I’ve been doing a lot of meditation lately.
It feels like a natural extension of yoga; this designated focus time on the breath.
Meditation has long eluded me. I saw article after article professing the health benefits, but it was one of those things that was simply out of my reach.
See, I have a noisy brain.
And before I started meditation, I thought this was special. The people who meditated did not have a noisy mind, did not have my superhighway of thoughts running through their head at all hours of the day.
What is the fallacy that lets us believe our shortcomings are unique to us?
I once saw a YouTube meditation commercial with a Buddhist monk who called it “monkey mind” and I thought yes, exactly. My animalistic mind. My easily distractible mind, always running off in pursuit of the last idea in my head, the next shiny object.
I first started meditation practice in the spring of 2020 when my fiancé downloaded the Waking Up with Sam Harris app. We spent early mornings after yoga on the couch attempting to focus our minds on the breath with varying degrees of success. (If we meditated before yoga, we were liable to fall back asleep. But hey, that’s meditative to a degree.)
Next, we downloaded the Wim Hof app and began his breath practices. His technique is wholly unique and leaves you overwhelmed with sensation the first few times you try it. (But that’s a whole separate musing) I loved how it left me feeling, but 3 rounds of breath took over 10 minutes, and so I was loath to commit that time.
Then Headspace dropped on Netflix and Michael downloaded the app. If we were feeling restless before bed, Headspace was turned on. The result was deeper sleep, waking feeling more restful and a lingering sense of calm.
Of course, I also turned to Adriene. Angel of a human that she is, her free yoga channel is also home to a handful of free meditation videos as well. Ranging in length from 7 to 20 minutes, there’s always one that meets me where I’m at and leaves me feeling refreshed and focused.
But how to calm the monkey mind?
In the YouTube commercial, the monk explained that breath was a tool we give the mind during meditations to give it something to do, something to focus on.
The problem (to me) was that breath was not very interesting. However, throughout the course of the last year and several teachers, I’ve picked up a few techniques to give myself something more to do than observe my breath.
Marking the breath is a technique I picked up from Sam Harris. To mark the breath, you simply notice it and give acknowledgement in your mind. This is done with numbers or words:
- Saying “in” in your mind for the length of the inhale and “out” for the length of the exhale
- Counting 1 on the inhale, 1 on the exhale, 2 on the inhale and 2 on the exhale, and so on.
- Recommend that you don’t go past a predetermined number, like 10 or 12. Otherwise, your monkey mind can take over as you continue to count up. (it’s a goal of mine to mark up to 25 breaths with no interruption but damn it’s hard.)
If marking feels too ambiguous to you, there’s a smaller framework to work within. Calling it structured marking is my own, but this idea comes from Andy at Headspace.
- Count odd numbers on the inhale and even numbers on the exhale, up to 10 or about 5 breaths. Begin again at 1 on the inhale.
Picturing technique is used by many teachers of meditation, but these two specific examples come to me via Andy of Headspace and Adriene of Yoga.
- Blue sky
- Andy encourages the listener to think of your mind as a blue sky. Clouds come and drift across and pass by. You never need seek out the blue sky, it is always there.
- In one video, Adriene encourages listeners to think of the mind as the desk. Come to the desk, see what is here. Begin to remove items (acknowledge) until the desk is empty. Come back to the empty desk as items pop up.
Using the Eyes
The eyes are often closed during meditation but as Sam Harris reminds us, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a world of sensory experiences to be had behind closed eyes. Sam suggests looking at, or focusing on the darkness at the inside of the eyelid. Shapes and ambiguous figures may begin to appear, similar to when you rub your eyes and a kaleidoscope appears in your vision.
Now I consider this technique advanced and can only sustain focus on the inside of my eyes for a few seconds at a time. But it does open the door to a new interpretation of vision while we meditate.
But I digress.
Meditation is helpful not just for my mood, focus and immune system, it also allows me to be more in tune with my body as it relates to my emotions. Science has proven that we store emotions within our bodies, and this can affect our health. Meditation helps me bring my focus inwards, and dredge up things I may not realize I’m carrying the weight of.
And, it really does get easier the more you do it.