When I was a kid, my parents sent me to Hindu camp. It was about a week or so long program and everyday, we had to wake up at 6am for meditation. The meditation was lead by a very old, very flexible man who had no idea how to relate to children. He gave us all a string of mala beads; every time we touched a bead we had to say OM in our heads and move onto the next bead. We were to do this without having any other thoughts in our head except for OM. At the end, we were asked to sit quietly and “think of nothing.”
I think you know that worked out really well.
I fell asleep. Every. Single. Time. If you know me, this should come as no surprise to you. My nickname at home is Sleepy Jesal (my husband is really creative with the nicknames). If someone asked me to this today, I’d still fall asleep. This was not an exercise in meditation. It was an exercise in stupidity.
For a long time after this, I thought, “I can’t meditate.” I’ve heard this phrase so many times. From myself, but also from other people.
And then about 7 or 8 years ago, I went on a silent meditation retreat where they teach you how to meditate. And I realized, my entire understanding of meditation was all wrong. It was all based on this idea of “clearing the mind” of all thoughts. That’s like asking a toddler to run a marathon.
Meditation is a lot like training a new muscle. If you’ve ever weight-trained a muscle for which you have very little to no body awareness, then you know that it’s a process. First you have to go slowly and gently to see if you can activate in the right place and keep your form. Then, once that becomes easier, you gradually add weight and/or reps. Meditation is very similar. At first you have to just sit (or lay or stand or whatever) and try. In the beginning, it’s just for a few minutes and lots of thoughts are going to come up. But once you get used to just sitting and listening, you can try for longer and try to deepen your focus on something. Like weight training, there is no substitution for time and repetition. You just have to keep showing up and putting in the effort, over and over again. That’s it. There’s no other magic to it.
To break it down, here’s what meditation looks like for most people:
Phase 1: Sitting and listening to all the thoughts. This is the hardest because you have to actually do it. Ugh. And then you’ll spontaneously remember all the errands you forgot about earlier. You’re going to want to get up and do that thing you just remembered that you need to do. Or at least write it down. Oh, maybe we should start a list. I love lists! Wait, sorry, we were talking about meditation. Maybe you’ll get distracted and forget you’re meditating altogether. Or you fall asleep.
Phase 2: Getting over judging your thoughts. Once you’re able to actually sit and listen to your thoughts for a while, you’re probably going to get a little judgy. I mean, maybe I’m wrong and your mind is filled with rainbows. But in my experience, the judgment comes out…followed by guilt for being so goddamn judgy, jeez! Which of course, itself is judgy. If you stick with it long enough, you might just be like “ooooh this is happening in here,” without overthinking it.
Phase 3: Focusing on something more deeply. All this time, you’ve probably been trying to focus on something. But by now, you are actually able to focus on it. You can use anything as the object of your focus. Gradually, you can focus for longer periods of time and the time and space between each thought becomes longer and longer.
Phase 4: Going long periods of time without thoughts. Sometimes you can go a while without even focusing on anything much. But the biggest obstacle to this one is going for a few seconds without a thought and thinking “Oh yay, that was a few seconds without a thought…oh gosh dammit!”
I assume phase 5 is “clearing the mind completely” or something but I haven’t gotten that far. In fact, it’s a sliding scale between phases 1-3 most of the time with an occasional phase 4. The point is, you don’t have to clear your mind to get started. You just have to sit and listen.
And while we’re at it, you don’t actually have to sit. If you’ve ever been told you should sit a certain way or you should close your eyes or you should be as still as possible or that you should fold your hands a certain way etc. etc. just know that those things are unnecessary. As a beginner, just try meditating however you can. It doesn’t matter how or where. You can sit and stare out the window. You can lie in bed. You can walk and meditate – though I wouldn’t recommend doing this in the streets of NYC for safety reasons. There’s really no right or wrong and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
There! – now I’ve taken all your excuses away from you. You can meditate.