Everyone is recommending meditation these days.
And by the sound of things, you’re a complete idiot if you don’t do it too.
People tell you how meditation puts you in a perpetual state of “flow and happiness”.
They cite how famous, successful people like Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Seinfeld, and Kobe Bryant all meditate. And that you should too if you want to be successful like them1.
They go on and on about how studies say it banishes depression and anxiety, cures diseases, and can even transform you into a “creative genius”2.
Basically, just sit and meditate…
Follow your breath for 2 minutes…
And all your problems will just evaporate like the mist on a sunny day.
Now, I know I’m being kind of cynical here.
But this is where I should probably point out that I meditate personally. And that it is actually an essential practice for me.
Then Why Am I Telling You Not to Meditate?
The answer lies in the word I used above…
I don’t see it as some magic, cure-all.
It’s a practice. It takes effort. There’s a level of discipline required.
If you’re just looking for a means to escape, it’s not going to do much for you.
And if you’re hoping sitting on a cushion for a few minutes will somehow replace the need for taking real action, good luck with that.
Don’t get me wrong…
Meditation can bring moments of happiness, relief and comfort.
But sometimes it can be boring.
And still other times it can be hard and uncomfortable.
One of the things meditation has a pesky tendency to do is shine a clearer light on your life.
But what if your life is terrible? What if you despise your job, have huge relationship problems, or are struggling to make ends meet? Or what if you’re feeling anxious or stressed? Or if there are some uncomfortable truths you’re hiding from?
This stuff often comes up in meditation.
It can be difficult.
And you actually have to work with whatever comes up. Or as we say here at The Cave…
You Have to Face Your Monsters
Not to mention… meditation isn’t the “perfect” practice for everyone.
Some people find activities like swimming, running, walking, journaling, yoga, therapy, or making art work better for them.
What’s meditation good for? Why bother experimenting with it?
Here’s what I find…
It’s a practice of awareness…
How often do we stop moving long enough to notice the thoughts in our head? Or pay attention to the stories we tell ourselves? Or catch the invisible assumptions that run our lives?
But with meditation, sometimes you can see behind the scenes.
You can get curious about it.
Hmmmm… Why am I getting so upset at that person?
That’s interesting… When I’m stressed, I feel this way in my body.
Hey… My mind just goes crazy sometimes!
This awareness is invaluable.
Because then you have an understanding of what’s really happening in your life. And you can respond appropriately.
It’s a practice of syncing your mind with your body…
There’s a place for thinking about problems. But most people spend way too much time stuck in their head. (Or at least, I can speak for myself.)
Your brain isn’t the only center of intelligence in your body.
Modern science has confirmed this.3. But you don’t need to go read a bunch of studies to know it’s true. Just think about where you feel emotions in your body.
Fear, nerves, excitement… many of them are centered in your gut.
And we even use the phrase “gut instinct” to describe our intuition.
There’s a subtle, deep wisdom that extends beyond the brain. And when you connect your mind to your breathing… you start to sync up to it.
It’s a practice of letting go and beginning again…
Lots of people think meditation is about magically stopping all thought or negative emotions.
Yet thoughts and emotions are inevitable.
They’re part of being alive.
But you can learn to not be carried away by them. To catch yourself when you’re stuck in distraction… and return to the present moment once again. To let go.
You can learn to hold this relaxed, centered posture even in the midst of difficulty.
It’s a practice of being kind… starting with yourself…
I did a weekend meditation retreat a little while back. And it happened to fall in the middle of a few challenging months health-wise.
There was one moment where it hit me just how much I was dealing with.
Woah! I was facing some hard stuff.
It was just like if I was watching one of my daughters in pain. Except this time I was seeing myself. Immediately, there was a huge sense of tenderness toward what I was going through.
That posture of gentleness gave me new ways of working with my situation.
As you can see, these things aren’t just about the couple minutes you’re actively meditating.
You’re training for your WHOLE LIFE. You’re cultivating a more powerful way of living outside of meditation.
And like with any practice, it’s not about a one-off moment. There’s discipline and commitment involved.
That’s my experience at least.
As I said, your mileage may vary.
However, if you do want to actually give it a shot, here are three steps I’ve found helpful…
1. Find a Style of Meditation that Works for You
Look, there are a million different ways to meditate out there.
You can chant a mantra. You can contemplate a simple quote or passage of scripture. You can visualize your goals, dreams, and aspirations. You can pay attention to the sensations in your body. And the list goes on.
Experiment and see what works for you.
For me, I feel most at home with a Buddhist practice called Shamatha. (Shamatha is a fancy Sanskrit word that means “peaceful abiding”.)
It’s very simple…
You take your posture… relaxed… upright… dignified…
And you focus your attention on your breathing… feeling the physical rise and fall of your chest.
When you get distracted… which WILL happen… you just gently let go of whatever you were thinking about and come back to your breathing.
That’s the rough description of it. Though it will probably make more sense if you experience it yourself. Check out this brief guided meditation by Susan Piver for detailed instructions…
By the way, Susan also wrote a lovely little book on meditation called Start Here Now. It’s a great introduction to what meditation is, what it isn’t, and how to do it.
2. Start Ridiculously Small
When I first tried meditating, I thought to myself, “OK, I’m going to meditate for 30 minutes every single day… FOREVER.”
And so I did…
For about two days.
Then I stopped completely.
It took me a number of tries before I finally figured out something…
Set the bar as low as possible. And I mean really, really low.
Currently, I use 5 minutes a day as my target. But you can aim for 2 minutes. Or, as I’ve done in the past, just sit down and pay attention to 3 breaths in and out.
Because even if you’re as good as I can be at coming up with excuses…
It’s very, very hard to come up with a plausible reason for why you can’t sit down and count out 3 breaths.
This isn’t the only way to start small either…
Not getting carried away by our thoughts can be surprisingly hard. It’s not something we have a lot of experience doing in the rest of our lives.
So each time I meditate, I consider it a smashing success if I come back to the present moment JUST ONCE.
And yes, sometimes that “one time” happens when my timer goes off at the end of the session.
That totally counts.
In other words…
It’s very easy to succeed. :)
Setting the bar low strips away all the pressure. You don’t have to worry about doing it “wrong”. You don’t have to be so serious and uptight. And instead, you can be more playful and experimental.
And from that small start, you can naturally expand and grow the practice over time.
3. Finish With a “Bridge Moment”
I haven’t heard too many people talk about this…
But my good friend KC shared this insight with me a while back. And it’s totally changed my experience of meditation.
I call it the “Bridge Moment”.
After your timer goes off…
Instead of just moving on to the next activity (or… ahem… checking your phone), take a second to pause.
Enjoy the moment.
Take satisfaction in completing the practice.
Look up at the sky.
It’s weird. But there’s just something kind of magical about this. I find it helps “seal” the prior meditation practice… integrating it deeply into my body so I can carry it into whatever I’m doing next.
So there you have it…
Go give the practice a try.
Experiment with it.
See if it’s helpful to you.
What about the famous, successful people who don’t meditate, I wonder? ↩︎
Yes, the research does suggest that meditation has a lot of benefits. But it’s not as conclusive as most people make it sound. And many of the stronger studies have been on people who meditated A LOT. ↩︎
Turns out… your gut bacteria can send direct messages to your brain. They can even alter your mood – making you happy, sad, anxious, depressed, courageous, etc. Crazy! http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/09/gut-feeling.aspx ↩︎