can only imagine how critical you are towards yourself. All the more reason you deserve compassion.”
Just One Minute a Day
As the title of this post suggests, you can fit this into your daily life. There’s no need to start off meditating for 30 mins a day. Start with 30 seconds, or one minute. Set your timer on your phone and fully participate in the task at hand for that one minute (e.g. unloading the dishwasher, folding laundry, walking, sitting), or bring your attention to your breath for one minute. You can also find tons of audio recordings on youtube or online that are a great place to start your practice.
So put on your openness hat, your curiosity pants, and your non-judgmental parka (you look gooooooooood) and give it a try. If you notice you are beating yourself up for “doing it wrong,” that’s a success in itself! For a more in-depth article on meditation by my boy John Kabat-Zinn, someone who knows a heck of a lot more than me on the subject, click here.