Thursday, February 11, 2016

More on Meditation: Three Ways Meditating Has Improved My Life

A little over a year ago I wrote a post about Self-Hypnosis and Zen Breathing which touched on meditation.

Since then, I've become way more disciplined in my meditation practice. While I'm still not super hardcore about it, pretty much every morning I meditate for 10 minutes and go through 10 minutes of yoga poses before moving on to make workout. If pressed for time, I'll skip the workout but not the mediation and yoga. Those 20 minutes just have such a profoundly positive impact on the rest of my day.

My way of meditating is pretty basic. I sit cross-legged on a couple of my cushions on the floor, relax, rest my hands on my knees, and close my eyes. My spine is straight, and my tongue is lightly touching the area behind my two front teeth. While I used to use a  simple "one-two" method for my breathing—Inhale ("one"), exhale ("two"), repeat—I now tend to favor the method advocated by Robert Aitken (1917 - 2010), founder of the Diamond Sangha, a Zen Buddhist society he founded in Honolulu. He advocated the counting of breaths to people who were new to sesshin, or intense Zen meditation:
If you are counting your breaths, then count "one" for the inhalation, "two" for the exhalation and so on but let the count do the counting.  In other words, let that point one count one, let that point two count two, let that point three count three and so on up to ten and then repeat.
Inspired by Thích Nhất Hạnh's book Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, I've started making an effort to smile with every exhalation. As he writes,
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment!
I won't go into all the potential benefits of meditating. There are plenty of books and articles about that. Instead, I want to share three of the benefits I've noticed personally.

1. Better sleep. Ever have those nights where your body is tired but your brain isn't? For whatever reason, you just can't stop thinking or, even worse, worrying. This rarely happens to me anymore, and I credit meditation. Meditating has helped me calm the notorious "monkey mind," so when I lay down to sleep at night, my brain slows down just as much as the rest of my body. With essentially no random thoughts or worries keeping me awake, I drift off to sleep in a matter of minutes.

2. Moments of bliss. I tend to have a somewhat melancholic, at times nihilistic nature. (Probably explains my love for The Cure and The Crow...) This tendency towards melancholy doesn't mean I spend all my time sulking about, but I'm not always exactly a bundle of joy either. However, since I began meditating, I've found I occasionally get these strange, passing feelings of what I can only describe as bliss. I'll be going about the mundane business of the day when I will suddenly feel this strange feeling of peace and contentment. It's as if my soul was suddenly being swaddled in a warm, soft blanket. These feelings are very brief, usually not even a minute. To be honest, at first it was a little disconcerting. However, now I have come to welcome my brief moments of bliss.

3. Responding, not reacting. What do I mean by this? Reactions just happen with little thinking or deliberation, while responses are more thoughtful and deliberate. As Leo Baubata writes in his excellent Zen Habits website, "The truth is, we often react without thinking. It’s a gut reaction, often based on fear and insecurities, and it’s not the most rational or appropriate way to act. Responding, on the other hand, is taking the situation in, and deciding the best course of action based on values such as reason, compassion, cooperation, etc." For many of us—myself included—learning to respond instead of react takes discipline and effort. I have found that meditation is a great help in this area. With my mind more naturally at ease, I don't find it as necessary to simply react to things right away. You know how some live TV shows will have a seven-second broadcast delay so that if someone swears of does something else deemed naughty they can bleep it? My brain, more or less, is starting to have the same sort of thing thanks to meditation. (It doesn't always work, though.)

A quick word of advice to those thinking of experimenting with meditation: It isn't for everyone. There is some evidence that meditation can be risky for people with mental health issues, such as depression. If you have any mental health issues, consult a healthcare professional first.

Also, meditation can be difficult, and people can have a hard time dealing with the thoughts and feelings they might experience. Do some research. Go to the library and check out a bunch of books on mediating so you have some idea of what to expect. Remember, meditation is really a form of exercise. Take your time, do your research, don't force anything, and don't be afraid to seek help.

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