“The meditation cushion is a good place to turn when talk therapy and antidepressants aren’t enough.” – Unknown
There exist countless varieties of meditation. Depending on what one seeks, there is probably a meditation for it. Common goals include stress reduction, cardiac health, subjective well-being (happiness), ecstatic states of consciousness, and spiritual communion/union. Although these types of meditation are very diverse, one might arbitrarily divide the types of meditation into the concentration types and the open-awareness types. The concentration types involve focusing on an object, such as the breath, a mantra, or visualization. The open-awareness types are more of a surrender and opening up to what the universe has to offer.
I have a variety of meditations that I draw from depending on the particular needs I have at the time. For example, if I am feeling disconnected from my heart, I may choose a lovingkindness or metta meditation. If my mind is incredibly restless, I may choose a guided meditation from the Insight Timer app.
However, my go-to meditation is a hybrid of concentration and open. To bring my mind into focus, I concentrate on my out breaths while counting to ten. Any extraneous thoughts I label as “thinking” or “fear.” Once my mind has settled down (if it does at all), I change to simply being mindful of whatever experience comes up, noticing any judgment, grasping, or aversion.
Mere intention to be mindful hasn’t been very useful for me. In order to cultivate ongoing presence, I require a formal, structured, carved-in-stone-calendared practice. Without this, other priorities tend to invade my sacred space. For me, early morning time is the easiest to maintain as long as I can keep some discipline about when I go to bed.
Why do I go to such lengths for meditation? I believe that the practice benefits me in a variety of ways.
1. Creates an Automatic Internal Program
You know that song that gets stuck in your head? It got there because it was repeated and you paid attention to it. Now it just comes up spontaneously, wanted or not. A formal practice sets up a similar tune in my head that plays on and off all day in the background. The lyrics are something like “What is my experience now?” This little program is my best friend, ideally getting triggered by a variety of experiences and keeping me from getting too involved with mental fantasies. It is something akin to the parrots continuously squawking “Attention” in Aldus Huxley’s book Island.
2. Keeps Me From Rehearsing Fantasies
Whenever the mind is not aware of a present experience, it is either rehearsing a memory or rehearsing a fantasy. Rarely are either of these healthy, but they sure can be seductive. I just love to think about past hurts, future fears, or future ambitions. All that just programs me to do even more of it in the future and reduces my current productivity and enjoyment.
3. Helps Me Make Memories
If I spend most of my day worrying/reminiscing about the past or catastrophizing/dreaming about the future, then I am NOT paying attention to my present. Therefore, there is nothing to remember about the current day. Days will go by, and I will have few memories to show for it. Compare that to a day full of mindfulness, where I notice the flowers, hear what my friends say, and feel the ups and downs of life. That is the stuff memories and life is made are made of (not that I want to waste all my time reminiscing).
4. Makes Me a Kinder Person
Meditation helps me stay centered, aware of my love and hate as they arise. I am incredibly more compassionate and less angry when mindful. The sooner I can catch an emotion, the less likely I will get involved with a story about it. This makes me a much better husband and father. As a mental health counselor, my therapy work is noticeably better when I am centered.
5. Lowers My Stress
Stress can be a pretty nasty thing for health. It causes a cascade of chemical reactions in the body that result in cardiovascular plaque, abdominal fat, compromised immune system, chronic fatigue, and poor sleep. I really try to avoid chronic stress by using meditation as a daily reset that can reduce my cortisol levels and keep me chill for as long as I remain mindful. (Note: I try to maintain the mindful state at the end of meditation and carry it into my daily life.
6. Helps Me Make Better Decisions
If I am not centered, then decisions I make may be in the service of a dysfunctional mental state. Accumulated decisions dictate what my life looks like. The more decisions I make when I am mindful, the better my life situation will inevitably be.
7. Keeps Me in Good Company
I find that the more centered I am, the more I attract centered people in my life. This happens both directly through meditative/spiritual circles and indirectly.
I suspect that my main excuse for skipping meditation is universal – there just isn’t enough time. I have to call baloney on my excuse because I always get out twice what I put in it. That reminds me of some advice I have heard about meditation: You should meditate at least one hour every single day, except when you are really busy. On those days, you should meditate for two hours.