Meditation basics and the 3 things that matter

Last week I talked about meditation and how it's helped me relate to my journey as a writer in a different way.

As someone with a Christian background, when I was first introduced to meditation, it felt like I was swimming in a sea of information without a way to clearly understand how meditation related to the world around me. I wanted to know if some types of meditation were better than others; were some "scary" while others were "normal"; and does everyone have to sit on the floor? I hope I can shed some light on some of these questions, and if I've missed something, feel free to toss any questions my way at the end of the blog.

The basics I wish someone had told me

For starters, there are a lot of meditation techniques and practices out there. Rather than being some spastic and disorganized activity for nut jobs, I learned that many meditation options are actually ancient techniques that have been honed and simplified over many thousands of years. Also, who knew that not all meditation techniques are the same? (I didn’t!)

Some meditation techniques are object focused, where you place your attention on a figure (maybe a guru, an icon, a picture of a god/God) and you focus intently on the positive attributes of that figure for a set amount of time. Other meditation practices are movement-based and incorporate deliberate, focused body movements in a sequence or free-form manner. And there are breath-awareness techniques, where your body is stationary and your attention is placed on your breath.

For me, I tried an object-focused meditation technique for a few weeks until I discovered a different one that intrigued me. It's called shamatha, or mindfulness awareness meditation. Although I was hesitant about meditation, this one seemed safe enough, mainly because the instructions were simple and secular in nature. Not only was it non-threatening to my faith, it also seemed to work with normal things like the mind (everyone has one), the body (I have one and I'm assuming you do, too) and the breath (I sure hope we all have that!). It seemed the least weird, and that's basically why I stuck with it for a while.

Finding a meditation technique is specific to your personality and who you are, so you might find your experience to be exactly opposite of mine, and that is completely OK, too. For the purposes of this blog, I’ll be sharing some of the basics around shamatha, the technique I am now certified to teach in.

Meditation basics: body, mind and breath

Most meditation techniques have a prescribed way for how your body is positioned. A moving meditation, for example, might have particular directions for how to take steps along a path in a forest. For mindfulness awareness meditation, there is a particular way we sit: either on a cushion on the floor or in a chair. The point here isn’t to look like monks or anything voodooish like that. Rather, it’s designed so you’re as comfortable as possible. Your arms rest in a certain way, your shoulders rest in a certain way, your chin is tucked—all so you can relax and have one less thing distracting you (like, say, painful ankles or knees).

In meditation, we place our focus on the breath as a means to working with our mind. If squats in a gym help you focus on building strength in your legs, then mindfulness awareness meditation is an exercise for your mind. As we sit in meditation, we tell our mind and body that it's time to let everything else rest for a moment. Meditation is a time to relate with our minds in a way that's probably very different from the rest of the day. While meditating, there is no need to stop thinking, to hum, to think spiritual thoughts or to chant scriptures. For this type of meditation, there is no script to read out loud.

Rather, as you sit in meditation, and your mind continues to think thoughts, you try to do something a little different. Instead of chasing down every thought that comes into your mind, try to notice when you’ve become absorbed in thought and make a gentle choice:

let that thought go and come back to the breath.

And that's the basic sequence of meditation. When a thought arises, you see it, gently let it go and return your attention to your breath.

One of my first questions as a beginning meditator was, "Am I having to start over too many times?" And the answer is, "There is no limit for how many times you can begin again." (Side note: that applies to meditation and all things in life, interestingly enough.)

The next thing that happened was that I felt really embarrassed by how many times I was having to start over. Even though my teacher was clear and kind, and I knew I could begin again as many times as I needed. But since I come with a fair amount of perfectionist baggage, I wasn't quick to believe this. I needed to investigate it for myself (something a good teacher should always encourage you to do, by the way). And so the more I thought about it, I realized that it's only natural as humans to get caught up in what’s coming next, to start writing a to-do list or to get distracted by how I'm going to get dinner on the table. In fact, this is why the brain is an amazing, beautiful thing: it can process a million things at one time! One thing that meditation showed me is that the mind doesn't have to be in nonstop productivity mode in order to be powerful or useful. Meditation invites us to work with those million things and instead of knee-jerk reacting to every thought, we practice relaxing with them. 

Meditation and working with writer’s block

Although the last three years as a meditator have been very meaningful to me, I do have something rotten to tell you: I’m still human. I'm still living life with anxiety, and I still have trouble trusting people. But there are things that have begun to transform: I am kinder to myself, the voices in my mind are gentler and I’m finding it easier to forgive myself and others. There are also some very curious parallels that have emerged for me around meditation, cultivating a better relationship with my mind and my writing.

If you’ve been writing for any appreciable amount of time (like, a day), you know what it feels like to be blocked, to be stuck—and how we each individually respond to those feelings of stuckness is unique. Personally, I disassociate and pretend to be indifferent to my writing. Ha! Like I need you. And then I feel very sad because I miss my writing. That feeling of being stuck in my mind, I've learned, is actually a very powerful teacher, and the practice of meditation helps cultivate a friendlier working relationship with that stuckness.

Rather than being driven around by my thoughts and distractions, I practice making room for my writer's block to ask, “Hmm… what’s happening here?” And then I ask questions and gently try to discover why my commitment, my fervor for something, has suddenly disappeared out of thin air. Am I plagued by doubt? Is the topic of the story too much, too soon? Is it something I’m afraid to explore and need to do so more gently (or not at all)?

Meditation has also pointed out something tremendously freeing: my mind already has everything I need to be happy, to be a satisfied writer, to be a blissful editor and so on.

The great news is that the same goes for your mind as well.

All these wonderful things already reside in us—it’s our job to uncover them, to give them room to come to the surface when it’s appropriate and to let them simmer when that’s a better option, too.

Next week I'll look at something called The Container Principle, which I've used to address practical and relational areas in my writing journey. I hope you'll stay tuned (or sign up below if you aren't on the list yet).

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