I always love when people ask me what my favorite position is. Why, lotus, of course. What were you thinking?
It may seem like everybody and their mom is meditating these days. And, well… my mom just took a meditation course after seven years of my incessant nagging, so there you have it. Yet I meet so many people who are wowed by the fact that I’m a longtime meditator (7 years and counting, son!) and that I have a daily practice at the tender age of 25. So often, I hear the sentence “I wish I could meditate…” and I’m always stunned by it. I seriously mean this when I say it: anyone can meditate. You don’t need to be a monk, hermit, or even have a guru or teacher to learn to meditate (though it can help).
Simply put, meditation is being still: physically, verbally, and mentally still (eventually at expert level). It is not a Buddhist practice (though it can be.) It is not a Hindu practice (though it can be.) It is literally just sitting with an intention for stillness. There are many types (even standing and walking ones), but the two most basic ones are:
- Mindful meditation – Taking your awareness to different parts of your body, breath, thoughts.
- Concentration meditation – Actively trying to concentrate on a thought, sensation or a visualization and bringing yourself back to that when your mind wanders.
There is no poster child for meditation. I am a rowdy hockey fan whose favorite band since 16 has been Tool and I grew up in a third world country. None of those facts have any relevance to my ability to meditate. If I can do it… so can you.
When I first started, I wondered what good could possibly come of me being still sitting in silence doing absolutely nothing. Well, let me tell you—one UNDERenlightened to another UNDERenlightened friend. I can only speak from my own experience but a lot of research backs up my positive experience with meditation.
- I feel more energized.
- I feel calmer and less stressed.
- I feel more focused and clear minded.
- I can control my emotions better (e.g. not throw my drink at the TV screen when the San Jose Sharks make a terrible play).
- I am more aware of my own self and others around me. (This one sounds pretty new age-y and I apologize for that. What I mean is, for example, if I feel angry, it’s easier for me to pick up on the fact that I’m angry and stop to think before saying or doing something hurtful. Similarly, I am more aware of how others around me are feeling and, honestly, sometimes they don’t have to say a darned thing for me to know.)
I’m a true believer in this preflight safety message across the board: Put on your own oxygen mask before tending to others.
How did I get into this life-changing practice? A 5-day course called YES Plus. I took my first freshman semester in college. I had just moved back to the United States after 12 years and was having a tough time adjusting to suddenly not having any friends. After attending an introductory meeting for a meditation group, I signed up. Initially, I believed it would just help me de-stress and show me the ropes of yoga. But little did I know that it would change my life. YES Plus is a course offered to college students and young professionals to learn meditation, gentle yoga, some simple, effective life skills and finally (and mainly) breathing techniques. It ended up being the best thing I’ve ever done for myself and since then I’ve assisted with at least 10 seminars at various universities (including Stanford University’s own YES Plus chapter—my main YES Plus community, since I work at Stanford.) I learned to manage my emotions better (which we know is most difficult at the dramatic age of 19), learned to be happier and more energized, and gained a huge ever-growing group of incredibly inspiring friends. I’ve never looked back since.
The most impactful thing I learned in YES Plus was breathing. Sounds silly, right? Different breathing techniques help segue into meditation—the ones I learned helped me breathe deeper (Pro Tip: use more lung space; if you’ve taken a biology class, you know that respiration is an act of energizing and detoxing your body so breathing deeper means more of that), and made me feel awake yet calm afterwards. It’s like having caffeine without the anxious jitters. For people like me who think it’s incredibly difficult to just sit and be… breathing as an active and engaging process helps the transition into peace of mind tremendously. I’ve found that I can get to a deeper space of meditation faster.
To this day, I have trouble meditating sometimes—I have been conditioned to be on-the-go and I feel like I’m wasting my time sitting and ‘doing nothing.’ But the fact is that you are doing something in meditation. You are giving yourself peace of mind (a mini brain vacation, if you may) and that will translate into everything you do. Trust me. You can’t knock it till you try it! Perseverance is key. Set a bar for yourself: ‘I will meditate for 5 minutes daily for a month.’ If it feels good, up the ante by increasing the time or number of times you do it in the day. If it doesn’t, then you learned what doesn’t work for you and are one step closer to realizing what does.
Now that I have gotten you stoked about the prospect of meditation (hopefully!), here’s what I tell people who ask me how to meditate. Quite simply…
1. Prep yourself
Give yourself no excuse to get up once you’ve finally settled into a meditation. Listen to mom’s advice and go to the bathroom, drink water, eat a light snack, wear comfortable clothing (yoga pants/ sweat pants, etc.; not tight jeans and a corset). Do not eat a huge fatty meal because you will sleep, not meditate.
2. Exercise (yoga is a fantastic segue into meditation)
You will be sitting very still for a while so let loose any ants in your pants. Set a gentle alarm if you need to restrict time. There are plenty of meditation apps to help. Don’t startle yourself into consciousness with loud, sudden sounds; that defeats the purpose of relaxation. The best duration is around 20 minutes—not too much, not too little (though your perception of time can vary each and every instance!). But you can meditate for as little or as long as you damn please. As mentioned above, breathing techniques are amazing and simple ways to ease you into zen mode.
3. Keep your back straight
This can be uncomfortable to begin with because we’re a species that loves to slouch, but hang tough the first few times and you’ll even begin to see a change in your daily posture. Do your best—otherwise, soon you’ll be drooling on your shirt and sleeping, not meditating. Big difference. Use a backrest, pillow or wall. If you can without a wall, you’re already semi-enlightened… oh wait, this is about being UNDERenlightened. Scratch that.
4. Sit symmetrically
This means both feet on the ground, seated on a chair, or cross-legged on the floor. Essentially, both left and right sides of your body should look the same. Palms facing up (preferred personally, but try both) or down on your lap.
5. Set the mood to be relaxed and comfortable
You can’t meditate if your body is not where it wants to be. Snuggle up in a blanket, don’t sit cross-legged if it’s not comfortable, turn off or dim the lights. Keep your cellphone on silent or locked in a safe on top of the fridge.
6. Pay attention to your body and breath
Literally what those words mean. We often don’t even realize how much tension we carry physically. I often have scrunched up brows or tightly pursed lips or my shoulders are up to my ears. When you stop and just be with yourself, you’ll start to notice these things, trust me. It’s wild. Loosen up those parts taking deep breaths.
7. Here’s where you can go two ways
You can continue to just be mindful of your thoughts and body, and every time you get too wrapped up in your head, remind yourself to bring yourself back to the breath and focus on that. No need to get mad at yourself for your brain wandering. It’s got a PhD in it! Or, alternatively, when you feel calm and settled after step 5, you can walk yourself through all your body parts gently and take deep breaths as you do so. To give you an idea of an order to follow, this is what I do (you can say this in your head slowly as you go along): Take your attention to your right foot, right knee, right thigh and hip. (Follow that with the same on left side, and don’t forget to keep breathing; also, if needed, feel free to pause and stay on any body part as long as you wish.) Abdomen, stomach, chest, right shoulder, right arm and hand. Left shoulder, arm and hand. Neck, face, cheeks, top of the head. Throughout, you can be as detailed as you like. And finally, just take your attention to your whole body.
Now. ‘Take your attention to’ does not mean ‘pay attention to.’ You don’t need to focus like it’s two hours ‘till that O Chem exam you’ve stayed up all night cramming for. It’s just a gentle awareness, like, “Hey foot, how’s it hanging? Say hi to your mother for me, alright?” It’s really more of a “Oh, that’s my foot. Deep breath.” And if you feel like moving on to your next bit… swell. If not, just listen to what your body is asking you to pay attention to.
Note: You may experience tingling, lightheadedness, have a movie of thoughts, or even the dreaded… nothing. Nirvana wasn’t achieved in one day. Practice is key to going deeper. Even if you do it 5 minutes a day, the quality will begin to shift. Even if you don’t experience a life-changing shift right away, maybe you’ll see a change in your energy levels or mood. Give it a fair chance before declaring yourself a meditation squib (inside joke for you Harry Potter junkies).
8. Once you’re far away in Blissville or Zenlandia, you have two more options…
to stay there or to lie down on your back (bed, floor, whatever is closest and requires the least movement) until you’re happy to get back to the real world or until your alarm goes off. Or you may just fall asleep and wake up 8 hours later.
9. Repeat steps 1 – 8 as often as possible
There are apps to remind you of these too. I use a free basic meditation insight timer.
And there you have it! I like to say that meditation is my medication—my cure-all. I sure you hope you try out a dose or two to see if it’ll change your life like it did mine. If you do, I’d love to hear about it.
Your first step toward enlightenment is now complete. Your first step toward UNDERenlightenment is understanding irony. May the force be with you.
Photo by Sara Slattery