"There is a voice inside that does not use words...listen"- Rumi
“There is a voice inside that does not use words….listen” - Rumi
My last blog was all about using exercise to deepen our experience of the present moment. In a lot of ways, exercise can be akin to a meditative practice. I mentioned however, that in some cases reaching that meditative state is not possible (due to injury, illness, etc). I personally use meditation daily and find it very helpful in times of increased stress, especially when exercise may not be available to me. As a therapist I recommend meditation regularly to clients.
Often, people are unclear about what exactly it means to meditate. I wanted to use this blog post as an opportunity to address some misconceptions and map out exactly what meditation is and how to practice.
Meditation is very much for the mind what exercise is for the body. I say this with some hesitation because exercise and meditation are great for both body and mind. But for the purpose of explaining meditation, this statement is useful. When we meditate we are practicing, “watching” our minds. What exactly do I mean by this? For clients I break this down by explaining that there are three basic parts to a person.
We have a thinking mind. It likes, dislikes, comments, judges, etc- often without our consent or even our full awareness.
We have a physical body. It has its own aches and pains and illness that are also often out of our full control.
We also have a third part. There are many names for this part but it is vastly different from our physical body and mind. It is sometimes called our intuition, our consciousness, our heart, our gut. This third part has the ability to watch the mind.
Often our mind says things to us that we know are untrue or irrational. If we are paying attention, we can hear these thoughts. We can decide which are useful and which are not, and actively choose to disregard or ignore the irrational thoughts. This third part is all knowing. This is the part we use when we say we “just know.” It is often unexplainable how we know because this knowing comes from a place that is not rooted in “thinking.” The process for knowing is mystical, even spiritual. It’s a feeling more than anything else.
We live in a society that is so rooted in analysis, information, and thought. We are often living our lives from the neck up. This extremely important third part of ourselves becomes pushed down…silenced. Repressed. Our thinking minds are all about ego and attachment. Our thinking mind resists change, and runs toward safety and security at every opportunity. This is why we often have that “head/heart” argument with ourselves when trying to make a decision about doing something that may involve risk. Maybe we want to start our own business, follow our passion. Our head quickly rushes in, telling us all the reasons this won’t work. In relationships we know we need to end, it is the part that clings- telling us that being alone or opening ourselves up to the unknown is too risky, unbearable even.
Meditation is the practice of bringing forward this third, all knowing, part of ourselves. Our true essence. When we die, our thinking brain ceases to fire electrical signals and our physical bodies stop pumping blood and our muscles atrophy. This third part however…we do not know what happens to that. Maybe this part is energy that lives on? Maybe it flows back into all that there is like a wave that has risen, crested and then crashed only to recede back into the vast ocean that it once came from? The truth is we don’t know. What we do know is that if we can propel ourselves more from this third part while we are alive- we are generally happier.
This third part- our true self is only active when we are fully immersed in the present moment. If we are thinking about the past or future this third part is silenced…repressed. This is why people love sports, or extreme activities like bungee jumping, it gets our mind to be quiet. It’s very hard to focus on anything but the present moment when we are falling from a bridge with only a cord tethered to us. This experience creates sheer joy for many people. This is where exercise can become a vehicle to this experience of tapping into our third part.
You do not need extreme sports to tap into this place. The real point I’m trying to get across here is that exercise is NOT the end all be all to gaining access to this third part of ourselves and bettering our experience here on earth. You can access this part ANYTIME. It is easier to access this part- WITH PRACTICE.
Consistent meditation is that practice.
So …how to meditate…
Find somewhere comfortable and preferably quiet. It doesn’t have to be silent, in fact sometimes I will place my attention on small noises in the room to heighten my experience of the present moment.
Be seated. Sitting up is best for meditation. If we lay down we may fall asleep and we actually don’t want that. You can be on the floor, on a pillow or cushion or in a chair. The important part is that our back and neck are erect. We should be in an active state, even though we are sitting still.
Focus on the breath. Honestly you can focus on anything that is occurring NOW. The breath is the easiest and most obvious thing that is happening in the moment.
Count your breaths. We practice putting our attention on our breath. I like to count “1” when I breathe in, and “1” again when I breathe out. Then “2” and “2”. You can count “1” on the in breath and “2” on the out breath if you prefer. Making sure to inhale and exhale- fully. It is most important to really exhale all the way on the out breath.
We count with the suggestion to go to the number “10” if we reach 10- we then count backwards from 10.
You will have a hard time reaching 10 and here’s why. Every time you have a “thought” you will go back to “1.” If you have a thought- just notice it (example: …1…1…2…2…3…” I am hungry” <---catch yourself thinking this- and go back to 1 to start the process over).
This is the practice. You are “catching” or “watching” yourself thinking and then interrupting the spiral of thought. Often times a thought like “I am hungry” will lead to another thought: “what should I eat, maybe I’ll eat out, no shouldn’t eat out I don’t have enough money, I really should save more money”…and so on and so forth. We are working on watching and interrupting this spiral of thought as it can often lead us down negative paths and/or interfere with our enjoyment and experience of the present.
Do not judge yourself. If you catch yourself thinking often…and you beat yourself up for it, that is just the thinking mind coming in again through the back door. Don’t think of getting to 10 as the goal, it’s just a suggestion. The reason we suggest this is that you will often find yourself at 15, or 20… the mind is so powerful we will continue to count WHILE thinking! But clearly we were not present or we would have stopped at 10. This is similar to what happens when we are reading and then we get to the bottom of the page and realize we have not been reading at all- our minds took us elsewhere. Our minds are so powerful- we are often forced onto autopilot and then we miss our lives entirely. If you get to a number beyond 10 or you repeatedly get only to 2 or 3, that is ok- just notice it- and go back to 1. The moment you get upset or frustrated- you have only let your thinking mind back in through the back door again.
That’s it. That’s meditation. The practice of watching what your thinking mind is telling you. You can also notice other things like aches or pains in your body. Your mind may also comment on these aches or pains. Just notice it and go back to one.
I like to meditate for 5-10 mins a day. Feel free to go shorter or longer. If you like- you can use a guided meditation book or audio tape to purposefully give your mind something to focus on as you meditate. This is a more intentional type of meditation but also very useful. As you listen or read- notice your reactions to the suggestions. Notice if your mind wanders from the intended focus. If you find that it does, just notice it, and return to the focus of the meditation. My favorite guided meditation book is The Blooming of a Lotus, by Thich Nhat Hanh.
I have also meditated in such a way where I put my full attention on my chest- or my gut- where I imagine my heart, or intuition to be. This can be a very rejuvenating practice- just letting myself feel my own inner energy-from the place I imagine it to be most concentrated.
The whole point of this is to become more aware of your mind throughout your daily life. With greater awareness of our thinking minds we can often catch ourselves prior to engaging in a bad habit, reacting with anger, or doing something “on autopilot” or that we may otherwise regret. The whole point is to keep coming back to the now. To be fully present in the current moment as much as possible. The present moment is all that we really have. The future greatly depends of the quality of your consciousness in this moment.