This article was prepared for The Napa Valley Register on August 30, 2013 under the title “Meditating the Right Way.”
It is no secret that meditation is good for us. From what research tells us, it is probably the most effective panacea for all that ails us. Meditation decreases the likelihood of heart disease and cancer; makes us smarter; increases concentration and enhances memory; reduces cortisol, the body’s stress and aging hormone; helps with weight control; decreases anxiety and depression; enhances immune functioning; and reduces high blood pressure. With meditation we sleep better, eat healthier and even find that we are happier, kinder, more compassionate, and more likeable to other people. And please note, seniors: Meditation increases the life of telomeres, little neuro-receptors present in each chromosome that are responsible for longevity.
So why isn’t everyone meditating each day and twice on Sundays?
Well, we know that before any new behavior becomes as natural as brushing our teeth, we need practice it daily for upward of 40 days. And sometimes the simpler the activity, the harder it is to put it into practice!
Most books and articles about meditation suggest that it is very easy to do if you just follow the exercises in the book (or even in this article!) On the one hand meditation can be as simple as taking one inhalation and exhalation after another and consciously paying attention to these breaths. But for anyone who has tried this, you know the simplicity is as deceptive as our minds can be!
The mind is a very busy place. Our brains do not tend to sit still. Thoughts do not want to slow down enough to focus on the breath. The thinking mind gets bored, has more important things to do. Before you know it, instead of focusing on your breath, you have planned out your entire week and chastised the clerk who miscalculated your bill and the jerk who pulled in front of you in traffic. Such meditation sessions do not inspire relaxation and calm. Matter of fact, they cause most people to decide that they are failures at meditation. Since meditation is supposed to be so wonderful and easy, feeling like you failed at it makes you feel stupid on top of it all.
Here are some not-so-very secret keys to meditation practice. First, be compassionate with your own mind. Know that everyone, even experienced meditators, have busy minds. Trust that in time and with practice, not only do the thoughts slow down, but the meditator can find herself in deep relaxation even while the mind busies itself. To paraphrase John Lennon, “Meditation is what happens when the mind is busy thinking other thoughts.”
Second, if at all possible, find a qualified teacher and a group to meditate with. There are at least five meditation circles in Napa, including one at my office every Tuesday evening. It is great to read books on meditation and listen to recorded guided meditations. But having an in-person guide on the how-to’s of practice and avoiding the pitfalls of the mind can be very helpful. So can being in the energy of a group of meditators.
Thirdly, know that there are many methods of meditation and you can find one that fits your preferences and worldview. There are methods of meditation which are specific to all religious traditions, personal recovery work, and the not-so-spiritually inclined individuals.
The meditation I teach comes from the yogic tradition and offers a mantra (words imbued with a sacred vibratory quality.) When the mind and breath focus on a mantra, the mind tends to quiet. In my classes we practice with the mantra “Ham-Sa” which is Sanskrit for “I Am That.”
To begin with and for practicing on your own, you don’t need to use the mantra I recommend. Just choose two words that are sacred to you, words like “love, peace, God, ease, release.” Think the first word as you inhale softly and slowly. Think the second word as you exhale softly and slowly. Start by doing this in a comfortable quiet place every day for 10 minutes. Increase the time or go to twice a day as you feel ready.
I often recommend that anyone who has difficulty sitting still might practice yoga postures and stretches before meditation. Releasing body tension before meditation can help still the mind. If yoga is not your cup of tea, stretch or move in any way that gently releases tension for you.
One of my favorite authors on meditation, Sally Kempton, says it all in the title of her book: Meditation for the Love of It. When we meditate with compassion for ourselves and others, we strengthen our physical heart and we become more loving beings. Once you begin to really come from the Heart in meditation, the joy of it overcomes all resistance and barriers and you are in it for good.