Wednesday, March 11, 2020

What's So Good About Meditating, Part 2: Making Friends With Your Mind

This is a series discussing meditation from both a scientific standpoint as an evidence-informed practice and from the viewpoint of my personal journey wherein I share ideas that may help you.

by Patrice Priya Wagner

"…Can you be free of your mind whenever you want to? Have you found the 'off' button?"
----Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

What is meditation, anyway? At its most basic, meditation is quieting the mind. That doesn't mean "emptying" the mind because we can't actually do that unless we're dead. While alive, we have many thoughts flying in and out of our mind and that's just the way we're wired. But we don't have to let the thoughts control us, and meditation offers a path to responding mindfully to life's ups and downs rather than simply reacting.

Over the years, I've found that meditation is a journey of making friends with my inner mind and thoughts. I'll share how I found my way to a deeply meaningful meditation practice that doesn't feel like a daily struggle but, remember, there are different ways to meditate so if my approach doesn't click with you please don't give up. We're all such varied creatures that you might need an entirely different technique.

During meditation I've noticed that I go through two distinctly different stages. At first, I try to get thoughts that come to my mind to exit. I imagine the thoughts dropping off the edge of the earth to be out of sight and mind. An acquaintance pretends his unwanted thoughts are visitors coming to his home who he lets in but never follows into the house. This stage is often referred to as concentration or dharana.

The second stage is meditation or dhyana, and it feels like having found my mind's "off" button as Eckhart Tolle calls it, also referred to as "being in the zone." It's hard to describe how I know when I've entered the zone except to say that I no longer have to put effort into keeping unwanted thoughts away—they don't want to bother me any longer. I imagine it feels slightly different for each individual.

To get to the zone, I have to go through the first stage sometimes for quite a while and other days for just a brief period of time. I had my first experience of being in the zone during the teacher training I mentioned at the start of Part 1 of this series. I don't get into the zone every time I meditate—I'm lucky if it's once a week—but no matter how long it takes, it's always worth the effort to reach a point of internal stillness and serenity while the world around me whizzes by at hyper-speed.

I begin a session with a brief breathing exercise, Alternate Nostril Breathing, Nadi Suddhi, or Nadi Shodhana, during which I make the exhalations longer than the inhalations. We know from scientific studies that this puts us in parasympathetic nervous system dominance—the rest and digest mode that is calming and relaxing. The breath practice serves as a good transition into silent meditation because our thoughts slow down when we’re relaxed, and it keeps our mind focused on just our inhalations and exhalations rather than random intrusive thoughts.

The way I meditate, the traditional yogic form of meditation, is to keep my mind focused on something such as the breath so that pesky thoughts wanting to disturb me have trouble entering the ether-space that is my mind. In the concentration stage, whenever I find my mind wandering off to some story about the past or future, I bring it back to my focus. This will happen over and over again and it's the natural process of learning to concentrate. It's important not to think you're failing if this happens—actually you're succeeding in training your mind to concentrate if each time it wanders you make the effort to bring it back to your focus.

Eventually the two-step dance of the mind wandering off and then you bring it back occurs less often until it stops (or almost stops). During the meditation training that made me interested in pursuing the practice, I used the image of a sculpture on a nearby mantelpiece to focus on in my mind's eye. Being a very visual person, I found that an image would stick in my mind to keep out random thoughts more easily than other points of focus.

I could have chosen something completely different, such as a word. After a recent meditation at the end of a class I taught, a student shared with the group that he meditated on a word that wasn't actually a word. It was a made-up word of his choosing that helped him keep his focus. Another student remarked that sounded similar to using a mantra—a sacred word, phrase, or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation.

Of course, a traditional “object” of meditation is the breath. You can meditate on the sound of your breath or on the sensations it creates in your body as you inhale and exhale. If you choose a focus that makes you uncomfortable or anxious, just try a different one. And that’s why it’s good to have so many choices.

My point is: Use what works best for you. If you are a highly kinesthetic person, perhaps your focus could be the feeling in your body as you inhale and exhale. If you know what type of learner you are (audio, visual, or kinesthetic), try to choose a focus that goes with your mind's strong suit.

If you read Part 1 of this series, you've found a good time and place in your life to meditate. Concerning the frequency and length of time of a session, I suggest meditating daily for two or three minutes to start and if you're comfortable with that, add a minute to the session. It's fine to add one minute every week until you feel the length of the session is right for you. The worst thing would be to try to meditate for too long so you get frustrated and quit the practice altogether. I suggest you make this doable and set yourself up for success. So start with a short meditation!

Sit down where you're comfortable. I sit in a folding chair with a cushion on the seat. You could sit on a yoga mat in any comfortable seated position, on the side of a bed, in an armchair, or even lying down in a bed if necessary (as long as you don't fall asleep during the session). Be sure to use any props you need to make yourself comfortable. Keeping your spine elongated helps with a smooth flow of air during your practice, and having your hands supported (in your lap perhaps) will keep them from moving and potentially disrupting your session.

Set your kitchen timer or device (it can be your cell phone if you turn it to vibrate mode and promise not to respond to incoming calls or texts!) to the length of time you want to meditate. If you have control over the sound of the alarm, choose a sound for the alarm that will bring you out gently such as a harp or soft gong. Close your eyes or look downward with soft gaze not focusing on anything and begin your session.

When your timer goes off, gently open your eyes or lift your gaze up and wiggle your fingers and toes if you're able to. Bring your mind back to the space you're in as you end with a hug for yourself or place your palms together at your heart to bring closure to the session. Well done.

If you found intrusive thoughts were barging into your mind as you tried to meditate, don't give up. Meditation gets easier with practice; just like trying a new sport or game, the learning curve can be steep at the beginning. I'll talk more about that next time and give you some tricks to keep the disruptive thoughts away!

Patrice Priya Wagner, RYT 500, C-IAYT, teaches yoga to people with disabilities and offers meditation workshops in Oakland, California, and has been published in New Mobility Magazine, Works and Conversations, Artweek, and Kitchen Sink. She is Managing Editor of the Accessible Yoga Blog and a founding member of the Accessible Yoga Board of Directors.   

This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, Editor in Chief of the Accessible Yoga blog and co-author of Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being.

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