I was thirteen years old when I discovered that my synchronized swimming coach actively practiced meditation. I remember feeling awkward when I found out. My limited exposure to meditation at the time had left me believing that it was something only strange people did. I resisted the urge to jokingly touch my pointer finger and thumb together (in chin mudra) but I didn’t understand why this “normal” person was doing something so strange.
In the days to follow, my respect for my coach led me to start considering that there might be something to this meditation thing – and thus began my first explorations of a meditation practice. I remember sitting at home on my couch trying to quiet my mind completely, but it didn’t take long for me to determine that I could not meditate. My mind wasn’t even close to quiet. I was lucky if I went five seconds without a thought!
Many years later, I have learned that I was more than capable of meditating at that time. Meditation is not about stopping thoughts or completely clearing the mind, nor is it a strange esoteric exercise. Rather, meditation is a practice of noticing when your thoughts wander, and committing to bringing them back to your focus. The focus of a meditation practice could be your breath or your body, a posture, a mantra, or a form of music or art. Whatever your focus of choice, having thoughts does not mean you can’t meditate – or that you are bad at meditation. Thoughts simply present the opportunity to continue to practice.
I find it helpful to imagine that the mind is like a little puppy. It is excitable and distractible and eager to be a part of everything. The mind solves problems. It analyzes, assesses and judges. It remembers and reminds. But sometimes it also broods, fixates and catastrophizes. It means well, but sometimes it pees on the carpet.
When we practice meditation, we are training our mind just like we would train a puppy. We learn to recognize that many of our thoughts don’t serve us and we train and empower ourselves to move away from those thoughts. While scientific studies continue to provide an increasing amount of evidence for the benefits of a meditation practice (including improved memory and concentration, stress-reduction, relief from chronic pain, relaxation, and an increase in qualities such as love and empathy), one of the greatest benefits I have experienced through meditation is a freedom from thought. I’ve learned to recognize how and when my thoughts are perpetuating negative feelings, and that I have the choice – and the ability – to move away from those thoughts. I still feel those challenging emotions, but I am less likely to unintentionally magnify them. Simply put, I am less likely to make things harder on myself.
Practicing meditation has been a source of ease in my life, and with that experience, it has shifted from something I once thought was strange to something I consider to be incredibly practical and empowering.
Photo credit: Chris Yakimov, www.doucy.net