mindful

Part 1 of our 3 part series on meditation.

It feels like everyone is talking about meditation or mindfulness these days. For many years I thought it meditation meant trying to “empty the mind,” which sounded too impossible to try.

My mother, a collector of fine titles, including but not limited to self-help and psychology books, children’s books (I’m talking entire collections of Dr. Seuss, Berenstein Bears, and Amelia Bedelia, to name a few), and outdated encyclopedias, handed me a book on meditation one day when I was in my early twenties. I had been practicing yoga for a couple of years at the time, and admired my teachers who seemed to embody the calmness and tranquility they talked about so much in their classes. I felt great after each sweaty practice, but was distracted and anxious much of the time when I was on my mat. I thought meditation might be worth a try.

The first time I sat down to practice meditation, I pressed play and heard the teacher say, “Become aware of the fact that you are breathing.“

Instantly my breath became shallow and my chest tightened. And then, “Notice where you feel the breath the most obviously as it moves in and out of your body. Focus all of your attention there.”

I gave this a try – focusing my attention on the feeling of breath at my nostrils. I think I was aware of a single inhale or exhale, and then my mind went something like this: “That’s it? Feel my breath? Ok, breathing in, breathing out— I wonder if this is what my yoga teacher does every morning. I hope no one walks in on me. I’m kind of hungry. Is someone making pizza? Last time I had pizza I had such a stomachache for hours. Maybe I’ll just have some soup instead. Remember to call Tara. Shoot – I left my phone on. Next time remember to put it on silent…” and on and on, for at least another minute until my stream of consciousness was interrupted by the teacher again:

“When you notice that your mind has wandered, that you have been pulled away by thinking or planning, simply acknowledge that you have been distracted and gently return to noticing your next breath.” My thoughts went something like, “Oh, shoot. I’m not good at this. Ok, back to the breath,” and I returned to noticing my breath for one or two breaths before distraction set in again.

Teacher: “Even if you get distracted 100 times, each time, simply return to noticing your next breath in or out.”

Me: “Oh yeah, meditating. That’s what I was doing here. Ok, so I guess a busy mind is normal? Breathing in, breathing out, breathing in…”

That cycle of mental events more or less repeated itself for the duration of the meditation, which was only 9 minutes but felt like 2 hours.

I listened to the guided meditation, and over time my breath relaxed, but my mind continued to wander. I felt reassured that this was normal whenever the teacher interrupted my stream of consciousness with an invitation to return to my breath.

I committed to practicing every day for a week, and then a week turned into a month, a month into a year. My practice has evolved since then, and I haven’t always been as consistent as I would have liked, especially when my son was born (new moms who meditate, tell me how you do it!) but the lessons from my first “teacher” have stuck and are helpful for those just starting out:

  • We can’t turn off our mental activity. Minds will wander, think, plan, remember, associate, evaluate, etc. That’s what minds do. Mind wandering during meditation is NOT a failure.
  • Every time you notice your mind has wandered, even if you have been lost in La La Land (or your grocery list) for 10 minutes, is a moment of mindfulness, of pure present moment awareness.
  • The more you notice your wandering mind, the better you will become at just being in the present moment, with whatever is there.
  • The initial instructions are simple (“notice your breath, and return to it when your mind wanders”), but the practice can be challenging and takes commitment if you want to know the benefits.

There are innumerable benefits to practicing meditation, and as I have learned, consistent practice is key if you want to experience them. If you are thinking of taking your seat and practicing for the first time, know this: you are far better off to practice for 5 minutes every day, than for 1 hour on the weekend.  And really, 5 minutes is all you need to witness that hectic inner landscape, to take a few breaths, and to practice being present.  You may not find “calmness and tranquility” in those first few (or hundred) practices, but over time, and with patience and kindness towards towards yourself, the practice will change you.

 

Do you meditate? Leave a comment below about your first teacher and any lessons you have learned along the way. If you don’t meditate but would like to, what’s stopping you?

 

Ruby Knafo is a registered occupational therapist, yoga and meditation teacher, and is the founder and studio director of Union Yoga + Wellness. She offers regular meditation workshops at Union, and sees clients privately for meditation coaching and mindfulness-based interventions to manage stress, anxiety, chronic pain, and to develop emotional resilience.

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#meditation #mindfulness