We all have heard of the benefits of meditation: stress relief, relaxation, easing the control of our egoic mind, accessing the unconscious, experiencing a sense of peace, being present in the moment, etc. I would guess that we all have struggled, too, with adhering to a meditation practice that allows these benefits. Many people say that it’s too hard to sit still, that their mind wanders, that it’s too frustrating, that it doesn’t give them the benefits that are promised.
We’re in such a world of achievement, accomplishment, and multi-tasking that it is hard to believe that sitting still is something that we should actually strive to do.
Yet, it is – it is probably one of the most important things we need to have as a part of our days – this sort of down-time. Unfortunately, we tend to fill up our down-time with exterior entertainment: movies, video games, tv shows, etc., all which block our conscious mind’s receptivity to unconscious thoughts, hunches, intuitions or insights that may come through.
Past generations had this sort of down-time as a part of their day. In the South it was commonplace to sit on the porch in rocking chairs, quietly enduring the heat of the summer, and, as Alice Walker has the down-to-earth mother say so aptly in the poignant ending to her short story “Everyday Use”: “just enjoying.” In the northern climes while enduring the cold of winter, people would do just the same thing in a rocking chair by the fire. All over the world women have sewn quilts while men whittled wood into something useful, women made blankets while men made spears, and so on and so forth. Of course it needn’t be so gender specific, but you get the idea: generations past had more meditative experiences as part of their daily lives.
We are lacking with so little time to contemplate and be still. Isaac Newton understood the importance of the insights one gets from tapping into the unconscious. When he had a tough problem to solve, he would sit in his chair, pencil in hand, and doze off to sleep. Once asleep, his fingers relaxed around the pencil, it dropped to the floor, waking him up, and the insight from his dreaming mind was more often than not the brilliant solution to the problem.
If you cannot sit and meditate, perhaps you can begin a practice like quilting, painting, walking, or the like that allows your mind to be somewhat free from the obsessive egoic thoughts. I, for example, walk every day, and during part of the walk I strive to meditate. Perhaps I will look as far ahead as I can and think to myself: okay, from here until I reach that large tree in the sunlight I will meditate. The meditation that works for me is rather simple, for four steps I inhale and I think of the word “receive.” Usually a step of two passes in between the inhalation and exhalation, but then for four steps (or longer) I exhale and think of the word “give.” It is a reminder to me that with every full breath we are giving and receiving: giving carbon dioxide to the plants and trees and receiving oxygen, a gift from the plants and trees. Additionally, it reminds me on a larger level that life must be a balance between giving and receiving. Like many of us, I strive to be independent and to need little from anyone else. The truth is, however, my very existence and survival comes from the world around me. Eating, being clothed, traveling, being loved – all of these things comes from other living beings. In return, I do things that help others. The balance of giving and receiving is key. This idea of balance is much the same principle which yoga teaches us: we are constantly contracting then stretching muscles. The balance point is somewhere in the middle – never a place where you really rest, more a place that you pass frequently. Balancing in life is a bit like swinging when we were children, back and forth, back and forth, but always we stay grounded at the center point.
Now, back to my walking meditation: if I make it from one tree to the destination without random thoughts popping into my head, I have been more successful than usual. If I made it part-way or just a little way, I don’t berate myself: I’m still outside walking and enjoying the day! Each time I try I get a bit better, remembering, as the sages say, that we are able to control the mind. We are able to control our choices and our reactions to things. We are able to control our outlook. And with this control, with the ability to quiet the inner talker, we are able to access great wisdom!
If you have had “success” with any sort of meditation technique, please share it if you have time. Regardless of your success or past efforts, I do think that it is helpful to try to incorporate meditative practices into your life. Best of luck to you!