I started meditating in high school, sophomore year, during a time of upheaval. My parents were finally getting divorced, and most days were filled with uncertainty, sadness, tension and anger. I felt helpless and confused. It now makes perfect sense that I would go to the Lodi Public Library during this time and look for help. Going inward was a natural strategy for me, as I was always given to introversion and solitary habits such as as writing and reading.
So I found a book on Buddhism and started meditating with a mantra. It did seem to quiet my mind, and give me a sense of control that I desperately needed. I could choose what I thought was best for me, in that moment, no matter what was going on around me. At least for the week or so that I did it. Maybe two weeks tops.
Cut to college a few years later. I had moved to Berkeley and for the first time was away from my hometown. My long-term boyfriend and I broke up. I had an ulcer and anxiety, with so much self-imposed pressure on getting good grades. A friend from writing class was a veteran meditator. He saw me struggling and gave me instruction in meditation that simply follows the breath. I was so spun up with the pressure, and the move, and the break up, I couldn’t sit still. But I kept these experiences in my mind with a bookmark that sometime in the future, when things were easier and calmer, I would find my way back.
I did. After college, and working, and grad school, I found more peace and ease with who I was. I didn’t have so much chaos and uncertainty, even though change is always constant in our lives. At this time, I was living in San Francisco, working part-time, and writing, and made meditation and spiritual inquiry a habit. It finally stuck.
How I meditate
I practice insight meditation, where you sit quietly and follow the breath. You pay attention and notice what arises. You may label what arises gently, but you don’t judge or castigate yourself. There is no “right way” to do it. I usually only do ten minutes. When I go to classes or retreats, I go longer, but in my daily life ten minutes is often what I do. I also listen to guided meditations and talks from dharmaseed.
Let me give you an example of what I mean by labeling as a part of meditation. So I’m sitting on my cushion. (You can sit in a chair or in a cushion. Laying down is not ideal as you may fall asleep, and the whole idea is to pay attention to your waking state.) I focus on the feeling of the breath as it enters my nose. I try to focus singularly on this. But then I have a thought. It’s inevitable. That’s what our brain does. While your focus can improve, you can’t stop your brain from thinking. I notice I’m thinking about where and if I should move. Instead of following this thought down a delicious, well-worn path, I label it — planning. And go back to the breath. Inevitably, another thought arises. Perhaps it’s a thought about how my knees hurt. A strong reaction arises that it’s terrible they hurt, they will always hurt, damn why didn’t I take better care of my knees! This may go on for a bit, until I realize, “I’m meditating!” So I stop and notice that I felt a sensation and then went down another well-worn path of catastrophizing and self judgement. That’s the real ouch. But because “I’m meditating” I notice instead of being the thought. Instead of getting lost on the uncomfortable path.
How it’s helped me
Meditation has given me distance from these things I used to think were “me.” Our thoughts aren’t really us. They happen, and they are habitual. I noticed for instance that I default to “planning” thoughts. I live in the future. This has served me well on my path to financial freedom, but not so well on my path to enjoy my life. Once you start noticing this, you can gain control and have more insight into your patterns.
I also noticed that I would have a feeling: boredom, sadness, irritation. At first, I’d react strongly to these feelings. “I’m sad and will always be sad. I’m doomed!!” But as I practiced — if I didn’t react strongly to these feelings — they would pass quickly. In a ten minute session, I might have all of the feelings above. As soon as I was irritated, I was happy. They just happened, and wouldn’t stick around if I didn’t over-react to their very presence. If you welcome them in like a guest, they don’t over-stay their welcome.
Give it a try
If you haven’t tried it, there are many ways you can give it a go. Or if you have and it didn’t stick (like me), you may try a different approach. Sometimes you just have to be ready. Here are a few tools:
- Headspace gets rave reviews and seems like a great on-ramp to meditation.
- Gil Fronsdel has a great course on insight meditation that you can listen to on demand. Highly recommended.
- One of my favorites teachers Tara Brach has a great selection of her talks and guided meditations for new meditators. She is wise and entertaining.
I’m sure many of you have a practice more developed than mine. I’d love to hear what works for you and share tips on our path toward living with awareness.
If you’re curious here’s more on my mindful path to financial freedom and the foundations of financial independence. You can also take my financial check-up to see how you rate. It’s not meditative, but to me the practice of mindfulness is closely linked with my pursuit of financial independence.