Yoga is so much more than exercise, and so much more than our time on the mat. It is about how we show up skillfully in the world, and how we relate to ourselves and each other. A consistent, daily practice, particularly one that includes meditation, can reveal our habits and patterns of reactivity, and teach us how to stay present through life’s challenges. My daily meditation practice illuminates the places where I’m stuck, teaches me how to stay present during times of challenge, helps me to cultivate resilience, and teaches me how to keep my heart and mind open.
Meditation is an act of radical self-care. It is a time for you to hold space for yourself and to nurture any stuck, fragile, and hurt places the way you would comfort a friend or a child in pain. When you sit on your cushion, you do not have to do anything. You don’t have to try not to think or to wrestle with your thoughts until they submit. You do not have to conjure up a still mind or force yourself to sit perfectly still. When your mind begins to chatter, you do not need to respond. You don’t need any answers. All you need to do is sit down and listen.
Begin by listening to your breath. Feel the sensation of your breath as it flows in and out of your body. Notice how each inhale provides the opportunity to open yourself to this moment, just as it is. Observe how each exhale allows you to practice letting go. Within each cycle of breath is the reminder that we can be equally centered in times of fullness and in times of emptiness. Each breath is also a reminder that everything is temporary. Each inhale eventually transforms into an exhale. Each exhale gives rise to a new inhale. In this way we learn to go with the flow.
When thoughts arise in your mind, as they are bound to do, notice how you relate to them. Is your relationship a struggle? Do you try to force them out of your mind? Do you judge yourself for having a thought? Or do you get carried away by that thought and find yourself many moments later either stuck in the past or worried about the future? Whatever you notice is simply information about your habitual reactions. Remember, you don’t have to do, fix, or change anything. If you see your role in meditation as simply holding space and listening, then your relationship with your thoughts is very different than if you see your role as trying to suppress your mind. Thoughts will arise in meditation, and that is okay! The challenge is to learn to be with what arises without judgment.
And it takes some courage to simply be with ourselves. In this frenetic world, we have invented innumerable ways to distract ourselves and to avoid feeling what we need to feel. Many of us are reluctant to sit and meditate because we are afraid of what we will hear when we listen to ourselves. Perhaps there is also an element of not knowing how to listen to and care for ourselves.
Whenever we try not to think or feel something, we feed that subject energy. In this way, we can become easily entangled in our preferences and aversions. We begin to grasp and cling to the things we like, and avoid or push away the things we don’t like. This perpetuates a cycle of suffering, with a very narrow range of acceptable possibilities for our lives. Through meditation, we can begin to see these preferences and aversions for what they are: thoughts. As we recognize these patterns, we can begin to let them go, and find freedom in allowing things to be as they are without trying so hard to make things be as we think they should be, or as we want them to be.
When thoughts arise in your practice, approach your mind with gentleness and compassion. When you have a thought, simply acknowledge it as thinking and bring your attention back to your breath. You don’t need to analyze the thought or do anything with the thought. If you let it be, it will eventually flow out, just like your breath eventually flows out.
If you do find yourself following a thought, acknowledge what is asking for attention, and then gently bring your focus back to your breath.You might need to return to your breath many times in your practice. As Sharon Salzberg says,
“Every time you find yourself speculating about the future, replaying the past, or getting wrapped up in self-criticism, shepherd your attention back to the actual sensations of the breath. (If it will help you restore concentration, mentally say in…out with each breath…). Our practice is to let go gently and return to focusing on the breath. Notice the word gently. We gently acknowledge and release distractions, and gently forgive ourselves for having wandered. With great kindness to ourselves, we once more return our attention to the breath.
If you have to let go of distractions and begin again thousands of times, fine. That’s not a roadblock to the practice – that is the practice. That’s life: starting over, one breath at a time.”
– Sharon Salzberg, from the book Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation
Let go of struggle in your meditation practice. This is a symptom of trying to be somewhere other than where you are. Let go of expectation and judgement. You already have within you enough space to meet everything that arises with openness. Instead of forcing your meditation to be what you think it should be, meet each moment as it is, and meet yourself exactly as you are. This means love every part of yourself, including your wandering mind and your achy joints. Practice simply being with yourself. Sit on your cushion, even when your mind is busy. In fact, sit on your cushion especially when your mind is busy. Focus on your breath and start over as many times as you need. Give yourself space to unwind. You don’t have to make anything happen and you don’t have to change anything. How radical and liberating it is to let go and just be.
Rachel de Simone, DPT
You are invited to join Rachel on Thursday, August 13th from 5 – 6 pm at Oakledge Park for a free meditation and pranayama practice to learn more about developing and sustaining a meditation practice through the Yoga for Life Program.