When I thought of the title for this week’s post, I couldn’t help but think about this scene from Family Guy.
How to sit? Really?
I’m hardly an expert when it comes to meditation. I’ve been doing it for a few years, but not long enough to forget the many issues I struggled with in the beginning. And one of those issues was deciding how, exactly, to sit.
Do I sit upright in a chair? I’ve heard of a “lotus pose” I think that’s a thing… I’m gonna Google it. Yikes – that’s not happening. Ok so do I just sit on the ground with my legs crossed? That seems uncomfortable after a while… do I need to sit on a pillow or something? How high should the pillow be? Does my back need to be straight? It’s starting to feel sore… and now my ear is starting to itch. Should I scratch it? Will that break the zen moment and I’ll have to start all over? Should the room be dark, or bright? Should I have candles? incense? Music? Gregorian chanting?
These are all great questions, and there are literally countless others. And for me, the answers come from taking a step back and trying to get a better understanding of what you’re trying to do when you sit to meditate. When you sit to meditate, your goal is to create an enviroment where you can practice being mindful.
To quote Allen Iverson: “We’re talking about practice, not a game.” So don’t put too much pressure on yourself!
I often find myself drawing comparisons between mindfulness training and going to the gym, and describing meditation a sort of gym membership for your mind. So let’s think about things that make for a good gym experience:
- It’s inviting. Some people seem to be able to just jump right into brutal workout routines. Outdoor trainings, flipping tires, climbing ropes, Tough Mudders, things like that. But for me, I needed to familiarize myself with the gym first. Start with simple exercises and develop confidence in an inviting setting. I approached meditation in the same way – maybe you’d rather sit in a chair than on the floor. Maybe you’d rather stand, or walk or even go for a run. The (rather lofty) goal here is to eventually be mindful during every waking moment of your life. The point of having a meditation practice is to create an environment where it’s a little easier to familiarize yourself with, well, yourself. The only thing I’ll caution against is lying down while meditating – it’s certainly an option, but in my experience falling asleep can be an issue (note: or a huge benefit. Headspace actually has an awesome single on falling asleep that I use pretty frequently).
- It’s convenient. Having the right equipment, the right pre-workout supplement, the right outfit, the right headphones, the right playlist… all of these things can be very motivating and can help snap you into focus when you go to the gym. But if everything isn’t perfect… are you still going to workout? One time I literally didn’t go to the gym because I couldn’t find my headphones. Unbelieveable. In the same way, when it comes to meditation, music, candles, incense and other bells and whistles are great if they get you in the right mindset, but try not to let them become a barrier to entry.
- You push yourself. And this part is kind of tricky, and the gym comparison kind breaks down a bit. When you go to the gym, most of the time you can track measurable progress. You’re getting bigger (or smaller), stronger, faster, and you’ve got the stats to prove it. With meditation it’s difficult to come up with ways to measure “progress” without developing unhelpful expectations going into your practice. That being said, I do think you can push yourself in two, concrete ways: 1) by tracking the amount of time you spend practicing meditation or the consistency with which you do it, and 2) by pushing the boundaries of the environment in which you can practice mindfulness.
Imagine that the timeline of your life is like a “connect-the-dots” picture, and your meditation sessions are the dots. If you start meditating once a week in the morning, you might be able to draw a simple picture with the dots. Do it every day, and suddenly the picture starts to look little better. In the evenings too, even better. A few quick sessions on a park bench after lunch, even better. On a noisy bus, even better. The picture starts to become more nuanced. Maybe you’ll start doing walking meditations while you’re getting from point A to point B. Maybe if you do it long enough you’ll start to realize you don’t really need to listen to the guided meditation anymore, that you can just “turn on” mindfulness when you notice yourself getting caught up in your thoughts. Suddenly the dots start to become lines.
Your picture is becoming clearer. Your life is coming into focus because you, yourself, are learning how to focus. You’ve developed this skill by dedicated hours of time in a controlled environment focusing on the simplest thing you can imagine, something you take with you wherever you go, something that serves as your anchor (and also the subject of next week’s post).