Note: This article appeared in the Summer 2017 Issue of Indiana and Yoga Magazine. Thank you to to Ryan and Candice Baggett for publishing my writing. The version here differs slightly from the published version.
Being present and engaged in the world doesn’t just happen. Our minds are complicated. Our lives are messy. Our attention can be diverted by even tiny senses, cravings, and aversions. Everything around us is changing. How do you surf in this roiling ocean? How can you adapt to whatever comes? Meditating is a way. It’s a tool, really, a means of understanding how your mind works and reacts to things. Since everything you experience goes through it, becoming more skillful through meditation can allow you to create conditions that empower you to turn towards life, to be more generous, patient, diligent, understanding, wise, and loving.
Like warming up before running a race, there are a few things that can you can do to prepare your mind-body complex for sitting with your mind. The following things are things I’ve found to be helpful over years of meditating and meditating with others.
Stretch a Little Before you Sit
Physical sensations are loud. They demand immediate attention. Think of the motivating powers of the bite of the tiny mosquito. More subtle sensations, like muscle tightness, may not be as urgent as an insect taking a blood sample, but are still loud when you’re trying to listen to your innermost thoughts and feelings. Take a few moments to swing your legs forward and back, take a few twists, and maybe a low lunge on each side. Notice the sensations in your body as you move and breathe.
Pick a Comfortable Seat
You don’t get bonus points for either forcing your knees into padmasana or sitting on a hard floor. I sit on a sofa. It is soft and supports my back. If you choose to sit cross legged, you may find less strain when the seat is lifted above the knees using seat cushions. Sitting in a chair is fine, too. If possible, adjust it so that your thighs are parallel to the ground, your feet are flat on the ground, and the armrests don’t press into your arms. If you notice pressure or compression, adjust your seat or deploy cushions to relieve the pressure.
Soft Hands, Straight Wrists
Choose a hand position that is pressure-free in the hands, wrists, arms, and shoulders. Keep your wrists neutral. I like to rest the back of my left hand inside my right palm with both palms face up, thumbs lightly touching. Sometimes, I rest my hands lightly on knees, palms down. If you feel pressure between your shoulders and fingertips, adjust.
Be Mindful that the Mind is Full
A lot of people try meditation for the first time seeking a quiet mind or an empty mind. This expectation often leads to disappointment. They sit and initially enjoy some seconds of quiet, but then find that they become distracted by things inside or outside the room, or grocery lists, or regrets, or anxiety, or thoughts. They become disappointed at themselves, usually, viewing their distraction as a sort of personal flaw. The flaw is expecting that the mind would be quiet! We are talking about mindfulness and not mindemptiness after all.
Your mind is alive, in your face, and a powerful force of nature. It reacts to everything it senses from the outside and even its own children — thoughts, emotions, memories, imagination, beliefs, and perceptions — to create layer upon layer of perceptions. Embrace the nature of your mind. Meditation is not a tool to empty the mind or to silence it. It is a tool that helps us develop the skills to understand how it reacts and recognize what it is doing in real time. Chief among those skills is honest acknowledgement of the presence of whatever is in our minds, no matter how much we dislike it or wish it weren’t there.
Set a Timer
We all have places to go. Thinking about being on time for your next engagement can be a mosquito in the room when you are meditating. By setting a timer, you can eliminate this source of tension and distraction. Find a pleasant alarm tone that is different from your wake-up alarm tone so that you don’t associate meditation with dragging yourself out of bed. I use “Twinkle” on my iPhone.
Progressive Relaxation/Body Scan
Meditation practice is listening practice. Starting each meditation with progressive relaxation, taking your attention muscle by muscle, noticing muscle contraction, and loosening your grip, hones the skills that you use in diving underneath your surface thoughts. Some muscle contractions are subtle. Take your time doing this. Three breaths per muscle is a place to start. I lead meditators from the toes of the left foot part by part up the legs and back, down the arms, through the face and back to the belly to observe one’s natural breathing rhythm. As you become accustomed to doing this and more skillful at noticing and releasing muscle contraction, you may notice that your attention passes through your body like a wave of relaxation.
Let Your Belly Hang Loose
You might have a tendency to hold tension in the muscles around your belly. These are the same muscles you use to suck your belly in when you see someone interesting up ahead. A lot of people hold tension here or at least have some judgements and feelings associated with it. Loosen your grip on your belly. You might find breathing to be a bit easier. Breathe following your natural rhythm, but with a soft, tension-free belly. Notice how the belly and chest expand as you inhale and relax down on the exhale. See if you notice the wave-like action and sound. Some people find it relaxing to deepen the inhale a little bit, maybe even pausing at the top of the inhale. Others find that that increases tension in their body and find that exhaling deeper or taking shallower breaths reduces tension.
Listening With Your Eyes Closed
By preparing your seat and your body as described above, the background becomes the foreground. This is how you can see the conditions that affect your thinking and motivation. Your mind has a lot to say, and there’s a lot to be gained by listening.
Imagine that you have something on your mind and sit with a skilled listener. No matter what you say, no matter what you are feeling or struggling to express, she sits, eyes soft, offering you her full attention. She offers no words of judgement, no unsolicited advice, no should-haves, no examples of how she handled a situation that, in her mind, is similar. She neither interrupts you mid-sentence with a response nor tries to complete your sentences when you are mid-thought and groping in the mist for the right words. She just listens, asks a clarifying question or two, and acknowledges that what is in your head is real. You feel heard. You feel loved. You might even have a new understanding of whatever was stuck in your head.
Now imagine that you are the skilled listener, offering your full attention to someone with something on his mind. When I sit in meditation, this is my frame of mind. I practice the skills of a master listener. The speaker is my mind. No matter how unpleasant the thought or emotion, I stare at what bubbles to the surface. I watch how sensations, thoughts, and emotions bend as they bounce off of my memories and imagination. Preconceived notions, beliefs, cravings, and aversions reveal themselves. By emulating the skilled listener, your mind reveals its secrets. You become aware of how cravings and aversions motivate you. When you become aware of the conditions that allow them to exist, your grip on them loosens and you can choose to be free to go against their wishes.
Those things you perceive — your likes and dislikes, your feelings and emotions — are products of conditions. You have a view of something that is filtered through your entire life experience. You don’t choose your perceptions and emotional reactions. Once they have formed, they are real. Maybe you love green bean casserole because a favorite relative used to make it. Maybe you hate lilies because they remind you of funerals. Maybe something someone said upset you because it touches on a sore spot that you’ve tucked away and forgotten about. Becoming aware of how your life experiences and preconceived notions bend your views is a powerful skill that can be honed in meditation. This creates the conditions for a patient mind comfortable with engaging the messy, complicated world, vs one that acts hastily and turns away from it. By practicing the skills of the listener, you can reveal all of the layers and become free from their influence. That is the power of meditation.
After the Timer Goes Off, Write for a Few Minutes
I like to use paper and pencil. Sometimes I write words. Sometimes whole paragraphs. Sometimes I draw a picture or graph or diagram. You may be surprised by what you find!
Forget About “Normal”
Whatever you experienced in meditation is real and valid. It can be scary or exciting (two sides of the same coin!) to realize that only you can see what is in your head. A key lesson for me was that if my own experience is both unique and valid, then that is true of every other being I encounter. Everyone has a different set of lenses since everyone has a unique set of life experiences. Human connection starts with that. From there, understanding of each others’ filters is the next step.
Listening With Your Eyes Open
The skills you hone in meditation are the same ones that you deploy when listening to anyone or anything. They are the skills that give you the strength to face the world rather than shrink away from it. Listening is how one can understand the contours and complexity of every situation and the myriad conditions underpinning circumstances.