My life is in flux (again), I feel like I have several “balls in the air,” and my mind and body are constantly moving. This is not a new pace for me; this has been my standard operating procedure for as long as I can remember. But it seems the farther along I go, the bigger the leaps of faith get, the more is at stake, and the unknowns seem a little scarier. The funny thing is, I am much less fazed by it than I used to be.
You see, it had to get worse before it got better. Like most things, I didn’t choose to deal with my stress and anxiety until I was forced to- by spending several months battling terrifying panic attacks. It’s a hard thing to describe if you’ve never had one, and I do hope to write more about this topic in the future, but let me just say this: they come in all shapes and sizes, from a small pang in the chest to complete and total debilitation; a body and mind betraying you. That summer, I encountered the latter. I had to do something, and I knew a prescription for Xanax was only addressing the tip of the iceberg.
At that time I thought meditation was bullshit. Yeah, seriously. Sitting there, totally still and silent and trying to turn my mind off?! Sounded like a waste of time, and furthermore, I knew I simply could not do it. It was hard enough to get to sleep every night, how could I silence my mind in the middle of the day? But the more I learned about anxiety, the more I heard about meditation. So I tried it, very reluctantly.
I’d sit on the floor of my condo for 5 minutes and try to focus on my breath. My mind would never stop, and sometimes the stillness itself would work me into a panic. But I kept at it, because as uncomfortable as it was I knew I couldn’t keep glossing over it; keeping myself distracted only worked for so long.
What I realized through this experience was that I’d been operating at a medium level of anxiety for a long time - a level I simply accepted as "normal" and never really noticed or felt a need to address. I decided I did not want everything to just go back to “normal,” I wanted to get even better than that. I didn’t need this medium-level anxiety anymore. I was glad it got so bad, because it was the only way I’d ever start paying attention, and make it “all the way” better. I still have anxious moments every now and then, but they're more the "small pang in the chest" variety these days. I've changed my lifestyle, gotten healthier, and acquired tools and resources to keep stress at a minimum, because medium-level is not acceptable and should not be anyone's "normal."
There are proven health benefits to meditation – and that’s all true – but what I can tell you personally is that a regular meditation practice helps keep me level. I’m less reactive to the things I encounter every day. I feel more in touch with myself and my own desires and intuition, and more in control of where my mind goes. And since I’ve worked meditation into my daily morning routine, it’s a chance to check in with myself every morning. To see how my body feels, where my mind’s at, and what emotions show up before I even interact with the outside world. It’s a chance to start my day with some calm and self-care.
Just as I always say in yin yoga, by challenging ourselves to sit, stay, and breathe through a moment that may be uncomfortable or challenging or just plain boring, we get to learn more about ourselves and our habitual reactions. We discover how we respond to these types of situations in the “real world.” For example, is it your tendency to say, “This is stupid, I don’t want to do this” and exit the situation? Or maybe, “I’m not doing this right” and start beating yourself up for not being good enough? Do you remove yourself from the present moment by thinking about your to-do’s, or reviewing something that happened in the past? By taking the chance to observe where our mind goes, we can begin to soften that reaction, so that when faced with a challenge in our day-to-day lives we can take a moment, breathe, and then react.
Our habitual reactions are like water, taking the path of least resistance. Because it’s the way we’ve always done it, it’s a path that’s already been cleared in our brains. It’s the easiest way to go. By practicing stillness and observation, we can begin to clear a new path of least resistance, creating a different way of reacting to the challenges of everyday life.
I know it seems impossible to sit and not think for even five minutes. Trust me, I know. But if I can do it, you can do it. There is no being “good at meditation,” and there is no “turning the mind completely off.” Our minds are meant to think – thank god they’re working! But meditation gives us an opportunity to take the reigns back, to observe our mind’s activity instead of being ruled by it. So don’t be hard on yourself if thoughts keep cropping up, it happens to everyone. When this happens, simply notice it, don't judge, and pull your attention back to your breath. That is the practice.
A trick that helps me a lot is labeling my thoughts. For example, my tendency is to run through my to-do’s, so I’ll label that in my mind, “planning.” If I’m trying to anticipate a future situation, “anticipating,” or maybe “worrying.” By labeling in this way we can detach a little more from the thoughts themselves and get back to observing. I learned this and many other great tricks by reading a book called 10% Happier by Dan Harris, and then looking up Harris’ meditation mentor, Joseph Goldstein. These are good resources to check out if you want to dive in a little deeper.
Okay enough talk, how do you do this thing?
- Sit comfortably – I choose to sit cross-legged but you don’t have to! Sit however is comfy. You can lie down but there’s always the risk of falling asleep ;)
- I put eucalyptus oil in my diffuser, but this is really not necessary to get started. I like it because it gives me one more thing in the present moment to focus on, and the scent acts as a trigger for calm and relaxation.
- I use an app called ZaZen on my phone to keep my time. I highly recommend using some kind of timer so you’re not constantly peeking at the clock, worried about how long it’s been or if you’re gonna run over your time.
- Close your eyes or keep a soft gaze, not focusing on anything. Looking around will keep your mind going, taking you out of the meditation.
- Just focus on your breath. I like to say, “in, out” in my mind as I inhale and exhale. You can also count to ten over and over (you might be surprised how difficult this is), or focus on things like how your body feels, how the air feels on your skin, what smells are around you – really anything that keeps you present – but just noticing, observing, not analyzing.
- Start with 5 minutes. If that seems impossible, start with 3! As you get more comfortable, you can work your way up to ten, fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. You’ll notice that some days 5 minutes feels like twenty, and vice versa.
- Most importantly, remember that there is no “doing it wrong”!! Just do it, and you are doing it “right.” Be easy on yourself.
There are websites and apps that offer guided meditations if you feel you want some help. 10% Happier offers a short series, and Headspace offers a free trial period, to name a few. But really, you just gotta carve out a few minutes - seriously, I know you have 5 minutes to spare - and get started.
If you want some one-on-one guidance I’d love to help! Get in touch for a free 30-minute call and I'll take you through some exercises that have helped me.
What questions do you have and what challenges do you face while trying to sit still? Share in the comments below!