Forgive me if I’m veering slightly into self-help territory. It’s not what I’m going for, but I wanted to share a mini-epiphany I had in the hopes of perhaps holding onto it. (Aren’t epiphanies such slippery little suckers? The second you touch them is as quick as they get away!)
It was around day three of my vacation, and all was well. Better than well, actually: Sunny and 89 degrees, with daily yoga, beautiful organic food, cocktails, sunsets, and jokes and love with my husband. Really, exactly what you want a vacation to feel like. And yet. Below the surface that little anxious voice was still rearing her ugly head here and there, trying to sabotage my chill.
What the hell could I be anxious about, I wondered, as I did another chaturanga. So I’d run down the list. My work was done. Everyone knew I was gone. There were automatic messages set on all my email accounts. But I still caught myself drifting into nervous fantasies about who I was dissapointing, who was waiting on me, some expectation I had not fulfilled.
I doubt I’m unique here, but a lot of my discomfort as a human being stems from this kind of stuff. Call me a Pisces, or call me a woman, but I have spent the better part of my life fretting over how other people may or may not be feeling about something that I may or may not have done. As I’ve grown up I’ve come to realize that most of these worries aren’t really that helpful to the people I’m worried about, and any time we overestimate the role we’re playing in other people’s lives, we are living a bit of a (self-involved) delusion. Which takes me to the petit epiphany.
Lying on the mat one day, I had a thought that went something like this: “Damnit, Self, everyone wants you to be happy right now, so just relax already.” I’m not saying that folks don’t ever have bad intentions, or that I don’t make anyone mad (I do), but in that moment I knew with certainty that the people in my life—if they were thinking of me at all—were most likely happy for me!
I think in general we probably underestimate how often this is true. Sure, friends, family, coworkers, can drive us up a wall. But I’d wager that most times out of 10, the things that piss us off the most about those we love comes from a place of just wanting them to be happy. Am I right? From our besties to our parents, we hate seeing people in any patterns that cause them suffering, and we hate to see people suffer at all.
Anyways, this thought gave me tremendous comfort on my trip. Any time I caught myself falling prey to anxious thoughts, I’d repeat it in a whisper: everyonewantsyoutobehappy, everyonewantsyoutobehappy, everyonewantsyoutobehappy. And doggonnit, it worked.
Do you have any mantras that you go back to that help you relax? Do share!
Hello, sweet things. A couple of weeks ago we launched a meditation challenge. If you didn’t do the challenge but are interested in starting a daily practice, please do, and let us know how it goes in the comments. (Some tips for beginners here.) Also, be reminded, that we said there was a prize! Three lucky winners will get presents in the mail from Essence of Vali, and they are announced below.
We were inspired (and, being honest, surprised) that so many of you gave it a go. Sitting still is hard, but it gets easier every day, as several of you noted in your letters.
A lot of you said that you were sleeping better, which is music to our ears. One writer said “I learned that I love meditating!” and you ALL (yes, all) of you said you intended to keep up the practice even after the challenge ended. Autumn said she felt more focused overall, and without trying. “It came naturally. It was a small difference, but it was noticeable.”
Some of you noted that after just a couple of days, five minutes went by in a blink. Letter writer Nicole used an alarm, and writes: “Day 1 and 2 I was anticipating the alarm, hoping that it would go off already! However, by the third day I was actually alarmed when the alarm went off—pun intended!!” (Um, Nicole, you’re adorable.)
Many of you said you found your mind wandered (normal) but that mantra helped. Some of you used “Let Go,” which we recommended, and one of you even went all the way with “Ohm Namashivaya” (looking at you, Rebecca!).
Literally every one of you who wrote to us said you really enjoyed meditating daily and Jana wrote: “It’s amazing how quickly I’ve begun craving meditation.”
Another writer likened it to training for a race: “When you train for running, you’re like ‘OK, today I’m going to run an extra mile.’ I’m not sure what the heck this is training for…clarity of mind?” Yes! That!
The most touching comment, to me, was this, from Bettina in Germany: “Knowing that there are people who are doing this with me for the past week makes it more meaningful—like I’m participating in a world movement!” (How are you all so freaking cute?! Really.)
And finally, Moksha from Montreal took the words right out of our mouths:
“There are constantly a billion ways for our minds to be engaged (even in extremely positive ways) but I suspect that one of the things people are very hungry for, whether they know it or not, is emptiness and the recognition of emptiness.”
As we said, three lucky people would win a prize from an aromatherapist we love. Her name is Valerie Bennis and we first met her while we were researching our book. She makes wonderful mixtures for her line Essence of Vali, and is so passionate about what she does.
Her sleep formula is incredibly powerful, and it smells so good we wish we could wear it as perfume. (Can’t do that, though—you’d be snoozing all over the place.) We also love her other mixtures and three of you have won care packages from her.
Drum roll please….
1. Nicole, from Hoboken, NJ
2. Katherine, from Houston, TX
3. Jana, New York, NY
Let’s all congratulate the ladies, and if you did the challenge but never wrote to us, or want to talk more about meditation, or aromatherapy (mmmm), weigh in, in the comments.
Image from meditation challenge participant Alex Newell. Thanks, Alex!!
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 they 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 gchat 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 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 (LOL).
6. Name your thoughts as they come up. “I should make pasta for dinner.” You probably should! But you can’t do that for at least the next five minutes, so instead, say to yourself “You just thought about what you’re 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. It’s kind of nuts, but it’s true: 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.” (Tou-ché.) 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 an 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.
Finally, 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.” Like, whoa. 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.) Now, what tips do you have to share?
Amazing image via