Meditation: the Radical Act of Just BEING
Updated: Jan 16, 2020
The act of meditating in our current social climate is a radical choice. Let me explain. Modern society has trained us to be consumers-we are surrounded by myriad things all vying for our attention all day, every day. Social media, targeted advertising, the 24-hour news cycle, emails to respond to, internet memes and youtube videos-we are being “influenced” at every turn, our heads filled to the brim with an incessant, constant stream of noise.
This may come as a surprise, or if you find it harder and harder to focus on the things you actually want to focus on, maybe not, but all of this noise gets in the way of our brain function and the ability of our nervous system to regulate, and as a result, things like creativity and mental focus suffer. Our brains and nervous systems need time to process and wander and wonder. If the noise is never turned down, it leaves very little time and space for these systems to regulate. I believe that to live our fullest, best lives as artists and as humans, we need to allow room for self-inquiry and self-discovery. These things only occur when we give ourselves the time and space to go inward. Luckily, meditation offers us the opportunity to just be.
I just got back from a five day meditation and yoga retreat at the Kripalu Center in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. Kripalu is a magical place intended to help those who visit find peace and restore their minds, bodies, and spirits. My time there was incredibly renewing and rejuvenating. I took the opportunity to do a tech cleanse as well and I have to say, getting away from my computer, social media, the 24 hour news cycle, and television was extremely liberating!
The program I attended focused mainly on introducing a variety of meditation techniques and using these techniques to build a personal meditation practice to serve each participant’s unique lifestyle. With each day that passed it was as if I could feel my nervous system calming down more and more as I went deeper into my meditation practice and got further away from the usual noise surrounding me.
I don’t consider myself to be particularly attached to technology but I was amazed by the profound shift I felt in myself at the end of the five days. Due to this combination of turning down the noise and going inside I felt lighter and happier when I woke up in the morning. I no longer felt the need to rush from place to place throughout the day. I felt a sense of inner peace that seemed to guide me through my interactions with others and the slight social anxiety that is often present in my chest was eased. My creativity seemed to reawaken and I had a lot of new ideas for projects I want to pursue. Lastly, and I think most importantly, I was filled with an intense feeling of gratitude for everything I have, everyone I know, and the many ways I love my life. I felt the gratitude deeply, viscerally, in a way I had not experienced in a long time.
Reflecting on this case-study I rather accidentally conducted on myself led me to make my initial statement that meditating is a radical choice in our current society. Amidst all of the noise that is constantly demanding our attention and trying to convince us to part with our precious time and money, choosing to turn away from these influences and meditate is actually a revolutionary, rebellious, and empowering choice! It nourishes the brain, regulates the nervous system, lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, allows you to reflect and reconnect with yourself, the list goes on...(further reading about the health benefits of meditation are just a simple google search away)-and IT’S FREE! No purchase necessary, which make my anti-capitalist leanings very happy.
Please do not take my word for it. If you are not on the meditation train yet, or have fallen off as I had, join me in the revolution and give it a try! Here are some ideas to get you started. What I learned this past week, is there is no “right” way to meditate. There are many “doorways into meditation”, as my teachers at Kripalu put it, and it is up to you to try them and figure out what works for you. It’s also possible that one way will work for you one day and another will work better on a different day. We are ever-changing, ever-evolving beings, so our meditation practice will likely evolve too. The other thing my teachers encouraged me to do was to not get frustrated by a wandering mind. It is completely natural for the mind to wander during meditation and this should not be seen as a sign that you have “failed at meditating”. Be patient with yourself and accept whatever happens in your meditation as what was supposed to happen on that given day.
“Doorways Into Meditation”
Guidelines: When setting up to meditate you will want a timer within arm’s reach. If you are new to meditating, I would suggest starting with just 5 minutes. From there you can increase to 10, 15, 20, etc. to find the ideal length of time for your personal practice. The key is to start with an amount of time that is doable for you and go up from there. You want the practice to fit into your life so that you will want to do it. Remember, even 5 minutes is better than 0 minutes! Find a comfortable seated position in a chair or on the floor. Take your time when doing this so you can relax in your chosen position-you don’t want to be distracted by feeling uncomfortable. From this position, try one of the following “doorways”.
1. Close your eyes and focus on your breath. Inhale for a count of 4, then exhale for a count of 4. Next try inhaling for 4 and exhaling for 6. Lastly, try inhaling for 4 and exhaling for 8. Regulating and elongating the breath (taken from the yoga breathing practice of pranayama) is a wonderful way of calming the nervous system.
2. Another pranayama exercise that can lead into meditation is alternate nostril breathing, called Nadi Shodhana. If you are unfamiliar with this practice, here is a great explanation of how to do it (it’s easy!): https://chopra.com/articles/nadi-shodhana-how-to-practice-alternate-nostril-breathing
3. Mantra meditation is another wonderful way into meditation and can be especially useful if there is something specific you want to focus on in your meditation. A mantra, which is known as an “instrument for the mind”, is a word or phrase that is repeated silently in order to focus and quiet the mind. This week I tried the mantra “I am enough, I have enough, I do enough”. I had an extremely powerful experience using this mantra and I realized afterwards that I really needed to hear those words. Other mantras to try include: “Breathing In, Breathing Out” and “I have arrived, I am home”
4. You may have heard of the Loving Kindness meditation technique, or Metta, which comes from the Buddhist tradition. In this form of meditation, we send loving kindness to ourselves, our loved ones, those we have conflict with, and the larger world including all those we do not know, all beings, and even the planet. It can be a wonderfully powerful and moving meditation practice and seems highly relevant in our current time. I highly recommend it if you are feeling in need of some healing. To try it out, I recommend getting started with a guided meditation such as this one: https://youtu.be/-d_AA9H4z9U
5. An alternative to seated meditation is to try a walking meditation out in nature. Being in nature is one of my personal favorite things to do because I find it healing in a way that staying inside does not offer. Connecting with the outside world gets us out of the prison of the mind and back into the body and the physical world around us. To give this practice a try, put on comfortable shoes and head to a local wilderness area or park. Choose a trail or path and walk mindfully along it, paying attention to everything around you using all of your senses-observe what you see before you, smell the fresh air and the scent of the trees, feel the breeze on your skin, listen to the ambient sounds. Focus on being in the present moment by living through your senses and observing your surroundings without rushing.
As they say, the best things in life are in fact, free. As we head into 2020, take a break from technology and give meditation a try. Be curious, open and observant and see what you notice within yourself-after all, it’s free, portable, and potentially life-changing!