I noticed this morning that I have meditated every morning for the last 70 days. A new record for me, I think. Keeping to a routine is helpful for me not only to get all the things I want to do done, but also for creating discipline and regularity in my life, something I haven’t always had.
Meditation has been a great way to start my mornings, because I usually wake up with 1,000 thoughts running through my head; things I have to get done, worries about the future, worries about what other people think of me–all these things plague my mind on a regular basis. But when I sit down to meditate, I can exercise my reactions to to those thoughts.
If you aren’t a meditator, you may think that meditation is about quieting the mind, or stopping thoughts from happening. I used to think that. In fact, when I first started meditating, I worried so much about trying to breathe correctly that I barely had time for any other thoughts. My perfectionism came out in full force in those early days. Once I realized that you were only supposed to observe the breath, not try to control it as I was doing, things got a little better, but not by much.
Observing the breath filled me with anxiety, to be honest. I read somewhere recently that lots of people react this way. This is because observing the breath puts your body into a state of calm, and for a lot of people, including me, a state of calm is very scary. We are used to being super vigilant, mostly due to childhood traumas, and that “sense of calm” can feel like something bad is right around the corner–like you are in the eye of the storm. It’s difficult to move past that and allow your body to truly feel at ease, but it is possible and if you can get there, meditation is a wonderful way to deal with stress and anxiety.
The way I meditate now, I learned from self-care coach Jason Seib. Jason treats meditation like going to the gym. I don’t necessarily take it to that extreme, but his ideas helped me to see meditation in a different way and made it more accessible and helpful to me. I meditate every morning for 10 minutes. I use an app called Insight Timer, which gives me some nice gong sounds at the beginning and end of the meditation. I don’t use a guided meditation, only silence. Guided meditations can be great for learning to meditate or during stressful situations (like flying or when you are in the middle of a panic attack), but I find them too distracting. Once you get the idea of how to meditate, it’s better to do it in silence.
First thing in the morning, I set my timer, sit down, take a few deep breaths, close my eyes, and begin the meditation. While meditating, I am following my breath. The idea is that you notice your breath from the beginning of the inhale to the end of the exhale, and even the still moment in between the two. Your goal is to notice this entire cycle of the breath, from beginning to end. Spoiler alert: it’s impossible. Your thoughts WILL interfere. That’s what they do. Some days you might be able to notice the entire breath cycle, may be even a few times in a row, but your thoughts will always break your focus. And this is a good thing! This is the point of meditation.
When your thoughts distract you (and they will), your job is to recognize when you are distracted and gently bring your focus back to the breath. This will happen a thousand times, but it’s fine. You just recognize you are caught up in your thoughts and you focus again on your breath. What you are doing is training your brain to notice the distraction. We all tend to go through life on autopilot. We have thoughts, they lead to other thoughts, and before you know it you are eating a bowl of ice cream and you have no idea how you got there. Meditation helps you train yourself to notice when you are caught up in thoughts that are unhelpful or untrue.
The more you meditate, the better at it you will get. But there is no end game here. You probably won’t reach enlightenment, and even if you did, it would be fleeting. Your day-to-day thoughts are persistent. Meditation can help you create a larger space between stimulus and response, like my friend Brett Veinotte says. And that space is where your freedom lies.