By Jimmy Warden
“I can’t meditate” and “I don’t have time to meditate” are two common phrases that I have heard from people over the years when I have discussed the topic of meditation. People revert to these common ideas because of the misunderstandings they have about meditation. Just because your thoughts don’t turn off doesn’t mean you can’t meditate and just because you don’t have 30 minutes to spare doesn’t mean you don’t have time. With that said, these two common misconceptions will be cleared up, while addressing a few ways that we can start practicing meditation, and putting it into action.
What is meditation?
Meditation has a couple of definitions, one being; to think about something for a long period of time (i.e. To contemplate an important matter). Another way to define it is using a technique such as mindfulness, visualization, focused attention, and many others, to achieve a calmer, clearer, and more focused state of mind. For the sake of this post, any time I use the word meditation, it will be in reference to its second definition. Considering there are multiple ways to meditate, it can get a bit confusing in discussions when we are unfamiliar with the various techniques and the names that coincide with them.
For starters, the technique of mindfulness is one that is the most familiar to people. In its essence, mindfulness is a technique where the practitioner’s goal is to be fully present in their environment. Fully present meaning aware of sounds, smells, thoughts, and actions. During that time, the practitioner is also trying to notice when their mind has drifted from the present. This often happens when thoughts or feelings take over our mind. When that happens, they “note” the thought by simply recognizing their attention has wandered and mentally letting go of the distraction, or by stating a word such as “thinking” or “feeling”; to create an awareness of where their attention has gone, and then they return to their present environment by using an anchor such as their breath, feeling their feet on the ground or floor beneath them, hearing a sound, or smelling something in the current environment. Mindfulness can also have an object of focus such as the breath or something physical in our visual field.
Visualization is a technique where the individual practices mental imagery. They’ll close their eyes and imagine anything from a still frame image, a series of actions, or a small light that grows in size. Whatever the practitioner imagines is prefaced on what they’re visualizing for. For example, if someone is visualizing with the intent to bring a sense of peace and calm into their life, they might picture themselves on the beach, on a lake shore, or sitting on top of a mountain looking at a view. If someone is visualizing with the intent to perform at a higher level, it may take the form of an athlete imagining themselves making their signature moves on the court or field. If someone is trying to simply practice visualization skills, it may start as basic as imagining a small sphere of light that gets larger with time.
Focused attention is a technique where the individual fixes their attention on an image or feeling while their eyes closed. It could also take the form of having the eyes open with the eyes fixed on an image or an object. When the attention wanders, the practitioner simply notes it and returns their attention to their object of focus. With that said, it is not an intense, effortful focus, but rather a soft, relaxed focus. Practicing a soft, relaxed focus allows attention to come to us rather than trying to seek it out. The more that we seek out focus, the less that it actually comes (for more on focus and productivity, check out this link.
How can meditation be applied in life?
Now that we’ve gone through some of the types of meditations, it’s time to discuss how we can apply meditation to life. Let’s start with mindfulness.
When it comes to applying mindfulness in our daily lives, we can practice it by trying to use the noting technique when we’re trying to be present. The mind can be finicky and it often wanders to places that are not relevant to our current circumstances. For example, there have probably been some times when our mind has been preoccupied during work, or school, or with our family. During those times when we begin to think about something other than what we’re currently doing, noting our thoughts by mentally saying the word “thinking” (or any other word to create a leading action) can allow us to return to the present and allow our attention to return to the present. If it is an emotion that has brought us away mentally, we can acknowledge it by using the word “feeling”. We could also return our attention to the present by noticing our breath, taking a couple of deep ones, then return our focus back to where we are.
I’m sure there have also been times when we’ve been eating a meal, but we’ve been distracted by our phones, a television show, our thoughts, or a conversation we’re having. To allow ourselves to enjoy the meal a bit more, we can try turning our attention to our food each time we take a bite. Notice the flavors. Notice the texture. Acknowledge whether or not it is enjoyable. If we’re out taking a walk, albeit in nature or in the city, have it be a mindful walk. Soak in the surroundings. Notice the feeling of your shoes against the trail or pavement. Listen to the sounds of birds or traffic. By taking a bit of time to notice our surroundings, we will become more immersed in that environment and have less worries about thoughts.
As for visualization, we could use this technique to help us imagine how an event could potentially turn out. Athletes often use visualization as part of their training regiment by imagining themselves on the field or court of play, moving fluidly throughout the game, and making the plays that they want to play once the game begins. This helps them create a sense of having “been there done that” before the game even starts, which can help keep a worried mind at ease. Visualization can also be used in this manner to cultivate a productive work day. If we take a few minutes before our day begins to imagine what it is we want to accomplish while we are at work, we give ourselves a better chance of accomplishing it because imagining those tasks will create a sense of urgency and level of importance that we’ll take with us when we arrive at work. Nervous before a date? Take a few moments to imagine what it might be like from start to finish. Imagine what could be said and how the events of the evening could unfold. This can help ease any anxiety we might be having before any type of performance.
Focused attention is a technique that can help us increase our levels of productivity over time the more that we practice it. In order to practice it, we can use some of the strategies that I mentioned previously to begin sharpening our skills, then we can take those skills to practice them in more realistic settings. Work is often a place where people’s minds wander, so let’s imagine ourselves in our place of work. We have a task that we need to complete on our desktop computer or on our laptop. The more that we keep a soft, relaxed focus on that screen, the more likely it will be that our focus will stay there. The more that our eyes wander, the less focus we’ll have. The more that we stare intensely at our screen, the more resistance we’ll create towards the task, and our attention will break quicker than if we had a soft focus. This scenario could be said if we have documents that we need to read. If we keep a soft focus on the documents as we’re reading, without too much effort, we’ll be able to read them in no time.
Putting it all together
If we want to try to put some of these ideas into play in our life, we must ditch the mindsets of “I can’t meditate” or “I don’t have time to meditate”. All it takes is 30 seconds to a minute for our initial trials and then we can build our skills and stamina from there. Like anything in life that we want to get good at, we must practice. Therefore, if we want to get better at these meditation techniques, we need to practice them. First, in a quiet, more structured setting; perhaps in a home office or another quiet room in one’s home. Then, as we start to build our skills, we can try to apply them in some of the situations that have been mentioned in this post; or in any other situation we see fit. Happy practicing!