11 Easy Ways to Meditate (Or, There’s No Such Thing As Being Bad At Meditation)
This is a pep-rally post: I want you all to do the challenge, and I want to make it easier because meditation can seem really hard. Actually, though, it’s not that hard—it’s really not. But I didn’t know that before, and so, herewith, 11 things that might make a daily meditation practice feel a little more manageable. I know everyone’s practice is totally different, so this is just me sharing what I have learned, because had I known these things when I started (and stopped, and started, and stopped), I think it might have stuck with it a lot sooner.
I hope it helps, and please also share your tips in the comments.
1. Use a timer. There are apps for that, and some make cute gong sounds when the time’s up. You can set it for five minutes to start, and then just decide in advance that for the next five minutes, you can’t do anything but sit there. You can think about anything you want, but you can’t DO anything. Five minutes may feel like an eternity, but if you can brush your teeth for two minutes twice a day, or you can g-chat with your best friend for four hours every day, you can sit still for five. Just decide you will, and then do it.
2. Don’t worry about whether or not you are doing it right. There are a million different ways to make bread. Every loaf has a few key ingredients. Beyond that, they may vary in flavor, texture, time in the oven—but it’s all still bread. Think of meditation the same way. As long as you have the basics down—sitting still, not doing other stuff at the same time, being quiet, then doing it again tomorrow—you’re doing a fine job.
3. Understand that when thoughts come up—and they will—it doesn’t mean you blew it. The mind never shuts up completely—even when we think it’s quiet, there are other channels running in the background. It’s OK even if those channels are blaring on high volume in the foreground, also. Over time this will just happen less.
Trust the process. And in the meantime, accept that your mind is not going to shut up, probably ever, and that’s OK. It will quiet down over time, though.
4. Get comfortable. When you first start meditating, you might find it’s really uncomfortable to sit cross legged in the middle of a room. (That’s because it is uncomfortable—until one day it isn’t anymore.) In yoga, they teach you to prop up your butt with pillows or blankets to get your hips higher than your knees. Why? Because it’s much easier to stack your spine and sit up if straight you do.
So prop up your butt. And since you are more likely to sit for five minutes if you aren’t worried about how much you suck at sitting, lean against a wall. The goal here is to be still—not to look like Christy Turlington in the (RED) campaign.
5. Picture yourself sitting there. OK, let’s get weird for a second: If you can picture yourself sitting there, you can understand, if only fleetingly, that your mind and your body are not necessarily the same thing. They say in meditation classes that you should “observe” your thoughts. This has always struck me as abstract and confusing. How many brains do I have? How can I observe my thoughts if they are coming from the brain I’m supposed to be observing them from? Turns out it’s actually possible (see below) but instead, I like to focus on the image of my own physical body, sitting wherever I am at that moment. Sometimes, I cast that image in bright white light, also.
6. Name your thoughts as they come up. “I should make pasta for dinner.” MAybe should, but you can’t do that for at least the next five minutes, so instead, say to yourself, “I just thought about what I’m going to eat for dinner.” If you can identify your thoughts, no matter what they are—”That guy in the elevator was cute,” “I’ve run out of underwear, I should probably do my laundry”—it takes you out of their grip and stops your mind from following that thought any further. It’s really hard to plan romantic getaways with elevator boyfriend or sort your laundry into piles if you have to stop at every thought and acknowledge it.
7. Smile. Not like in Eat Pray Love. We’re not talking exaggerated facial contortions here, just smile sweetly and subtly. When you’re smiling, even when you smile voluntarily (which is to say fake smiling) your brain changes. Fake-smiling activates the same signals of enjoyment in the brain as real-smiles. Since some goals of meditation are contentment, compassion and a sense of wellbeing, this is a great shortcut. I’ve found that when I start with a fake smile, it turns into a real smile pretty quickly—and not to be a total cornball, but it’s really powerful when that happens. Try it.
8. Use a simple mantra—and don’t overthink it. I remember the first time I heard about people using mantra I felt like a reject for not having one yet.
Then my teacher Lesley D. taught me one: “Let go.” Another one I love, from my teacher Dechen: “Yes, Thank You.” “Yes” on the inhale, “thank you” on the exhale. You can also use “ohm,” or whatever else you like. You pick, but don’t overthink it like I did. Pick one, commit to it, and get breathing.
9. Close your eyes—or maybe just keep them open. A divisive point, for sure, but meditation practices where you keep your eyes open or at half-mast trip me up. But I have a girlfriend who has the opposite problem: She closes her eyes and can’t focus. Point is, do what works for you.
10. Try a compassion exercise. Some of us like structure! A nice meditation for people who want a technique is compassion or loving-kindness meditation. There are different versions of this—you can google around and find one you like—but here’s the one I learned. First, you call to mind your own self and say silently, “May I be happy, may I be peaceful, may I be healthy, may I be free.” Next, call to mind someone you love, and say the same, but replace the Is with yous, obviously. Next, call to mind someone who is pissing you off or making you sad, and do it for them. From there, you can extend this meditation out to the entire world (“may all beings everywhere be happy” etc.). This part loses some people. If you’re one of them, then when you’re done with the person who you’re upset with, do someone else you love so you end on a good note.
11. Don’t expect to see bright blue flashing lights/meet God for the first time/find eternal bliss/solve all your problems/pass through to another dimension.
I was lucky enough to see a very special monk speak a while back here in New York and the topic of the lecture was “Compassion and the True Nature of the Mind.” Even he made jokes about how heady that sounded. He said that the “true nature of the mind”—that thing we’re all trying to get to through meditation—is really, really simple. It isn’t a shiny new toy. It’s not sexy. There’s no story to tell your friends. You aren’t trading in your current mind for a better one. It’s hard to describe, and this kind of talk can get pretty esoteric and frustrating pretty quick, but the point is: There is no magic, weird, out-there thing to find—in fact, it’s the opposite. Meditation is like peeling back layers of crap and then in the middle is a simple, sweet thing that has been there all along, and always will be.
Maybe that’s just me. If you have found the secret passageway to that other dimension, please let us know. For now, what tips do you have to share?
Amazing image via