About 13 years ago meditation became as integral to my life and routine as brushing my teeth. Before I tried meditating for the first time I was attracted to the word. It floated around me in yoga and recovery circles. I heard the word in the various Buddhist and Eastern Religions classes I took while in college. Meditation. It sounded somewhat exotic and somewhat commonplace at the same time. I heard the word again in 12 steps circles when I began recovering from an addiction in December 2004. One of the steps specifically said to seek through “prayer and meditation” some kind of contact with a higher power. My mentor at the time suggested I try 5 minutes of meditation per day. For just 5 minutes I was to shut off the radio, the television, put my phone out of reach and just close my eyes and breathe. I found that for most days I could sit for 5 minutes without too much trouble. In some ways it was a welcome break from the rat race of life. For five minutes I didn’t have to strike anything off the to-do list, I didn’t have to talk to anyone; I could just be in my body with my breath. Up until then being in my body had always been a very unpleasant thing. I never felt right emotionally. Something was always off and I was never comfortable in my own skin. Meditation is akin to going to the gym. After 1 day you don’t really see any changes. If you go to the gym every day for a month you’ll likely notice some progress. I find that meditation is the same – its effects are cumulative.
After a couple of months of my 5 minute daily sits at home I decided to attend something slightly more formal. At the time, Josh Summers was leading a Monday night, hour long drop-in meditation at Back Bay Yoga – at its original location by Berklee College of Music, above Little Steve’s pizza on Boylston St. Josh led us in the vipassana or insight style of meditation and always encouraged us to seek out longer, deeper meditation practices. He frequently recommended Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA. In September 2006 I went there for the first time. It was a long weekend silent retreat. Since then I’ve been there about 12 times on various retreats spanning 2-9 days. At one point I even applied for a job there and it came down to me and one other candidate who ended up getting the position.
Meditation has become vital for the health of my mind, body and spirit. Initially it helped create more distance between me and my drug of choice. By practicing non-reactivity, sitting and watching my thoughts without immediate reaction or judgment, I learned that I don’t have to believe everything I think. I learned that I don’t have to act on every single impulse that I experience. While that may sound obvious, it can be difficult to sit with certain feelings and impulses. It is compelling at times to try to cover up, suffocate or drown out certain feelings and experiences that are unpleasant. Meditation widened the gap between my thoughts and my actions. I became better at sitting with discomfort. Sitting with feelings like: uncertainty, fear, anxiety, grief and anger, results in long term benefits. The more I allowed myself to just feel whatever came up, the quicker it seemed to pass. The only way out is through. Feelings demand to be felt. I spent a number of years running from anything that was remotely unpleasant. My skin was ultra-thin and life felt overwhelming all of the time. Meditation was and is a great tool for developing a thicker skin. My boat doesn’t rock as easily anymore. There is a place of stillness and peace within me that I can get back to by sitting quietly, with my eyes closed, following my breath. Sometimes that place of stillness has a few layers of chaos on top of it but nevertheless it’s always there.
There are as many forms of meditation out there as there are types of yoga. Sample them and figure out what resonates with you. I prefer simplicity since my mind is inherently busy and full with many thoughts coming and going. I can make almost anything complicated so I prefer the no-frills style of insight meditation. Meditation is a practice – anyone can do it. Clearing your mind and/or stopping your thoughts aren’t requirements and aren’t really possible anyway. The goal of meditation isn’t to empty your mind. The goal of meditation is to just practice. Trying is the only requirement. During a meditation period it is possible for your mind to wander one hundred times. This does not mean you have failed. This simply means that you are human. It is the nature of the mind to think. The practice of insight meditation is to notice when your mind has wandered and gently bring it back to your anchor (such as focusing on the breath.) There will be times when your mind wanders more than others. Sometimes you might fall asleep. Sometimes the meditation will feel pleasant and at other times you might really dislike it. When we meditate we experience the entire gamut and range of human emotion and experience. It’s amazing how vast our inner worlds are if we only slow down long enough to pay attention.
Photo credit Ivy Love Photography