By chance do you have a New Year’s resolution to meditate? Are you wanting to start or restart a meditation practice? If so, let’s do this together.
Mardi Gras is Fat Tuesday in French, so Mardi is Tuesday. And meditation is, well, méditation. So watch for Tuesday posts for new guided meditations to try.
Why meditate? Well, have you been reading all the media posts about how meditation can change your brain and make your life better? Everyone is doing it. Arianna Huffington, George Stephanopoulos, The Seattle Seahawks! Wow! Sounds great, doesn’t it?
Why are all these celebs taking a seat? They are performers, and performers appreciate the value of rehearsal. But the craze extends beyond Hollywood and the locker room to veterans, prisoners, new parents, teens, CEO’s, MBA’s, and the length of Silicon Valley. Google, Facebook, and Twitter all host mindful gurus on their campuses.
Just like lifting weights at the gym strengthens your quads, biceps, and abs, meditation improves your brain function. We now know that our brains can change for the better thanks to neuroplasticity. Meditation creates mental strength and agility.
My foray into any kind of mental practice was through sports as a hurdler. During our physical practices, we broke down the elements of the race. We did lead leg and trail leg drills to perfect our form for extension, high knees, and explosive follow through. We practiced coming out of the starting blocks and sprinting over the first hurdle. We did sprint repeats and lifted weights to build speed and strength. I spent hours on the track and in the weight room, but my practice didn’t end there.
Hurdles are a very specific race lending themselves quite well to guided imagery. For the high hurdles, I started with my right leg back in the blocks, took 10 steps to the first hurdle, three in between the remaining 9. For the 400 hurdles, I took 24 steps to the first hurdle, 17 between hurdles two through five, chopped to 18 alternating my lead leg through the curve for hurdles 6 and 7 and then 19 for eight, nine, and ten with a whopping 40 meter survival sprint through the finish. I actually had a recording by our team sport psychologist talking me through the entire race paced for my conference qualifying time goal. I popped that cassette into my walkman at night and pictured myself arriving at the specific venue, warming up, getting set in the blocks, and successfully executing my race. My lane, my performance, not the girl running next to me. I reinforced the neural pathways for my own personal best.
So what specific skills are we practicing with meditation?
I like to say it is embodied attention.
It is about getting grounded in our own body. We can do that through drills like breath work, a mental body scan, muscle contraction and release, or acupressure.
Meditation is also about attention. We practice our attention by either observing or directing our attention. We can direct our attention at our breath, the flame of a candle, the picture of a teacher, the idea of loving kindness, any number of things.
So we practice being present in our body in the moment. Instead of having a brain locked in past memories or worrying about future scenarios, we experiment with bringing our mind to the here and now. We are a lot more powerful when our bodies and thoughts are in the same time zone.
That said, being alone with our thoughts can be pretty daunting. Author Anne Lamott often shares an AA quote, “My mind remains a bad neighborhood that I try not to go into alone.”
That’s why I recommend guided meditation to beginners. Having someone else walk you through a meditation can be much more pleasant than sitting alone on pillow with your thoughts as a timer ticks off the minutes.
Have you ever noticed your mind migrating toward worst case scenarios? I know mine does. We inherited our DNA from our hunter and gatherer ancestors. Those times called for constant vigilance to find food and avoid becoming food for a predator. Alas our DNA hasn’t changed much in the last 10,000 years so our Paleolithic operating system has us primed to detect threat.
We can combat that negativity bias. Have you heard the quote, “Don’t believe everything you think”? A lot of thoughts just aren’t helpful. Meditation lets us explore witnessing our thoughts versus identifying with them.
What does that mean? Well, I can think, This is going to be a complete disaster. Is that true? Maybe. But maybe not. So I can witness the judgement, Oh, I’m fearing this might not go well. That doesn’t mean it will suck. I don’t have to believe it won’t go well and identify as a sure failure.
We don’t have to be passengers on a roller coaster ride of negativity. When we feel under attack, our decision making is clouded. By sitting still and breathing deeply, we signal to ourselves that we are safe. We release the grip of the flood of thoughts. We settle the swirling stream of consciousness and find focus. For some, it may mean the opportunity to actually have a thought versus just go, go, go.
We get our wits.
Breathing happens for us. Our bodies know better than to give us control of the vital functions like breathing, pumping blood, and digestion. The triggers to make those functions happen our buried in our primitive brains. That said, we can exert some control over our breath. Doing so sends a feedback loop to ourselves. If we have short, shallow breathing, we signal to ourselves that we have to be on the move, and in essence, are under attack. If we sit still and take long, full, expansive breaths, we tell ourselves, “Hey, I’m safe. I can take time to digest and rest versus fight, flight, or flee the scene.”
So let’s take a few minutes here and just breathe. Get comfortable. Your eyes can be open or closed. Sit tall. Lengthen your spine to make room for more air. Start by just noticing your breath. Feel the air coming in and out. It’s cold season so choose whichever passageway is clear, either your nose or your mouth. Let the air come in and go out.
Okay now let’s actually start controlling the breath, using your whole torso. As the air comes in, fill from the top down. As you release the breath, press it out from the bottom up. As you inhale, expand through your rib cage and then let your stomach get big. As you exhale, contract at the base of your pelvic floor, pull your belly button in, contract through your rib cage and press out. In, filling your lungs, releasing your stomach to make more room and then gradually out, pulling in your pelvic floor, belly button up and out. In, top down. Out, bottom up.
In, in, in, in, in.
Out, out, out, out, out.
If it helps, place your hands on your sides and feel your rib cage expand out as you inhale and pull in as you exhale.
Play around with this. Happy breathing to you.