Have you? Congratulations! Maybe you’ve tried it once or twice or every once in a while; maybe you’re completely uninitiated. If you’re a regular meditator, you’ll probably find the following amusing or nostalgic, at best. But here are some questions I wanted answered when I started meditating.
But what do you know, Zoe?
Not much. I’m no expert, and I think that’s where my value lies. I first meditated more than a dozen years ago. I’ve gone periods of months without meditating several times since. I’ve been to meditation retreats. I’ve read various books on meditation and practiced in various ways. And it’s only in the last 2 years that I feel I can call myself a daily practitioner. I’m close enough to the beginner stage to remember it, but far enough away that I can offer a little perspective on it. That’s all I’ve got.
What is meditation?
The word is confusing because we use it for so many other things. It’s not thinking, as in, “let me meditate on that.” It’s not spacing out. It’s not relaxation. All of those things may happen while you sit, but those things are not the actual meditation. What you are going for is complete attention to the reality of the moment. It is nearly as hard to explain what that means as it is to do it, so I’ll save that for another post. Getting literally a few seconds of focus out of a 20-minute session after practicing for weeks is a major accomplishment. It was a major accomplishment for me to just get to the stage where I recognized my brain was being overrun with thoughts, rather than blindly riding that train to … everywhere. It took some time after that before I could set those thoughts aside for any recognizable unit of time. I hope that makes you feel inspired, not demoralized. If not, try this: if you believe that the purpose of meditation is to start breaking down the grooves of attachment and avoidance in your brain that are the cause of all suffering, then being okay with having zero seconds of focus in a session is in itself a wearing away of judgment and a meditation success.
How does one start meditating?
My recommendation is a crisis. Most of us need to hit some kind of emotional or psychological bottom before we start looking outside of the usual solutions for help. Mine came a few days after my husband called me up to tell me he “wanted out.” Unable to sleep or silence the alternate salvation and catastrophe scenarios running in my head, I found myself at a Border’s, buying Meditation for Dummies, which I highly recommend. After some reading (I still needed convincing), I finally sat.
But if you don’t have a crisis at the ready and just want to start meditating because you’re a rational person who wants to make your life better, fine. Whatever. Aren’t you just special.
What are some of the challenges of meditation?
There is only one challenge in meditation: meditation itself.
Meditation is hard. It’s just fucking hard. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Our brains work their butts off for us – to find patterns, to entertain us, to console us, to make our lives seem more ordered and understandable and predictable and controllable. And they’ve been diligently practicing these skills our whole lives. Your brain is like an attentive pet when you’re upset. It will bring you every toy it can find to make you feel better, and it can totally distract you with these amusements. But like the dog, it can’t solve the problem. It doesn’t know how. It’s not easy to put all of that on pause and simply “be.” It feels boring and uncomfortable and stressful and unnatural all at the same time.
Should I use a timer?
If you want to meditate for a specific period of time, Yes. None of the books I read said “use a timer.” I thought maybe I shouldn’t because that was unspiritual or I should somehow just know or something, then I realized that not having a timer just gave me one more thing to agonize over as I was sitting.
What about an app?
I’ve been using Insight all year (not before then because I didn’t have a smartphone – whaaaaat?). I mostly use it just for timing and registering my sessions, but there are some really nice guided meditations and lectures and what-nots on there too. Here’s what I like about it: I can set a designated amount of time to meditate with periodic bells of my choosing throughout (or not) OR I can set an infinite meditation and just go as long as I can while still recording my time. And it gives stats and charts and reminders and all that. There are other apps out there; I haven’t tried them. Why use an app? Because it’s one more thing that might motivate you to sit. Just beware of this.
How should I sit? Can I stand?
I can’t tell you about standing meditation because I have only seen one person do it – Ron Swanson – and it’s not typical. Ask someone more informed.
The only rule to sitting that I think essential is to sit straight. There’s just something unhelpful that happens to your body when you slouch. Other than that, use a chair, floor, pillow, bench, whatever. Try them all. (You could lie down but you can guess what that leads to.) Keep your eyes open or closed – there are advantages to both. I recommend meditating indoors. You’ll have so many internal distractions, adding insects, etc. won’t help. Be as comfortable as you can when you start. That will change. You don’t want the pain to get so bad that you avoid meditating, and of course you don’t want to hurt yourself, but you also don’t want to fight or become distraught by the discomfort that will inevitably happen. Try to observe it and accept that it, like everything, will change. Learning to sit with discomfort is one of the greatest benefits you will reap from meditation. If you can accept discomfort, it’s much easier to get through the day.
How long do I sit?
Try 5 minutes. If that’s overwhelming, try 3. Slowly work your way up as you feel you can. Why? The longer you sit, the more challenges, distractions, hallucinations (is that just me?), and pains you will face, which gives you more opportunities to break from established patterns and smooth out those suffering-inducing paingrooves in your brain. On the other hand, the adorable Tibetan monk, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, writes that meditating for one minute dozens of times a day may be more valuable than sitting for hours. The ultimate goal, of course, is to be conscious and in the moment all the time, so that’s certainly good practice. Then again, he has meditated for hours and hours and hours, so … both would be ideal.
I have struggled with the idea that you shouldn’t have any purpose in meditating. That if you’re not meditating just to meditate, you’re doing it wrong. That’s kinda bullshit. For those of us who don’t find sitting still and doing nothing fun, we need a reason. There are many, many reasons to meditate: go ahead and choose one. Let that motivate you to get your butt on the pillow, but let go of that while you’re sitting. While you’re sitting, just focus on the breath or sensations or sounds or whatever you decide to go with. You can go back to fantasizing about how jealous your enlightenment will make your enemies once the timer goes off.