One quiet night a few weeks ago, I did something I don’t usually do. I started meditating out of the blue. I was in our living room. The lights were out and I was sitting at the windows that look out over the hillside. I closed my eyes and just like that, I was in it.
I don’t remember what I focused on. Maybe it was my breath. Maybe it was my positive affirmation. Maybe it was the breeze. I don’t know how long I meditated; I didn’t set my timer. I just went for as long as I felt like it. If I had to guess, maybe 15 minutes.
Most of the time, meditation isn’t like that for me.
Most of the time, I feel like I have to make a big production out of it. Like I have to be in just the right space, sitting in just the right position, focusing on just the right thing. And half the time, it feels like too much trouble. Like I don’t have the time. Or the focus. Or the patience.
Not that I think of meditation as hard. What I think about is me not being in the right frame of mind to do it right…so I just don’t do it at all. And what a shame that is because:
1) I can’t screw up meditation.
2) It’s when I’m the busiest, most frazzled, and impatient that I need the anxiety-reducing benefit of meditation the most.
So in the spirit of making anxiety relief as accessible as possible, my aim for meditation is a simpler approach.
1) Sit somewhere
Anywhere. It can be on your bed, on the living room floor, on the grass in your backyard. Or lie down if that’s the only thing that feels right to you. Of course, that’s counter to what Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says to do (more about him soon), as lying down to meditate makes it so easy to fall asleep. But I get a lot of pain in my back and diaphragm, so lying down is sometimes the only way I feel comfortable enough to meditate at all. I fall asleep now and then, but it’s worth the risk; worst-case scenario, I get a great nap.
2) Be flexible with your time
If your phone is handy, go ahead and set the timer for as long as you like – 20 minutes, 5 minutes, 60 seconds even. But if you don’t have your phone, or setting the timer just feels too official, intimidating, or like too much work, forget about it. Meditate for as long as it feels right.
3) Focus on something
Your breath. I like the counting method Thich Nhat Hahn suggests in The Miracle of Mindfulness:
“As you breathe in, count 1 in your mind, and as you breathe out, count 1. Breathe in, count 2. Breathe out, count 2. Continue through 10, then return to 1 again.
“This counting is like a string which attaches your mindfulness to your breath. This exercise is the beginning point in the process of becoming continuously conscious of your breath.”1
Don’t worry if you lose count. (You will lose count.) Just start over again.
Or don’t bother with counting at all and just observe the breath. On the inhale, silently say to yourself something like, “I am breathing in.” On the exhale, “I am breathing out.” And so on.2
A positive affirmation. More often than counting my breath, I say a positive affirmation to myself with every inhale and exhale. Learn how to create your own positive affirmations.
A sound. Sometimes I focus on the water fountain in our living room. Sometimes I focus on chirping birds. Sometimes I even focus on things I’d rather not be hearing, like construction in the neighborhood a few months back (see how that worked out in How I Came to Love the Hammering Next Door).
4) Let thoughts come and go
Don’t beat yourself up when you realize you’re thinking about things you need to do when you’re done meditating. (I spend a good chunk of my meditation time writing blog posts). Your mind is going to wander to all sorts of things. It’s not only okay; it’s normal. Acknowledge the thought and let it go. The same is true of feelings. If a wave of emotion comes over you, let it come, acknowledge it, and let it go.
As soon as you realize your thoughts have wandered, refocus your attention. Get back to your breath, your positive affirmation, the sound. Then do the same when it happens again. (It will happen again.)
6) Accept distractions, or don’t
Your cheek is going to itch. You’re going to realize you forgot to silence your phone. The cat is going to meow (in your face and incessantly). Sometimes I can accept all of these things without breaking my meditation. Most days, though, I let myself take a break to scratch the itch, turn off the phone, and even, on occasion, to feed the cat, and I’m okay with that.
7) Let yourself feel whatever
When I first started meditating, I experienced a lot of euphoria. For whatever reason, it’s not like that for me anymore. I miss that feeling but it is what it is.
Nowadays what I feel falls somewhere in between relaxation and restlessness.
When I’m the most relaxed, I feel like I could meditate forever.
When I’m the most restless, it takes everything in me not to check my timer, certain I didn’t set it right because it’s taking forever. I used to feel bad about those restless sessions, like I was doing it wrong. Now, though, I’m better at reassuring myself that no matter how uncomfortable it might feel in the moment, deep down in there it’s doing some good.
A simpler approach to this simple approach
Since I’m realizing now that a simple approach to meditation has turned into a thousand-word post, I’m compelled to share a simpler approach to this simple approach: Sit, focus, and let yourself be.