A few thoughts on meditation for newbies

There’s an unfortunate collection of myths that seem to surround meditation, mostly centered on how it should somehow get easier or be easy or that your ultimate goal is that your mind should be a complete blank when you do it. None of this is true, really. It’s hard at first. It remains challenging, even after years of practice. That’s okay. It’s just helpful to know that going in so your expectations are clear.

There are several apps out there now, almost all of them with hefty monthly subscription fees. Their introductory courses, which are usually free, are all you will ever need, though, once you understand what to expect from a meditation practice. At the end of the day, all you need for daily practice is, at most, a timer and your own body.

The most important thing to understand about meditation is that your mind won’t usually be a total blank, and it will not remain that way for long if you do manage to clear it. That’s okay.

What you’re looking for is closer to the leaf metaphor: Imagine you’re standing on a bridge over a running stream. The stream is your mind, and the leaves that float on the surface are your thoughts. When they catch your attention, acknowledge them, but then allow them to float under your feet, carried along by the current. The next thought will come, because our minds are active, engaged engines of thought. When that happens, acknowledge the thought, then allow it, too, to flow with the current, under your feet and away.

Clarity of mind is not the same as emptiness of mind. With practice, that leaf visualization will get easier and your mind will learn to focus. Though even with that practice, there will be days when it’s harder, when your stress has you distracted. That’s okay. The meditation is still worth doing. There may also be days when you find yourself nodding off during your meditation. That’s okay, too. It means you’ve been working hard, your mind needs the rest, and you will still get some benefit from the meditation. And tomorrow you get to try again.

Being in contact with the body, being present in the moment, is key to a solid meditation practice as well. Breathing is good for helping you keep your focus on the moment. Simply count your breath in and out. Count the number of breaths. Connect with your body, be mindful of where you are, what your body is feeling experiencing. That can help bring your attention to the current moment.

If you find that challenging, you can try another visualization. This one can be useful if you are feeling ungrounded and out of sorts and can be done in a moment or two. Visualize roots growing down from the bottom of your spine, down through the floor and into the ground below. Go deep into the center, imagine it like those diagrams from your school textbooks that showed you a slice of the Earth’s layers. Once you get to the center, imagine the fire from the center of the Earth traveling back up your roots. Once you get back up to your body, imagine branches growing from the top of your head, reaching up to the sky. When you reach the stratosphere, imagine pulling clean, clear air back down your roots. When they meet in the middle, allow them to mix in your belly and continue to breathe. After a few moments, see if you feel a little more focused and grounded.

Finally, there are many ways to meditate. You don’t have to just sit on a pillow on the floor with your legs crossed. Moving meditations are just as valid, and sometimes for those of us in tech, more useful in keeping our physical bodies as well as our minds, in good health. Go for a walk, but don’t put your earbuds in. Instead, just walk, seeing and listening to whatever is around you. Take up a simple Tai Chi or Qigong practice. Take up knitting and do that for a few moments a day while you work on your breathing. Do the dishes, but when you do so, just do the dishes without letting your mind wander to the next task.

Try different things. Do different things on different days. Perhaps a walk one day and a sitting meditation session the next. On a busy day, it may mean you only get a few moments to yourself, but when you do, try doing a simple breathing exercise.

Meditation is useful because it allows our minds to rest while being engaged. Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding what’s going to work for you and understanding clearly what your goals are for your practice.

I’ll leave you with a favorite quote of mind. It sums up my own goals for meditation, as well as how I want to live my day to day life:

“Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of these things and still be calm in your heart.” —anonymous