Does this sound familiar?
Here's what I want you to do right now: find a super comfortable nook, ideally with some soft, natural light shining through. Pop in your headphones and find a track with the waves crashing in on the shore. Sit up, with your back straight, and start breathing. Gently close your eyes. Now clear your thoughts, and sit there for at least 10 minutes.
Wait... what? Where am I supposed to sit? I don't have a comfortable "nook" with perfect lighting or piles of pillows and Buddhist figurines surrounding me. What are these waves crashing in? All that's making me want to do is use the bathroom. Breathe... isn't that what I do already, all the time? Clear my thoughts. Ha. Do you know what my headspace is like? Nice try.
If you're anything like me, this is what you know of meditation. This is what you've read you should try, and this is what it's been made to look like. And whenever someone tells you that it's a game-changer, you kind of wonder what the heck they're doing that you're not.
The idea of meditation is great, sure, and I've never doubted the science behind mindfulness and its potential impact on happiness, productivity, and well-being. But actually sitting still and shutting down my thoughts? It just didn't seem probable. I tried once -- no, I tried way more than once. Each time, I'd start a 20-minute guided meditation. And each time, I'd end up discouraged, frustrated, and feeling like a failure.
Taking a different approach
Like any good learner, I decided it was time to embrace the beginner that I am (and perpetually will be), and start over.
I downloaded the Calm app for some guidance, and instead of embarking upon 20-minute sessions, I set a goal of doing at least a two-minute meditation each day.
I decided my computer chair is a perfectly suitable location to meditate, and for one week, I sat down at my desk in the morning, closed my eyes, and started a session before lighting that screen up.
That first day, I remember getting just a few seconds in, and my thoughts launching into overdrive, again. Before I had a chance to think about the fact that I was failing, yet again, I reverted back to my childhood nights of counting sheep in an attempt to fall asleep, and started counting my breaths.
In, 2, 3, 4.
Out, 2, 3, 4.
In, 2, 3, 4.
Out, 2, 3, 4.
I went on like that, just counting and breathing, and suddenly two minutes were up. Well shoot, that was quick.
So the next day, I upped my session to three minutes. To pre-empt any rambunctious thought activity, I started counting right away. I still strayed, despite my best efforts, but instead of thinking about the fact that I was thinking, I redirected that energy into getting back to counting my breaths. Before I knew it, three minutes were up.
It went on like this for a few days, but I capped myself at the five-minute mark. Each day was different; some riddled with thoughts, others relatively clear. Some where each deep breath just led to a massive yawn, others where deeper breathing felt completely natural.
And when I got on a really great roll, I decided I was going to meditate for at least five minutes per day until the end of the year, at which point I was sure it would just become a habit I didn’t have to try so hard with.
And the minute I set that intention, I missed a day.
I got into bed on a Sunday night, feeling like I was forgetting something, and woke up the next morning to remember that I had missed my meditation session. (And went to bed six steps short of 10,000 on my FitBit -- but that’s another story.)
I was not happy with myself. But to spare you the illustrious self-judgment I doused myself with, I quickly realized this: when it comes to meditation, and most things that have to do with our self-care and overall well-being, the minute we put too much pressure on it, the minute it becomes more of an obligation or responsibility (and therefore something we can fail at) than a gift we give ourselves.
Despite understanding the practice a bit better, I was still looking at meditation as a test that I needed to score an A+ on.
And so I went back to square one.
Starting over, again
This time I looked at meditation for what it really is: a slice of time we give ourselves to take our eyes off the screen and our mind away from the noise, and simply be. In starting over, I eliminated every “rule” I had set for myself, and vowed to make no more new ones.
It doesn’t matter what time of day I meditate.
It doesn’t matter how long I meditate for.
It doesn’t matter how far my thoughts wander.
It doesn’t matter if I fall asleep.
It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I recognize it as the gift it is: the gift of calm. The gift of separation from the day-to-day. The gift of being still.
It wasn’t until I took the pressure off of it and just let it happen that I truly started seeing the benefits:
In my reactions: I’m a naturally stressed out person, who likes to add to my own overwhelm by never saying no. Because of that, I often find myself coming from a place of stress, impatience, and frustration. In practicing my breathing, I’ve learned how powerful a few deep breaths can be before responding to situations that might otherwise prompt an unintentional response.
In my mindset: Speaking of overwhelmed, taking a few minutes out of my day to meditate has taught me that no matter how busy I am, there’s always time for what matters. Put another way: if it truly matters, I will make time for it.
In my release: This one surprised me. I’m naturally a communicator who doesn’t believe in holding things inside only to see them build up and explode later. But lately, I’ve found myself in a few different situations where I’ve pent up some feelings for one reason or another, and put myself in jeopardy of a serious implosion. Well, in a meditation before going to sleep one night, I found myself crying. I didn’t see or feel it coming. It just happened. It only took a minute to realize it was simply a build up of what I’d been holding inside. And after that meditation, I was able to let it go.
Different for everyone
I could go on with the changes I’ve noticed in myself, but I know this: it’s different for everyone. And it’s not magical. It’s not just going to happen. This has been nearly three years of on-and-off dabbling in meditation.
So while I can’t tell you where to set up, how many candles to light, what kind of music to put on, or any of the other things that will look different for you, here’s what I can share, if you’re a beginner like me:
- Start small. A few minutes can make a world of difference.
- Don't make it a stressor. If you miss a session, simply look forward to the next one.
- Be realistic with yourself. It’s not going to be perfect, and every session is going to be different.
- Enable yourself. Download an app (here at OWS HQ, we seriously love Calm); set a calendar appointment; build in some accountability. Make it as easy as you can on yourself, depending on what you need.
I’ll leave you with a thought first shared with me by Cristina but oft-repeated since then: if you feel like you only have time for a 5-minute meditation, it means you should meditate for an hour. The gist? You’ll neglect it when you need it most. Keep that in mind, and remember that clearing your head of clutter might be the destination, but the journey there is a long and winding path.
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