One of the ultimate measures of adulthood isn’t how much we’ve accomplished, but all that we’re able to weather. As we strike out on our own we’re going to encounter challenges, and no matter how many we overcome there’s always going to be more. When times get tough, the only option we have is to get tougher. How do we accomplish that?
The term might conjure up images of mountain temples or austere monks holding crane poses beneath freezing waterfalls. Or perhaps you might imagine smelly yoga mats, scented candles, and tofu-jerky (yes, it tastes as bad as it sounds).
“It’s just not my thing,” you might be tempted to say, but at this stage in our lives meditation isn’t just good for us, it’s essential. And as strange as it might seem at first, it simply comes down to knowing what you want and how to get there.
Know What You Want
Let's be clear here: Meditation is not going to grant you a sudden burst of enlightenment. If you're looking for some brilliant epiphany that’ll reveal the secrets of the universe you’re in for disappointment. Meditation is likewise not going to make you a genius or grant you the ability to kill a bear in a single punch (as awesome as that would be). It’s not going to make life’s trials and tribulations go away.
It will, however, make them easier to deal with.
Meditation isn’t (as a lot of people mistakenly believe) about draining oneself of all thoughts and feelings, but instead focuses on being able to recognize, isolate, and control one’s emotions. At its core it’s a workout routine, designed to strengthen your resolve, willpower, and ability to handle stress.
Repeated meditation produces a host of health benefits both mental and physical. While stress relief is definitely the most well-known, research has consistently shown that meditation helps promote compassion and empathy, reduces blood pressure, and (most importantly) increases activity in the areas of the brain associated with rational thinking, planning, logic, and willpower. Every time we meditate we not only help ourselves let go of the junk we’ve picked up through the day, but improve at unburdening ourselves as well. Quite simply, meditation isn’t just good for us, it can actually help make us good. And this is also why meditation is one of the 15 life skills everyone should know.
And on that note…
Know That It Won't Be As Hard As You Imagine
One of the reasons we’re so quick to write off meditation isn’t because it looks too complicated, but because it looks too simple.
Just focus on breathing? Sit quietly? Do some stretches? There’s no way that’s going to produce any profound sense of serenity; it can’t be that easy!
Ah, but it is.
Now make no mistake, meditation is a discipline. Like any discipline it requires effort and practice. Nevertheless, a simple perspective change can make all the difference in the world.
The reason we can get frustrated at meditation is our inability to keep our minds from wandering. We’re used to being bombarded with a hundred different thoughts at once – at any given time we’re contemplating both what we’re going to have for dinner and where we’re headed in life (if there’s a time for existential crisis, it’s your 20s). When we find ourselves struggling to sit still for ten seconds, let alone ten minutes, we feel like we’re failing. No matter how hard we try, we just can’t shut things off.
And that’s normal – heck, that’s fine. Our minds are meant to be used, and contrary to what you might have been led to believe, there’s nothing wrong with letting your thoughts drift.
Remember that meditation isn’t about emptying ourselves of thought but being able to look at ourselves from a neutral perspective.
It’s about being able to get out of our own heads (even for just a moment) and realistically and impartially assess what we’re really feeling. Anger, sadness, and anxiety in particular can seem so powerful because we blindly experience them.
Meditation allows us to look at ourselves clearly and understand “Hey, I’m upset – depressed, anxious, sad, or angry – (and that’s ok)”. Simply stepping back lets us not only identify our feelings, but disentangle ourselves from them. They’re still there (as they should be – you’re not a robot) but they don’t control us. By learning to witness your emotions and physical feelings instead of just experiencing them, you gain the invaluable tool of then learning to control them.
You’re not trying to keep yourself from feeling certain things; you’re empowering yourself to experience them almost as a third party. By separating yourself from your thoughts and automatic emotions, you’re instantly able to put them in perspective and question their validity or intensity.
Know How You Want To Do It
Now maybe you’ve tried meditation before and, after an hour of shrill new age music and trying to twist yourself into “downwards-saluting-seagull” or the “pretzel-of-discomfort”, figured that it just wasn’t your thing. Don’t despair just yet. Incense and bamboo might not be your speed, but don’t write off meditation because of it. Meditation is about restoring your sense of balance, returning to a mentally centered state, and how that’s achieved is going to differ from one person to another. What makes one person calm is going to irritate someone else, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You just have to find your way of restoring yourself.
And there’s no shortage of options. Here are 3 of the most common:
Mindfulness (sometimes called “mindful meditation”) emphasizes awareness and presence in the moment starting with the most basic of our bodily functions: breathing. This brand of meditation teaches us not to empty ourselves of thought, but to be able to distinguish thought from reality. As our minds drift (and they will drift), we’ll be able to better distinguish our actual thoughts and emotions, understand what’s causing them, and subsequently learn to control them rather than letting them control us.
The world’s a scary place, and scariest when we’re first trying to make our way in it. The first few years of adulthood will not be easy as we try to get a handle on life and deal with a whole host of uncertainties and unknowns. In times like this having a personal mantra can make all the difference.
A mantra is simply a set of words we recite to ourselves over and over. It can be as short as a sentence or as long as a poem (though shorter’s usually easier to remember). Think of it almost as a psychological anchor. No matter how chaotic life can get, or how clouded the future might seem, we have this little piece of familiarity – something to help us regain our center.
For some of us, no matter how noble our intentions or mighty our resolve, sitting still just isn’t going to cut it. Don’t despair, there’s a solution for you as well. Walking meditation (sometimes called “kinhin”) provides a combination of mindfulness and mantra, giving us a chance to get into our rhythm (with measured pacing) and to focus on breathing at the same time.
Read Live and Dare's complete introduction to walking meditation.
Think there’s no way to meditate and look like a badass? Think again. This form of meditation evolved from a 500 year old Chinese martial art, and while Tai Chi’s choreographed stances can make it one of the most complex forms of meditation, it can also be the most fun. Beyond being used by Jet Li (and what other reason could you want?), chances are high that there are regular (and free) Tai Chi classes practiced wherever you’re living. Simply search for Tai Chi classes in your area.
Know Where and When You'll Be Doing It
While we should have the ultimate goal of being able to meditate anywhere it’s more than likely that we’re going to need a set place (and time) to get started. A real master might be able to restore serenity in bumper-to-bumper traffic, but we’ll probably need to start out someplace more reasonable.
First and foremost, wherever we pick to meditate should be removed from distractions. Turn off the radio, close the laptop, and if your dryer rumbles and howls like a wounded bison it may be best to leave it off until you’re done. If you’re going to meditate, then meditate – this isn’t an exercise you can half-ass. If there’s something you have to take care of that’ll distract you otherwise, go take care of it now. It’s tough to quiet the noise inside our heads, we don’t need any external junk piled on.
To really lock down your practice and your progress, decide on a schedule. “Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings, after coffee” or “everyday before dinner”. Specific and actionable, not just “start meditating more.”
Now while you probably don’t own your own mountain-top cabin or placid rock garden, having something green nearby is probably going to help. One of the chief hurdles we have to overcome is extricating ourselves from the rush of daily life and the tyranny of our schedules. Something natural – a house plant, a fountain, anything – will help us remember that our schedules aren’t the only ones out there.
Of course, technology isn’t always the enemy. There are a number of great apps out on the market designed to help remind us to meditate, provide helpful tips, and even recommend specific exercises custom-tailored to our present emotions (the Stop, Breathe, & Think app is a great place to start).
Know That You'll Have To Keep Doing It
Don’t for a second think that this going to happen immediately. Some days will be rougher than others, some days you’ll just forget, and there’ll even be some days where you’ll wonder if it’s even worth it.
That's all part of the point of doing it, and it absolutely is.
Slowly but surely we’re going to learn to master ourselves: to feel, but not be ruled by feeling, to think, but not get lost in a vicious vortex of over-analysis. Pressure that would’ve crushed us before will be bearable. Dilemmas that would’ve seemed insurmountable before won’t be able to scare us the same way. In enough time, they won’t scare us at all. Our problems can be big- we can be bigger.
You will get there.