Mindfulness Matters: Here’s How to Get Started.
My relationship with meditation began in 2007, when I was traveling for work to various Native American reservations to assist in probating estates. Unbeknownst to many, the United States government holds most Indian land in a trust, and when a Native American dies, the government must hold a hearing to distribute the land to the rightful heirs.
At that time, I was a paralegal assisting with the hearings, and the judge (my boss) would interview the witnesses on record about the deceased person to ensure that the property was being passed down correctly. Our territory covered most of the Midwest, bringing us to some of the most remote and beautiful parts of the country.
It was on one of these trips to the reservations that the judge and I found ourselves in a tiny, Buddhist bookshop café in search of lunch. Our choices for food while traveling were usually scarce, but everyone in town had told us that this place had amazing, local organic food, and we were excited to try it.
While waiting for the food, I browsed through some of the books, and I came across one on meditation. Having traveled into these unbelievably spiritual locations, I had begun to feel a certain yearning to connect to the individuals and land we were serving, and to me this book was a sign.
That night, after a long day of probate hearings, I went back to my hotel room which overlooked a beautiful lake in the upper Michigan peninsula, sat crossed-legged on the floor and began what would become a lifelong practice.
Something I noticed right away when I began meditating was how harsh my daily, internal monologue was. I was embarrassed to see the influence my negative thoughts had over how I viewed myself and interacted with everyone around me. “You didn’t do that right,” my inner critic offered snidely. “Why can’t you…”
I had clearly been viewing the world and myself through a negative lens, and it had stunted my growth as a person. I didn’t want to continue this way, and in hopes of doing things a bit differently, I started a practice of meditation that focused on opening my heart. Until that initial session, I had never realized I was so closed off to the world.
The techniques weren’t glamorous, and it was blessedly simple to start. I began each practice by sitting comfortably on the floor, taking a few deep breaths, and closing my eyes. From there I would focus on imagining a flower opening up in my chest, and breathing in white, pure light, while blowing out dark negative air. I would do this initially for 5 to 10 minutes, and slowly I increased the time to 20 minutes as I got used to being still.
The imagery may sound strange, but it truly helped me shift to a kinder, gentler way of being. That shift to a more positive frequency affected everything, and my life was forever changed for the better. My relationship with myself transitioned from being a highly critical perfectionist, to being loving, accepting and empathetic.
I saw myself as a little girl whom I needed to care for and love instead of judge and deride. I was also able to step out of my thoughts and see them from above. This ability not only occurred during meditation, but carried over into my interactions with others. If a family member said something that would usually trigger a heated reflexive response, I was able to stop, label my initial reaction as thinking, and then move on unemotionally and at peace.
The same premise works in my marriage. So much time is wasted on completely useless fights when all that is needed is some higher perspective, an escape from the trap of believing that thoughts are real. As is so often the case, perception creates our reality, and that is where problems arise. Once I was able to see that my perception was creating an emotional response, not in-line with reality, I was able to bring peace immediately back into the present situation and quell whatever was brewing.
My husband is still thrown off when he’s preparing for battle and I simply laugh and label how ridiculous we are being. It’s saved us from so much unneeded stress and agitation in our seven years together, and has deepened our bond even more than those early, lustful days.
Meditation also helped immensely when I was pregnant with my boys. While I meditated, I focused on sending love and health to the babies I was safeguarding, and envisioned them receiving all the nutrients they needed. I think every mother speaks to their unborn baby, but through meditation, our chats reached a more focused level. I believe they truly felt my love and excitement for their arrival.
During labor and delivery, I used meditation to focus on my breath and not the pain—the result being completely natural and beautiful water births for both boys. I focused on my breathing, labeled thoughts as thoughts and nothing more, and had a strong sense of self-love to carry me through the pain and deliver the boys in a peaceful and harmonious environment. I trusted my body, not my fearful thoughts, and let the natural process of birth take over. It was like riding a wave, and I trusted that I would not drown.
An enormous amount of research has been done to support what Buddhists have been saying for years—that meditation not only makes individuals calmer and happier, but that it actually changes the brain in positive ways. One Harvard study found that meditation helped grow areas of the brain related to learning, memory, compassion, and regulatory neurotransmitters, and simultaneously shrank areas of the brain related to fear, anxiety, and stress.
I quickly realized it is one of the fastest, easiest, cheapest activities I could do to bring immediate peace and awareness into my life. In as little as two minutes, which is sometimes all I can fit in a day with two wild boys under five, my blood pressure lowers and I am brought into a higher, more positive frequency. Essentially, it is my way of checking in and removing the roadblocks to my best self.
So after a raucous 2016, why not start a practice that involves little more than sitting still? That time can bring real harmony and self-awareness to your life. The effects of meditation will not only benefit you, but as I have attested here, all those you interact with thereafter. And isn’t living happily and healthily with each other what life is all about?
Here’s how to get started:
1. Learn the brain science basics. You’ll find your reason to practice as you understand more about how meditation helps your brain grow and heal. There are many great books out there for beginners. My favorites are The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh, Real Happiness, by Sharon Salzberg, and Meditation for Beginners by Jack Kornfield.
2. Try sitting meditation (takes about 10 minutes). It’s simple to teach, simple to learn, but not simple to practice—it may take some getting used to.
3. Ritualize your practice by making this time a regular part of your day.
4. Track your progress. How did you mentally feel the first week? The second week? Write down wins so you can remember them.
5. Continue to practice each day.
Author: Lizzie Carlile
Image: Courtesy of Author
Editor: Travis May
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