Do you hate meditating? For a long time, I did, too.
OK, hate is a strong word, because I was always willing to try it.
We all hear so much about how scientific research is showing that regular meditation can reduce stress and anxiety and increase mental focus and resilience.
But in past situations when I was asked to meditate, I never felt like I was doing it right. I would be in a support group, a wellness workshop, a one-on-one session with a therapist. I just could never get comfortable sitting quietly for several minutes in a chair or cross-legged on the floor, focusing on my breath. Certainly, I could never quiet my thoughts and achieve a sense of serenity, peace and relaxation.
I also responded poorly to guided visualizations. In those situations, the meditation leader would take us on a mental journey to an Elysian Fields of warm sun and grass, flowers and trees swaying in a breeze.
"As you turn the corner of the path and pass through the trees, you come to a clearing, and you'll feel the sun on your face and a breeze gently blowing your hair," the meditation leader would intone.
I would never feel any sun or gentle breeze. My mind would be back at the trail head, whirling dervish-like over all the other things I have to do that day, how my back is getting sore sitting up straight, how I wish I had worn other workout pants that didn't have the hole in the knee, what I wanted for dinner that night, why I did that stupid thing at work, why I'm mad at my husband or the world.
So would go my experiments with meditation, until the last couple years.
Certain changes occurred in my life that started to make meditation click for me, at least the form of it I found I could not just tolerate but actually embrace. You could say I’ve been on one of those journeys o’ life: meeting new people, reading some different kinds of books, and being exposed to new ideas that helped break through my resistance to certain practices for daily living that, it turns out, have become part of how I meditate, or how I devote a certain portion of each day to focusing on being more “mindful.”
One of the key things that made meditation possible for me – again, my version of it – was that I realized I could add movement to it. Basically now, I meditate while I do yoga, work out at the gym or run. This idea of mixing meditation with activity is nothing new. People who do yoga or tai chi talk about how those practices are forms of “moving meditation.” A Yoga Journal article I recently came across talked about yoga being “prayer in motion.”
In a Huffington Post blog, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, author of Running with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body of Mind, says “In the West, we are beginning to see the benefits of meditation, as neuroscientific research is revealing how it shifts our brain waves, reducing stress, worry, anxiety, depression and fear -- and increasing our feelings of calm and happiness. Those benefits highlight certain key elements in meditation that are as simple and obvious for the mind as flexibility and strength training are for the body.”
He offers five tips for applying meditation techniques to running – or other exercises, I presume. You should run with mindfulness; appreciation that brings joy; with the intent to challenge yourself; and with a sense of purpose and worthiness.
Back to yoga: My path to active meditation probably started 15 years ago when I was first taking yoga classes while pregnant with my son. Yoga introduced to the concept of mindfulness. I’d see how it would mostly come from getting myself into a posture in which I had to endure discomfort. I was standing in a way that was taxing my thigh muscles or holding my arms straight out for an extended period of time, and they were started to get sore. I learned about taking slow, steady breaths and focusing on those breaths. I soon realized that time passes than quickly than you think when your attention is on those breaths--counting them or visualizing the air entering your body, heading to those parts of the body that are feeling the pain.
In a childbirth class, I was also amazed to discover that four nice inhalations and exhalations takes about a minute--the time of a contraction during the later, most intense stage of labor. (Of course, when I was actually, for real life, in the most intense stages of labor, I didn’t do so well focusing on those four nice deep breaths. I just wanted the baby out.)
Some similar principles now guide how I meditate while I exercise. Running, for example, can be tedious, strenuous and uncomfortable. To go running, help pass the time, and keep my mind off how essentially boring running can be, I used to have to listen to music. Or, if I was at the gym, I would have to watch TV.
Now, I don’t listen or watch anything, and, with the mindfulness, purpose, and appreciation Rinpoche mentioned, I try to be ever so much more aware of my surroundings: the wind in the tress, a gurgling creek along the trail, a car or another runner coming up behind me. I delight at the bright blue sky on a cold winter morning, and the blossoms on trees in people's yards. A labrador puppy being walked by his owner catches my attention, and I smile appreciatively as his little tail wags at the possibility of some more attention.
But it takes some time to get into this state of appreciative awareness. I honestly wake most mornings feeling dread and anxiety about some situation I'm currently facing. I'm worried about meeting a deadline; whether we'll have enough money at the end of the month from my freelance jobs. I worry about my husband's health, my own, whether my son is feeling good about how he's doing in school.
I do my moving meditation as soon as possible in the morning to get some perspective on those worries early in the day.
To get my head in the right space, I usually start out a run by reciting multiple times what’s called the “Serenity Prayer.” People in 12-step programs should be familiar with this prayer:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I don’t believe in God, so I can’t really tell you whom I am addressing with this prayer. But whether or not you believe in God or are recovering from anything, I’ve found that the serenity prayer helps me to get my brain to stop whirling off in all different directions. The prayer, which I say several times like a mantra, forces me to ask: Do I really have control over this situation in my life? If not, is it useful for me to worry about it? The prayer also helps me identify situations that I do have control over, as well as simple actions I can take to move forward and even remedy the situation that's bothering me.
Half a mile or a mile along, I'll be done with the serenity prayer, and I might think about things I'm grateful for -- like what a beautiful Thursday morning it was today. I'll go back to thinking about tasks I have to tackle that day. Sometimes, I’ll do positive affirmations. I used to resist doing gratitude lists or positive affirmations. Doing those always sounded hokey, like resorting to advice you'd get from a greeting-card-style book you'd pick up while waiting for checkout at Barnes & Noble.
But cultivating gratitude is a big initiative amongst psychologists and other experts who are working in a field called resilience training. In this sort of training, used these days by the US Army to train soldiers going into combat, experts have found that cultivating attitudes of gratitude helps people become more optimistic, and optimism is very useful for survival. I'm all about survival these days -- just getting through each day with as much sanity and serenity as possible. If making gratitude lists while I run, or writing them down at night before I go to bed, helps build up my optimism muscles and gives me a better chance at survival, I'm all in.
But even if the goal of my moving meditation is to always get myself into a more positive frame of mind, I always acknowledge whatever I’m feeling, even if those feelings are uncomfortable—sadness, anger, fear. And, I will say to myself, go ahead and feel them. The thing is, the more I give myself license to feel the uncomfortable things, or the more I name them and acknowledge them, the more they lose their power.
In feeling things, bad and good, while I’m moving, my body is exerting energy and I’m breathing hard but steady. That’s the one thing about doing meditation while exercising: I don’t even have to worry about taking good, deep breaths. My body’s doing it automatically and out of necessity.
And, of course, the exercise pumps oxygen into my brain and releases the endorphins that can produce a more positive outlook--that sense of sanity and serenity I need to make it through the next couple hours, maybe even the whole day. And, to some extent, exercise, combined with my version of moving meditation, works as my anti-depressant, anti-anxiety medication.
Actually, since I hit on this moving meditation, I’ve started to find that I can now actually sit still through a more traditional meditation exercise. Seven minutes of sitting in quiet reflection. Not a problem anymore. Seven minutes of possibly heading off on a mental journey to the field in the middle of the forest. Yeah, I am getting to a place where I might actually reach that clearing in the woods, and feel that sun on my face. I'm making progress.