When you think of meditation what do you think of?
* Is it someone sitting alone on a mountaintop with their eyes closed?
* Is it a group of people sitting in a room on pillows saying, “Oooommm”?
* Do the people meditating have robes on?
* Are they bald or do they have long flowing hair and beards?
* Do they have their eyes closed or are they staring off into space?
* Are they smiling in bliss?
Those are all images I had in the past. They’re actually all possible images of real meditators, but they’re also all limited images.
Everyone can meditate and there is no belief that can prevent you from meditating. People have been doing it for thousands of years.
Meditating can be simple and difficult, and mastering meditation doesn’t necessarily mean that you become enlightened. I’m not enlightened, and I’ve been meditating on and off for 27 years and nearly every day for eight years.
What I know from personal experience is that meditation has many positive benefits, which are now being proven scientifically. In this story, I will provide an extremely simple way to try it out for yourself.
I started meditating when I was 23 years old, but I really didn’t understand what meditation was until I was 42. I had misconceptions like nearly everyone when they begin. I thought you had to clear your mind and I also thought that there was going to be some instant gratification.
I had suffered from chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) for several years and a massage therapist in Prague told me to try meditation. I decided to try out her suggestion and I began to sit for 40 minutes at a time, “becoming a candle”, and hoping that my pain and other issues would go away.
They didn’t. Actually, many times when I meditated my symptoms and issues got worse. But I kept meditating for six months until it seemed like it was no longer helping, so I stopped.
I returned to meditation many times over the years. When I was on a plane, in a park, or on a beach. When I was swimming, hiking, or sitting on my surfboard. When I was getting a massage, sitting in traffic, or laying on a bench on a ferry to San Francisco.
I would think while meditating, “I hope this is going to help me. This needs to help me. Something is going to happen. Why won’t something happen!?” Then, I’d stop and go on with my life until I forgot to meditate for months again.
When I was 40, my life started to break apart. Nearly every aspect of my life felt like an exploding comet, an unnatural disaster, and a giant, unforgiving mess. This went on for almost three years. After I had what I call “My Rock ’n’ Roll Meltdown”, I had nowhere to turn so I started to meditate again.
This time, I was inspired by reading a book my mom gave me months before. It was called The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche and Eric Swanson. The book was my true entry into Buddhism and the science of meditation. Reading it gave me a focus away from my own self-victimized, self-destructive reality.
I was skeptical at first but I had nothing to lose. Literally. I was pretty much at the end of everything so I read the book and tried the meditation exercises. Then, I kept doing them. I read more books, kept meditating, and found that I felt better.
There was no epiphany. I did not see a light, become a god, or become born again. Buddha did not float down and pat me on the head. Jesus and Mohammad and Ganesh all stayed home, too.
I just did the work and the work was to breathe. Sit and breathe. Maybe for ten minutes. Maybe for twenty minutes. Sitting in one place and breathing. I didn’t start to wear robes or grow out a beard. I didn’t even buy a meditation cushion. I just sat on the floor or on a chair and meditated.
Being consistent and meditating nearly every day made me happier and more relaxed. I was not a shining beam of annoying over-positive light. (I call those Guy Smiley people and they bother me.) I was just better.
That was eight years ago. Since then, I’ve read many books about meditation, Buddhism, Taoism, psychology, and other forms of spirituality. And I’ve meditated for many hours. I haven’t reached Nirvana but I am a better person overall.
My pain still exists but it’s easier to deal with. I still suffer from depression and anxiety from time to time, but not nearly as much as I had for more than twenty years. I don’t have OCD as I used to either.
One of the best changes for me is that I have more empathy and compassion for myself and other people. (Other beings, too, but I don’t want to get esoteric.) Being able to recognize that other people suffer and be there for them are essential ways to reduce suffering both for yourself and the world around you.
There is no guarantee that meditation will help you or make you more compassionate because it is a completely personal experience. But…if it’s helped billions of people over several thousand years, why not try it out yourself?
When people find out I meditate, here are some excuses I’ve heard for why they don’t want to try:
“Oh, I can’t do that; I think too much.”
“I can’t sit that long in one place.”
“That’s only for New Age-y people.”
“I’m an atheist.”
Those are all very funny answers to me. None of them are very good excuses and none of them really have anything to do with meditation practice.
Of those four statements, the one I want to focus on is: “I think too much.” That is the most common excuse I’ve heard.
To put it bluntly, here’s why that excuse doesn’t work: If you stop thinking, more than likely, you are dead.
Are you thinking right now? Woohoo! Great, you’re not dead.
Meditation is not about stopping thinking! I guarantee that you WILL think when you meditate.
If you’ve read this far, now you can learn this very easy meditation exercise.
Before I explain this, know that I’m not an orthodox Buddhist, I’m not a Guru, and I’m not a professional meditation teacher. I just know how to meditate (and I am a practicing Buddhist).
Wherever you are right now, do the following:
- Stop reading.
- Breathe in.
- Focus on breathing in.
- Breathe out.
- Focus on breathing out.
Great. You have just meditated.
Now, do this seven times. Just breathe in and breathe out seven times wherever you may be. Do your best to focus on the breath. If you’re mind wanders — which it probably will — then focus back on breathing.
When you do this breathing meditation exercise, you can keep your eyes open or closed. You can be sitting, standing, or walking. You can be sitting in a chair, on a couch, or in a swing. All are fine. Anywhere is fine.
You can also be sitting on the floor because that’s where many people envision meditators do their practice. (A pillow helps but it’s not essential.) You can even be laying down, but you may fall asleep before you get to the count of seven.
If you are sitting, keep your back straight so you have good posture. This helps you breathe better. If you want to place your hands on your legs or in your lap, both are fine. Just relax. Don’t tense up. If you do, that’s OK, too. There is nothing you need to do except breathe.
After you’re done, finish reading this story. You’ve almost reached the end.
Tomorrow, try breathing seven times again. Do that for a week and see if you notice a difference. It may be a very small or a large and noticeable change. Just notice. Anything that happens is ok. For one week, you will have a very simple meditation practice.
Most practices are longer than only seven breaths, but that doesn’t matter now. I want you to understand the simplicity of the practice and then you can go from there. As I said, I’m not a professional meditation teacher, but I know that this is a good start.
After a week, click here and send me a comment to let me know how it was.
For now, just breathe.