Learning How to Meditate

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I finally achieved the badge for meditating three days in a row on the app I’m using to meditate.

To be clear, I didn’t know that this even existed. It took me 8 months to figure THAT out — or, depending on how you count, it took me 31 years to figure out how to sit still.

I want to share a bit of my journey into meditation and my discoveries about some of the misconceptions surrounding what meditation is. As I’ve begun practicing, it’s become a big part of my life. I also want to share how I built a meditation practice, and how you can do the same.

Meditation isn’t fancy

At first, I thought that meditation was this zen stillness, this otherness, a state of mind that people achieved in a ritualistic, spiritual way. It reminded me of the few moments I broke down crying as a teenager in church, that release and feeling of being something larger than yourself. Was it a feeling? An aspiration? A state of being?

It seemed elusive, strange, like something I’d never understand. Were we all chasing a blissful state of being that was seemingly just around the corner, out of reach?

And if so, why was it so darn impossible?

For beginners, and really, that means everyone — meditation is about learning how to sit still, how to breathe, and how to quiet the mind. It’s just like kindergarten, sitting on a carpet, cross-legged, and learning how to sit still.

For some of us (like me), this is hard to do.

It took me many, many years to find comfort in sitting still. The practice of asana (or yoga poses, designed to calm the body through both rigorous physical exertion and breath-flowing practices) is one of the eight steps on the path to meditation and mental calm.

So meditation is about stillness. It’s about sitting with yourself, and letting your thoughts wash over you, and learning to see beyond the immediate impulses of your mind.

It’s not fancy. It’s not out of your reach. It’s something we can all practice, and can probably get better at.

In fact, especially in the crazy-hustling city of New York and the world of hyper-connectedness, everyone could benefit not from “meditation” but from the simple act of sitting and breathing for ten minutes in quiet reflection.

And sitting still and meditating are remarkably similar, in fact.

Meditation isn’t done for pride

It seems as soon as we begin talking about meditation, a competitive edge comes out. Ego boasts forward, and you see it when people write “meditating for 15+ years,” on their bios. When we deal with the ego, like we do in meditation practice, we begin to notice how it sneaks up on us time and time again.

Meditation isn’t about shutting down one type for another, or comparing the number of years of doing it.

It’s for you, and your own mind.

Meditation is about slowing down long enough to pay attention to our racing thoughts and minds.

Yoga and swimming have been ways that I learned to meditate while moving. Meditation while sitting still, however, has taken me a long time to get comfortable with.

Sitting is often a very difficult part of meditation

For many people, sitting is uncomfortable — because we’re tight in our legs, hamstrings, hip flexors, psoas, backs, and anywhere else we can think of. It’s hard to sit still if you’re uncomfortable. In the beginning, sitting still by myself for a minute was excruciating. For six months, I adapted and tried listening to meditation apps while in bed in the dark, lights out. I leaned back in a semi-reclined position with several pillows under my head and back, and put a pillow under my knees to prop my legs up and let my legs release.

Often, I’d fall asleep.

(And that’s just fine.)

Learning to meditation is about cultivating stillness, and in today’s hyper-connected world, stillness is more and more difficult.

This is why we practice.

Guides, teachers, and apps (yes, apps!) can all support your practice

Your mind is racing, thinking, jumping from one thought to the next. We busy ourselves with thoughts, becoming those thoughts, following our impulses without a whim or a second analysis.

We’re mostly unaware of what our minds are doing; we’re subjects to our habits, at the mercy of the ups and downs of our minds.

Guided meditations, practitioners, and sessions can help. I highly recommend Headspace (The first ten sessions are free; then you can buy it for $10-$15/month, depending on your subscription). The guided meditations are perfect for me, and keep me just focused enough to not wander off. In addition, Andy (the mediation guide and creator of Headspace), teaches you all about what meditation is. Part of the confusion of getting started is not knowing what to do — he walks you through with animations and 10, 15, and 20-minute sessions.

It’s called a practice, not a destination, not a goal

Meditation is a practice. This year, my goal is to do 100 sessions, which comes out to about one session every three or four days. Even finding 15 minutes every few days can be hard for me to do.

It usually ends up that I do a streak of a few weeks with sessions almost every day, and then fall off the wagon for a few weeks. So it goes, and I keep coming back. Just a little bit, here or there.

My life reminds me when I need to get back, because I get sick, or tired, or sad, and I realize — huh, I haven’t taken time to rest my mind lately.

And I open up the app, and I start again.

We’re all beginners, and to practice is to learn

Meditation is about practicing a new skill, perhaps a skill your brain is not very comfortable with yet: for me, I had to learn how to focus my attention, to find deliberate concentration, to watch my thoughts without becoming them or reacting to them.

It isn’t a skill that’s learned in one day, or thirty days. It can take hundreds and hundreds of days, just like learning to play the piano or learning how to use the computer can take so long to train. And because meditation is often related to un-learning our unconcious habits and patterns, it can take a long time to feel like you’re moving anywhere. And that’s okay.

Some days meditation makes me so angry

Meditation is about becoming aware of what’s inside of you, not judging it or eliminating it. Some mornings it’s all I can do to sit through the 15-minute practice, and if I’m being honest, some mornings I get eight minutes into it and I just can’t anymore. I’m too itchy inside to get to my email, too hot and bothered by something, to ready to fire a response, to get outside, to get moving. As someone who loves to go-go-go, I am fascinated by how much I leap up and just get started — finding the peacefulness of sitting still is my challenge.

(In Ayurvedic terms, I’m Vata-Pitta, and I live in New York. So this makes sense).

And it’s still okay. The meditation app helps me notice. Notice, briefly, that I’m itchy and crawling and wanting to move, and carrying a body of emotions around with me, and that stress is building up, and I see it. It’s there. That’s what’s inside me.

That’s the whole point. That’s where I am right now. It’s just me, noticing. A new shadow or layer or insight at a time. These are the feelings that are swimimng around, within, on me. Here we are.

Where I began

I started trying meditation a few years after I graduated from college, and what I did was put a yoga mat next to my bed. In the mornings, I tried rolling out of bed, and sitting still on the mat, just breathing and counting. Some mornings I would count to ten, some mornings I would sit for five or ten minutes.

Through it, I started watching my morning thoughts rise to the surface. How was I waking up in the morning? What was I worried about? What had I carried throughout the night and brought to my next day? What was I going to get started on?

The simple act of paying attention showed me where I was, and how much my mind was racing.

Over time, I began adding more to my evening practice, and showing up to guided meditations at my local yoga studios.

Meditation helps me learn how to say no

Pausing and saying no to your impulses — an impulse to check email, to respond rapidly — helps me learn how to lean in to the bigger picture and say no more readily throughout the rest of the day. Even five minutes in the morning lets me relax in the day and lean back and say, “You know what? I don’t need to respond to these emails right now. They can pile up and I’ll hit them in a batch again tomorrow. I can be done, for right now.”

Email is a never-ending avalanche of requests that we’ll never be able to quell. As I’ve changed my roles and responsibilities in the various companies I work for, I notice that email comes faster, more urgently, and I can either panic and try to save them all, or I can lean out and recognize that this is just a stream of information, and do my best to go fishing in it strategically. No one ever died being happy they answered every email they ever got.

Meditation comes into my life slowly

The awkwardness of a new habit can slow down progress. For me, finding the place, the routine — it took a while. Did I plop a pillow down in our bedroom under the window? Or in a chair next to my desk? Or how about on the couch?

After sorting and stumbling around many iterations, I’ve found a few peaceful places that work for me. One is lying on my back, pillow under my knees, in bed. Why? Because I’ll actually do it, and that’s what matters. Listening to a meditation guide at 9PM as I’m nearing bed is a way to wind down the day.

My other spot is actually sitting against my dresser, pillow flopped from the bed onto the floor, back supported. Alex will leave and I’ll close the door, telling him not to come in for 15 minutes if he can help it.

Meditation became such a gift (and yet it’s still so hard to do)

It took a very long time for me to find the joy and peacefulness that other people described as happening inside of meditation. Mostly, it was frustrating for me, and I found that I got up after 2 minutes, 5 minutes, even 8 minutes into a 15-minute practice. Just a few minutes at a time was all I could do, and it took many months to get comfortable with that.

Practices ebb and flow

If I’ve learned one thing by studying the meta-patterns of my life, it’s that I work in quarters (or seasons), and some are more “on” than others. I fall into a rhythm of doing something for a few months, then resting for a few months, then reigniting a practice.

My practice is steady for a month or two, and then it becomes heavy, burdensome, or difficult — and I relax. And then I need it again. From writing, to connecting with people, to making progress on a project, to creating a meditation practice in my life, it comes and goes. With every ebb and flow, however, it stays a bit longer, becomes a bit more familiar.

Find a special place to practice

Buy a pillow, make a shrine, tell your partner or your roommates that you’re going to try sitting still for 10 minutes, and you’d appreciate being undisturbed. The first time is uncomfortable, or it can be blissful. Sometimes, you surprise yourself. Like any practice, the more you practice, the better it gets and the easier it gets. For the longest time I thought meditation was a fancy state of mind that I’d never be able to achieve.

Now I (think) I understand that it’s a practice.

Everything worth doing takes practice.

Life is all a practice, anyways.


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5 Responses to Learning How to Meditate

  1. Hi Sarah

    Thanks for sharing your insights on practicing meditation.

    It’s a great way to access the soul; physical leading to spiritual.

    I’ve been practicing Meditation as a daily spiritual practice by writing Morning Pages almost every day for some time now.

    http://dazne.net/morning-pages/

  2. […] Learning How to Meditate: Curious about meditation? Sarah Peck shares her story of starting to meditate and offers up tips for those ready to give it a try. […]

  3. Elise says:

    Enjoyed reading your reflections. I found it wasn’t until I had the opportunity
    (And built up the courage) to do a one week silent retreat that my meditation practice
    really became an integrated part of my life.

    So many amazing retreat centers on your side of the world too!

    • Sarah says:

      I agree! Sometimes a deep dive is exactly what you need to kick-start your practice. That’s how I feel about yoga teacher training — it really propelled my own personal practice and daily life in a new direction.