Updated: Jan 23, 2021
"Wherever you go, there you are."
This must be one of my favorite quotes. It is the title of mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn's 1994 book. The quote is the antidote to how we live most of our lives: in our minds, drowning in the constant chatter and getting caught up in a whirlwind of analyses, and limiting false beliefs that end up governing our thoughts and actions.
Kabat-Zinn is reminding us that wherever you go, there you are, you just have to be present, awake to this moment, alert to what is in front of you, attuned to your senses. It's that simple. Or is it?
Actually, it is the hardest thing any one of us is able to do. Why? because of our monkey-mind. The mind that thrives on distraction, rumination, cravings, attachments and aversions. The hardest thing for us to do is sit still with ourselves, and allow whatever arises to pass through, without judgment. Our mind wants to label, identify with, and make meaning of our thoughts and stories. But Kabat-Zinn is prescribing the complete opposite- He is asking us to settle down, sit quietly, observe the breath moment to moment and just let go of our need to be in control.
His teachings have been among the greatest gifts life has handed me.
When anxiety is at an all-time high and we are faced with so much uncertainty as we enter year two of the pandemic, continuing political mistrust and social divisiveness, there is no greater way to treat yourself than to prioritize your mental well-being and offer yourself the gift of stillness, even if it's only for five minutes a day.
What is meditation and how do I start?
It is simply the art of taking time out for yourself. Nothing more. And you can start right now. Wherever you are.
People often resist starting a practice of meditation because they think they need to know something about it first, that there is a method or technique, that it may interfere with their faith-based practice and beliefs. But these are myths.
Meditation requires no previous experience or knowledge, and no spiritual affiliation.
Only the willingness to try it with an open heart and mind, and watch what happens.
I first came to meditation when I was 16 years old, at the suggestion of my parents. I was about to begin my International Baccalaureate exams and they thought it would be a good way to relieve the stress, find calm and improve my ability to focus and concentrate.
I have been meditating ever since, even if on some days I only manage five minutes. Am I calmer, more focused, more alert than I would be without it? I don't know! but essentially I am better at self-regulating because I know that when I have a choice to either get caught up in the external noise and clamor, I can always choose another way to be and respond. No two days are ever alike, and no two meditation practices are ever alike. But I keep at it because sitting still, doing nothing, and being consistent feels so good, even if on some days I am fidgety or restless. On those days, I give myself permission to stretch, to roll my neck and shoulders, while keeping my attention on my breath, and I consider that as good an attempt as just sitting still. In other words, I advocate not being rigid and letting go of a perceived idea of what meditation needs to look like. The key is to find time to Be, rather than Do, and to have no expectation of the outcome. There is no right or wrong. Just stay present, breathe, and ground down.
What do I need to start?
You don't need special props, or a designated space. In fact, you can meditate wherever you are. Meditation is the art of finding stillness and you can find that in the midst of a storm, both figuratively and literally. All you need to do is quiet the monkey-mind that loves to churn and ruminate on a single thought, always wants to check text messages, emails and social media and allow this scattered mind to settle for however long you have. Consider it a gift to yourself, and by extension, to those you interact with, because if you are calm and non-reactive, chances are your relationships and interactions with others are going to reflect that. It's the easiest way to replace time-based reaction with clarity-of-mind response; and isn't this what we all need right now?
Meditation can be difficult for those of us who are always used to doing. Suddenly, all we are asked to do is to Be and that feels so counter-intuitive. If that sounds like you, you are not alone; just give it a try and allow whatever is unfolding to just pass through, without judgment, without commentary, but rather with an open-heart and mind. You will soon find yourself responding this way to other situations in your life that are not going your way. You will learn to replace impatience with a pause so you can reset and respond from a place of calm and intuition rather than from a place of impulse and reactivity.
A simple practice
All you need to do is find a comfortable place to sit, or lie down if you find it difficult to sit upright. You can always use the support of a wall if your back resists an upright position. If you are sitting, you can either be cross-legged or sitting on a chair with your feet to the floor, anchoring you to the ground, just as your sitting bones would if you were sitting cross-legged. Feel supported by your chair, cushion or floor and make sure you are warm.
To begin, close your eyes, and simply focus your attention on your breath. Is it shallow and choppy? is it smooth and effortless? perhaps its somewhere in between. Allow your breath to breathe into your body without attempting to control it. Now, gently turn your attention to your shoulders and allow them to relax. We carry a lot of tension in our neck and shoulders so simply allow the tension to dissolve with every breath. Observe the breath as it expands your ribcage and your belly. You can put one hand on your belly and one on your side rib to maintain a physical connection to your body. Sometimes having a mantra, an affirmation or a visualization can help steady the mind and focus your attention. Otherwise, continue with just sitting, breathing normally, and staying open to what arises, without judgment or analysis. Do this for as long as you like- When I am hurried, I just take ten slow inhales and ten long exhales and I feel the calming effect immediately. It doesn't need to be formal and serious.
During your practice, thoughts will arise. Meditation is not an attempt to rid the mind of thoughts but rather it is a practice to allow the thoughts to show up and then pass through until another thought occupies the mind. Meditation is an opportunity to simply be with what is and to accept without judgement. There is nothing to do and nowhere to go. Just sit and observe.
Doesn't this sound like a fantastic way to be in this world? Living with your thoughts, no matter how troubling they are, and to just let them be without allowing them to dominate your actions, reactions or emotions. You just accept them for what they are: a passing guest in your home called mind, like clouds in a big blue sky. This too shall pass. And that's all there is to it. No attachment. No story. No self-deprecation, only this thought, and that thought, and the next one.
A simple daily meditation practice has shown to lower blood pressure, reduce stress and anxiety, alter the neuro-plasticity of the brain and hence the brain structure, and heighten levels of patience, compassion and happiness.
Some days it feels easy. Other days it feels more difficult. That's normal. Just stick to it. Practice consistently and start gently. I suggest 5-10 minutes every morning as part of your morning ritual; Prioritize your well-being before the day takes a hold of you.
And remember, wherever you go, there you are.
Here is a suggested starters list of some useful resources. It is by no means comprehensive but simply tools I have tried and enjoyed.
Insight Timer App- https://insighttimer.com/ , hundreds of guided meditations, music and tools to help get you started
Jack Kornfield- https://jackkornfield.com/
Jon Kabat-Zinn- https://www.mindfulnesscds.com/
Pema Chodron- https://pemachodronfoundation.org/
Sounds True- soundstrue.com
Tara Brach- https://www.tarabrach.com/ , also on YouTube (for her talks and guided meditations) and Amazon (for her books)
Zephyr Wildman- https://zephyryoga.com/about/
And as always, leave your comments and feedback if you have further questions.
“Meditation is the only intentional, systematic human activity which at bottom is about not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are.”
― Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are