My meditation practice has done more to impact my overall happiness than anything else--more than my physical yoga practice, my diet, and more than my relationships. While I will skip my yoga practice periodically, when I skip my meditation practice, my entire day feels somehow disrupted. That said, my practice has undoubtedly had its ups and downs--times when I feel focused and at ease and other times when a busy mind or physical injury makes the idea of sitting for 30 minutes seem like an eternity. That's because it’s a life long practice that like everything else in my life, is constantly changing. But there are some steps that can make a meditation practice easier.
Why We Love Meditation
The main story on a recent cover of Time Magazine was mindfulness. In fact, it appears that mindfulness is becoming a movement. And that’s a good thing. It largely stems from a society that’s yearning for peace and happiness after finding that material things aren’t the answer. But whatever the reason, surveys are finding that we’re all excited about “sitting” for meditation. A recent National Institutes of Health survey found that eight percent or about 18 million Americans have tried meditation.
The Benefits of Meditation
Meditation has been proven to increase a sense of wellbeing, improve focus, reduce anxiety, depression, and insomnia. There’s also ample science to prove that it can reduce pain, high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, and help with smoking cessation. It seems that meditation can actually change the brain, and that the reduction of stress that results from regular meditation can positively impact all the body’s system.
Why is Meditation So Hard?
In our fast-paced society, doing the opposite for a while is really good for us, but at the same time, it’s difficult. Many find that their minds seem to go crazy during meditation, and as a result, they don’t feel like they’re getting anything accomplished. It can be taxing to face the thoughts that cycle in and out of the mind again and again. And for those of us dealing with some form of trauma, meditation can be really scary because we’re forced to face what’s going on firsthand.
But by far, the most common reason why we find it hard is because we’re unwilling to devote the time necessary to get into a good meditation habit. A sporadic meditation practice is much less effective than one that you can depend on daily. Meditating for just a few minutes is fine, but it is important to commit to doing it everyday.
What You’re Doing Wrong in Your Meditation Practice and How to Fix it
Meditation isn’t easy. But a few steps can make it much easier. These include:
1. Build your concentration muscle.
Before you do anything else in meditation, build your concentration muscle. Everything else grows from concentration, or the ability to focus your attention pointedly on one thing. That said, it’s not easy to increase concentration. It takes time, like a really long time. But when you do, you’ll start to reap the rewards in the form of better focus in all parts of your life.
While people talk about the enlightened state that can come from meditation, that isn’t going to happen until you are able to deepen your meditation, which cannot happen unless you can focus. Find something to place your concentration on while you’re meditating, whether it’s the inhalation or exhalation of the breath or repeating a single mantra. It’s not the method that matters, but rather, the act of coming back to your point of focus again and again throughout your meditation all in an effort to build your concentration muscle.
2. It shouldn’t be a task.
Viewing meditation as one more thing to add to your to-do list makes it lose its luster. Not to mention that meditation isn't about doing, it's about being. Think of it as a time everyday where you get to be with yourself with nothing at all to do. Don't view it as a time to try and stop the mind from thinking, rather, view it as a time to sit with your thoughts and get to know them a little better. You can’t stop your thoughts, but instead, learn to watch them as if they were on the big screen. When your mind moves away from its focal point and gets caught on a thought, instead of getting emotionally tied up in thinking you’re not good at something, watch the thought as it gets stuck and then unstuck.
3. Watch your emotions.
Us humans tend to have opinions about everything. Thoughts are always tied to feelings which are always tied to emotions. Notice this at first and then try and turn off your inner judge. If your knees hurt during your meditation, it doesn’t have to be labeled as bad and make you then decide that you're getting old. Sometimes your knees can just hurt and that’s all there is to it. If you start to think about that huge report that you have due that day, it doesn’t mean that anxiety has to be attached to the thought. But in the event that you do feel stress, don’t judge yourself for feeling that way, either. Learn to watch without getting tied up in a whirlwind of emotion.
4. Stop expecting a certain outcome.
Being attached to outcomes has the same impact on meditation as it does on the rest of our lives. It causes us to focus our attention too much on what we expect to happen as a result of meditation rather than focusing on the ride that meditation provides. Surf the wave of your thoughts because you enjoy the ride. Don't expect outcomes, just let them unfold gradually.