I once had a roommate, Simon, who would disappear into his room for several hours each day—not to watch movies, play video games, or even read, but to meditate. On Saturdays, he would drive across the bridge to New Jersey to study with his guru, who practiced an ancient Taoist discipline from South Korea known as SunDo. It seeks to bring devotees to enlightenment via meditation, realized by performing deep breathing exercises in seated, standing, and reclining postures. The connection of the breath and the brain, according to the SunDo tradition, activates the parasympathetic nervous system and in this way induces a more relaxed state of mind.
I admired Simon’s dedication to his practice largely from afar, inquiring only minimally on how it felt to sit for hours on end, sometimes audibly breathing and humming. To ask seemed like a breach of personal space, and frankly, the concept made me feel a bit uncomfortable.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m a restless (read: fidgety) person, both in body and mind. Sometimes, that’s a quality I cherish: it propels me to set new goals; to try new cooking, writing, and creative projects; to fill my weekends with adventures (admittedly, they're occasionally of the Netflix ilk); to travel intrepidly. But my restlessness also leaves me feeling harried and overwhelmed—as though by pursuing my various interests, I’m not leaving enough time to be quiet with myself. In these instances, I’ve found myself wishing for a go-to way to ground and stabilize me.
Some months ago, in a particularly challenging period, I thought of Simon’s seemingly unshakeable calm; my mind turned to meditation, which seemed like a good solution (or at least one worth trying out). At the same time, being alone with my thoughts was slightly terrifying. What was I supposed to even do while meditating? And how on Earth could I sit still for that long?
But my mind couldn’t let go of the idea. I sought out as much information as I could, weighing pros and cons of different styles, and trialing low-investment meditation apps. Simon’s practice was, ultimately, a bit more than I could commit to. But through a hybrid of methods, I finally found a way to overcome my fear of meditation—and, no less, integrate it into my daily life. Here are some of the things I did to get there.
At its core, meditation involves noticing thoughts and feelings I experience without passing judgment on their meaning or immediate impact, and just letting them float by. An emotionally calm state can be achieved through exercising mindfulness, which is just one path to meditating (other paths include guided visualization, seated meditation, breathing, and yoga, some of which I’ll touch on below). Mindfulness is the idea of being totally present in the moment I’m experiencing, focusing solely on the current sensations I encounter.
For me, both meditation and mindfulness initially caused a lot more anxiety than comfort, because they seemed unachievable. My mind drifts often, immediately responding to and “solving” the thoughts and emotions that arise in my brain. But changing my expectations around being “perfectly meditative and mindful,” and coming to terms with the fact that it’s a constant work in progress, was the first step in setting me up for my own practice.
Sitting still for hours, à la Simon, was not quite an option for me as a beginner. So I put aside just five minutes a day at a minimum to meditate, increasing the length if I had the time, but also holding myself accountable to the five-minute practice.
Mindfulness meditation proved easiest and most approachable for me during activities I already did daily, like brushing my teeth or washing the dishes. In the shower, for example, I’d close my eyes and pay attention to the feeling of water on my skin; the steam clouding around me; the coolness and slickness of the tile underneath my feet; the scent of my soap. In the five or so minutes I’d do this, there wouldn’t be space for my mind to wander—as soon as it did, I’d try to refocus on the water pressure or the sounds of the pipes.
I regularly run and practice yoga, and these seemed like the natural next places to incorporate meditation. During a run (especially a longer one), I’d set aside multiple short bursts of time, a few minutes every other mile, to focus exclusively on physical sensations: the tension in my neck and fisted-up fingers; the feeling of my shoes on the asphalt or dirt trail; the color of the foliage in the park; the sights and sounds of people around me.
When I was finally ready to set aside time outside of my normal activities, I had a few options: using a guided meditation app like Headspace or Calm; a self-guided visualization practice; seated meditation; or breathing exercises, like the SunDo tradition Simon practiced or Kundalini yoga meditation. I tried the app route but found it distracting—someone was, in effect, talking to me, and for me that defeated the purpose. The self-guided routes were a bit amorphous for the place I was in my practice. I decided to focus on breathing. When I wasn’t able to incorporate meditation into my shower or daily run, I practiced breathing for just a few minutes at a time, in the following manner:
I’d sit on the floor, comfortably and cross-legged, and straighten my spine without holding tension. I’d close my eyes and move through a few deep inhales and exhales before beginning the exercises. Then, I’d break the inhalation into four parts, inhaling once, pausing for a moment, then inhaling a second time and taking another pause, before deeply exhaling and pausing before the next round. I’d repeat this process continuously for three to four minutes, and to bring myself out of it, finish with a few regular and shallower inhales and exhales with my hand on my heart.
Immediately, the breathing allowed me to check in with my body and remove me from my current headspace. It'd unknot my stomach, loosen the tightness in my shoulders and chest, and make me aware of parts of myself that I don't often notice: the roof of my mouth, the backs of my knees, the pads on the bottom of my feet. Afterwards, I would feel a rush of energy from the increased oxygen, and would be awash with a pleasant tingling sensation.
For me, this was (and still is) the toughest bridge to gap—how do I reproduce the focus and calm experienced during meditation in situations separate from it? Turns out as meditation has become a routine and habit, I’m able to call on it to service the everyday stressors. When my mind drifts at work, I now try a series of “mini-meditations”: a few cycles of breathing at my desk; a quick trip to the bathroom sink to wash my hands and be mindful during that experience; even savoring the lunch or snack I’m eating. I refrain from multitasking for a few moments and absorb myself fully in their tastes and textures.
Although seemingly small, these steps have increased my consciousness, self-compassion, and have begun to keep my restlessness at bay. I hope with further practice, a new level of calm and focus will become ingrained in my personality. I still have a lot to learn about my relationship with meditation, yet I can confidently say that overcoming my fear has been well worth it thus far.
Do you have a meditation practice? Let us know your favorite techniques in the comments below.