If you had told me 2 years ago that I would have a solid daily meditation practice and sign up for 7 day silent meditation retreat my jaw would have dropped. I would have thought, dang, I'm really going to become some sort of Zen master! Well, that hasn't quite happened but my mind has become a more pleasant space to hang out in, that's for sure. And I'm eager to spread the word and share the joys of this practice.
Mindfulness Meditation is getting a lot of attention these days. Maybe you've been encouraged to meditate but aren't sure how, or tried it and thought “it's not for me” or ” I can't do it.” Two years ago, that is exactly where I was. I am sharing my journey from the beginning to where I am now and how I developed a strong daily practice. It has given me greater focus, less anxiety, increased self-compassion and more confidence in my ability to handle daily stresses.
Phase 1: I'm Becoming Interested
My initial interest in meditation came from watching my partner Bear Goodman go through an amazing personal transformation, largely driven by developing his own meditation practice and attending multiple intensive retreats. I wanted what he had gained, which from my outside perspective, was a greater sense of calm, the ability to RESPOND rather than REACT to situations, and a deeper connection with himself.
Phase 2: I'm Willing to Try
At first I meditated for just a few minutes using guided meditations. I tried a free app called Insight Timer (which I still use) that contains thousands of free meditations. There are many free apps to use and I just happen to love this one. You can select a category, such as Stress or Sleep, choose the length of time that you want, and it will present you with a filtered list complete with ratings. I soon discovered what my personal preferences were, found a few that really helped me, and began doing guided meditations on a very inconsistent schedule. I wandered rather aimlessly for months but learned that it can be a pleasurable experience. This is crucial!
Phase 3: I Want to Get Better
I told Bear that guided meditations were not always useful anymore. Sometimes they interrupt my focus at the wrong moment and it's rare that I like their voice (a critical component for me). I wanted to try silent meditation but felt like I did not have the skill set. He then taught me a style of meditation called Vipassana which helped me progress and learn some skills. When people speak of Mindfulness Meditation they are actually talking about Vipassana Insight meditation. In this style, I use “focus objects” such as the breath, sounds around me, and physical sensations. The purpose is to bring awareness to the present moment. What I quickly discovered is that I could focus on my breath for about 30 seconds and then my mind would wander!
Which leads me to the most common myth: Mediation is sitting and trying not to think. FALSE!
You cannot stop your thoughts. Read that again! You cannot stop your thoughts! But you can notice your thoughts and redirect your attention and become more skillful at it.
Check out this short funny video A Buddhist Monk describes how to meditate and make friends with your monkey mind.
I continued to practice noticing my thoughts and return my focus to the breath. This, in itself, is the practice! I found that it helped to not just notice the breath but also try to notice subtle details about the breath such as the sensation of cool air traveling in the nostrils and warmer air being exhaled. As I practiced, I became better at keeping my attention on my focus object for longer stretches of time.
Sound boring?! Well, it kinda is!!! But then the small miracles began to appear… As I practiced more I discovered I could use this technique to fall asleep or calm my anxiety or frustration even while doing another activity. This fueled my desire to practice for quite some time. I was inconsistent but my skills were slowly increasing.
Phase 4: Frustration and Stagnation
Last summer I sold my house in Philomath and moved to Corvallis. It was very hectic and I abandoned my practice for several months. I stopped for so long that I forgot what was so great about it in the first place. On the rare occasion that I did meditate, I felt I had lost all of the ground I had gained. Why bother! I'm starting from square one each time. UGH!
Phase 5: Recommitment
Life calmed down as the kids went back to school and I had more time in my days. I had a strong desire to shed the stress from the move and feel grounded again. I was ready to calm the “wired but tired” feeling every day. I recommitted to my practice but this time I had structure. I used a guided course called “Waking Up” by Sam Harris which systematically and incrementally teaches Vipassana Insight meditation. The course was fascinating, his voice was soothing, and the best part was that each guided session was just 10 minutes! There were 60 lessons in the course and it took me about 90 days to work my way through it. By the end I felt very comfortable sitting for 10-15 minutes and learned many techniques for holding my concentration.
You can read more about the course here. The first few lessons are free! If you like it then you can purchase a subscription which is about $15/month.
Phase 6: Fully Committed
As my meditation practice grew, I learned a new style called Metta which is the practice of loving kindness towards self and others. Once again, new information reinvigorated my practice and the benefits continued to expand into my daily life. I continue to explore and experiment with new ways of meditating and find that it is fun to be creative and change my approach based on how my mind is behaving each day. I currently meditate 25 minutes each day in a single sitting and have discovered that the mind shifts into a different gear after 10-15 minutes. It's like falling asleep and deeper states of concentration happen in stages. It's important to me now that I give myself time to make that shift in order to increase the benefits of each session. This discovery was the impetus to signing up for…*drum roll please*…
Phase 7: A 7 Day Retreat
I had butterflies in my stomach when I sent out my application. A sense of disbelief kept rolling in as I thought about a 7 day silent meditation retreat. Way to rip the band-aid off right?! Over winter break Bear and I will be attending a retreat together at Cloud Mountain in Washington. I am looking forward to what will likely be a profound, enlightening, and at time excruciatingly difficult journey.
In closing, anyone can meditate and it is a skill that can be learned. It is a simple practice yet very difficult because it requires persistence, practice, and patience. It can feel at times that you're failing because your mind wanders endlessly. Yet, the practice requires that you simply notice that you are thinking (without judgement) and return your focus to the breath or other focus object.
Here are 12 scientifically proven benefits of meditation:
- Reduces Stress. Stress reduction is one of the most common reasons people try meditation.
- Controls Anxiety. Less stress translates to less anxiety.
- Promotes Emotional Health.
- Enhances Self-Awareness.
- Lengthens Attention Span.
- May Reduce Age-Related Memory Loss.
- Can Generate Kindness.
- May Help Fight Addictions.
- Improves Sleep.
- Helps Control Pain.
- Can Decrease Blood Pressure.
- You Can Meditate Anywhere.