“Meditation is not for me, I’m not able to calm my mind” is a common response from those resistant to meditation. My response back is, “do you really think you’re the only one with a mind that is overflowing with thoughts?”.
Meditation is not about stopping thoughts or controlling the mind. When I first started meditating four years ago, I believed that it would help relax my mind. Similar to how my body feels relaxed after a massage, meditation should be like taking my mind to a spa. The disappointing reality is that my mind rarely felt like it was at a spa, it was always thinking. After about 500 days of meditating each morning, I realized that meditation is a process to strengthen my mind, the same way I go to the gym to strengthen my body.
Meditation, as a form of strength training for the mind, builds important skills. Here is some of what I’ve learned about the practice of meditation and how to get started.
The first skill that meditation builds is awareness.
If thoughts were like water in a river, to control thoughts would be like placing rocks in the river to stop the flow. It would be wasted effort, as the water would still find a way to flow. Like the water, thoughts are always flowing. Meditation is not about trying to control the stream. It is instead about learning to lift oneself out of the water, sit on the river bank and watch the stream go by without getting caught in it.
Learn to become aware of your thoughts. Having an object of focus is helpful. Most guided meditations use the breadth, body, verbalization or visualization. It does not matter what the object of focus is, these are all tools to practice awareness.
The second skill that meditation builds is acceptance.
I like to think of my mind as a puppy, sitting by my side. When my mind begins to wander, it is the puppy that’s running around. Sometimes slowly, often quickly. This visualization helps me detach from the thought stream and accept that my puppy (mind) will wander. It is in its nature. To expect anything different from it would not be realistic.
Learn to accept your thoughts. Once we start to become aware of our thoughts, it is a common tendency to then start to judge our thoughts. Or judge ourselves for having thoughts. We naturally begin to inspect the contents of the thoughts, dissecting each ingredient to understand them. Learn to let go of judgement and accept whatever you become aware of.
The third skill that meditation builds is alertness.
The biggest threat during meditation is sleepiness, of the body and the mind. What I have learned that helps prevent this is a straight spine. I like to think of a tall, inspirational building like the Empire State Building, the CN Tower or the Eiffel Tower.
Learn to be alert in meditation. A few practical suggestions:
1. Sit in a dignified position. Head straight, shoulders relaxed, jaw unclenched and strong back. Meditation is a commitment to yourself, practice it with dignity.
2. Keep your hips higher than your knees. If sitting on the ground, use a pillow or cushion under your seat to help elevate hips slightly. Without this, you begin to look less like the Eiffel Tower and more like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
3. Avoid any back support. If seated on a chair, sit slightly forward. Without back support, it is physically impossible to fall asleep. Do not lie down (that is called sleeping).
These practices will give you a solid physical foundation for the mind to be alert.
Build a personal practice
Like my rib cage that holds the vital organs of my body and my spine that keeps me upright, my personal practice holds me up and supports me through the journey of life. Over the past four years, my personal practice has evolved and can be described in three parts.
First is the daily practice, every morning for 20-30 minutes. This is like taking out the kitchen trash. If you don’t do it after a few days, things start to get smelly and stinky. So best to take out the mental trash each day. Note: morning meditation is different than evening meditation. Both beneficial, but serve different purposes. So experiment with both.
Next is the weekly practice, which is a longer meditation or sitting with a group of people. This is like tidying up the apt and putting everything in its place. Thanks to the foundation of a daily practice, on a weekly basis I am able to deal with stuff that may be accumulating or piling up, and put it in its place.
On a monthly basis, I am taking a few days for retreat. It is either structured or unstructured time and I am disconnected from normal day-to-day responsibilities (both professionally like the business or personally like running errands). This is giving the place a deep scrubbing.
A strong personal practice will have many layers that all build on and support one another.
A few helping hands
Meditation is not easy. I’m grateful to have leaned on several resources to support me along the way. Understanding meditation from an intellectual perspective is useful early on.
Classes: there are many meditation studios in every major city now, which help make group meditation more accessible. I would recommend to attend at least one per month. I have started to build a guide (for New York), available at findsilence.today. More cities coming soon.
Books: always have a meditation or spiritual book on the go. There are so many available, they all share similar lessons. In my early days, I read: The Buddha Walks Into a Bar (Lodro Rinzler), Search Inside Yourself (Chade-Meng Tan), Buddha (Deepak Chopra), 10% Happier (Dan Harris), The Internet to the inner-net (Gopi Kallayil) and Meditation (Eknath Easwaran).
Netflix: there are several documentaries available that can help peak your curiosity. A few that I watched at the start of my journey were: Happy, 10 Questions with the Dalai Lama and I AM.
Apps: use a guided meditation app to help build consistency in your practice. They help make something new feel effortless, as all you have to do is hit play. Do not worry about which app, start with Headspace, Calm or Insight Timer. If it does not work for you, try another one. If it still does not work for you, ask yourself if you are really committed to explore meditation (you may not be, which is okay).
Community: the most important resource for me has been having friends around me that I can share my experiences with, ask questions to and learn from. Surrounding yourself with like-valued people who are also curious and committed to exploring meditation is helpful.
Meditation is a tool for introspection but it does not mean that you have to do it alone.
How to know if it is working
Meditation is not about how you feel while practicing. Meditation allows you to practice the skills of awareness, acceptance and alertness, so that you can guide through life with a little more ease, a little less effort and a lot more peace. When you notice the rest of your day feeling slightly different, that is the encouragement to continue strength training.