Before I begin this article, I ask that you approach the information contained within with an open mind. Some of the stuff I’m going to talk about may sound a bit out there and until you’ve spent some time meditating, will quite frankly just seem weird. However, I’m going to have to ask you to bear with me because what I’m going to talk about could potentially change your life, like it changed mine.
I started meditating in August 2013, just before the start of the fall semester. I was introduced to meditation by my dad who claimed that the practice helped him deal with stress that he experienced on an everyday basis. He gave me one of his favorite books on meditation and I was ready to go.
Now, before I go any further let me first explain why I wanted to get into meditation in the first place. I’ve always been an anxious person but I never really noticed until this past summer when I was reflecting on my 3rd grade glory days. I recalled how for some unknown reason, I developed this incredible phobia of choking and not being able to breathe. I would fall out of my chair in class and repeatedly have to be taken to the nurse’s office on account of “I thought I couldn’t breathe.”
This went on for weeks and months until finally my dad told me that I wouldn’t be allowed to play Little League if I kept the charade up. And just like that, POOF, problem gone. I hadn’t thought much about it until this past summer and that’s when I started to notice this pattern of mentally imposing illness and stress on myself occurring throughout my life.
Granted it never manifested itself with the severity that I experienced in third grade but it was still noticeable nonetheless. I had just always figured that everyone got stressed about every assignment at school, or planned out every possible outcome for each and every event that happened in their life. Fortunately, this is not even close to being the case. I decided after this revelation that my mind needed some readjustment. So when my dad came around preaching the wonders of meditation I was quick to buy into it.
Before I dive right into the thick of things, I want to reassure you that this article outlines a successful and beneficial experience. I wouldn’t want you to be reading this article thinking that I’m going to go through my experience over the last few months and wind up telling you how horrible meditation is and how my time would’ve been better spent kicking sand or counting the number of tiles in the ceiling. No, no. This is a success story and I ask that you read and interpret it as such.
Time to get into the actual meditation! So I won’t go through all the deats of my meditation experience, but I would like to touch upon a few of the things that I found most beneficial when practicing.
First and foremost, you have to make meditating a habit. Just like in sports, consistent practice produces optimal results. Does this mean you have to sit ramrod straight in deep meditation for 3 hours a day? Not at all! In fact, one of the books I am currently reading, Search Inside Yourself, asks only “one mindful breath” per day. If you meet this goal of one mindful breath every day then any additional practice is simply a bonus. But what is a mindful breath? Well the breath part of that equation is easy. It’s simply the process of taking air into your lungs and exhaling it at a comfortable pace (you guys should hopefully have this part down). The mindful part is a bit more involved but just as simple, if not simpler.
This is where things may start getting a little funky but I promise there is a method to what I’m saying. Mindfulness is essentially the act of paying attention to the present moment, in the most open and non-judgmental way possible. To start this ‘mindful breath’, you simply relax your mind. Don’t try to block any thoughts. Just let them flow through your mind without paying particular attention to any one of them. Acknowledge them as they come into your head, but don’t associate any feeling towards them. Allow yourself to take a step back and objectively look at your thoughts.
Then, after your mind is in a relaxed state, take a deep breath. You can pay mindful attention to any number of things during the breath. You can envision the breath coming and leaving through your nostrils. You can feel your lungs expanding and your shoulders rising as you inhale and then notice the opposite as you exhale. My personal favorite thing to do during this breath is to imagine my breath as a resting place for my mind, like a big soft cushion. I simply allow my mind to ‘rest’ on the breath as it flows in and out of my body.
Now I know this may sound absolutely insane if you’ve never tried anything like this before. And I’ll admit, when I first started doing these things I refused to tell anybody for fear that they would think I was nuts. But after a few days of mindful breathing I found my head feeling less cluttered with my constant anxious planning and more with things relevant to the present moment. After a few months the feeling of inner peace and mental ‘cleanliness’ only increased. With constant practice, you will see a difference; you just have to commit to a schedule. Everyone has time to take one mindful breath per day, so use this as a starting point and gradually extend your practice to two breaths, then four, then eight and so on as you strengthen your ability to be mindful. I assure you that the results of daily practice can only be positive and will undoubtedly improve your life.
The second piece of advice I want to give is the concept that a thought is a thought is a thought. Meditation is not about suppressing thoughts, but about being open to and accepting of all the thoughts that pop into your head. Often times we catch ourselves trying to block certain thoughts, with the idea that the thoughts themselves have some sort of personality or emotion associated with them. For example, you may find yourself having trouble with math and catch yourself thinking, “God, I’m so stupid. I just can’t figure this stuff out.” Or, “I wish I was better at math. I guess I’m just not the type of person that can get these concepts.” Most people would agree that these kinds of thoughts are bad thoughts.
The best thing I can tell you when approaching these thoughts is that they are just that, thoughts. Thoughts are not inherently real things. They spontaneously arise and fade away in your mind during every second of every day. You can’t stop yourself from thinking, the same way you can’t stop the sun from rising every morning and setting every night. Since these thoughts are not real, they can’t be good or bad. Thoughts are just thoughts. If you approach your thoughts as a natural function of your brain as opposed to these entities that dictate your feelings and emotions, you begin to feel more in control of your mind. This helps during times of high stress like finals week or when having a conflict with a friend. The ability to approach thoughts in an objective non-judgmental way forbids them from ever dictating your life, and instead puts you behind the wheel when deciding how you want to react to and handle situations.
The last little nugget of wisdom I’d like to bestow upon you is perhaps the most important: don’t have any expectations when beginning meditation. Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t have goals. Of course you should have meditation goals, or else why would you be meditating?!
However, there is a difference between having a goal and having an expectation. A goal is something you work towards while an expectation is something you feel is deserved or guaranteed after you do something. As anybody who is close to me knows, I’m a very goal oriented person. I like to get things done as quickly and as efficiently as possible. The best (and sometimes worst) thing about meditation is that it is the textbook example of something that cannot be done quickly. It is a gradual process.
At first, this was the biggest thing I struggled with when meditating. I always felt like I wasn’t getting results quick enough or that I must be doing something wrong if I didn’t notice any significant changes every few days. However, I soon realized that my problems were arising from me expecting too much of meditation. I wasn’t working towards the goal of ridding myself of anxiety; I was simply expecting it to go away once I started meditating. This was the wrong way to go about things. Instead of expecting my anxiety to dissipate after each meditation session, I viewed each minute and second of meditation as putting me a step close to the eventual goal of ridding myself of my mental affliction. This was a big shift from the high speed goal completion I was used to, but once I adopted this approach, meditating magically started getting easier and easier. Eventually I started looking at meditation as an indulgence; a way to free my mind every day and strengthen my resilience against stress and anxiety.
Well, truth be told, this story doesn’t really have an end. It’s an ongoing saga. I’ve been meditating for about three months now and the difference from before is mind-blowing. I have noticed an improvement in every part of my life. Before, fear and anxiety were my motivation to get things done. I would do school work to the best of my ability not because I took pride in it or because I wanted to learn something from it, but because I knew that if I didn’t get a good grade it would stress me out for weeks. Now, I am no longer anxious about these kinds of things. Fear and anxiety are no longer my motivators. I have learned to step confidently into all areas of my life without the constant fear of failure looming in the back of my mind. Meditation opened up my mind and allowed me to see what changes needed to be made in order for me to achieve happy and stress-free living. I recommend it to anybody, and if after the first week you decide that meditation isn’t for you; then the most you’ve lost is the time it took to take seven breaths.
Side Note: If you are interested in reading more about meditation or how to get into meditation then I recommend these two books:
- Search Inside Yourself – This is a great book if you are a logical thinking, scientific person like me. The book was written by an engineer working at Google and is perfect for the skeptical person who needs scientific proof before they accept anything as fact. It is also targeted at the everyday person and is very approachable no matter the degree of your prior experience with meditation.
- The Joy of Living – This was the book my dad gave me when he first told me about meditation. It is a fantastic beginner book and is filled with various meditation exercises and tips. It is more focused on formal practice than Search Inside Yourself but this also proves to be its greatest asset. The book is written by a world-renowned Buddhist teacher and ties together traditional practice with his own personal stories. The book also details an impressive amount of neuroscience related to meditation practice. It’s a great read and the author’s lighthearted story telling is sure to lift your spirits every time you read it.