There is a common, often fear-based, misconception that you have to be a particular “type” of person to meditate; if "I got a dime" every time someone said something like, “I can’t get my mind to shut up — I would be the worst at meditation” ...
If you can hear yourself uttering such words, run — don’t walk — towards a meditation practice. Typically, the more impossible meditation feels, the greater the body’s need.
The intimidation factor is due in large part to the popular misunderstanding that the goal of meditation is to “clear the mind completely” — an unrealistic ask. The goal is to foster a better relationship with your thoughts. Success is not a lack of thoughts, but the ability to catch yourself and bring yourself back to the moment — back to the breath. Think of meditation as analogous to a swivel chair. When you are lost in meditation (lost in breath), the chair is stable. Swiveling is “wandering in thought”— letting your "monkey mind" take over. The mission is not to “never swivel” — that is unrealistic. The mission is to recognize that you are swiveling as immediately as possible and, with compassion, pull yourself to centre.
The quote that made me willing to brave meditating is from Sharon Salzberg’s book Real Happiness: “If you can breathe, you can meditate.” I can breathe, so I thought, “Kathleen, lean in. Be curious. What is the worst that can happen?” I attended a workshop for professionals by Angela Kontgen, tried a group class, read a few books on the subject, and made a goal to meditate daily for a month.
It turns out, I like meditation; it calms the never-ending to-do list in my head and siphons off daily “me” time. The caveat is that I like my version of meditation. The name of my book, Finding Your Fit, aptly encapsulates my philosophy for adopting any new habit: learn the pros and cons, adopt what works for you — ditch what doesn’t.
Experiment. Find a class, teacher and / or personal practice you can relate to. Try breathing meditation, sound meditation, loving-kindness meditation, or maybe a mindfulness meditation.
Meditate in the morning to frame your day, during lunch to centre yourself, or at night as part of a bedtime ritual. Maybe your meditation “fit” is simply committing to taking 10 deep breaths whenever you are stressed. Maybe your fit is using an app such as HeadSpace.
My mediation fit: a 10-minute personalized practice (someone else’s voice is a deterrent) within an atmosphere of growth. Much of what I always appreciate is the philosophy behind a practice — the WHY.
Three key “whys”
1. Salzberg puts it best: “The goal is not to become better at meditation, the goal is to become better at life.”
Meditation is both a mirror and a model. Meditation mirrors how you think in life. Is your meditation full of catastrophic “what ifs” or debilitating self-criticism? It is also a model for life; while mediating, you learn how to breathe through and let go of your particular brand of toxic thoughts. The aim is to translate the coping mechanism into life — for your practice to “jump off the mat.” Understand the difference between “thinking” and being a prisoner of your thoughts; let go of the unproductive never-ending to-do list, the pointless worry, the self-doubt and judgment. Learn how to respond rather than emotionally react.
2. Thoughts are not facts.
Thoughts and emotions are fleeting, simply visiting. We are not our unproductive, sad, or angry thought. With breath, we can let them “go.”
This “thoughts are not facts” tenet has positively impacted all of my relationships and life. When I perceive that my partner, James, has done something hurtful, I simply say, “Kathleen, your perception of the incident is not fact. Just talk to him.” Or, when I feel there is “no way” I can make it through my day, I say, “Kathleen, thoughts are transitory. These negative thoughts have rented space in your body; they have not bought the property. You will feel better as you work and if you don’t feel better, anyone can do anything for a day.” I always feel better once I’m lost in work.
3. The breath is powerful.
Breath signals the nervous system to switch from the sympathetic system (the stress response) to the parasympathetic system. The positives attributed to the parasympathetic nervous system include facilitating digestion, improving immune health, quieting the “monkey mind,” and aiding restful sleep.
There are no miracle solutions. Take meditation for what it is: one component of your overall health recipe.
Yes, the parasympathetic nervous system facilitates a state in which healing is better able to occur, but meditation should not replace other forms of health care. To quote my colleague Harry, “Breathing is always good, but breathing will not eliminate my meniscus tear.” Plus, like everything, it only works if you work it; meditation will not aid weight loss if you are eating five muffins a day.