Until recently I believed I was the type of person who would hate — and suck at — meditation. I was also stuck in my ways. I liked what I liked and avoided what I didn't.
Then I decided to live by the rule "certainty is the opposite of growth" and to be a more curious and open Kathleen — the "New Kathleen." (You know the parable about the willow tree that bends versus the stable tree that cracks? My aim is to be the willow.)
Sharon Salzberg, in her book Real Happiness, states, "If you can breathe, you can meditate." Well, I can breathe, so I thought, "New Kathleen, lean in. Try meditation. What is the worst that can happen?" I attended a workshop by Angela Kontgen, tried group meditation, read a few books, and made the goal to meditate daily.
It turns out I like meditation; it calms the never-ending to-do list in my head and siphons off daily "me" time.
The caveat is that I like my version of meditation.
The name of my book, Finding Your Fit,aptly encapsulates my philosophy for adopting any new habit: adopt what works for you — ditch what doesn't.
Just as I found my fitness fit — mostly weights, running, and Pilates — I found my mediation fit: a 10-minute personalized practice (someone else's voice is a deterrent) within an atmosphere of growth. Much of what I always appreciate is the philosophy behind a practice — the WHY.
A few whys
1. The goal of meditation is not, contrary to popular belief, to clear the mind completely. The goal is to foster a better relationship with your thoughts.
Success is not the lack of thoughts, but the ability to catch yourself and bring yourself back to the moment.
Think of meditation as analogous to a swivel chair. When you are lost in meditation (a.k.a. you are present) the chair is stable. Swiveling is "wandering in thought"— letting your monkey mind take over. The mission is not to "never swivel" — that is unrealistic. The mission is to recognize that you are swiveling as immediately as possible and with compassion pull yourself to centre.
2. Salzberg puts it best: "The goal is not to become better at meditation, the goal is to become better at life."
Meditation is both a mirror and a model. Meditation mirrors how you think in life. Is your meditation full of catastrophic "what ifs" or debilitating self-criticism? It is also a model for life; learn how to breathe through and let go of your particular brand of toxic thoughts while meditating, then translate that coping mechanism into life.
Thoughts — when appropriate — are vital to survival. The goal of meditation is to understand the difference between "thinking" and being a prisoner of your thoughts; let go of the unproductive never-ending to-do list, the pointless worry, the self-doubt and judgment.
Change the relationship between you and your thoughts; learn how to respond rather than emotionally react. As Angela said, aim for your practice to jump "off the mat" and seep into your daily life, and bring calmness, awareness, reflection, and perspective into a daily way of living.
If you are being chased by a tiger, activate that stress response as quickly as possible. But if your stress is because you are overwhelmed at work, use meditation to gain perspective.
3. Thoughts are not facts.
This has been vital within all of my relationships.
When I perceive my partner, James, has done something hurtful, instead of going down the rabbit hole of "why doesn't he love me enough to...." I simply say, "Kathleen, your perception of the incident is not fact. Talk to him."
Or, when I feel there is "no way" I can make it through my day, I say, "Kathleen, thoughts are transitory. Feeling exhausted won't last forever. These negative thoughts are just visiting. They have rented space in your body; they have not bought the property. You will feel better as you work and if you don't, anyone can do anything for a day." I always feel better once I'm lost in work.
4. The breath is powerful.
As Kontgen's workshop reminded me, the breath signals the nervous system to switch from the sympathetic system (the stress response) to the parasympathetic system. The positives attributed to the parasympathetic nervous system include facilitating digestion, improving immune health, quieting the "monkey mind," and aiding restful sleep.
5. There are many ways to meditate; find yourFIT.
Experiment. Find what works for you. Meditate in the morning to frame your day, during lunch to centre yourself, after work to transition to home life, or at night as part of a bedtime ritual. Try a breathing meditation, a sound meditation, a loving kindness meditation, or maybe a mindfulness meditation.
6. There are no "miracles."
When it comes to health, most of us want overnight miracle solutions. Meditation is powerful, but like everything, it only works if you work it, AND one has to have realistic expectations; unrealistic expectations are the seeds of discontent.
As my colleague Harry said, "meditation offers a moment to let go of the chaos in life, but breathing will not eliminate the pain connected to my meniscus tear or back surgery."
Take meditation for what it is: one component of your overall health recipe.
Meditation offers a space to change your relationships with your thoughts, so that "off the mat" you will have tools in your emotional toolbox to respond rather than react to stimuli — tools that allow you to reflect on your actions and thoughts, and thus make decisions your future self will be proud of.
Don't become snared in a quest for perfection. Perfection is the enemy of the done. Start. Tweak as needed. If you never start you will never have anything to tweak.