I take a creative approach to how to meditate. Like anything else, it’s a process. What works for me now may not work for me in a couple of weeks. I know that this is not the approach which many schools of meditation teach—for some of them there is an emphasis on “pushing through” distraction and resistance. I am not criticizing these approaches. I know that for some people it may be a perfect match. My relationship with meditation has been active for a little over thirty years, however, so I suppose that in itself may be called a kind of discipline. Yet, by relaxing rigidity and releasing what is dogmatic in meditation instruction, I’ve created an enjoyable meditation practice which nourishes my spiritual connection and creativity.
You probably already know that meditation can be many things: chanting a mantra, chopping vegetables, sweeping the floor, making love, laughing, conscious movement. In this post I’m going to share some of my insights and current practices around meditation which I do while sitting with my eyes closed and sitting fairly still.
This type of meditation (sitting still with eyes closed) may not be beneficial for everyone at every stage of their life. Certainly, there were times when I couldn’t do this type meditation for long. Take a look at this article if you’re having trouble meditating because it increases your agitation. I like this author’s approach; he lists some situations in which sitting meditation is not a good fit and explores some other forms of meditation which involve physical activity.
How to Sit
These days I meditate while sitting on a small sofa in my studio. Both of my feet are on the floor. My hands are on my thighs (palms down) and I have a pillow behind my lower back for support. I close my eyes. I don’t use music on most days. I used to meditate sitting on a zafu (a round cushion used in the zen tradition) on the floor with my legs crossed and my fingers in gyan mudra. It felt very peaceful and purposeful. It linked me to tradition. However, what a physiotherapist told me many years ago turned out to have some validity—because of the unique way my legs and hips are structured, sitting crosslegged leads to problems in my lower body dynamics. I still enjoy sitting in that classic posture sometimes, but I don’t do it every day. I am choosing to care for my body and avoid a repeated strain which causes me chronic pain. Although it took me quite a few years to finally change, I’m glad that I took out “the heroics” and let it go.
A Personal Practice
This leads me to the main insight that I’d like you to consider: Meditating is a personal practice. This means that you have the power to choose how to do it. All of the books, classes, videos, and groups can be exciting and fascinating to explore. They can help you feel connected to other people when you meditate with them or to a teacher when you follow their instructions. They can give you structures to use which give amazing experiences and transform your life! Nevertheless, ultimately, I believe it’s up to you to create the personal practice which connects you to the flow of life, to your own spirit, and to The Divine.
It may be useful for you to ask yourself: why are you meditating? Or why do you want to start meditating? Many experts talk about the large number of benefits that meditating can bring. For example, it may help us regulate our emotions, increase cognitive function, reduce chronic pain, calm the mind, decrease stress and so on. If you have a meditation practice, the reasons you are meditating now may be different from when you started. I cannot remember why I started meditating so long ago. I meditate now for multiple reasons, but essentially, I meditate to connect with unconditional love. This doesn’t mean that I feel connected every time I meditate, but because it is part of my spiritual practice, there is a cumulative effect which is not possible for my human mind to explain.
Meditation and Time
Back to practical considerations, you may have these questions: When should I meditate? How long should I meditate? Again, if you follow meditation teachers, some of them have strong opinions about these topics. A common piece of advice is: meditate every day at the same time. If this works for you, then by all means, keep doing so! However, I would like to tell you that it is not necessary to meditate at the same time every day to experience benefits from the practice. I certainly do not. I find it effective to meditate at the same point in my morning routine daily, but I do not do this rigidly. Sometimes I skip it and meditate later in the day.
And also, it is not necessary to meditate every day. I recently read an article by a writer who spoke about the ableism inherent in the oft-heard advice: “Write x number of words every day.” The same could be said for meditating. I’ve observed that when I have felt bad, guilty, and less than in connection with my meditation practice, it means that I am in dialogue with an imagined authority figure who I believe “knows better than I do.” Making my practice personal has also meant closing the door on this unwelcome critical “advice”. My joy in my meditation practice has steadily increased since I’ve let this idea go. That said, when I observe myself, I notice that I feel more grounded, accepting, and spiritually connected on days when I meditate, so I do have the intention to do it daily, and I usually do.
As to how long you should meditate, my simple answer would be: as long as it feels good. This may be radically in opposition to what you have heard before. A meditation teacher in a book helped me understand that if you make yourself meditate beyond a point when it feels easy, your resistance will rapidly amplify. His advice was to make it a pleasant experience. This was at a time when I was looking for a new way to meditate. His method involved very short sitting times initially and always in postures which were comfortable and sustainable. Of course, even noticing the point at which meditation becomes unpleasant is an increase in awareness and very valuable.
Another teacher helped me by pointing out that setting a timer means you are looking forward to the point at which you can stop meditating! I no longer set a timer. If you need to make sure that you do not meditate “too long” because of your schedule, I would advise choosing a piece of music the length of the time you want to meditate. When the music ends, you can end your session in a gentle way, rather than abruptly, which I find is the effect a timer has on me. (I use timers daily for other purposes; they can be very useful in the right context.) If you end your sitting before the piece of music ends, that’s okay too, of course. This might not work if you are in a habit of falling asleep while meditating. In that case, you may want to set a timer for a couple of minutes after the piece of music ends. If you sleep through your meditation, perhaps your body needed the sleep more.
What to do when you meditate
There are many methods of meditating and I invite you to explore them. I have tried a diverse array of meditation techniques through yoga classes, meditation classes, books, and guided meditations on CD. I have learned something from each method. If you consider your intention in your meditation practice, you will find the approach which matches what you are looking for more easily. Also, if you find it difficult to know where to begin, ask your intuition (as I recommend in this post).
My intention is expanding my compassion, inner peace and spiritual connection, so I have developed a loose structure which I find supports that intention. It’s a blend of different techniques that I’ve practiced. Some days I don’t use a structure, especially when I am experiencing resistance to meditating. I simply sit with my eyes closed and observe and listen inside. (I will share the structure of my current meditation practice in another post.)
As you explore various techniques and try them out, I think it can be helpful to recognize two main streams: certain techniques are about control and others are about observing and accepting. Although learning techniques connected to control (control of the thoughts, emotions, body) may be important (sitting fairly still with your eyes closed is already a type of control, of course), without a meditation practice which emphasizes acceptance (of yourself, of life, of experience, of the world) you may be limiting your access to self-compassion. I have found that meditation techniques which enhance self-acceptance have enriched my life dramatically. Along these lines, I highly recommend Tara Brach’s book for this process: Radical Acceptance.
Meditation for Receiving
Earlier this year, I received some wonderful guidance through a colleague at an online workshop. The guide who came through pointed out that I was doing the equivalent of shaking the magic eight ball. I had so many questions! The advice was to spend more time in receptive mode, and the symbol given was the purple lotus (which I had recently dreamed about). I was very grateful and put more attention back into my meditation practice. I understand that the answers to my many questions come to me in diverse forms, but a daily meditation practice ensures that I am receptive to whatever guidance is trying to come through to me, whether I’ve asked about it or not.
Although it takes a certain amount of kind discipline to sustain a meditation practice, if it is the right practice for you, you can find your own way to a personal process which isn’t a struggle and deepens your connection with yourself and Spirit.