An Honest Guide To Meditation For People With Actual Bodies And Minds
Posted on February 26 2018
"If it weren’t for my mind, my meditation would be excellent." ~ Pema Chodron
I meditate every morning.
And yes, I roll my eyes at people who say things like, especially at myself. So let me expand on that: I meditate every morning, and it's a daily struggle.
It goes something like this:
I wake up, and my Higher Self says, "Good morning Sunshine! Let's jump right in and meditate, like you've committed to doing! It's such a wonderful way to start the day!"
And then my Lower Self says, "I mean sure, that's an option, but do you really want to settle for the first offer? What if instead you went back to sleep! Or checked your Instagram! Orrrrrrrr spent the next 4 hours returning emails and then get too stressed out to meditate? Huh? That sounds like a neat idea, right?"
While those all do sound like neat ideas, and even though I totally don't want to, I take a deep breath, pull myself out of my warm covers and onto the floor, light some fair trade incense because ceremony is important to me, and begin my meditation.
A great guru was asked what the secret to enlightenment is, and with a laugh, he turned around and lifted up his loincloth to reveal his flat, callused behind, earned from years of sitting and meditating.
For most of my life, meditation had seemed rather daunting and like something other people did. You know, calm, centered people who had life figured out. I couldn't even fathom how to begin to quiet my very active mind.
Over the years I had tried a few meditation classes and while I actually had some really profound experiences in them, I still didn't really understand how to translate this practice into my everyday life or how to proceed without someone guiding me. Like, was I just supposed to sit there? That's so boring. Plus I'm really busy, you know.
Despite all my whining about it, the 10 day silent meditation retreat really was the catalyst that launched me into a serious meditation practice, and while that's definitely one extreme way to dive in, I think there are some softer ways to begin, too. If you're new to meditation but wanting to give it a try, here are some of the tips I wish someone would have given me.
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A COMFORTABLE WAY TO SIT
Most guided meditations will begin with something like, "Start by finding a comfortable seat..." and I want to be the first to tell you that they are lying to you. Unless you're extremely flexible, an advanced meditator, or are someone who didn't grow up sitting in cars and spending your day in chairs, you probably won't find a comfortable way to sit when you first start meditating. Our modern Western bodies generally just aren't used to sitting on the floor, so it takes time and practice and patience before you find anything that resembles comfort. But don't let that discouage you!
I recently read The Posture of Meditation and realized that the basis for a successful meditation practice really is finding the best way to sit for your body (and "best" doesn't have to mean full lotus, it just has to mean, whatever feels best in your body!). So, in the beginning, let your goal be to find a moderately tolerable way to sit, and try some of these tools to help.
Most of us desk-dwellers have relatively tight hips which can make sitting on the floor especially uncomfortable. A cushion can not only create a softer seat, but it also helps to elevate the hips above your knees which works to both eleveate pressure on your knees and gently open your hips, which will over time make meditating more comfortable (thanks, gravity).
There are many different kinds of cushions as well as a variety of ways to use them and I am absolutely not the expert, however, I have tried a few things which I can share.
The very first meditation cushion I bought was filled with cotton. I found it on Etsy and it is so cute and gets so many complimenets when I'm off doing public meditating things. However, I found that this particular shape and filling isn't very comfortable for my specific body unless I turn it on its side and use it in seiza posture (kneeling posture).
Eventually I upgraded to a zafu cushion filled with buckwheat hulls. It can be used in the traditional or seiza position as well. Personally, I find the buckwheat hulls to offer the right kind of support for my body, though your body may be different and that's totally okay (this is why different cushions exist - for different bodies!).
I especially love this cushion because it's handmade in America and the cushion cover is both organic and washable, plus it has a handle for easy transportation.
I don't have very sensitive ankles or knees, however, if you do, you may want to put a blanket, towel, or mat underneath them so they have extra padding and support. I truly don't believe that suffering is a required path to enlightenment, so use as many blankets and pillows and tools as you need to set yourself up for a successful meditation practice.
I discovered meditation benches on the second to last day of my silent medtation retreat. I could have saved myself so many hours of suffering had I known this was an option, but, I guess suffering was sort of point of the retreat so it all worked out in the end, maybe?
These are especially useful for people like me who have tight hips and don't enjoy sitting cross legged, though if you have sensitive knees, try placing a blanket, towel, or mat underneath for extra padding.
I chose to get this bench because it's handmade in America, with an optional organic cotton cushion.
I use yoga blocks for my at-home yoga practice, however, they also work really well as a seat to keep your hips elevated. This isn't my personal preference for everyday use, but in a pinch, it works quite well as a meditation seat.
A BLANKET, TOWEL, OR CHAIR
While there are definitely tools you can purchase to help with your meditation practice, you actually don't need to buy anything!
You can try using a blanket or towel folded up to elevate your hips and provide a softer seat (you can even roll one up to try to create your own seiza support), and you can also use a chair (no, this will not prevent you from reaching enlightenment). If you have any back, hip, or knee issues, starting with a chair may actually be the best temporary or even permanent solution.
During meditation, we're breathing slowly and not moving so it's really easy to get chilly (my sleep tracker actually can't tell the difference between when I'm sleeping and meditating!). I always bundle up before I meditate to make sure I won't have an excuse to stop early. I typically throw on a poncho, scarf, or even a blanket (maybe all three!). I also love wearing my "just breathe" socks as a warming reminder to... you know, just breathe.
Speaking of what to wear: I highly recommend choosing loose, soft clothing. I prefer to wear drop-crotch pants and loose tops in super soft fabrics. As your practice progresses, physical sensations may become heightened and certain fabrics and fits will become much more uncomfortable - luckily, eco-fashion is full of soft, relaxed things to choose from!
One of the ways our mind tries to distract us from deep inquiry is by making us feel uncomfortable, so just remember that there is a fine line between actual discomfort and the mental discomfort your mind will create to test you. You might want to play around with what sitting through discomfort feels like, even if just for a short period of time (I do this often with my left foot which is always falling asleep).
Over time, with practice, your body will adapt to both the posture and practice of meditation, as will your mind. I know this because I've seen it happening in myself!
YOUR MIND IS GOING TO WANDER AND THAT'S OK
I always had this idea that the goal of meditation was to make your mind shut up, and that seemed totally impossible and made me not want to even try. But, what I've come to understand is that meditation it's less about silencing your mind and more about changing your relationship with your mind. Your mind is going to wander. Probably a lot. But over time, you learn to bring it back to a present, calm place more quickly. You learn to put less weight into the fantasies and fears and ideas that your mind creates (unless they are good ones, then go with them!). And you learn to become more of an observer of the many things your mind is thinking and less of a participant.
During a typical morning meditation my mind will wildly run through my entire to do list, spend an exorbitant amount of time planning breakfast, fret over bills or something I said or whatever my ex-boyfriend might be doing at that exact moment, and then come up with all sorts of amazing reasons why I should cut my meditation short (Lower Self: "I mean, I know we just started, but, I think that was your phone vibrating! Wouldn't it be fun to browse elephant photos right now? Also your left foot is falling asleep, it's clearly a sign from the Universe that you should stop."). Meditation has not made any of these thoughts go away (and my left foot continues to fall asleep), however, it has made me less reactive to them. More and more, I just notice them, and maybe wiggle out my foot, and eventually the thoughts and the tingling goes away, as impermanent as everything else in the world.
IT'S OKAY TO FIDGET
It's been a running family joke that the reason I am so petite is that I probably fidget away 1000 calories per day. So, the idea of remaining still is verrrrrry challenging for me. But fidgeting is a physical sign of mindlessness (like, we're literally mindlessly moving) and in order to gain better control over our minds, we have to work on our fidgeting. In Vipassana (the type of meditation I learned at the silent meditation retreat) the goal is to train your mind and body to remain absolutely still for long periods of time. It takes a lot of practicing and suffering, but it is possible (I know this because I've done it!).
But, this doesn't have to be your goal. If you need to fidget, go ahead and fidget! If your left foot falls asleep, go ahead and move it! Over time, you'll start to become more aware of your movements as well as your desires for movements, and you can choose when to do them and when to not - mindfully.
There is no trophy for the person who ignores their sleeping left foot the longest (or so I suspect, since no one has given me one yet).
YOGA IS A MEDITATION PRACTICE
I recently learned something that kind of blew my mind: the entire point of yoga is to prepare the body to meditate. Like, handstands and crazy backbends and all that stuff is fine, but that's not what yoga was actually created for. Yoga evolved as a way to strengthen the back and open the hips to help those seeking enlightenment to sit and meditation more comfortably for very long periods of time. In fact, the original yogaic texts only mention two physical yoga postures (asanas) - the rest are all dedicated to practices for the mind.
So if you're doing yoga, you're basically half way to meditating anyway! And if you're having trouble meditating, consider working to open your body up with yoga.
THERE IS NO SINGLE PATH TO ENLIGHTENMENT
Meditation is like dating or maybe shoe shopping: there are a lot of options out there, and not all of them will be right for you.
According to The Posture of Meditation, the Buddha mentioned about 40 different meditation techniques, and there are thought to be 108 different practices of meditation which are established as genuine paths to the highest stages of self realization. So, explore them! And know that you can change up your meditation practice whenever you want. I recently switched from practicing the Vipassana technique (which is very focused on grounding into the body) to instead focusing on a daily mantra (inspired by Gandhi and his lifelong meditation of Rama Rama Rama). It's a very different experience, and I've gotten interesting results from both. And then, some days I still like to do a guided meditation (my favorite are by Jessica Snow).
Meditation is not one size fits all or or even one style fits all days, and anyone who claims to have the one and only path to enlightenment is probably someone you should be wary of.
“If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.” - Dalai Lama
Whether or not you ever achieve enlightenment (or that enviable flat callused behind), I truly hope you allow yourself to explore the wonders of meditation by playing around with the right techniques and tools for you.
And, if you need a little inspiration, I made a guided Fashion Meditation for World Peace to help you on your journey.
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