It’s so funny, and so very human, that the very things that would help us the most during times of crisis are the first things to go when crisis hits.
When our lives start to merrily unspool in our hands, what do we immediately stop doing? That’s right – all the self-care, spiritual work, and healthy habits that we started to support us and make our lives better. We stumble around the underpinning of our lives with a pair of scissors and cut apart our own safety net.
I used to find this infuriating…okay, I used to, and I still do. But it’s easier to cope with knowing it isn’t just me. Nearly everyone I know does it at some point. As we get older and wiser (assuming we do the latter), we figure out ways to get back on the ship faster after jumping it, but we still jump it.
The idea of “spiritual practice” was a loaded term for me for a really long time because of how much of my teaching and writing career once hinged on the concept. A pretty huge chunk of my daily life was devoted (pun intended) to my religion, so when the time came to start slowly reclaiming that part of myself, at first I was seriously daunted at the thought of shouldering all that again.
Then it hit me: As I said in my last post, I am not obligated to do anything I used to do. Nobody was watching; nobody had to know about it unless I wrote about it (you know, like I am now). I certainly didn’t owe anyone a pantomime of faith. And since I had no idea what I really wanted out of this new thing, or what it was going to look like, I decided to strip it back to the very, very basic.
I sat the hell down.
The cool thing about meditation is that it doesn’t ask anything in particular of you. There are all sorts of ways to do it; it can be secular or spiritual and fit in with any established or untrodden path; it takes no special tools and, to begin with, very little time, but you can build on it endlessly, adding any trappings or symbology to which you personally groove.
And even if you come to realize that there is no religion for you, and that you don’t believe in any sort of Whatever from High Atop the Thing (which I shall henceforth refer to as WHAT), meditation can still be enormously beneficial for your mental and physical health.
Our entire society is made up of talking balls of barely-contained fear and anxiety wearing shoes. A little calm and relaxation each day is good brain hygiene for all human creatures regardless of creed.
At first I aimed for five minutes of sitting still and watching my breath, but as happens with many people, my wee squirrel brain wandered off in search of random thought-nuts. I couldn’t even get ten breaths in without losing track!
Then I read an amazing book by Sally Kempton called Meditation for the Love of It that proposes meditating not just because of its myriad benefits, but because it feels good. I devoured the book and made copious notes, then hunted down audio versions of her exercises and some additional guided meds that she’s done. I adopted several very important techniques that have been tremendously useful in my practice:
1. Mark the edges. When you sit down and get ready to meditate, declare to yourself, “Everything that happens for the next fifteen minutes is part of my meditation.” This means that every distraction, every false start, and every insight is just part of the practice, not a personal failing. It’s all part of the process, all part of what you’re here to learn. Nothing is wasted. Even if you sit there for fifteen minutes (or however long) unable to get your brain away from Jason Momoa’s mighty abs, you sit there, and you mentally mark the beginning and end of the session.
2. Name your thoughts but don’t run after them. Whenever you catch yourself meandering, just say to yourself, “Thinking.” Name what you’re doing and bring your mind gently back to your breath. Don’t judge yourself; just go back to meditating, every time it happens. Call it “thinking” and come back to one.
3. If you need to move something, move it. Leg asleep? Move your leg! Itchy? Scratch it! Trust me, you’ll waste far more energy and blow your concentration way harder trying to ignore your body than to just gently work with it. Don’t make a thing of it, just scratch your butt and keep going.
4. Start small. Five minutes every day is better than an hour once a month. It’s those little habits done over and over that add up to big changes. I find that fifteen is a good stretch for me right now; I hope to eventually reach an hour a day, but I’m in no hurry. There is no hurry. You’re not in a competition. There’s no Best Meditator ribbon unless you give it to yourself.
My usual method is to select a video from my YouTube meditation playlist, sit on my bed, and stay there until the video finishes. You can search for “10 minute meditation timer” or “meditation music” and you’ll find lots of options; feel free to peruse my playlist as well, though everything there is around 15 minutes.
Some of the videos have pretty nature footage, some are a still screen, some a black screen; I meditate with my eyes shut so it doesn’t really matter which I use. There’s chanting, nature sounds, wa-wa-New Age stuff, all sorts of instrumentals, even silence punctuated with a bell. YouTube is invaluable for meditators.
If I’m feeling particularly agitated when I sit down, I often do a progressive relaxation, which you can also find on YouTube but you don’t really need a guide for. Just bring your attention to one body part at a time, starting with your feet and moving up. Name that body part and let it know it can relax. “My ankles can relax…” or “My knees are relaxed…” Or something more mystical, such as, “My toes are at peace.” Go up through your whole body (be as specific as you want – you don’t have to name internal organs or anything unless it pleases you to do so) and imagine each part releasing pent-up tension, allowing you to relax and your mind to unclench.
I typically don’t attach any particular spiritual decoration to my meditation sessions – I save that for actual altar work, which we’ll talk about next. I don’t sit at my altar every night, but I try to meditate every night sitting on my bed.
Do whatever you need to do to make it easy and convenient to meditate, especially at first; start with the most stripped-down version of the practice you can, in the most accessible place and position you can. Sit in a chair if the floor is a problem. Sit on your bed before you go to sleep. Make it part of your winding-down ritual after brushing your teeth. Sit at your desk, in your recliner in the living room. Sit in your car before work if that’s the only ten minutes you can find. Sit in the morning, or at night, or during your lunch break.
Then the next day do it again.