Meditation – It’s not what you think it is

By now you might have heard about the many benefits
of practicing meditation. I don’t know about you
but my mind begins to snap shut as soon as someone
tells me that something is good for me (especially
when it comes to lima beans). So I won’t tell you why
meditation is good for you, instead I will share some
of my own experience with meditation and some tips
for starting your own meditation practice. I hope to
dispel some of the myths that I had to overcome when
I began practicing.

In the late 80s I was living in Boston, attending graduate
school and waitressing in Kenmore square. I was
pretty anxious during that time, I had trouble sleeping
and most of the time my shoulders were tense and
inching closer to my ears. A friend introduced me to
George Mumford, a meditation teacher and sports
therapist. George spent 5 seasons with Phil Jackson,
(legendary coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago
Bulls) helping professional basketball players practice
mindfulness on the court.

George suggested that meditation might help reduce
my anxiety. When I first began meditating I really did
not like it. In fact, I hated it. I would sit down to meditate
and the thoughts in my head would get really
loud. It seemed that meditation was making things
worse not better; I called George often, sometimes late
at night. I would complain that I did not have a blank
mind. Myth # 1- Nowhere is written that successful
meditators have blank minds; I am not sure where this
rumor started but it is just not true. As I continued to
struggle, George would say kind, practical things like
“Just direct your attention to your breath”. I would
go back to my practice, determined to get it right this
time. Sometimes I found it helpful to count my breath,
other times I would silently repeat “breathe in love,
breathe out fear”.

Sometimes I could not sit still and I would choose to
practice walking meditation. Myth #2-Meditation must
be practiced in a seated cross-legged position, even if
you are a runner with tight hamstrings. George taught
me how to practice walking mindfully; paying attention
to the sensations in my body, especially my feet as
they touched the ground. I practiced moving slowly
with focus, (luckily there were no cell phones in those
days) breathing and noticing sensations in my body as
I walked.

Eventually I developed a daily 20 minute practice. I like
to practice in the morning, sometimes I practice in the
middle of the day if I am running late. If I have had a
stressful day, I might practice again for a few minutes
before bed. Myth 3- Meditation must be practiced in
the morning and Myth 4-Meditation must be practiced
for at least an hour for it to be effective. I have
experimented with longer and shorter time periods
throughout the years and have found that 20 minutes
feels right for me. Some people prefer a longer period
of time. One of my friends who is the mother of a
small child, likes to practice at night while she sits in a
rocking chair near her daughter’s bed watching her fall
asleep.

I would describe my practice as Insight Based meditation,
focusing on the sensations in my body and
thoughts in my mind. When I find myself getting
attached to any particular sensation (for example-itchy
nose) I simply come back to my breath. If I am sitting
and I start thinking “What’s for dinner” I simply come
back to my breath. There is a funny meditation teacher
in Venice, California who asks his thoughts to have
seat on the couch and says “I’ll get to you later”. When
I worked in technology I would often think about my
coworkers and how they irritated me, I would acknowledge
the irritation and then direct them to have a seat
on the couch. Sometimes my couch would be packed
with so many people that some of them had to sit on
the floor.

My meditation practice extends throughout my day
into mindfulness. The way I differentiate between
the two terms is that meditation happens at a specific
time that I set aside each day for practice. Mindfulness
means carrying my meditation practice into my daily
affairs; it is about my commitment to slowing down
and being aware, trying to respond mindfully as opposed
to reacting.

Each day is different. Sometimes I meditate, start my
car and ease into my day. Other times it is clear that
everyone in Los Angeles needs to take driving lessons
and that I am the only person who knows how to operate
a car. Those are the days I try and practice Thich
Nhat Hanh’s red light meditation. Red light meditation
consists of stopping at the red traffic light and relaxing
your tight grip on the wheel. The next step is to take a
breath and softly smile. It does not have to be a huge
grin, just a gentle smile and a few relaxing breaths.
Myth #5- Meditation is no fun. Meditation is an “individual
adventure” (these are Bill Wilson’s words, the
co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous). I encourage you
to make it work for you. Some days I practice sitting
meditation, other days washing dishes meditation,
making soup meditation, the list goes on. Whatever
you choose to do just have fun with it, just don’t forget
to breathe. I incorporate meditation and mindfulness
into my work with my clients; helping them to develop
their own unique ways of being present in the world
and using that presence to enhance their experience in
therapy.