Meditation Basics

“Training our brain through meditation enables us to make wise choices. When we meditate, we see our stressful thought patterns. We see our reactive tendencies. We see the stories we have made up. When we see through the mental chatter, it is easier for us to stop, take a conscious breath and choose a more skillful way to respond in real life.” Gloria Green

If you prefer to listen.

That is what this is all about. We are training your brains to be more mindful because mindfulness allows us to make better decisions. I read an article yesterday about how babies have an excess of neuro connections because they need them to learn. And the reason a baby or toddler will do the same thing over and over, like drop a spoon off a highchair, is because that is how they learn. They need the repetition to create the neuropathways. That is why toddlers like to read the same book, over and over, every day. They are creating the neuro connections to make sense of the world.

That is what we are doing when we meditate, we are paying attention to the neuro connections that we want to create or strengthen, and we are shifting our attention away from the neuro connections that we want to atrophy. We are training our brain to pay attention and to shift the focus of our attention when our attention is not where we want it. We are not trying to push anything away. We are not trying to be falsely positive. We are just trying to be aware of what is really happening. And aware of the stories we are adding on to what is really happening.

If we can become aware of those stories, we can ask whether those stories are really true or whether it is our brain lying to us again. So, we want to be able to pay attention to what is happening right now. What is the fact? And what stories are we adding on that we take out of the baggage that we carry with us. When we do that, we can see what is really happening so we can make better decisions. We have better information to base those decisions on. If we don’t see that all the stories we make are not true, we make decisions on false information.

Some people can be mindful throughout the day without having to develop the skill. I could not. When I started meditation, I operated at 100 miles per hour of fast asleep. The only way I could slow down the mental chatter was by learning to meditate.  It was hard for me to learn to meditate as I was either moving quickly or asleep. Over time I learned to slow myself down. It probably was a good six months before I noticed a difference, being calmer and more collected.

There is a difference between mindfulness and mediation.  Mindfulness is a state where we are aware, accepting, and non-judgmental as we can be of “what is” right now. Meditation is a tool to train our brains to be aware and concentrated.    Some meditation apps have relaxation exercises that they call meditation. And those are good to do. But they do not train your brain to be in the present moment. It may be easier to learn to meditate if you learn to relax first. We meditate to become more flexible and tolerant to the present moment. Meditation is training to be aware of thoughts arising, so we are not jerked around by them.

We need to be ready for the stuff life is going to throw at us. We often think, once I get through this, things will be fine. But there is always something else. If we practice, we are going to be stronger so the “something else” does not feel so overwhelming. We are training our brains to be aware of thoughts arising, so we are not jerked around by them. I lived a lot of my life being jerked around by my thoughts, doing things I did not need to do.

Sitting meditation opens us to every moment of our life. It teaches us how to relate to life directly, so we can truly experience the present moment, free from our perceptions. In sitting meditation, you start seeing the stories that come up in your mind that you may not see as you are running through life. When you are doing, doing, doing, you don’t see the 2500+ thoughts coming up in your mind every hour. But when you sit down to meditate, you say, “I can’t do it, my mind is too busy.” It is not that you cannot do it. It is that you finally see what you could not see before you started to meditate. You have slowed yourself down so you can see what is going on.

We do not meditate to be comfortable. We meditate to have an open, compassionate attentiveness to whatever is going on. Compassionate because we don’t want to strengthen our neuropathways of being judgmental. We learn to stay with ourselves no matter what is happening. We learn to say, “I can be with this. I don’t like it, but I can live with it. I don’t have any control over it. I might not be OK now, but I am going to be OK.” We learn to stay with ourselves without putting labels of good and bad, right and wrong; all of that stuff we layer on top of our experience.

Often sitting meditation focuses on the breath. We breathe in the present moment, not in the past or the future. It is always with us, 24/7. You can’t breathe in the past or the future so focusing on the breath brings us back to the present moment. But breath meditation doesn’t work for everyone. For some people, focusing on the breath can be upsetting or even traumatizing. And that is why as an anchor, something to come back to when your mind wanders, you may choose to switch the focus of your attention to your feet on the ground or your hands in your lap. You need something to pull yourself back when your thoughts start spinning out, because your mind secretes thoughts just like your mouth secretes saliva. We want to become aware of when our mind secretes thoughts.

Other ways to bring our mind back is to use breath poems or breath practices. This breath poem by Thich Nhat Hanh is the one I used as I was learning to meditate.

In Out… Meditation
  • Breathing in, I know I am breathing in
  • Breathing out, I know I am breathing out
  • Breathing in, I know I am breathing deeply
  • Breathing out, I know I am breathing slowly
  • Breathing in, I calm my body
  • Breathing out, I feel ease
  • Breathing in, I smile
  • Breathing out, I release
  • In, Out
  • Deep, Slow
  • Calm, Ease
  • Smile, Release

When we meditate, we see our mind is going a million miles an hour thinking about all kinds of things, and it just happens without any effort on our part. We see when we are spinning off into fantasy land. We see when we harden to circumstances and people; think about how often you have tensed up just seeing a particular person. We see when we are somehow closing down to life, we just check out.

We see our tendency to lay a lot of labels, opinions, and judgments on top of what’s happening. And we see we have habitual patterns that limit our life; like that brick wall I put up that limited my life. We also see that no matter how good we plan, it is not going to give us certainty and security.  The best laid plans go awry. There will be things we cannot control.

 We also see that we can handle emotional discomfort and the trials and tribulations of life. When I first started meditating, I thought it was crazy to sit through any discomfort at all. I couldn’t sit through any discomfort. I started by sitting with the discomfort of an itch. And I learned that if I just let it be there, it would go away. We need to learn to be with discomfort, because we will have both physical, mental, and emotional discomforts in our lives. We have to build up our strengths to be with them. We have to start with the little irritating things. Then slightly bigger discomforts, so we expand our window of tolerance.

One other thing I found in my meditation is resistance to just being here, even to simply enjoying the present moment. I might be meditating in the woods on a beautiful sunny day. Everything was all right, so you think I would be happy just sitting. But I find myself thinking, when is this going to be over.  What is the next thing we are going to do. We have a resistance to just being here, even when everything is OK.

When we see that we can sit with that urge to do something. We can remind ourselves that we don’t have to give into every urge. We can build up our ability to resist our urges. We can learn a lot about ourselves by seeing our urges.

We can also learn by looking at the quality of our attention.  We tend to judge things all the time. We don’t accept what is.  We judging whether we like, dislike, or can ignore what is happening. When we are judging, we might see ourselves covering up our true self with defenses, building that brick wall or putting on masks to keep ourselves safe. That is all part of being who we are and aware of what is happening.

True Self/Defenses Meditation
  • Breathing in, I see my true self
  • Breathing out, I let go of defenses
  • Breathing in I feel my inner goodness
  • Breathing out, I open my heart
  • Breathing in, I feel joy
  • Breathing out, I let go of clinging
  • True Self, Defenses
  • Inner Goodness, Open Heart
  • Feel Joy, Clinging

It is exhausting wearing a mask or protecting your wall of armor. So, it is not surprising that you feel you don’t have the energy to meditate. If you start with an energizing breath and come back to it when you are feeling lethargic or sleepy, you will find that your meditation actually recharges you. When you think, I am too tired to meditate, try using the energizing breath. The longer you do it, the more impact you will feel.

Energizing Breath Meditation
  • Breathe in for the count of 8-10, keep breathing in for the full count
  • Breathe out for the count of 4

Sometimes we don’t want to meditate because unconsciously we know that an unpleasant thought or feeling is just below the surface and as soon as we quite our mind it will pop up. Or because we are too anxious.  We feel restless. Instead of giving in to the urge to quit, see if you can sit through the urge the first time, and the second time. The third time you have the urge to quit, go ahead and end your meditation. Train yourself that you don’t have to give into every urge in our body. We don’t want to strengthen the neuropathway that says you have to immediately take care of every urge you feel. You want to pause, look at the urge, and decide what you want to do. With practice you will be able to not give into the urge for longer and longer periods of time. This is not to say you should never move during meditation. There are times in meditation that you need to do a posture check and adjust your posture. There are times in meditation when your shoulders are tightening up and it would be skillful to bring your shoulders up to your ears and slide them down.

If sitting with the intention not to move is really hard, you may need to use a calming breath. So, let’s sit with a calming breath and then practice the intention not to move.

Calming Breath Meditation
  • Breathe in for the count of 4
  • Breathe out for the count of 8-10, breathing out the full count.
Intention Not to Move Meditation
  • Move around until you are in a comfortable position.
  • Set the intention not to move.
  • Notice the urge to move coming up.
  • You don’t have to give in to the urge, stay still.
  • With practice you can avoid giving into the urge for longer periods of time.

Meditate in the mindful middle, neither suppressing thoughts nor entirely lost in them. In meditation, we are not trying to stop the thoughts.  That is impossible.  The mind secretes thoughts like the salivary gland secretes saliva. The goal is to be aware of our thoughts. We are training our brains to be aware of when our minds wander. The more you practice paying attention to the present moment when you’re calm and happy, the easier and more effective it’ll be when you’re freaking out. You can’t learn to be mindful when you are in the midst of chaos. The purpose of meditation is not to be a good meditator but to train our brains to be mindful.

Training our brain through meditation enables us to make wise choices. When we meditate, we see our stressful thought patterns. It’s hard to see through the mental clutter. If you take a glass of water, throw some mud in and stir it up, you can’t see what is in the glass. But if you let the glass sit, the mud will settle to the bottom and the water will be clear. In life, we are spinning, spinning, spinning all these thoughts. When we meditate, we let them sink to the bottom so we can see what is really true.  We see our reactive tendencies. That makes it easier to catch ourselves when we are about to put our foot on the hamster wheel of reactivity. We can stop, take a conscious breath, and choose a more skillful way to respond to life. We need to learn to have a strong back with boundaries along with a soft front that allows in both joy and sorrow.

Strong Back, Soft Front Meditation
  • Breathing in, I feel my strong back
  • Breathing out, I feel my soft front
  • Breathing in, I grown my spine
  • Breathing out, I relax my chest
  • Strong Back, Soft Front
  • Grow Spine, Relax Chest
Feeling Breath Meditation
  • Noticing the sensation of my breath in my body
  • Cool air coming into my nostrils
  • Warm air leaving my nostrils
  • Breathing in my chest rises
  • Breathing out my chest falls
  • Breathing in my stomach expands
  • Breathing out my stomach deflates