In September, I attended a weeklong Ganhwa Zen Meditation retreat as I mentioned in my recent post Why I’m Finally Going to Therapy For My Anxiety. If you weren’t aware, meditation is EXTREMELY effective for managing and decreasing anxiety, as well as shrinking the stress centers in your brain and increasing gray matter in the areas of memory and decision making… I’ll share more about the brain and health benefits of meditation with research studies in another post soon.
For me, meditation is learning how to control my mind and focus it, not necessarily just “quiet” it. There’s a quote “the goal of meditation is not to control your thoughts but to stop letting them control you.” While I definitely appreciate the aspect of having a handle on my thoughts, meditation provides a mental space where I can detatch from my thoughts, worries, anxieties, fears, loves, etc. and just be… which has in turn, proven to me that I am not those things – they are just another something I am currently experiencing.
It’s a skill I’m developing, a mental muscle I’m trying to build. Meditation has created space for me to develop mechanisms to be able to control my responses to all of those things, rather than just reacting unconsciously or emotionally. I see it as a quiet time to hang with myself, where I jump into this different space in my head and will my mind to be still… I sort a lot of shit out that stumps me when I’m actively thinking about it, when I meditate.
(photo cred: pinterest)
Since I started seriously practicing 6+ months ago, my creativity, productivity, clarity, and mental/emotional resiliency have all improved noticeably. Whether I’m focusing on accomplishing just one thing instead of multitasking, calming the rampant, anxious “saboteur” voices in my head, or writing/working/creating, I feel more myself AND more in control of myself… I know that might sound weird but I’ve learned through my practice that anxiety has often been the one calling the shots in my head/life – not ME.
Gaining mastery of my mind, in the sense that I can understand when my anxiety is being activated, and calm it down without feeling guilty or bad that it flared up in the first place – that has been a HUGE step for me and benefit to my life. Below I’m sharing some meditation tips that have been most useful for me… Hopefully they will help to improve your practice, or inspire you to begin!
1: No Thinking, No Feeling, Just Being.
Use a short saying or mantra to focus yourself. “No thinking, no feeling, just being” is a saying from my retreat that I mentally repeated for hours and hours and hours, until finally I had flooded my brain with it and had no more room for rushes of thoughts every single fucking second. And really, what it says is all you have to do… Don’t think, don’t get entangled with any emotions you feel coming up, just be. Mentally repeat it to keep your mind off the first two and keep your focus on being present.
Another idea is to use mala beads to aid your meditation practice.Mala beads are traditionally used in prayer and meditation to count the number of times a mantra is recited or breaths taken (which is how I use it). I’m wearing the Shanti Mala Bead Necklace from Tiny Devotions in the photos for this post… I had never worked with mala beads until they generously sent me this gorgeous necklace, and I must say it’s really useful to have something tangible to work with during such an abstract/conceptual activity.
2: Visualize Thoughts As A Ballon – Then Cut Them Off.
It’s unrealistic to think you can stop thinking when you meditate – the best way I found to control them was to visualize them as balloons floating into my mind, which I would cut free with scissors and watch float away into the sky, out of eyesight and then out of my head. The cutting visual really helped me to stay focused more on noting that I had a thought and letting it go than getting caught up in the context or feelings of the thought itself… I also know other people visualize their thoughts in writing and then erase the words. Play around to see what visual cues work best for you.
3: Open Your Eyes.
One thing about zen meditation specifically that really works for me is that your eyes are open, and you’re staring at a fixed point down and in front of you. Focusing on just your breath can be too abstract for me, and makes it far easier for me to get distracted and lost in thought. If you struggle with focusing/staying alert/paying attention/not falling asleep practicing meditation, rather than closing your eyes – pick a point just in front of you to stare at. As you can kind of see in the photos above, my eyes are slightly open… I’m staring down at a point about a foot in front of me.
Meditating with your eyes open is weird at first, especially if you’re with people because you can see them move around so it may SEEM harder to focus and not get distracted by the physical world, but staring at something really helps to ground your practice. Doing so hugely impacted my sits once I learned about and started practicing this particular meditation style, especially when I would be doing it alone vs. with the group I sit with on weekends.
4: Don’t Be Macho. Be Comfortable.
The point isn’t to be in full lotus for the sake of it, but be comfortable enough to be able to get out of your head and into your body and NOT be constantly fidgeting. Meditation finally “clicked” for me when I got really comfortable/sat past my idea of discomfort during a long sit one day… I didn’t move for nearly 2 hours (and no, I’m not kidding. The session was 4-5 hours in total) and suddenly understood there is a difference between my perception of being uncomfortable/in pain and wanting to move and physically NEEDING to move. I learned most of the time I shift around, it’s because I’m still dominantly in my head. If I can just sloooooow down my mental self-talk, I can control my pain threshold. Weird, but true… Maybe someone else has experienced this, too?
PS. If you physically struggle with meditation (injury, mobility, etc.) you can sit up straight in a chair, or invest in a zafu, meditation bench, or v-shaped cushion for better alignment and support.
5: Do Your Research.
Maybe this isn’t a tip per se, but learning more about meditation in general was important for me to establish an authentic practice. Like I’m not trying to be some bandwagon new age spiritual guru – I just want to harness the practical, healthful benefits that meditation provides, and get a better grip on myself and my mind.
I needed to understand why it was worth doing, the benefits, and how people actually integrated the practice into chaotic daily life. I had to do my research and make it real for myself because I struggled/still struggle with prioritizing it in my day. It’s really easy for me to push back the half hour I blocked out for meditation in favor of something else that I perceive to be a better use of my time… It just felt too vague for me until I read about people’s individual experiences and methods – which is part of the reason why I’m writing this post. I benefitted from reading about others journeys, so I hope sharing some of mine pays it forward for someone else.
There’s also a ton of different styles – it is not a one kind fits all practice. I’ve tried zen, mindfulness, metta, guided meditations, walking ones, and more. If you’re skeptical about it, learning about the different styles will help debunk the woo-woo factor as well as possibly introduce a style that resonates with you.
A final tip: YOU CAN’T DO IT WRONG. You just have to do it. Consistency matters more than anything! You don’t need to spend an hour a day trying to be like Buddha. I shoot for 25 minutes every day, though in reality right now it is more like 3-4x/week.
Nobody’s perfect, and thanks to my consistent practice and efforts to quiet the “you’re not good enough” voices in my head, I’m starting to be okay with the idea of that. If you know me or have been reading SCB for a while, you will know this is a big fucking deal for me to get over myself like this!!! This realization has been the biggest piece of evidence/proof for me that meditation works, as long as you put in the time and effort.
Have you ever tried meditation, or do you practice regularly? I’d love to hear from you guys on this, please share your experiences (or any questions) in a comment!