Recently I talked with a friend who mentioned having some medical problems. I said I’d heard that yoga could help with the problem she was experiencing (because really, what else do I talk about these days), and she said, “I tried yoga once in college but I couldn’t get into it! That last pose – the instructor kept saying we had to make our minds TOTALLY BLANK. And I just can’t do that!” I wanted to hug my poor friend because she got cheated so badly! Here’s someone willing to give yoga a try, who could really be helped by it, who’s been turned off from yoga because of bad and inaccurate teaching. I wish I could give her old instructor a talking-to! Instead, all I could do was tell my friend I hoped she’d give it another try with a new teacher and that it might be different for her this time.
Contrary to what a lot of people may believe, meditation isn’t about making the mind a blank. The mind is never blank! Anyone who says that to practice meditation we need to make our minds completely blank is dead wrong. Our minds are like crazy drunk monkeys, careening around from one thing to another. Meditation, savasana, pratyahara, the pranayama breathing exercises I did last month – it’s all about calming down the monkey in our brains and training it to do what we want it to do. It’s still a monkey – it’s always going to be a little crazy! But you can teach the monkey to listen. Meditation isn’t about making the mind a blank, because that’s impossible; meditation is about working with what you have and learning to calm your monkey down.
The first step in meditation is to give your mind as little to worry about as possible. Sit in a comfortable position, arrange your clothing so nothing’s bothering you, take off your sweatshirt or put on some socks, blow your nose, drink some water, shut the door, tell your family not to come in for a few minutes. Eliminate the distractions before you get started, so that once you start, you can stay put. Before meditation, do some yoga poses: they keep the body limber and healthy, so that when we sit for meditation, we can be still for a while without the body distracting us. (I got a reminder of that this morning, when I skipped yoga and went right to meditation, and my back ached the whole time.) You could also take a walk, which allows you get some fresh air and some exercise, refreshing you before meditation. Try reading from a sacred book or inspirational text to get in the mood for spiritual practice. It’s also good to do some pranayama breathing exercises like alternate-nostril breathing: this slows down your breathing and gets the mind starting to focus on the breath.
When we sit down to practice meditation, our crazy monkey brains are going to be bored. They’re going to want to do anything other than meditate. If you sit down and try to just make your mind a blank, your mind will fight you! It’ll make lists of everything you need to do after this, it’ll wonder what happened to Kristin who sat next to you in third grade, it’ll replay every embarrassing moment with every past sweetheart, it’ll remind you to call your mother. But if you give the mind something to do, something to focus on, it won’t have a chance to do all those things, and this makes the whole process easier.
The simplest thing to do is just to focus on the breath. Make the breath quiet and calm; on each inhale, say to yourself “inhale”, and on each exhale, say “exhale”. You could also try working with your breath energy: inhale “peace” and feel peacefulness flooding through your body; exhale “love” and imagine your love and compassion going out to all beings in the world. Choose any concept or word that resonates with you. You’ll get distracted at some point, because that’s what happens, you can’t avoid it. Don’t get angry or upset, as that just gives your monkey brain more ammunition to work with. When you get distracted, just accept it calmly and start over, bringing it back to your practice, inhaling and exhaling.
There are a few other meditation practices that I’ll share with you over the course of this month. What’s key is to remember two things. First, meditation is hard work, requiring a lot of self-control and self-discipline. Second, anyone can meditate. Not just Buddhist monks in orange robes, not just really holy people, but everybody. The more crazy stuff you have going on in your life, the more you probably need to meditate! Be open to learning, be gentle with yourself, and pretty soon you’ll start to enjoy those quiet moments.