Last year I began meditating in earnest. I’d go for a stretch of weeks of consistent practice, and then completely drop the ball and go for weeks – or months – meditating sporadically, if at all. Then, eventually, I’d recommit and begin again.
There were several cycles of this.
About two months ago I started meditating again and have been going strong since. Not every single day, but pretty close to it. I offer no predictions about how long this go-round will last, but I take solace in knowing that if and when I do stop, and for however long, I can always pick it right back up and begin again.
I sit for about 30 minutes before getting ready for work each day, sometimes using guided meditation audios, sometimes not.
My usual practice is a version of mindfulness meditation. It amounts to sitting still and paying attention to the physical sensations of breathing. After doing this for a time, your attention will inevitably be hijacked by your thoughts (probably a lot sooner than you think). Once you realize this has happened, regardless of how long or short a period of time has passed, you simply – as gently and non-judgmentally as possible – bring your attention back to the breath and begin again. That’s it.
Sounds like a pointless activity, doesn’t it? How could doing something like this be beneficial?
Neuroscientists, after studying the brain scans of meditators and non-meditators in controlled settings, are discovering a number of benefits, it turns out. But I’ll just share with you some things I have noticed for myself:
1. Deliberately sitting still for a designated amount of time each day in the manner I described can have a calming effect. I have found that I’m generally in a better mental space when I have made time for meditation in the morning, before succumbing to the societal pull of Relentless Go, which comes soon enough.
2. Taking time to practice “being present” makes me a) acutely aware of just how often I am swept away by my thoughts (it’s crazy-over-the-top, let me tell you!), and b) more likely to have little openings of awareness more frequently during the course of my day – moments of paying real attention to what is actually happening (instead of being lost in my head dwelling on the past, projecting into the future, or just mindlessly reacting to things).
3. The quietude sometimes allows for good ideas to “pop into” my head (like the idea for this blog post, for instance).
4. Certain types of meditation, such as “Lovingkindness” – particularly with the help of a good guide, in person or via an audio recording – can be profoundly heart-opening and even emotionally healing. It turns out that things like compassion and forgiveness can actually be cultivated through silent practice.
5. Maybe most especially, the simple act of paying attention to the breath and gently steering your attention back to it once you become aware of your mind having drifted is an excellent way to practice and reinforce a valuable life skill:
When you have blown your planned diet or abandoned your exercise routine; when you have ventured down a path that feels like a waste of your time, energy, and talents; when you feel you have betrayed yourself in some way by not following through on your higher intentions; whenever you veer off course or are derailed by some setback, rather than mercilessly beat yourself up about it, rather than bludgeon yourself with self-criticism that only leaves you depressed and demoralized, you can recognize the simple fact that you’ve wandered from your desired path, identify what happened (and what you might do differently the next time, if it’s yours to do), and then take the opportunity to gently and lovingly collect yourself, redirect yourself, and…