171 Days And Counting

Meditation

Meditation (Photo credit: RelaxingMusic)

Today, I am celebrating 171 consecutive days of meditation. As I wrote in this post, I’ve meditated on and off for years, but never quite committed to it. The thing is that I never needed studies to convince me that a regular meditation practice is beneficial. I’ve been my own test subject. There is no doubt in my mind that sitting on a regular basis has a positive affect on my physical, emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing. Yet, if you are anything like me, the knowing and doing are very often outweighed by outer influences.

Thinking back, I find it ironic that, based on studies, research and direct evidence, the very things that should have caused me to embrace meditation, for example, stress, anxiety, a lack of focus and concentration, a mind filled with never ending thoughts and other burdens. In addition, fibromyalgia made sitting in one position very painful and it was impossible to focus on the breath while my body was screaming in agony. I found a plethora of ‘reasons’ not to meditate. Sitting in stillness was a dream that eluded me repeatedly.

Near the end of 2013, i was beginning to regain control over pain. In my case, fibromyalgia manifests itself with, among other things, daily pain. On a scale of 1-10, my pain level hovers around a 5–every single day. For the preceding 4-6 months, my pain level had routinely hovered between 8 and 9. This, for months on end.

With my pain level returning to normal levels, and the coming of a new year, I felt it time for me to take action to repair the damage that constant, intractable pain caused both to my body and psyche. Thus, at the end of the year, I set an intention to begin a daily meditation practice both as a declaration of ‘taking care of me’ and as an antidote to the barrage of thoughts in my mind.

In all candor, at the time, I had no reason to believe that it would turn out differently than it had in the past. In hindsight, I now recognize that there was a major difference. In the past, I approached the intent to mediate with my logical mind, with considerable attention to its notable health benefits. I find that the thinking mind, that which separates us from lower life forms, is subject to profound degrees of both brilliance and wisdom. Yet, it is also feeds our fears, insecurities, self-doubts and any number of negative emotions. If allowed to, it can led us astray as had been the case when I bought into the multitude of ‘reasons’ that, in the past, made it easy to quit meditating.

When I choose to resume meditation months ago, I was fed up with following the advice of my head and choose instead to rely on the feelings in my heart. Following my heart, I made the intention to return to meditation, and I felt ready to confront the obstacles and hinderances, including the pain. Unlike all of my past failed attempts, I’ve meditated successfully for 171 days.

Although I am in every way, a meditation novice, after some reflection, I realize that there are factors that are instrumental in helping me to maintain a consistent meditation practice. They are by no means intended to supplant the advice of more experienced or expert meditators, but they are observations that are based on my personal experience.

  • Pick a style of meditation that works for you. There are many types of meditation practices, even “laughing” meditation. It is important that you choose a type that you like. }Just note that It may not come immediately and may require some trial and error.) Just because I prefer focusing on the breath, does not mean it is the practice that is well-suited for you. Do your research. Either obtain a good book describing the various types of meditation or put your research skills to work on the internet. (If you hew to a method that is not your conscious choice or one that is not right for you, you are most likely to give up the practice.) Even after choosing one, if you find that it is not your cup of tea, try another. Ultimately, you want to find a practice that you enjoy and can envision maintaining.
  • Approach your practice with joy, as opposed to a duty. Think about it. What is your mindset about those tasks that you feel obligated to accomplish? At some point, we become resentful and must force ourselves to complete them. On the other hand, think about those activities that we enjoy doing. We look forward to them because they bring us inner peace, calm, satisfaction and other positive feelings. Instead of obligation, we feel pleasure and an air of excitement at the prospect of doing them.
  • Pick a specific meditation schedule and stick to it. Doing so, allows both your body and mind to integrate the practice into your day. As you begin to practice, be mindful of how long you choose to practice. Do not commit to sitting every day, if you don’t sincerely believe it to be feasible. It is better to begin slowly, and over time, to build up to where you which to be. Otherwise, you run the risk of giving up out of frustration because you misjudged your ability to maintain your chosen schedule. Once you are practicing on a consistent basis, your body will begin to crave meditation. There is a point when you realize that you are no longer wrestling yourself to the cushion; it becomes as natural as brushing your teeth.
  • Remember the mantra ‘begin again.’  When I first began meditating, I was advised to think of my mind as an endless blue sky, and my thoughts as clouds passing through that sky. The aim of the type of meditation that I practice is to simply note those “thought” clouds as they pass by, and to resist the urge to attach to them. For example, a thought enters your mind reminding you that you need to go grocery shopping. In the best case scenario, you acknowledge that thought and let it go as it floats on by. If, however, your response to the thought is to begin visualizing your grocery list, you’ve attached to the thought and your attention is no longer focused on the meditation. Once again the mantra ‘begin again’ comes into play. When you realize that you have attached to a thought, simply bring yourself back, for example, to your breath and ‘begin again.’ No judgment, no recrimination, just ‘begin again.’ At the beginning or on particularly stressful days, you may find yourself beginning again numerous times, but like in falling down, it is the getting up and beginning again that matters.
  • No two meditation sessions are alike. Like life in general, some meditation sessions come easier than others.
  • Those days when you feel most like skipping your practice, are in fact, the times when you most need to practice. Over the last three months, pain from fibromyalgia, migraines, a sinus infection, a couple of really bad colds and depression, gave me serious pause to skip practice. At one point, I was too sick to even sit up. It would have been so easy to give in to the temptation to skip practice. I mean, they were valid reasons, right? At least, that is what my ‘thinking’ mind assured me. Fortunately, my heart brought me to the cushion and I never regret it. Nevertheless, on those days, 5-15 minutes may be more realistic and doable than my normal 50 minute practice. The goal is to show up for whatever time that you can manage, even if it is only for 5 minutes.
  • Don’t compare your meditation practice to that of others. Meditation is not a competition, and as I said earlier, your meditation choice and experience are most certainly to be different than that of another meditator.
  • If possible, find a meditation partner. Given that I live outside of Austin and for health reasons, it is impractical for me to join a group meditation in town. So, I had to come up with a creative solution. As it happened, I learned that a Facebook friend meditated as well. She lives in Illinois and I in Texas, but we agreed to come together at a predetermined time to meditate together. It works beautifully. Knowing that Jen is counting on me and is meditation at the same time, provides me additional incentive and motivation to meditate, even though, we are miles apart.

You might find additional helpful information in this blog post in which I wrote about my meditation routine.

In sum, sitting in meditation becomes less about what you should do and more about what you must do for yourself. For a Type A personality like myself, the stillness required for meditation, is a welcome change. The mental to-do list evaporates and I give myself permission to stop to embrace the stillness and the moment. It is a gift that I give myself–one that I treasure.

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My Path to Meditation

Meditation

Meditation (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn)

Please note that this post is longer than usual but I feel that the subject matter warrants it. Thank you for taking the time to read it.

For the umpteenth time, I’ve come home to sitting. I mean , I’ve returned to my meditation practice. In reality, I have a love/hate relationship with it. Of course, there are the proven health benefits, among them, lower stress and blood pressure levels, and it also has been found to treat depression as effectively as medication or talk therapy. Even as I prepare for my meditation session, I.e., pulling out my cushion, lighting candles and incense, deciding on music or no music and making the room as least distracting as possible, I always feel a tinge of excitement at the prospect of what is to come. As I take my seat and settle down, my back and neck elongates and my shoulders, usually high around my ears, relax back and down my back — all of this before beginning my real meditation practice. This is the easy part. The hard part and one that I say that I’ve come to hate (In all honesty, “hate” is much too harsh.), let’s just say that I am not ‘in like’ with this part.

First, I have to describe myself as, until my health forced me to stop, a hard-driving woman. I’d had children at a much too young age and was determined not to become what was the common fate of a girl who’d gotten pregnant and married at a young age — her life was over. I rode myself, and I mean relentlessly. Although I worked full-time for a Houston oil and exploration company, I spent my night’s attending college full-time, even during the Summer session. Lest not forget that I had three children who participated in childhood activities like soccer, basketball, Brownies, Girl Scouts and all the rest. Routinely, I could be found on the sidelines of one of my children’s games, books in tow, all the while cheering at the proper time. I never slowed down and once I’d graduated from undergrad, law school was the next hurdle in my path. I made it through law school, graduated, took the bar exam, passed the bar and was a licensed attorney by November 1991.

I immediately became a litigation attorney, so, unlike the sedate office job, I had a very active defense practice. I represented the State of Texas throughout the state and I loved my job. I strived on the fast pace, constant deadlines and the large caseload of a government attorney. I travelled constantly and was never in one place for too long. It suited one who was never comfortable relaxing and really did not know how.

Now, to the part that I hate. For a long time, I was totally uninterested in a meditation practice, I thought, “I can’t possibly be still and quiet for that long. At a particularly stressful time, I finally relented and gave it a try. It was sheer torture. After about a minute, I couldn’t breathe and the only thing on my mind was getting the hell out of that room with the walls appearing to be closing in on me. Let’s just say that my introduction to meditation was far from auspicious. I decided that I’d given it a try, it wasn’t for me, and I had no intention of returning.

At around the same time, I’d begun yoga classes and after several false starts, I found a teacher and hatha yoga class that appealed to me and I was hooked. At first, my type A personality reared its’ ugly head and threatened to ruin everything but I stuck with it and it became an antidote to my ‘always on the go’ personality. I grew to crave it for its’ unhurried nature. As I attended more and more classes, I found that my favorite part of the practice was savasana (a.k.a., Corpse pose). The pose required us to lie down, silently allowing the practice to integrate into our bodies. At first, I became anxious sitting with myself that quietly for 5-10 minutes and after a minute I was ready for the torture to end. This time, I stuck with it. Somewhere along the way, I came to yearn the peace and stillness that the pose brought me. I wanted more of it. This search led me back to my meditation practice.

At first, I’d sit and after a minute, I decided that I couldn’t do it and I’d stop. In the meantime, I began to research and read about meditation. What I learned is that “meditation” is not easily defined and one text to the next attaches different ideologies to meditation. Moreover, there are scores of meditation methods, including, but not limited to, insight meditation, walking meditation, laughing meditation, mantra meditation, mindfulness meditation and on and on. As I mentioned earlier, based on past research, as well as ongoing research, there is evidence that there are health benefits to a consistent meditation practice.

In my case, I sought something to help me achieve stillness and relaxation, which was still foreign most of the time. I also looked to it as a way to quiet the non-stop chatter in my mind. In that state, it is almost impossible to focus on any one thing because the mind moves, without pause, from one thought to another. It is exhausting. With that in mind, I choose mindfulness or shamatha meditation, because of its’ intent “to achieve a mind that is stable and calm,” a state that I longed to possess, and one diametrically opposed to the Type A nature of my personality. Besides, the process was easy.

So, I began sitting, at first for brief periods of time and then for longer periods. For me, there is no doubt that it is beneficial to me. This is what works for me. Believe me when I say that I am not claiming to be a meditation guru or expert, because I find that laughable. I consider myself a beginner and the more that I sit, the more that I feel I have to learn. I simply offer to you, what has worked for me. You may find that this method does not work for you, but I urge you to do your own research to find a style that does.

This is my meditation routine:

  • Create a ritual that is a signal to your body and mind that it is time for meditation. In my case, I put a ‘do not disturb’ sign on my door, or tell anyone in the house that I am about to meditate. As of late, I’ve chosen a specific time within which to meditate. I find the scent of incense or an essential oil blend pleasing to me as it aids in achieving that “meditation” state of mind. Also, there is the question of music or no music. To some, music is an anathema or distraction to a true meditation session, but for me, I find that it can add to the overall environment. So, I play it by ear, sometimes, I meditate with music and at other times, I use no music. It is a personal preference that only you can choose. Try it with and without and so which you prefer.
  • Find a quiet place to sit. In my experience, this is of utmost importance because your goal is to create an environment where you can meditate with the least amount of distraction. Your focus should be on your meditation and not the football game on the television in the next room, or the sound of the dishes in the kitchen.
  • Sit as comfortably as possible, either on the floor or on a chair. Whichever you choose, find a comfortable seated position. Again, your focus should be on your meditation and not the pain in your knee, thigh, foot, butt, or what have you. If you experience pain, change positions. Perhaps, you usually meditate on the floor, but if you cannot find a comfortable seat, try sitting on a chair. Your goal is to minimize any distractions that may lead to discomfort so that you can stay still while meditating.
  • Sit with your pelvis tilted slightly forward, your spine straight and tall, shoulders, down and back, and the head rests comfortably on the top of the spine. Once again, be mindful of comfort and sitting in any way that distracts you from your session.
  • Determine how long you wish to sit and set a timer. You don’t want to be ‘clock watching’ during your meditation. I use a neat application called “Insight Timer” on my iPhone for that purpose. It is a cool app with a timer that allows you to choose from a variety of bell tones to start and end your meditation. You can also set it to sound at certain intervals during your meditation. (I find that distracting.) The truly cool aspect of the app is that it allows you to see how many other people from around the world are meditating along with you, and to friend fellow meditators. In addition, it keeps a record of your meditation activity. so that you don’t need to.
  • Open or close your eyes, it’s your preference. I close mine, but if you choose to keep them open, the goal is not to look at anything in particular. Your gaze should be soft and unfocused and it is recommended that it be on a spot a couple of feet in front of you. Again, it is simply a place upon which to rest your eyes.
  • Choose hand placement. A mudra is a symbolic hand gesture in Hindu or Buddhist traditions. There are various mudras and if it interests you, read this article. Personally, I prefer keeping it simple so I use the “chin mudra” wherein my palms are facing up, with my fingers out stretched, and my thumb and fore finger touch creating an “O.” Then, I  rest my hands on my thighs or knees. Again, it is your preference and the use of certain mudras create varying energetic links.
  • Take a few long, deep cleansing breaths. As you breathe, allow the stress and tension to drain away as you become more and more relaxed.
  • Allow your breath to return to normal and focus your attention on your breath as it moves in and out. When I am really wound up, I think “ease” on the in breath and “dis-ease” on the out breath. In my mind, I am breathing in ‘ease,” and breathing out, ‘dis-ease.’ The focus on the breath is a crucial aspect of the meditation, because, in spite of your best intentions, your mind will wander. We all do it. Our heads are filled with a plethora of thoughts and ideas and when, not if, your mind takes a detour away from the breath, you use the breath to bring your attention right back — again and again. I like the analogy of a clear blue sky with puffs of white clouds rushing across it. The blue sky is our mind, and the clouds are our thoughts. The key is to allow our thoughts to rush by without attaching to them. For example, you think, “I have to go to the grocery store.” Acknowledge the thought and let it float on by. The problem arises when you grasp upon the thought and think, “Oh yeah, we need milk, eggs, butter, etcetera.” When this happens, do not beat yourself up and give up. Use the breath to ‘begin again.’ When you realize what you are doing, calmly bring your attention back to the breath and ‘begin again.’ ‘Begin again’ as many times as it is necessary. There are times when my entire meditation is ‘begin again.’ Stay with it and don’t give up. The longer that you meditate and concentrate on your breath, the mind will become quieter and calmer.
  • Timer dings and you’ve completed your session feeling a bit calmer and more grounded.

And so, I sit because it soothes my savage mind, it grounds me, it eases my stress and pain level, brings peace and clarity and because it makes me feel better overall. I don’t expect that this one post will make everyone jump on the meditation band wagon. Like everything, it comes to us when we are ready. However, I would be elated if this post, encourages just one person to consider or begin meditating. There are many ways to meditate and my way, may not be your path toward meditation. I only hope that I’ve led you to consider it as part of your journey. I promise you that it is worth it, and should I stop again, I know that I will always ‘begin again.’

If you meditate already, please share what works for you. Do you have any tips for those of us who are not as far along the meditation path? How do you remain committed to your meditation practice? I would love to hear your thoughts and comments. Thanks for reading.

Blessings, Lydia

All Will Be Well. ~ St. Julian of Norwich 

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