Meditation, like all altered states of awareness – dreaming, hypnosis and deep prayer, for example – has fascinated me since childhood. I remember my father doing a Psych 101-inspired hypnosis demonstration on me when I was in grade school. I don’t remember how he put me in the trance, but I remember well my complete inability to lift my hand from our Formica kitchen table upon his simple suggestion that it was glued there, followed by my utter amazement when at the snap of his fingers my hand was magically released from the table. Some people are more “suggestible” than others my father explained, and I was clearly at that end of the spectrum. The eerie power of that experience opened me to the vast mysterious potential of altered mind states and the simple but profound question of where we go when not in our normal, waking, conscious state.
I first tried meditating in college, in search of solace in the face of mounting anxiety about making my way in the world as an adult. I was leaning toward atheism at the time and had abandoned the nightly habit of bedtime prayer that had helped anchor me throughout my stormy childhood. The evolution of my beliefs had brought me to the idea that the mysterious, inner life of the human mind, far beyond scientific explanation, was much more worthy of worship and capable of answers than some institutionally ordained deity outside myself. I was faithful that answers and peace could somehow be found in the deep, uncharted waters of my own mind. But those first attempts to sit still and focus on my breath were dismal failures, as general anxiety exacerbated by a several-cups-a-day coffee habit, made it impossible for me to be still for more than a few brief moments. Instead, I decided to try yoga, which I had heard and read was a kind of moving meditation. This exploration also proved short-lived though, since having been a high school gymnast, I arrogantly fancied myself an expert on stretching. After just the second attempt to practice yoga, I quickly dismissed it as just stretching and breathing. Nothing enlightening for me to be found there, I decided. It wasn’t until several years later, after I had embarked on a serious journey of emotional healing, that I eventually gained the maturity and patience to benefit from the spiritual side of physical practices like yoga and meditation.
During the last 25 years I have gone through several periods of daily formal seated meditation which have lasted from a few days to a few months. Invariably those periods have corresponded with times of increased insight, clarity and contentment. Over the years I’ve experimented with meditating on my breath, on a mantra, on a flame, on a geometric shape in my mind’s eye, on my chakras, on the sounds around me and on the silent spaces between the sounds around me. The conclusion I’ve reached is that it really doesn’t matter what I choose as the object of my meditation. All can be rewarding or useless. What matters most is my willingness, my intention, to let my mind settle, to open to a place of deep quiet within myself, and to be non-judgmental of whatever I find there. Believe me, this is easier said than done. It is deceptively simple and exquisitely challenging. It is also a key element in the patchwork of practices I’ve adopted that have gone from helping to keep me sane, to helping me survive, to ultimately helping me thrive.
For a time I was frustrated by my inability to maintain the habit of daily formal seated meditation for more than brief periods. I knew it was good for me, so why couldn’t I commit to it for longer than a few months at a time? Then I began to notice meditative moments hidden in pockets of my life where I hadn’t thought to look before. This first happened in the late 90’s when I was practicing my balance beam routine for an upcoming adult gymnastics meet. How did it take me all these years, I wondered, to realize that the intense concentration and focus required to leave that 4-inch plank, dynamically spin or flip in the air, and then safely return gracefully poised on that narrow perch, was only possible when I continually redirected my wandering mind back to the task at hand. Irrelevant, unhelpful thoughts still incessantly invaded: This trick is too hard for me. I hope I don’t get hurt. What are my friends over there talking about? But just as the sun rising over the horizon brings a new hue of light to the entire landscape, the obvious fact was suddenly and unavoidably clear to me: any mental energy squandered on those extraneous thoughts, dramatically reduces the chance that I will stick the trick. Once I started thinking of my balance beam practice as a moving meditation, my war with that apparatus ended.
This awakening was reinforced only days later as I slid into the pool for my swim workout. I now saw that methodically shifting my focus with each lap – from my breath, to the reach and pull of my arms, to my core, to my kick, and back to my breath – held inherent similarities to my chakra meditation in which I gradually shifted my focus from the root chakra at my tailbone, to each of the other six energy centers along my spine and back to my root chakra. This is how I first discovered the simple practice of mindfulness, the idea that ultimately, your whole life can become a moving meditation. The next day, with elegant serendipity, I received a card in the mail announcing a weekend workshop on MBSR – Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, which I knew I must attend.
And so, I stopped berating myself for the lack of discipline and motivation I had imagined kept me from maintaining my daily formal seated meditation habit. And I started to simply and frequently remind myself to Pay Attention. Be Here Now. This very moment is truly all there is. The real point of meditation for me now is carrying that knowledge into everything I do, not just working out but every interaction with a client, friend or loved one. Treating each moment as precious and deserving of my fullest awareness – this is my true purpose in meditation, whether seated or moving.
Deceptively simple. Exquisitely challenging. Deeply rewarding.
You can find more about meditation and how to start your own practice in my three DNAinfo Fitness Insider columns on the subject:
How to Make Meditation a Healthy Habit for 2014
Hot on Yoga’s Heels, Meditation Makes the Mainstream
Yoga Inspired Forms of Meditation Help you Center and Relax
And for more on other simple, healthy habits to help you make 2014 your best year yet, go to 12 Healthy Habits for 2014.