I’ve abandoned and returned to meditation several times over the years.
I used to find even 5 minutes per day hard to fit in. Not because I didn’t have them to spare, but because slowing down to pay attention is counterintuitive in today’s world.
The path of least resistance often has us opening just another email, or switching on Youtube.
But I notice subtle, positive shifts when carving out time to meditate. It gives me a sense of stability and helps me stay present in my interactions.
On one hand, I’m reluctant to promote meditation purely for goal attainment. After all, the core philosophy behind meditation is to focus on the present, not pine for a future state.
That said, meditation and self-improvement aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s just good to stay aware of the duality in both accepting the present moment and aiming for a better future. You can enjoy the scenery out the window while intending to reach a destination.
If like me you’ve struggled to make time for meditation, or you aren’t sure whether it’s for you, what follows are some of the principles and techniques which have sharpened my practice over the years.
The Stream of Consciousness
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
What ol’ Bill (sorry) was saying here, is that none of us perceive true reality. We perceive our own unique interpretations of it.
And with the negativity bias at play in all of us, that interpretation tends towards the bad more often than the good.
Events in your consciousness, and in your environment, are constantly triggering cascades of thoughts, emotions and sensations – the ‘stream of consciousness’.
Meditation is about seeing this endless flow of activity for what it is, objectively. And it’s about taking a giant step back to recognise the filter through which you label experiences as desirable or undesirable.
Meditating will never allow you to simply turn off the stream (at least not for long). Trying to make your mind go ‘blank’ when meditating can even become a form of resistance.
The good news? You can use the stream of consciousness to anchor yourself to the present moment. That’s the essence of meditation.
By continually steering awareness back to your present experience when it veers off, you foster the ability to be present.
But it’s not enough to be aware of the stream of consciousness. You also need to non-judgementally accept what you see. You need to learn to watch the symphony of thoughts, emotions and sensations bubble up to the surface with a feeling of curiosity. Let’s look at each component.
You are not your thoughts
We all have an inner voice.
If you’re anything like me, it often runs amok. The result can be confusion and suffering.
It’s tempting to strongly identify with my thoughts. After all, who am ‘I’ if not the voice in my head?
But we are not our thoughts. We are a higher form of awareness/consciousness. If that sounds too mystical, you could call it the ‘watcher’.
Words are incredibly seductive, so if you’ve never meditated before, expect them to pull you this way and that.
Non-judgemental awareness prevents them from gaining too much power. Rather than buying into your thoughts, you’ll start to become less reactive and over the long-run, get to know yourself better.
Note: Nudging yourself to think/feel certain things is usually a form of resistance. When the urge to do so arises, calmly watch that too.
Don’t let your emotions rule you
While the same is true of emotions, their intensity can often cloud your perception of reality further.
How you feel at any particular moment is usually shaped by which thoughts you’re entertaining. But sometimes reminding yourself of that is the hardest thing in the world.
In turn, the emotions you feel can then feed back into the way you think. Through a process called ‘emotional reasoning’, you become vulnerable to taking emotions as absolute truth:
- I feel afraid, therefore it must be risky.
- I feel unhappy, therefore the world is an unhappy place.
- I feel guilty, therefore I must have done something wrong.
None of these thoughts are very practical. None of them help your situation.
The more empowering route is to watch the intricate, constantly interacting web of thoughts and emotions play out with acceptance.
The more you practice fully experiencing the specific flavour of your emotions, the more power and resilience you gain in weathering challenging circumstances.
Experience sensations fully
Although they’re also just electrical events in your nervous system, sensations have a more concrete quality. For this reason, they’re useful as anchor points to the present moment.
Sensory information – everything from deep lower back pain, to a mosquito flying past your ears, to the smell of cinnamon buns – can trigger a pattern of thoughts and feelings. But again, meditation is about seeing this chain reaction unfold without judgement.
Sensations can also become the focal point where thoughts and emotions physically manifest themselves. Anger might be felt in the jaw, anxiety in the stomach, and so on.
This is another reason to make sensation-awareness a cornerstone of meditation practice.
And there are infinite ways to do so. A good start is to just feel your feet touching the floor, or your pelvis on the chair.
Then there’s breathing.
Breathing is a sensory-rich experience. There’s the sensation of air entering your nostrils, expanding your lungs and easing bodily tension. Each of these is a useful anchor to the present moment.
While it helps to find a quiet, comfortable spot to meditate, the usefulness of sensation-awareness is one reason I’ve stopped trying to eliminate all distractions.
Whether it’s a barking dog outside or feeling a little chilly, I’ve found the best way forward is to integrate these sensations into my practice. I used to have a big problem with this. Even the ticking of my clock would cause me to become irritable and lose focus.
There are a couple of ways to integrate distractions into your practice:
- Turn your awareness outward: e.g. for a ticking clock, try and listen to those ticks intently. Delve into the quality of the sounds, and inhabit the empty space between them.
- Turn your awareness inward: at the same time, notice how you feel and what you think – Frustrated? Irritable? This is also a good way to deal with minor aches and pains while meditating. Rather than resisting the sensation of a backache, explore what it feels like with curiosity. Witness the ebbs and flows of the pain. What is its character? Where are its boundaries?
Be the Mountain
One of my favourite visual techniques is to imagine you’re a giant, tranquil mountain. The clouds circling your peak represent your constant stream of thoughts.
Some clouds evaporate as quickly as they appear, some clouds are large and lingering, while others circle you incessantly.
We spend most of our lives entirely within this cloudy fog.
Unless we turn on some pretty bright flashlights, we’ll never see out of it. And if we can’t see out of the fog, we might start believing we are the fog (okay, analogy overload).
But through meditation, we can begin to realise we’re actually a giant mountain of stillness, attention and beingness – and choose to embody it more often.
Instead of clinging to the clouds, just notice them. Let them pass by non-judgmentally, with a faint smile.
Be Kind to Yourself
I personally get most value from meditating as part of a quiet, reflective morning routine.
Just as you wouldn’t play a violin without tuning it first, why would you launch into mental activity without tuning your mind?
Think of meditation like exercise for the mind. Notice how each time you simply enter the moment, that’s a rep. Each rep stretches and strains you, building your ‘awareness muscle’.
Meditation isn’t rocket-science in theory, but in practice it can be quite challenging.
Start slow and practice for its own reward. Some days it will be easy, others it will be hard. There may also be times when you aren’t sure meditation is helping at all. That’s ok too.
In these moments, take a step back. Maybe even take a break from formal practice. Get out into the world and take in its richness – meditation isn’t something to be taken too seriously. Do something kind for yourself, or try something new.
Above all, remember the principle of non-judgemental acceptance and be sure to take it easy 🙂