21-Day Meditation Challenge – Day Seven: Meditation Baby Steps
Ok, it’s Day Seven and confession time: I’m not a very good meditator. It’s not for a lack of interest or that I don’t know of its plentiful benefits. It’s more that I’m a little buzzy and tightly wound, a “Type-A” kind of guy who is working on becoming more patient and mindful in my life. This intention is part of what led me to begin practicing yoga in 2002, and it’s only within the past year or two that I’ve felt like I’m really ready to approach meditation. During all these years I visualized my meditation looking something like this: perfect stillness on a perfect pillow with perfect tranquility and perfect breathing, all of which would happen instantly and easily – you know, I’d “just do it.” In other words, I’d simply make the resolve to meditate, and naturally it would follow that I’d become a great meditator. Care to guess how that’s worked out? For these reasons I’m choosing to use my post to share experiences rather than offer specific instruction. As the saying goes, take what you like and leave the rest!
I see a wonderful acupuncturist. One of the most salient things she has talked about with me is the idea that, in nature, the changes that are most stable are those that happen over time. Think about it – seasons change slowly and the flora and fauna adjust along with it; steadily flowing water wears down rocks over years; shorelines change slowly after many years of high and low tides; even the daily transition from day to night and then night back to day happens relatively gradually. Conversely, when changes happen abruptly in nature, it is often part of catastrophe: earthquakes level the land, hurricanes wipe out coastlines, fire burn out forests, even a too-early frost has dire repercussions for a local food system. And yes, while these catastrophic transformations also serve a purpose in nature, they do so at great cost. The idea of slower transformation is one that I relate to the longitudinal nature of a consistent yoga practice, and now seek to further apply to the process of meditation.
For me as a teacher, one of the hardest things is watching students struggle with this idea as they develop an asana practice. First-timers and relative newbies often expect the near-instant changes, but this is the earthquake-hurricane-forest fire approach. They may be so connected to ego and attached to the idea of “getting it right” they refuse props, or wrench themselves into revolved triangle no matter how shaky or painful and misaligned it may be, or simply refuse to rest when they need to because they – we all! – hold dear notions of getting it perfect right out of the gate. Few, if any, come to their first yoga class and nail peacock pose, freestanding handstand, or an extended downdog hold. Sure, some may feel “transformed” after a few classes… but do they stay the course and do the work that a regular practice requires? Part of our asana practice is coming to realize that it is a practice, and it actually takes time to see authentic progress and sustained change.
So why then do so many of us with a regular yoga practice treat meditation as something that should be so easily mastered? I will sit on a pillow, close my eyes, and for 45 minutes I will be still and silent, the perfect meditator. Sound familiar? Our contemporary lives are increasingly filled with omnipresent distractions, and escaping the gravitational pull of things like too much screen time and innumerable crazy-world-around-us-stimuli is a process that – like our yoga asana practice – takes practice and mindfulness. Instead of issuing a punitive edict to ourselves – I will meditate 45 minutes every day, or I am a meditation failure! – we could opt for a slower approach. Just as day turns to night and summer transitions to fall, we can choose to facilitate changes in ourselves as metered and gentle as the natural world displays daily.
Last winter the Huz and I, along with our dear friend Emma, attended an introductory meditation workshop at the Vermont Zen Center because the three of us were curious about additional tools for learning meditation. (It was great – check it out some time if you ever have the chance!) It was a wonderful overview and we learned more than I can mention here, but one thing really stuck for me when the Roshi was talking about how to integrate meditation into our daily lives. She said that what it really boils down to is attention. I remember her pausing and saying it slowly three times over: Attention. Attention. Attention.
When it comes to meditation baby steps, this is where in 2014 I chose to focus meditation practice, and invite you to consider as part of your own process in the year ahead. I didn’t necessarily sit on my pillow and stare at the wall for perfect intervals all the time, but I did try to start thinking about bringing attention to my daily life, as the Roshi suggested. This was my baby step, more consistently practicing meditation vis-à-vis attention. I practice meditation while splitting and stacking our firewood, chopping vegetables for a meal, hiking with my dog, sitting quietly with a book, aligning the edges while folding laundry, breathing deeply behind the wheel and releasing a tight grip, listening to chirping birds and wind in the trees, in creative expression like painting or drawing, with the crunch of snow beneath each step in my snowshoes, truly listening while others speak, and yes – I also practice meditation perched on the fuzzy, round, lime-green pillows we have for silent sitting and breath.
You know where else there’s meditation, and a baby step you’ve already taken? The savasana you’re doing as part of your yoga practice. Building a more regular meditation practice can start right there in savasana. Maybe your first baby step doesn’t have to be in an unfamiliar meditation posture; maybe instead it can be right there in the familiar sensation of laying on your yoga mat and practicing savasana with mindful breath.
I know that this 21-day meditation challenge is all about encouraging us to sit for each of those 21 days and to attempt meditation. Second confession of the day: I have already “failed.” And you know what? I’m ok with that. Sometimes I sit, sometimes I don’t. By approaching each day with attention, that notion of “failure” becomes irrelevant.
The last thing I’ll share is this: there is a distinct difference between being gentle with your own process and just being lazy. Hear this: I’m not suggesting that you abandon the cushion completely, or not actually try meditation in the manner that my other fine colleagues are also encouraging. What I am saying is that you can take baby steps. If 45 minutes is too hard, try 30 or 20 or ten or even just three. I have an app on my iPhone called “Insight Timer” that I definitely recommend. You can set up and save various intervals for meditation and there are plentiful chimes and singing bowl tones to signal the beginning and end of your practice. My favorite saved interval on my own phone is for a three-minute meditation that I (probably unsurprisingly) named “Baby Steps.”
Start slowly, start small, start gently, and start with the awareness that meditation may or may not come naturally for you. Bring attention to the process, keep at it, and know that your baby steps will grow into full long strides with practice and the passage of time.
Good luck, Namaste, and see you around the studio.