What is Meditation?

For the last 472 days, I’ve meditated on average for 15 minutes. I’m not saying this to proclaim expertise. In fact, I’m using that number to speak to the fact that I’m still very, very new to meditation. I suspect there is no such thing as general expertise in meditation, either. Since it’s such a personal experience, you can maybe only gain expertise in your own way of being.

What’s surprised me the most, is the more experience you have meditating, the more the practice changes, too. Like anything, meditation evolves over time.

So, the perspective of this post is coming from someone who’s still fairly new to the practice. And, seeing as it’s so personal, your experience might be very different from mine.

This isn’t the first time in my life I’ve meditated regularly. However, it is the first time I’ve meditated this consistently. And, with that consistency, I’ve developed a deeper understanding of what it means to meditate. Honestly, it wasn’t until the last 3 days of meditating that I felt myself understanding a lot of the meditation “buzzwords.” Buzzwords like letting go, mindfulness and active awareness.

Meditation teachers and practitioners aren’t lying when they say meditation is a lifelong journey. It’s something to be practiced. But, what I find makes meditation so interesting is how paradoxical it is in nature. It’s something that can be practiced but doesn’t improve. In fact, trying to control or become proficient in it is the antithesis of meditation. That conflicting nature is likely why so many people struggle to grasp what it means to meditate. Hell, it’s taken me 472 days to finally start feeling like I “understand” what it is that I’m practicing.

My goal in writing this post is twofold:

  1. To better crystallize what I’ve come to understand as mindfulness meditation
  2. Hopefully help others better understand what it means to “meditate”

First things first, what do I mean when I say meditate? I’m talking about the now popularized mindfulness meditation. Where you sit still, close your eyes, and bring your attention to your breath for typically 5—20 minute long sessions. It’s the type of meditation I have the most experience with, and the one I’ve been doing exclusively for the past year and a quarter.

How do you meditate correctly?

Before diving into what it means to be mindful, I want to take the opportunity to clarify what it means to meditate “correctly.” Most beginner mindfulness sessions start by talking about how you can’t meditate correctly. That there is no such thing as “right” and “wrong” meditation. As of now, I can’t refute that.

Meditation is a highly individual experience, and that’s part of what makes it so challenging. In a lot of ways, it’s intentionally a lonely experience. It’s a chance for you to be present with yourself. To be attentive to every part of yourself, regardless of whether you like it or not. Which makes it scary for a lot of folks. We don’t often spend time with ourselves in this way. What can come up can be stuff we haven’t wanted to face for years or even decades.

When I restarted meditating last year, I was terrified to be alone with myself. I was deeply distrusting of my own thoughts at the time. The fear of what would come up, about how I would talk to myself, and what I would think, was crippling. It took a few weeks of meditating for a minute at a time before I felt comfortable sitting with myself for 5 minutes. Then, eventually, I progressed to 10, and now I average 15-minute sessions, with 20-minute sessions where I can.

It’s perfectly normal, and even expected, to be uncomfortable when you start. But, I can assure you, as someone with high anxiety and panic, that over time, you learn to love the time with yourself. Just know that you can’t meditate “right” or “wrong.” Whatever comes up is your practice.

What does it mean to be mindful?

Mindfulness is one of those concepts that sounds really easy in theory but is difficult to practice. The goal of mindfulness is to be in the present moment without judgment. It’s to let yourself think and feel whatever it is that comes up while being aware of your surroundings.

When I first heard about mindfulness, I took it to mean being focused on what’s happening around you and nothing else. That your mind would quiet, your thoughts slipping away and suddenly you were fully attentive to whatever or whoever you were with.

The part that I missed, which only became apparent recently, is that mindfulness is also about being aware of your thoughts and physical sensations as you experience them, without getting caught up in them. The same way that you would take in the wind as it grazes your face while on a walk. You acknowledge it, feel it, then as the sensation stops, you move on. You were present for that experience, and its impermanence.

What does it mean to “let go” of thoughts?

Often, teachers, have you think of thoughts and feelings as clouds or cars passing by. This is a nice analogy, but I struggled with it for a long time. And, to be honest, I still struggle deeply with the act of letting go. In the past, when I’ve been most successful at letting go, it’s because I was better at looking indifferently towards my thoughts. My brain wouldn’t attach itself to a thought, and it would be able to move on from it. Which is how meditation can be really useful as a practice.

What I’ve started doing while meditating in the mornings is to do my best to accept any and every thought or feeling I have as they come up. I really try to sit with them. Up until recently, I would try to push thoughts away by forcing my brain to refocus. I would actively tell myself not to think these things. It was an almost automatic response. It wasn’t until talking with my therapist that I realized that’s what I was doing. Now, I’m trying to embrace the thoughts as they come up.

I think what’s tripped me up in the past is the way “letting go” has been described to me. Commonly meditation is framed as focusing on the breath, and you’re often instructed to catch yourself lost in through and bring yourself back to your breathing. I always took that as telling yourself to switch focus actively. So, I built the habit of telling myself to stop thinking and instead I should be focusing on my breathing. Unfortunately, that only made the anxiety worse.

Meditation isn’t about control, influence or distraction from thought. It’s about embracing, working with and moving through your subconscious. If you have a busy mind that day, then so be it, you have a busy mind. Embrace it. If you catch yourself in the fray of thought that day, recognize it, and accept it. Say to yourself that you’ve found a restless mind and that it’s ok. You might be surprised at how your mind reacts positively to that. Letting go” isn’t about pushing away, it’s about flowing with the tension as it rises.

How do I apply mindfulness outside of sitting?

For me, it’s been about using the breath as an anchor. When I’m not breathing correctly, I’m not thinking correctly. It’s also about practicing sitting with whatever feeling comes up and trying my best not to attach anything to it. I try to remind myself that I don’t need to identify with my thoughts and that they are, after all, just thoughts. A phrase that’s stuck with me is: just because something is thought, it doesn’t make it true. I find myself using that often when I’m feeling stuck in a cycle of thinking.

Just today I went for a walk and felt my mind starting to swirl a bit. There are typically 2 paths I can go down when that happens. The first is a path of resistance, and the second is a path of acceptance.

The path of resistance often leads to more anxiety, stress and tension. It causes whatever I’m feeling to intensify. I’m fighting a battle that shouldn’t have been fought in the first place. It’s a battle you can’t win because you’re fighting your nervous system. Instead, looking to the second path for relief.

When I’m on the path to acceptance, things tend to dissipate more easily. It’s not fun, but it’s the much milder version of the two choices. It’s a path of openness, one where your body gets ready for impact by softening. It’s like mentally holding your arms out to embrace whatever it is you’re feeling. At that point, it can really be like the thoughts are clouds in your head. The form, pass and disappear before you’re even fully acknowledging what shape it was. My emotions often equalize much more quickly when on this path.

How should I get started meditating?

There’s no one-size fits all approach. I’ve tried various apps and currently use Headspace every morning. I’ve used Calm, Oak and various songs or playlists in the past. You may prefer walking meditations or mantra meditations. If you’re curious about other types of meditation, Headspace has a curated list on their website, which can be an excellent starting point. Ultimately, It doesn’t really matter where you land.

But, what worked best for me was starting small. Start with 1 minute if you’ve never done it before and gradually work your way up to 10—20 minute sessions.

The gradient that I followed was 1 minute for 1 week, then 2 minutes for 1 week, then 5 minutes for 1 week, then 10 for 1 month, eventually moving up to 15—20 minutes and staying there. You can even break it up throughout the day if you’d like.

You can easily drop the labels if you’d like and would prefer. Instead of thinking of it as meditation, think of it as time alone with no one but yourself. It’s a few minutes each day to truly listen and connect with you. Just like how you want to feel connected to other people, your subconscious wants to connect with you, too.

This post was written entirely to this album by Macroblank.