I thought I was a calm person until I tried to meditate. Almost instantly upon sitting down on my cushion, my self-identity shattered into many pieces. “Calm” was not a word I could use to describe myself — not now.
Before I actually tried it, I pictured meditation as something like this: There I would sit, perched atop a lovely and comfortable cushion, eyes closed in peaceful bliss and corners of my mouth turned slightly up in a knowing smile as enlightenment set in. I would be entirely present, letting thoughts come and go and of course not holding on to any of them. It would be great. I would be great.
Reality looked more like this: There I sat, perched atop a small and uncomfortable cushion that could have been a cinderblock, eyes twitching open and closed to shiftily peer at my fellow meditators to see if they were struggling as much as I was. Instead of a knowing smile, the corners of my mouth shaped frequent and impatient yawns and sighs. I grasped onto every passing thought like it was going out of style. As you may have guessed, enlightenment definitely didn’t “set in.”
Just Do It
So when I found myself signed up to spend a month WWOOFing at a Buddhist Retreat Center in a remote corner of New Zealand, I was a bit nervous, to say the least. I knew meditation would be a big part of my time there, aside from managing the garden and scrubbing guest rooms clean.
After recently leaving a job and a life where I felt stressed often and overstimulated all the time, I was really looking forward to what I thought would be a relaxing, albeit challenging, time. I wanted to put myself in a situation where I’d be forced to meditate. No more avoiding, excuses, or procrastination. I would just do it.
All my aforementioned meditation woes took place within a span of several 10-minute sessions. I had not yet attempted a longer sit and didn’t plan to for some time. I held out hope for a while that group sessions at the retreat center wouldn’t be much longer, because who would put themselves through that kind of pain? Weren’t Buddhists peaceful people?
I’m sure my jaw was on the floor when I learned I’d be starting every morning with a 30-minute group meditation session. I worried about how I would calm my racing mind and stay focused. I didn’t even think about the sitting part.
Sitting is hard, and it hurts. Overcoming physical pain while meditating is a huge part of the learning curve for a lot of people, including me. Sure enough, about 10 minutes into my first meditation, my foot fell asleep, my knees began to ache, and my shoulders tensed up. I was suddenly tuned in to every single discomfort in my body — of which there were many.
Here’s what I learned: Preparing my body for meditation was a key factor in preparing my mind. The times I had the most comfortable sit were the times I had taken a few moments to take myself through a few yoga poses to work out the kinks in my muscles. When I did this, sitting hurt a lot less and my mind was more focused on meditating because it didn’t have to worry about physical discomfort as much.
The Turning Point
After trying a few different kinds of meditation, I finally found one that worked for me. Progressively relaxing through a mindful body scan helped me release tension and sit comfortably enough to enjoy my meditations instead of suffering through them.
Bringing attention to every single part of my body, down to the nail on my pinkie finger, forced my mind to calm down to focus on the present state of my own self — which makes sense, because, over time, meditation has been proven to increase focus and brain function.
Finding a meditation technique that works for you as an individual is a key to success on the cushion. One person’s idea of a perfect meditation might be another’s version of the longest 10-30 minutes ever. It’s OK to do what you like best.
The body scan meditation worked for me. By the last week of my WWOOFing adventure, I was decidedly less fidgety, anxious, and distracted during my sits. I started to be able to greet my passing thoughts with curiosity instead of an ironclad death grip. Thirty minutes on the mat or cushion no longer felt like a death sentence. It certainly wasn’t perfection, but it was progress.
I wanted to continue a steady meditation practice when I left the Buddhist center but felt unsure if I would have enough discipline to force myself to do it alone at home, without group members or a class to hold me accountable. It would be so easy just to get up early, or not sit at all, without fellow meditators all around me.
I’d heard of teachers using yoga and meditation in the classroom to calm students after active lunch or recess times. If kids can do it in a classroom, I thought, I can do it, too. I found that creating a space that I’d dedicate to meditating, and attempting to sit at the same time each day, made it much easier for me to achieve my goal.
That doesn’t mean I was experiencing life-altering meditations every day. However, the very act of showing up to sit each day is a success in and of itself.
My meditation journey is a work in progress, and I won’t be perfect at it right away, or even ever. And that’s OK. Looking forward to sitting is enough for me. Maybe I can be a calm person after all.
Tips for Success
If you, like me, want to develop a meditation practice but can come up with an endless list of excuses why now’s not the right time, here are a few tips to get you started:
Designate a sitting area. A peaceful, clutter-free, quiet space will do wonders for your desire to sit down and meditate.
Sit at the same time every day. This will help you create a routine. Before you know it, you’ll be sitting down on your mat without even thinking about it.
Start small. Start with a five-minute sit and set a schedule to gradually work your way up from there. Try 10 minutes on week number two and 20 minutes after a month.
Find what works for you. Do you like the body scan meditation? Perhaps you prefer loving-kindness? Try a few different types of meditation to find the one that resonates with you the most.
Prepare your body. Traditionally, yoga poses were used to prepare the body and mind for the real work of meditation. How can you expect to sit quietly when your body is full of restless energy? Incorporate a few sun salutations or stretches into your pre-meditation practice to help you focus.
Lettie Stratton is a writer and urban farmer in Boise, ID. A Vermont native, she is a lover of travel, tea, bicycles, plants, cooperative board games, and the outdoors. She’s still waiting for a letter from Hogwarts.Browse Front PageShare Your Idea