I attended my first meditation retreat in 2009. It was a Vipassana retreat in the tradition taught by S.N. Goenka, with 10 days of silence and about 10 hours of sitting meditation each day. (This was a much more intense style of retreat than others I have attended since.) One of my favorite understandings of meditation came from this retreat. It was said that humans can be likened to a rope.
Unwinding the Rope
Every day, you are bombarded by countless varieties of stimulation, from sounds to sights to smells to physical sensations to marketing messages and on and on; and, countless times throughout your normal days, you likely react to these stimuli. We scratch our itches, turn our heads towards sounds, eat food when hungry, and maybe reach for our phone or another distraction when feeling uncomfortable. There is nothing inherently wrong with this; in fact, it’s very natural to react to your world. If this continues unnoticed, however, you may find yourself unconsciously defaulting to reactivity throughout your life, acting impulsively without awareness or intention, when inserting a pause and a choice may serve you and your goals much more optimally. All of your unconscious reactions can be seen as twisting the rope that is your self, winding ever tighter.
Meditation, then, can be seen as allowing the rope to unwind. While meditating, you can notice stimuli (sounds, thoughts, feelings, sensations, etc.), and instead of reacting to them, you remain in the seat of the witness, observing whatever phenomena arises with curiosity and compassion instead of judgment, and with interest instead of reaction.
By meditating this way for brief or longer periods throughout your days, over time, your nervous system slowly shifts from higher vigilance to more tranquility and equanimity. You unwind. It’s not that you become numb, passive, or aloof to your world—instead, you can actively participate in your life in even more conscious ways, choosing how to respond, if at all, to what you experience, rather than reacting impulsively without awareness.
How to Meditate
There are innumerable ways to meditate, such as sitting, walking, gazing at an object, repeating a word or phrase, focusing on part of the body, etc. Here is one foundational meditation practice I recommend, described in 2 ways.
When meditating, it can be helpful to set a timer for a specific period of time, whether it’s 3, 45, or any number of minutes. This helps hold the container for the meditation practice, and it can help your mind agree to the practice knowing that it will end at a set time, when you can then go on with your daily activities.
Sit comfortably and feel your body breathing. If thoughts arise, notice that, and gently guide your awareness back to feeling the sensations of your breath.
Sit in a comfortable position, both relaxed and with an upright spine, neck, and head. You can cross your legs or place your feet on the floor. If you cross your legs, it is helpful (more comfortable and less painful over long periods of time) to sit elevated on cushions or in some way that keeps your hips above your knees.
Let your eyes either close or turn downwards with a soft gaze, not focused on anything. This can help turn your attention inwards. Meditating with the eyes open or closed has different effects that can be interesting to play with; you can see what feels right for you at different times.
Bring your awareness to your breath, and specifically to the physical sensations in your body as you inhale and exhale.
Notice how the air moves through your nostrils, sensing the temperature and sensations of the inhale and exhale.
Feel your chest expand and contract, rise and fall, as you inhale and exhale.
Let your awareness rest into your lower belly, feeling the sensations of contraction and expansion of the diaphragm. Keep your awareness anchored to the physical sensations of your lower belly as you inhale and exhale for as long as you intend to meditate.
If you find your awareness has wandered away from your breath and into a thought, you can label this activity as “thinking” and gently guide your mind out of the content of the thought and back to sensing your breath. The mind is prone to wander through thoughts, and this is not a problem. In fact, these moments are in many ways the crux of a meditation practice, and what creates a lasting impact in your daily life—training you to come back, again and again and again. You can remind yourself that you’ve set aside this time to just be with your immediate, embodied experience. Any thoughts that require attention can be attended to after your meditation. These moments of returning to your intention of sensing the breath sharpens your awareness to remain more consistently in the present moment and in embodied reality, both while meditating and in everyday life.
If you notice a physical sensation arises anywhere in the body, such as a tingling, an itch, or another impulse, notice it without reacting to it—observe it with interest, seeing if it shifts as you continue sensing into it. If you feel pain, you observe it and notice when it shifts. If it feels strongly disturbing or overwhelming, you can of course adjust your position; practice doing so consciously, perhaps slowly, from a seat of clear choice, rather than unconscious reactivity.
When your meditation session has ended, let your awareness remain solely with the physical sensations in your lower belly for a moment longer. Then, still sensing into your body, slowly begin to expand your awareness to also include where your body is making contact with your surroundings, any sounds you are hearing, any smells you’re aware of, and eventually opening your eyes or lifting your gaze to notice what you see. Keep a portion of your awareness grounded in your embodied experience while also noticing the world around you. Throughout your day, you can practice being aware of both your physical sensations and external stimulation, your inner and outer worlds, integrating your meditation practice of self awareness with the rest of your life.
Take a transition moment between your meditation and the rest of your day to offer gratitude to yourself for setting aside time to meditate, to let yourself be as you are, and to just be with yourself, as well as gratitude to any other beings in your life you feel thankful for (friends, family, plants, animals, the earth, the sun, air, water, teachers, trees, the sun, your home, etc.). Gratitude helps deepen your connection with the organismic health of your self and the world.
A Consistent Practice
Meditation provides many benefits, which have been studied and written about in many peer-reviewed journals. If you'd like to begin a meditation practice, it's important to set yourself up for success by giving yourself realistic goals. If you've never meditated consistently before, committing to meditate for an hour every day may not be realistic for you. Instead, try committing to prioritize meditation once, twice, or even three times a week for five minutes. Any additional days or time spent can be seen as a bonus, but isn't necessary. Over time, you may want to increase your practice, as that feels more manageable and perhaps important for your life.
May your meditation practice bring you ever closer to your inherent health, well-being, and truth.