For those who have not experienced the thousand joys of parenthood, allow me to enlighten you about one of them: a toddler’s trip to the dentist. The night before this was to occur, we noticed our little angel was a bit crankier than usual, and by morning it was clear he was coming down with a cold.
My wife had assured me he had behaved like an angel during his first cleaning, even winning the coveted “Patient of the Day” award. I suspected this time would be different when he expressed his refusal to sit in the chair. What followed in the next 15 minutes was a master class on the Kübler-Ross stages of grief, with his acceptance only coming through his tears in the bitter last moments. Seconds later he was laughing as the dentist presented him with the best gift ever: a bouncy ball.
Penny for your thoughts
Anyone who has spent time with little humans knows the fickle nature of their thoughts because, well, they make no effort to hide them. As adults, we bear witness to this constant roller coaster of emotional peaks and valleys and flights of ideas, with our own feelings ranging from bemusement to exasperation. Can you imagine if adults acted like this? I’m so glad we grow out of it.
But do we grow out of it, or do we merely learn to temper our thoughts and emotions in a socially appropriate way? To me it’s clear we do the latter. As an illustration, please join me inside my mind on a recent trip to the grocery store.
Eggs, bananas, fish for dinner Tuesday, milk, and…two more things. I’m really digging this new podcast. I hope I can finish before the weekend. I should investigate a new podcast app; the free one is kind of clunky. Was that my phone dinging? No, it was that lady by the broccoli. Let me check my email. Junk mail: “Walk in tubs. Erect on demand. Singles over 50.” Delete, delete, delete. I must be on a spam list for retirees. OK, those two more things I needed were cornstarch and peppercorns. Wow, those peppercorns were so spicy when we ate them off the tree in India. I wonder if we will get back there with the kids. My wife says not until everyone can control their own bowels, so at least a few more years. Text message: we need facial lotion. Oh look, there’s Sue. She sure has a lot of canned tomatoes, I wonder what she is making…
The neverending story
Most of our waking hours consist of internal monologues that replay the past, rehearse the future, or silently comment on the present. We think without realizing that we think. If our thoughts could be made audible, the incessant and inane chatter would be maddening. Some individuals do verbalize their internal conversations; if we meet them on the street, we assume they are mentally ill. Yet if we do so inside our own heads, we are merely “thinking.”
Most of us do not recognize that we are lost in continuous stream of thought. The state of being “lost in thought”—as I describe in my grocery store experience—is simply the reality of life. I know that I felt this way before I began to study and practice meditation.
This concept is not easy to convey in writing, and volumes of ancient and contemporary literature on the subject can only get you partway there. The best (and some would say only) way to recognize that you are lost in thought, and to momentarily extract yourself from this state, is to try meditation yourself.
What is meditation?
If you had met me in my teens or twenties, I would have almost certainly dismissed meditation as new age hippy bullcrap. “Live in the moment,” you say? What does that even mean? When else am I supposed to live?
A short and simple definition of meditation is “a state of thoughtless awareness.”
More accurately, this state is the goal of meditation, and infrequently achieved (at least by most novice meditators, including me). One attempts to step outside one’s stream of thought, and simply experience sensations in the present moment. More advanced meditators can actually “observe” their thoughts, i.e., recognize that they are thinking as if from a third-person perspective. You could compare it to a lucid dream, in which the dreamer becomes aware they are dreaming during the dream itself. Put another way, life is like watching a movie, and meditation is having a look around the movie theater.
Meditation takes many forms. A few commonly known types are transcendental meditation, Zazen (Zen Buddhism) meditation, and mindfulness meditation. There are literally hundreds of other types, some which might not seem like meditation at all: walking meditation is a type of mindfulness meditation in which you slowly, continually pace back and forth, focusing on the components of your steps; laughter meditation, as far as I can tell, just involves yukking it up for a while (I’ve never tried it, but sounds fun). I practice mindfulness meditation, which I explain in a bit more detail below.
Why not might be a better question. The purported benefits of meditation border on the magical: stress and anxiety reduction, pain control, better sleep, reduced memory loss, and even increased kindness, to name a few. I can’t claim to have realized all of these benefits with my meditation practice, but I do notice a bit more mental focus and less agitation when I have been doing it regularly for a few weeks.
How I meditate
First, I am no expert in meditation. In fact, I have fallen woefully out of practice in the last few months due to the birth of my second child and the hellstorm of puke, diapers, and middle-of-the-night awakenings. Even before that, I would have categorized myself as a novice but regular meditator. What I humbly present is merely what I have learned in my own limited experience, and from reading and listening to those much more knowledgable than I.
Out of the many styles of meditation, I am only familiar with a few, and only practice one. I was drawn to the simplicity of what is commonly called “mindfulness meditation,” also known by its ancient Pali name: Vipassana.
Although it has its roots in Buddhism, mindfulness meditation does not necessarily involve the religious aspects of Buddhism —chakras, auras, reincarnation, and the like. (No offense to the Buddhists out there, it’s just not my thing.) Mindfulness meditation appeals to many because it can be practiced in a secular, almost scientific, manner.
What does my session of mindfulness meditation look like?
- Get in a comfortable position, preferably in a quiet place. I often sit in my Herman Miller Aeron chair (sponsorship opportunity?) in my office at work, but I also have a meditation pillow to sit on the floor at home. If sitting in a chair, many find it most comfortable to place both feet flat on the floor; if on the floor, many cross their legs or, for the more flexible, get into the pretzel-like half lotus or full lotus positions. Hand can rest anywhere which feels natural: lap, thighs, knees, etc. Your exact position doesn’t matter as much as the ability to feel relaxed and calm.
- Pay attention to your breathing. Bringing your attention to your breath is not really the goal; it is a mechanism by which you can attempt to focus entirely on the present moment, in a “state of thoughtless awareness.” As you turn your attention to breathing, you might notice the rise and fall of your breath in different locations—such as your nostrils, mouth, chest, or abdomen (I’m a nose guy). Gently bring your attention to wherever that location may be, and gently try to keep it there. Gently is the operative word here; you aren’t having a bowel movement, you are meditating.
- Recognize when your attention has wandered. Your mind will wander. A lot. Nearly constantly, in fact. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Simply acknowledge it, and then bring your attention back to your breathing.
- Lather, rinse, repeat. Follow steps 2 and 3 as necessary throughout the session. That’s it. I use a timer on my phone to let me know when the session is through.
Meditation will be frustrating at first, and it will seem like your mind is constantly distracted for the entire session. But then, one day, you will notice you had been focusing on your breathing for 20 or 30 seconds without thinking about anything else, and you are on your way.
I typically meditate for 15 minutes just before I start work in the morning, a time during which I am most reliably undisturbed. Some suggest meditating twice a day for 20 minutes per session to gain the maximum benefit, but that can be tough to incorporate into a daily schedule (including mine). Even if you can only start by setting aside 5-10 minutes, it is worth starting the practice.
Ready to try?
No matter what I tell you or what you may read about meditation, there is really no substitute for sitting down and doing it yourself. I have found the regular practice of meditation to be beneficial to my mood and mental state, and a respite of sorts from the hustle and bustle of our busy world and our busy minds.
If you would like to read more about meditation before jumping off the deep end into your mind, these three books are all excellent in their simple and easy-to-understand explanations of mindfulness and mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Waking Up by Sam Harris
As you might imagine, a myriad of meditation apps exist, some of which offer guided meditations by masters in the field. The Headspace App contains a great (free) 10-day course for beginning meditators, and more advanced paid options if you get into it. I also use an app called Insight Timer to start, end, and keep track of my meditation. I particularly enjoy the peaceful gong sound to gently bring me out of session.
Have you tried meditation, either mindfulness meditation or another style? Did you notice a change in yourself after practicing for a while? Please comment below!