Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Meditate on This

As you already know if you read my most recent Tarot post (or if you've been a loyal fan for a year or more...) it's Meditation Month! I've written many blog posts about meditation already, and if you're getting started with a meditation practice, I definitely recommend clicking the 'meditation' tag on the right to check those out. But meditation is an inexhaustible topic, so today's blog post will also be about meditation!

Specifically, I want to share some of the ideas about meditation that have been coming up in my classes lately. If you teach yoga (or likely if you teach at all) you know the sensation of saying something totally off the cuff to your class, and playing it cool, but inside your head you're going, "Whoa...where did that come from?? I wish someone had said that to me years ago!" And, you know, maybe they did, but you weren't ready to receive that wisdom until now...or maybe it's just another example of the collective unconscious: our pooled wisdom as a collection of beings inhabiting the universe...who knows!

Anyway, I always like to start my classes with some stealth meditation. We're seated comfortably, eyes closed, and I direct the student's attention to their bodies and/or minds. Frequently, I invite them to observe their minds, try to see what stories their minds are telling them. This is a really useful technique for me, but it occurred to me the other day that if you know nothing about meditation already and you try to do this, you're likely going to miss the forest for the trees:

"My brain's not telling me any stories right now. What does that even mean? This is really dumb. When are we going to start moving? We've been sitting here forever, and my back hurts, and I won't be able to do any yoga by the time we stop sitting here!"

For the meditation novices, that, ladies and gentlemen, is a prime example of the kinds of stories I'm telling my students to try to observe. Notice how it draws a conclusion with little evidence, makes a value judgement, dismisses the current experience, projects into the future, and just for bonus points, draws a conclusion about stuff that has not even happened yet!

Is it clear how this story is not particularly helpful? More importantly perhaps, is it clear that it is just that: a story? It is not reality. Reality is that you're sitting. You can hear small noises coming from the office. You're experiencing mild physical sensations in your back. Even translating those experiences into words in the English language is placing a barrier between you and the experience (which is fine, in fact essential in this case, since you aren't actually experiencing them at all...).

As I started to recognize the stories we tell ourselves as barriers to our direct experience, I realized that asking my students to observe those barriers, was more likely to point them in the right direction than to ask them to observe stories. The idea of trying to experience your reality directly, with nothing (or as little as possible) between you and that experience seems easier to grasp, even if it may not be any easier to do.

That's the other thing: meditation is hard. That's why we have to practice it so much. No one is magically good at meditation. It's a skill we work hard to acquire. More accurately, meditation is the practice. The skill we are trying to acquire is concentration: the ability to focus our attention and energy on a single point for as long as we choose. Just take a moment, sit back, and engage the story-telling feature of your mind (it's useful sometimes; we don't want to disable it, just control it!). Consider how your life might be different if you could direct your mental and spiritual resources exactly where you want them, for as long as you want them there. There's a word for that, you know.

Are you familiar with the concept of 'flow state'?

You can watch this video about it.

If you haven't got twenty minutes right now, you can skim this wikipedia article.

You have experience the flow state at some point in your life. Hopefully, you still do regularly! The average adult can only enter flow state when taking part in specific activities that he or she enjoys very much, and that he or she is very proficient at. By practicing meditation, by working on our concentration skills, we give ourselves the precious, precious gift of being able to access flow state much more often, during a much broader range of activities. How amazing would it be to be able to choose to enter this blissful mental space of single-mindedness?

A key thing to keep in mind, if you're a fan of multi-tasking, is that meditation does not take your ability to scatter your attention and energy among many different thing away. It just gives you the choice to not do that. You should also keep in mind that technically, your brain is not capable of multi-tasking, only of switching back and forth between several tasks in very short periods of time, and that science tells us that when the brain is doing this, it does not work efficiently, and we tend to experience physical symptoms of stress and anxiety.

The act of practicing meditation reduces stress and anxiety, and actually rewires the brain for less stress, and a stronger immune system. Here's an article detailing those benefits, among others. It's an incredible thing, and it only takes twenty minutes a day to reap all the benefits. What have you got to lose? Trust me, you'll gain way more than twenty minutes in usable time due to your increased productivity.

I've been participating in Sharon Salzberg's 28-Day Meditation Challenge for three years now, and as a participant, I've received two of her books about meditation: Real Happiness, and Real Happiness at Work. I whole-heartedly recommend them if you want a guide to help you get started practicing meditation, and applying what you're practicing. They come with meditation exercises, and the first one especially gets you off on the right foot with a four-week program that eases you into the daily twenty-minute practice to help you establish the meditation habit.

 Convinced? It can take a long time to start meditating, I know. I felt intimidated by meditation for years, and I'm still working on hardwiring that twenty-minute daily practice! Small steps count; don't feel like there's no point in doing five minutes of meditation a day. It will make a difference. I really encourage you to take advantage of Meditation Month to give a daily twenty-minute practice a try. You'll never regret it!

Live Omily,

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