For years I’ve been aware of the words ‘mindfulness’ and ‘meditation’. They’re sprinkled in every other health and well-being newsletter in my inbox. So many books on the subject have topped the Amazon Best Sellers List - and to me, many people seemed to think this the secret for achieving eternal inner peace and happiness. I was skeptical at first because the buzz appeared to promise a lot, and as a practical optimist, it seemed too good to be true. I’ve also never been a fan of doing what everyone is doing.
And then I found myself living as a digital nomad for a month in Chiang Mai, Thailand. In Thailand, nearly 95% of the population follow a form of Buddhism called Theravada. Walking around town in Chiang Mai, the mountainous Northern part of the country, you’ll see orange-cloaked monks on a daily basis - collecting food offerings in the morning, on their way to study at the university, or heading to the temple to meditate after running out on an errand. Having moved from NYC, a city of constant sensory overload, I could feel something very different about Chiang Mai. It was a sense of calm and respect, and I wanted to know where it came from.
I mentioned I’m not a fan of jumping on bandwagons, but I am very into doing things that fall outside your comfort zone. That’s why I decided to spend two days in almost complete silence at a Buddhist meditation retreat. It was the closest I could get to seeing what life as a Buddhist monk is like.
I spent two days with about 30 others and a teacher monk in a remote jungle village, mostly sitting (and trying to ignore my aching back). Most of us had little to no meditation experience, and so the monk called us ‘baby meditators’.
The group was made up of couples who’d been traveling together for ages and were excited to learn more about Thai culture, some recently graduated college students looking for clarity on their next steps, and then me, a 30-year old who quit a seven-year career to travel. I was just curious and there for the experience, with no expectations.
During those two days, we worked up to practicing meditation for 45-minutes in one sitting. I remember practicing together as a group before the sun rose, and the only sounds we could hear were birds calling to each other as they woke up.
One of the hardest things for me was not being able to talk about the experience with others. Some of the attendees were probably very unimpressed with the basic food, which, for monks, is meant only to sustain life and not to be enjoyed (OK, this was really hard for me). And then there was the back pain, which, to be honest is pretty unavoidable, but you learn to acknowledge it and let it go.
And that’s exactly what I got from the experience: through meditation, you learn to separate your conscious mind from all the random thoughts that interrupt your focus. It was like my head was full of cotton balls before I meditated, and then afterwards it felt crystal clear like a peaceful pond. If I felt the sensation of pain from my back, or heard a sound from outside, the thought would fall away after I acknowledged it. I felt so free to think, and was better able to make sense of my own thoughts and feelings.
How to get started meditating:
Meditation and mindfulness as concepts can sound mysterious. Where do you start? What does it feel like?
It doesn’t have to be intimidating, and everyone can try it.
Let’s break down what meditation is. There are several types of meditation, meant to be used for different purposes, but mediation at its most basic form is mindfulness: the act of sitting or lying down with your eyes closed and focusing on just one thing, usually your breath. This focus is meant to calm and clear your head. Once you’ve gotten centered on your breathing, you can decide to move on to other things.
Here’s my beginner’s (and super approachable) guide to meditation:
Get comfortable. Find a cozy space where you won’t be interrupted, and where you can sit comfortably. I like to sit on a pillow and then put rolled up towels under my knees for support. If you live in a busy city, here’s where you might want to pull out those noise-proof headphones!
Close your eyes and focus your attention on your breath. Be conscious of each breath. If you hear a noise, acknowledge the noise, let it go, and come back to your breath.
Have no expectations and be gentle with yourself. If you get off track, just make a mental note and come back to your breathing. Remember that mistakes happen and you’re new to this. Still having trouble focusing on your breathing? Try flaring your nostrils as you breathe in for the first minute or two. Sounds funny, but it works.
Start small. Instead of thinking about reaching Nirvana, keep your goal small and start with five minutes on a timer. Ever feel overwhelmed by the idea of finishing a big project? Breaking a big task down into smaller parts makes it feel more achievable and builds your motivation as you check off each mini-task. Once you’ve hit that 5-minute mark, you can add another five the next time, and then another.
Try, try again. Don’t expect magic. Meditation is not a miracle and takes practice. If you’re having trouble focusing, try sitting in a different spot next time, or avoiding meditating after eating, when your body’s using all its energy to digest and there’s not much left for your brain!
So how do you use this new mindfulness?
If you drive the same route to work every day, eventually you’ll know the route by heart and it will become second nature. OK, some of us will never get there and may be forever dependent on the all-knowing Google, but you can get better at memorizing the route if you’re aware and pay attention as you go. This means picking out landmarks or getting a sense of distances between turns. It comes down to being present and focusing your attention on your goal - to memorize the route. You can apply this same mindfulness strategy to your life to get clarity on accomplishing your goals.
When should I meditate?
If you’re ever feeling run down, foggy, or distracted, I recommend meditating. Or maybe you just need to take moment to identify a feeling you’ve been carrying around that you can’t quite put your finger on. It’s also perfect to accompany intention-setting for the day (do all things with love, be kind to yourself), or even just clear some space to think without the interruption of random thoughts. It’s not the only way to become more mindful, but it may be a new tool for you.
Many experts recommend making time for meditation or mindfulness practice daily (even if just for a few moments!). Admittedly, I don’t remember to practice every day. Sometimes I forget for a week. And that’s OK. But when I do remember to sit down on that comfortable spot in front of my window - before starting a big project, or doing some annoying thing I’d rather put off, I feel a little bit calmer and more organized. I hope this has inspired any other meditation skeptics to give it a chance!
Looking for more resources about meditating for beginners? I recommend Deepak Chopra's 7 Myths of Meditation guide.