If there’s a good time to learn to meditate it would be now, thick in the woods of a global pandemic. This is THE moment to start noticing your monkey brain and the misadventures it can get up to.
If you’re a total beginner it can be hard to really grasp what meditation is and whether you’re doing it “right” (you can’t really do it “wrong”, by the way — more on that in a future post). One of the books that really helped me gain a better understanding was 10% Happier by Dan Harris. But feel free to grab any book about meditation that appeals to you. It will take a while for all the different information to coalesce and for the ideas to really sink in (it took quite a few years for me actually).
In a nutshell — and this is my own crude definition — to meditate is to notice that you are thinking.
Most of us spend our entire lives walking around thinking we are our thoughts. When you learn to meditate, you learn to discover the you behind the thinker. You learn to notice the incessant thinking that goes on in your head. And you learn, in the process, that if you can sit back and observe your thoughts, then your thoughts are not you, and therefore you don’t always need to be yanked around (like a fool, I must add) by them.
A quick way to start:
Sit down somewhere.
A couch, on your yoga mat. Anywhere is fine.
Sit up if you can and keep your spine straight. This is so you can maintain a sort of alertness / awakeness and not fall off into sleep (that’s why we don’t usually try to meditate lying down).
Relax your eyes and eyelids. You can look down without focusing on anything in particular. Or you can close your eyes. It’s up to you. (I prefer the former.)
Start by noticing your breathing. You don’t have to breathe in any particular way. Just notice how you are breathing.
Inevitably, thoughts will arise. An angry or anxious thought. Or thoughts about the errands you need to do later. Trivial thoughts. Serious thoughts. It’s easy to go with them, to get carried away.
The work of meditation is to notice that you’re getting carried away by your thoughts.
The moment you notice that you’re thinking of this and that again, come back to noticing your breath.
It has been said that every time you do that (remembering to come back to your breath), you are doing a bicep curl for the brain.
(Our brain has plasticity. That is the basis of why meditation works — the idea is that our brains can be trained to change over time.)
Continue to sit. Start with one minute if you cannot sit for long. Or you can do ten minutes, twenty. Whatever is comfortable for you.
(You can use a meditation timer like the one on the Plum Village app or any other app you like.)
Sit. Think. Notice. Come back to your breath. Repeat.
That’s one way to start meditating. There are lots of different ways and traditions, but the core idea is the same, which is to train your brain to better notice your thoughts and therefore gain a larger awareness of your true self — the observer of the thoughts.
Meditation is not a quick fix solution to our problems. A lot of times, all we achieve while meditating is that we get to sit with our suffering. The pain doesn’t go away every time you practice.
But the ultimate promise of meditation is that there is a constant blue sky behind the clouds. Your thoughts are the clouds. The blue sky is your natural state of mind, one that is healthy and clear and calm and that just is.
Another book that is really helpful and delightful to read is Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s “The Joy of Living”. He writes a lot about the science behind why this all works. Check it out!