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Practicing Meditation

The first time someone suggested meditation as a daily practice to reduce stress and organize my thoughts, I cringed inwardly and outwardly.

I was appalled, even angry, that my dermatologist advised me to meditate because of a skin condition (guttate psoriasis) that I was suffering from a few years ago. “Stress and strep throat are symptoms of this kind of skin condition,” she said with sympathy. There was light therapy (an unappealing, controlled tanning bed), medication for the possible strep (I didn’t have it), and, well, meditation. But I was at my edge, one step away from taking a plunge into depression over my condition, so I did what any person who feels hopeless does: I rolled my eyes and gave it a shot.

Your first attempt at meditation is a reflection of the movies you’ve seen, the stories you’ve heard, the books you’ve read, and the headlines you’ve scanned on newspapers and magazines. I was skeptical and ignorant at best, mocking the notion but also quietly hoping that it would be the easy solution.

(Funny four-minute video below of Lena Dunham showing why meditation is hard.)

Was I supposed to breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth or out through my nose or both? What was I to do when I thought about sex or work or the future? Ignore the thoughts or acknowledge them?

What makes meditation difficult is two-fold: it’s a practice, and anything that involves repetition and being present is challenging; and two, it requires you to tune inward to the voices that readily get muted by distractions, culture, and media. Your insecurities, desires, and thoughts are all front and center. Hello!

I can’t say with scientific accuracy that meditation helped me reduce my stress and in turn alleviated my psoriasis, but it did teach me an indispensable skill. Like a boxer who knows how to punch, I learned a tactical approach on how to calm down, organize my thoughts, and make better decisions. I learned to appreciate silence and create a space that allows me to cultivate mindfulness, self-awareness, and gratitude.

“There is now a meditation room in every building on the General Mills campus in Minneapolis,” said the author Pico Iyer in The Art of Stillness. “And Congressman Tim Ryan leads his colleagues in the House of Representatives in sessions of sitting still, reminding them that, if nothing else, it’s been found by scientists that meditation can lower blood pressure, help boost our immune system, and even change the architecture of our brains. This has no more to do with religion or any other kind doctrine than a trip to the (mental) health club might.”

In Waking Up by author, philosopher, and neuroscientist Sam Harris, he outlines 8 steps that I wish I read before starting. He explains what the actual goal of meditation is [emphasis mine]:

“The traditional goal of meditation is to arrive at a state of well-being that is imperturbable—or if perturbed, easily regained. The French monk Matthieu Ricard describes such happiness as “a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind.” The purpose of meditation is to recognize that you already have such a mind. That discover, in turn, helps you to cease doing the things that produce needless confusion and suffering for yourself and others. Of course, most people never truly master the practice and don’t reach a condition of imperturbable happiness. The near goal, therefore, is to have an increasingly healthy mind—that is, to be moving one’s mind in the right direction.

Sam Harris’s guidelines for meditating are simple, and it’s worth saving an abridged version in your commonplace book:

1. Sit comfortably, with your spine erect, either in a chair or cross-legged on a cushion.

2. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and feel the points of contact between your body and the chair or the floor. Notice the sensations associated with sitting—feelings of pressure, warmth, tingling, vibration, etc.

3. Gradually become aware of the process of breathing. Pay attention to whatever you feel the breath most distinctly—either at your nostrils or in the rising and falling of your abdomen.

4. Allow your attention to rest in the mere sensation of breathing. (You don’t have to control your breath. Just let it come and go naturally.)

5. Every time your mind wanders in thought, gently return it to the breath.

6. As you focus on the process of breathing, you will also perceive sounds, bodily sensations, or emotions. Simply observe these phenomena as they appear in consciousness and then return to the breath.

7. The moment you notice that you have been lost in thought, observe the present thought itself as an object of consciousness. Then return your attention to the breath—or to any sounds or sensations arising in the next moment.

8. Continue in this way until you can merely witness all objects of consciousness—sights, sounds, sensations, emotions, even thoughts themselves—as they arise, change, and pass away.”

A terrible delusion that our culture suffers is the assumption that meditation is a permanent change, rather than a practice that invites and facilitates continuous change. The day you forget to meditate is the day you learn that the practice is enormously enriching. You will notice a difference in your mood and will realize that you didn’t create a time and space t
o be still for a moment. This ripples out into your mood, energy levels, and thoughts.

Like me, at first you might roll your eyes at the idea of meditating because of the negative associations connected to that kind of behavior. “People like me don’t do things like that,” you tell yourself. But that’s just one story you’re telling yourself, and it can change. After a few years of practice and a few years of devouring books and studies on mediation — even writing about it — I whisper it as a piece of advice to those who are at their edge or are looking for some tranquility in their day-to-day.

As the French essayist Montaigne said:

“Meditation is a rich and powerful method of study for anyone who knows how to examine his mind, and to employ it vigorously. I would rather shape my soul than furnish it. There is no exercise that is either feeble or more strenuous, according to the nature of the mind concerned, than that of conversing with one’s own thoughts. The greatest men make it their vocation, ‘those for whom to live is to think.’”

You don’t have to be at your edge before attempting meditation; you can start before you reach your edge.