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A beginner’s guide to meditation

Q: I’m interested in starting a meditation practice. What’s the best way to begin, and what are the benefits? 

No doubt we are increasingly hearing about meditation. It’s understandable you wonder what all the hoopla is about.

Meditation first requires slowing down enough to listen to yourself. Then it requires courage to see yourself clearly and how you close down in fear and discomfort. Finally it requires curiosity and kind-hearted patience, particularly as you apply your practice to the nuanced and gritty parts of everyday life. Meditation is a practice suggesting we drop the inner-judge and connect to the heart of our experience.

Let’s unpack this further. First, abandon pre-conceived ideas of meditation that you must be sitting up straight, legs crossed, completely still and clear your mind. A strict approach can lead to an inner voice hissing ‘why can’t you just stop fidgeting and humming that catchy jingle?’ I often hear people sheepishly explain they tried meditating but couldn’t do it because their mind kept wandering. I reassure them that of course the mind will wander! The brain’s job is to constantly scan the environment as a way to keep us safe. The problem is we’ve not been able to differentiate real versus perceived threat. Over time our thinking patterns get caught in ruts that overanalyze what happened in the past or could happen in the future. We get stuck in the “storylines” — the replaying of old wounds which we let define us, rather than cultivating a balanced perspective and moving on from what we learned.

As a beginner, consider yourself meditating anytime you are fully being in your experience. In other words, being conscious to the physical reality of the present moment versus numb or checked-out (anyone eating snacky food in front of the TV knows this trance). Based on this definition, meditation can occur while lying down, walking through the city or chopping vegetables for dinner, as long as you are plugged-in to your experience. Meditation is not about “getting somewhere” but more about yielding and letting go, which runs counter to what most of us were taught. We are much more familiar with doing and are uncomfortable with simply being.

The second part of the definition can lead you on the path to “sukha,” sanskrit for bliss, sweetness and spaciousness, like that of a big, wide open blue sky. But first you can expect to really meet your edge: meditation means fully being in your experience with honesty, kindness and patience toward all parts of yourself. Given how familiar we are with being critical and judgmental, this is a radical idea. Don’t be surprised if your meditation practice feels agitating as you become intimately aware of your thinking patterns.

A big sky definition of meditation includes learning how to create space within yourself for all your feelings, not just the warm and fuzzy ones. We’ve created a system of chasing certain emotions (just count the number of books on the pursuit of happiness) and avoiding the cold, prickly ones (regret, jealousy, anger). Our methods to avoid the uncomfortable feelings simply create a new layer of problems (overspending or overeating are two favorites). From an evolutionary perspective it is the full gamut of emotions that have helped guide and protect us, leading to thoughtful decision making.

Like many things worthwhile, you may feel worse before you feel better. Most transformative changes are slow. I believe the only way out is through. I offer you ways to embody these concepts with the following tools as you get started: (a) repeatedly focus on your inhale and exhale as it moves through your body; (b) choose a word or affirmation to repeat; (c) close your eyes and visualize your space and surroundings one sense at a time; (d) do a moving meditation (which is my preferred style as a yoga teacher) by inhaling your arms high and exhaling your arms back down, continuing to the rhythm of your breath in an intentional way. There are an infinite number of ways you can build on from these and an increasing number of books and videos to guide you.

It is amazing that we can now take a 5,000 year-old practice like meditation and understand it scientifically with neuro-imaging, studying what happens in the brain before, during and after meditation. Research shows benefits include mental clarity, reduced reactivity and increased compassion for your self and others.

We are becoming so used to extraordinary amounts of stimulation that we are in brain overload. This correlates to an increase in stress, malaise and the “never enough” syndrome. We need this method of slowing down our inner chatter, our “popcorn mind,” to soften from the frenzy outside of us and within us. Serenity is right there inside you, but first you must turn off your smartphone and striving mind. 

Dr. Rachel Allyn is a licensed psychologist in private practice. Learn more about her unique style of therapy at DrRachelAllyn.com. Send questions to Rachel@DrRachelAllyn.com.