JENNY R. SUSSER, PH.D.

POWER & PERFORMANCE SPORT PSYCHOLOGY SERVICES

How to start a meditation practice

Posted by on May 31, 2019

If only it really looked like this!

There are a thousand roads to Rome and perhaps as many ways to think about meditation. After last week’s writing, people have reached out about how to meditate and so here are my thoughts about it. My advice would be to read this and then to figure out how to apply this to your life in a way that works for you. Meditation is personal so design your practice for you, personally. Make it fit you, your schedule, your life, and your goals. The bottom line is there is no right or wrong way to meditate. Okay, sitting at a bar, drinking and laughing with friends doesn’t really qualify as meditative time, but you know what I mean.

Practice. Why do they call it a meditation practice? I’m not really sure the origins of the term so here is how I think about it. You want to improve and to do that, you have to practice. I remember when I was swimming in college and somehow, we all started calling our swimming sessions “workouts.” It made sense, we were working out after all, but the coach did not like what it communicated to our minds. She insisted we call it “practice” because that is what we were doing, we were practicing being great. I remember thinking it was a silly distinction but ultimately, it was not. Words are powerful and changing those words made me feel differently about swim practice. So, it is your meditation practice and it always will be. Practice saying it is your meditation practice and before you know it, that will feel comfortable and powerful.

Comfort. One of my favorite meditation teachers, Davidji, always starts each meditation asking you to find a comfortable place to be and then says, “Comfort is Queen.” I love that. There is no reason to suffer so be comfortable. Sit, lay down, stand, it doesn’t matter, as long as your spine is straight. I have a bad knee that has so much scar tissue, it doesn’t bend all the way, preventing me from sitting cross-legged. Even in my younger years I couldn’t sit lotus because I just don’t have the flexibility in my joints. Go figure. So, I will sit in a chair sometimes, but mostly, I meditate laying down. It can take a minute or so to get comfortable so allow for the wiggle time. As you settle into your breathing, you will notice the need to adjust your body here and there. Over time, it will become a system of sorts and finding your comfort spot will just be part of your practice. Wiggle away, be comfortable, and take some time to learn how your body (and then mind) finds comfort.

Quiet & Time. The place you practice should be quiet and relatively low in distractions. Eventually, you will be able to meditate at your office or on a plane, but as you start, give yourself the best chance to develop these muscles in the best environment possible. When there is much external noise, it makes it difficult to hear the internal messages. As you get better at this, you will be able to block some of those external noises more effectively to hear yourself better, but this will take time. Speaking of time, start slowly. Do NOT jump in and do a forty-minute meditation to start. You will most likely fail and then not want to try it again. If you were not a runner, you certainly wouldn’t start running with a 10-miler. Start with 5 or 10 minutes once a day at the most so that you feel successful. Increase your sessions as you get the hang of it and give yourself the time to get comfortable with the process. The other part of time is to do your practice at the same time every day. This will help you make it a habit and contribute to the non-negotiable part of it—you have to make the time you set aside for meditation non-negotiable to change or delay or cancellations!

Straight spine. The purpose of having a straight spine is to align your chakras. The seven chakras are energy centers in the body and flow from the tip of your tail bone to the top of your head. Depending on the source, there are five, six, or seven chakras. Every guided meditation I have ever done has focused on seven. Each chakra has a location, a color, and even an essential oil. They each have a meaning, allowing you to focus on different issues based on energy blocks. I really enjoy doing the chakra meditations and when a new one appears on my app, I usually give it a try.

Insight Timer. My favorite meditation app, although there are dozens of them out there. I like using an app for several reasons. One is the structure. I can pick from over 15,000 guided meditations and counting. There is also a timer with a lovely bell to do a timed but not guided meditation. When you download the app and then create a user profile, one of the first things that pops up is a free course called “Learn How To Meditate In Seven Days.” Do it. It is 8 – 11 minutes per day for a full week, and she has a lovely voice guiding you as she teaches you the fundamentals of meditation. The second reason is tracking. This app will count your days and minutes and graph your practice for you. Not like this is really that important, but I am a goal-oriented person and seeing my progress on paper helps keep me engaged. You can also join and create communities to connect with others about your meditation practice. And lastly, an app is an excuse-buster. No complaining you don’t have a good timer or know what to focus on today, the app will always give you something to meditate on!

Thoughts. Just so you know, they don’t stop. Well, when you die they do, but as long as you are alive, they will keep on coming (thankfully). Years ago, I read that the Buddhists say a Mantra is to protect the mind and Meditation is to get to know the mind. That has always stayed with me and helped me keep a frame around both tools. To me, meditation is not about quieting the mind because I find that so hard to define that people get lost while looking for it. What I look for is part training, part slowing down, and part being. I have found meditation fantastic for training my focus muscle. This is for all of you that say you don’t mediate because you are bad at it! Sure you are, and guess what else, your inability to focus when things are quiet PALES in comparison to your inability to focus when things are loud, I promise. You only think you focus when it’s noisy but really, your mind is racing around concealed by all the noise. Get comfortable with your mind racing around, it’s the only way to slow it down. When you notice your attention has strayed, simply bring it back to whatever anchor you are using. Your anchor is either the guide or your breath or a mantra, whatever you have chosen at the start of each session. You will notice this expand to the other parts of your day before you know it.

Physiology. I have written before about how meditation strengthens the Vagus nerve (see last week’s piece) and this is a benefit beyond measure. When you get mentally, emotionally, or psychologically upset, so does your body. And sometimes, your body gets upset first—truly a chicken or egg problem. Either way, the breath training you do in meditation will help your physiology recover whether it is mind or body first. I find myself taking huge breaths throughout the day, whether intentionally started or not. And when I get upset, it is the first thing I try to think about, engaging my breath to calm my physiology. It works, it simply works. It helps to bring down my heart rate and respiratory rate while at the same time, sending blood back into my frontal lobe, or the executive functioning part of the brain. It brings me back towards center, helping me think instead of just feel, and be mindful in my actions and communications.

Commit. You will be very bad at meditation when you start…but that is true for anything! You were not born great at one single thing you are currently great at. You have spent time, energy, and lots of practice to get good and great at things, and meditation is no different. Connect to your reasons for starting a meditation practice when you feel like it is not going well. Remember that everything we do comes and goes in cycles. Athletes have periodization training which creates different kinds of physical targets for different days of the week, including rest and recovery days. Just like any other practice, your meditation practice will be good some days and bad on others. Hang in there, not every meal is gourmet but it still can nourish you and keep you healthy.

Thank you for reading this and for engaging in your self-care. It is not the easiest road at times and support is essential so ask for it when you need it. The better you are, the better everyone is because we are all in this together. Namaste.