The M Word: What’s the deal with Meditation?

Uggh. “Meditation.”

I always thought it sounded so pretentious, not really knowing anything about it. Then I believed: either people were striving to see all these trippy, fantastical images, so they were no better than druggies; OR I thought maybe there was value in what they were aiming for, but I truly couldn’t sit and try it for the 50 to 200 minutes that were probably required to “get there.”

But in 2012, when I took my first yoga training, part of our homework between modules was to meditate each day for 15 minutes. I took it seriously and did not miss a day in three months. The positive changes to my relatively anxious mind were drastic enough that I couldn’t justify stopping. Meditation became a vital part of my personal mental health habits.

Having experienced a daily (short) practice for the last five and half years now, my still novice take is that there are two major misconceptions about meditation that either scare people off or make them believe it isn’t working for them.

First misconception: When you sit down to meditate, your mind will be blank.

Many people say they want to meditate, but they have tried and can’t. Their mind won’t stop; they can’t focus. To that I say, “YES! That sounds right!”

In reality, it would be a large miracle if anyone decided they wanted to meditate for the first time and then could sit down, become immediately peaceful, and just stay there. Meditation, certainly initially, is not distraction-free hanging out. It is about gradually re-training part of your brain, and some of our brains are frantic, scattered MESSES.

The practice involves simply this:

  • Choose a focus (your breath, a word, an image, a higher power, an energy, a relationship, or even the concept of emptying)
  • Notice when your attention leaves your focus
  • Bring your attention back to your focus

As soon as you bring your mind back to your focus, some other thought or sensation will race right in there immediately. (It is likely the thought “This isn’t working.”) So you let that idea go and come back. You do this over and over and over again.

This is hard. It takes a lot of concentration. Minutes feel loooooonnnnng.

For the first three-minute attempt (and the next and the next), and even when you get up to five minutes and still feel like you’re fighting the same battle (your mind is repetitively abandoning your fantastically chosen focus!?) … you are doing it. You are gradually weakening the obsessive voice in your head that is constantly planning, reminiscing, worrying, and regretting, among other things. You are telling that voice, “No. No, thank you. I’m going to learn to give my attention to myself in real time.”

Second misconception: I will feel “blissed out” afterwards.

“Oh, yes,” I hear people say, “it must be very relaxing.” But early on I found it to be an incredibly frustrating experience. I might feel a little uncomfortable, irritated, or “itchy,” like I hadn’t accomplished anything. Minutes wasted.

Annoyingly, in my experience, the benefit doesn’t feel obvious right away. I liken meditating more to brushing your teeth every day. Busting out the toothbrush once is not going to increase your oral hygiene, just like one meditation attempt is not going to have an impact on your psyche. But get a regular daily routine going and your mind patterns may start to change in seemingly inexplicable ways.

Eventually you may notice a one second pause before the next idea takes over your mind space during meditation. You may notice that you don’t follow a particular thought tangent as far or as long.

Outside of meditation time, you may find that you react slightly less when your kid spills the cereal again or you have to have the “why showers are necessary” conversation again.

Something you used to obsess over each day, like whether you are actually cut out for this mothering gig, might occupy less time in your thoughts. You may start noticing you are uncharacteristically content (once in a while); noticing, perhaps appreciating, small occurrences that wouldn’t have grabbed your attention in the past. (I’m sure it’s different for different people, but those are some of the changes I noticed.)

So if you’ve ever been intrigued or felt driven to give meditation a go, please don’t make it into the big deal that I did. It isn’t going to take you to some alternate universe, but it may clean up your mindspace and give you some relief from that relentless voice in your head.

It takes discipline to make it a practice, yes, but in and of itself, it is not difficult and it’s not possible tonot be able to meditate. Perhaps it’s just not what you thought it was going to be!

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