Today is my daughter’s 9th birthday. I still can’t believe we made it! As a mom, my job is to keep my daughter safe, loved and to balance the demands of a busy modern life. I’m much better at it now than I used to be, mostly because of mediation.
I moved to Maine from California as a single mom with a 12-month old baby in 2010. I had a great job, but knew no one. The small town I lived in was not welcoming me and I felt like an outsider. I was juggling work and parenting with no support system. I was frazzled, fried, and at my wits end. How could I be there for my child when I was barely holding it together?! That’s when I found meditation and it transformed my life.
The mind is like a muscle, and a muscle can be trained. All it takes is practice and consistency. Building a meaningful meditation practice, does not take hard work. What it does take is dedication and a commitment to nurture yourself. The initial goal is to start with 5 minutes a day. There are 1,440 minutes in 24 hours, so this is merely setting aside .35% of the day for yourself. Even the busiest professional or mom can carve out that much time for self-care. The most important thing initially is that you mediate for those 5 minutes at least once a day, every day. Studies have shown that doing something every day for 21 days makes it a habit.
Meditation can be intimidating but doesn’t have to be when you take the mystery out of it. The purpose is to create a place of inner calm that you are able to instantly access whenever you need it. It is a tool to assist each of us to stop the incessant stream of thoughts that run through our heads, most of the time. By calming the mind one is able to see life from the witness point of consciousness. As an observer. A little distance, even from ourselves, can help with perspective. Our minds are like the blue sky and thoughts are like clouds, they come and they go, but they are not permanent characteristics of the sky. You can train your mind to observe thoughts from a place of detachment as though they belong to someone else. Observe without judgement or fear. Then release the ones that do not serve you.
So, how do I start meditating if I’m not a Guru or Zen Master?! Easy, it starts with breath.
Step 1: Posture & Space
Find a quiet space where you can close the door and be alone for 5 minutes. Even if it’s the bathroom. Your meditation is a judgment-free zone. You can either sit in a chair or on the floor. Sit with your back straight, shoulders rolled back, and chin positioned as though you are facing someone right across from you. Place your hands loosely in your lap or on top of your knees palms up in a position of receiving. When our posture is straight it is much easier to focus. As you go through your meditation you may notice you slouch as your mind wanders. The quickest way to bring yourself back to the breath, is to sit up straight. Once you are comfortable, close your eyes or let them go soft.
Step 2: The First Four Breaths (4-7-8)
You are going to start by taking four deep breaths. These are belly breaths, where you inhale and push out your belly to allow more air to fill your lungs. Also known as breathing from the diaphragm. Breathing this way takes in more oxygen, relaxes your shoulders, neck, and chest and frees your heart from having to work as hard to support your breathing. As you take in each breath, inhale slowly through your nose, feeling the air all the way up to the top of your head. Inhale this way for 7 seconds. Then exhaling slowly through your mouth, allowing any tension, anxiety, or discomfort to be released with each breath. Exhale this way for 8 seconds. 4-7-8. This exercise will instantly calm and focus you and make you present. This technique takes effort and there is little space for a wandering mind when the body has good posture and is intent on breathing this way.
Step 3: Find the Center of Your Head
After you’ve completed the first 4 breaths, you are going to draw invisible lines to help you find and visualize the center of your heard. This is the area that you want to “empty” in meditation. First draw an imaginary straight line from your right temple to your left temple. Then draw another imaginary line from the space between your eyebrows, back to the back of your head. The area where these lines cross, is the center of your head. As you continue to breath and visualize your mind empty of thoughts, this is space to picture.
Step 4: Counting Breaths
A Tibetan Buddhist Monk taught me about counting. He said if you can get from 1 to 10 without your mind wandering then you’re the Dalai Lama! Even the most trained meditator deals with a wandering mind. At first, we give the mind something to do by counting. The first method is to count before each breath. One – breathe in, breathe out; Two – breathe in, breathe out; Three – breathe in, breathe out, and so on. This brings our awareness to what is about to happen, the anticipation of what is about to happen. The second method is to count after each breath. Breathe in, breathe out – One; Breathe in, breathe out – Two; Breathe in, breathe out – Three, and so on. This is bringing your awareness to what has already happened. As you practice this type of counting it is a way to show you two levels of perspective and awareness that you can cultivate by observing your thoughts.
Step 5: Awareness of the Breath
After you practice counting, shift your attention to sensation. Notice how, as you breathe, you feel the air as it hits your nostrils. Does it tickle? Is it cool? Notice how it feels when your lungs fill with air. Does it feel natural, the rhythm of your body? As you exhale, do your shoulders relax? Does it make you aware of any tightness in them? Continue and just notice what you notice. If your mind wanders, which it will, gently bring it back to the breath. Observe any thoughts that arise with detachment. No judgement. Just witness and continue breathing. To end your meditation, use the 4-7-8 breath you started with. When you are ready, open your eyes and come back to the room. You did it!
Bonus Tip: The Flower Tool
For those pesky times when you just cannot keep your focus on the breath and your mind needs a little extra help to empty, try this tip. Visualize a flower. A perfect beautiful flower. Give it a color. A white magnolia, a red rose, a pink peony. Picture that flower in the center of your head and let it vacuum up all of the thoughts. Then when it is full, and your mind is not, push the flower out of your forehead, and let it float away. You can do the same thing with a balloon.