I used to think meditating meant sitting up straight and still for a certain number of minutes every single day, focusing on my breath and trying to clear my mind of thoughts and feel calm.
When I believed this, I did not meditate.
My photo from a recent vacation spot in Cazadero, CA.
The natural way my brain works makes regular meditation instructions hard for me to follow. I am very distractible and fidgety. I can’t tolerate being bored for even a few minutes. And I have a hard time committing to any kind of daily habit.
So my attempts to meditate were short, uncomfortable, and infrequent.
But recently I have discovered that I can meditate, quite deeply and consistently, very easily and naturally. And I’ve found that meditating is fascinating, absorbing, and leads to some really transformative experiences. I now look forward to meditating, and I do it almost daily, without really trying.
Because so much of my previous difficulty with meditating seemed to be due to my meandering, distractible “artist’s brain”, I have wondered if there are other creative people who think they can’t meditate. So I’ve decided to write up the common meditation myths that made me think I couldn’t meditate, and how I meditate instead:
I don’t do gurus or woo-woo.
By nature I tend to be suspicious of anything that requires faith. I like well-designed studies and measurable benefits and return on investment. I only mention this in case there are people reading this who think meditation is for people who believe in stuff, because I don’t believe in stuff.
But I’m also so, so tired of all the stuff I try to do to feel better that does not make me feel better. I just turned 50, and I want the second half of my life to feel a little less frantic than the first half has.
I like the idea of meditation because it does not require faith in any leader or any one religion. It’s easy to find lots of different teachers writing about it, plus there are tons of podcasts and apps and videos. Finally, it’s something I can do at home on my own, which is generally how I like to do everything.
I don’t sit.
My whole body hurts if I have to sit still. So I lie down to meditate. I also use a blanket to keep warm, and I don’t even try to stay still. Eventually I naturally get still, but I allow myself to stretch and fidget for as long as I need to. When I associated meditation with discomfort, boredom and rigid stillness, I didn’t meditate. Now meditation is comfortable, so I meditate. Nothing is easier than lying down, so procrastination is impossible. Even when I want to do nothing, I can always meditate.
I don’t try to feel calm.
I used to think I was meditating correctly if I felt calm. I thought “feeling calm” was meditation, and I thought that was the goal: To practice feeling calm, so I could return to that calm place whenever my life felt not-calm.
However, trying to look and feel calm is actually what I do a lot already, to suppress any less-than-wonderful feelings. So for me, practicing feeling “calm” was just rehearsing my regular old habits in a way that disconnected me from my real feelings.
And it didn’t work: Practicing feeling calm never helped me feel more calm more often.
Instead, paying attention to my true feelings, and not being afraid to feel whatever I feel, is what has led to really transformative healing experiences that have lead to fundamental shifts in my daily life.
I don’t try to “clear my mind”.
The common instructions to “clear your mind”, “let your thoughts go”, or “return to your breath” when your mind wanders, did not work for me. Apparently meditation students are supposed to keep practicing this boring stuff, and with discipline they eventually get better at it.
Ha! If I know anything about myself, it’s that any whiff of “discipline” only activates my inner toddler. If you tell me something I already do daily is "required", I am guaranteed to stop doing it.
Also, I'm not patient enough to keep practicing something without feeling benefits. Some people look at my paintings and think I am patient. These people are wrong. I’m impatient, and I like my life-changing practices to feel beneficial pretty much right away.
Instead, I feel my feelings.
What works better for me than "clearing my mind" is to focus on my feelings, because feelings are interesting enough to hold my attention.
Specifically, I focus on the physical sensations of my feelings. I scan my interior landscape, and ask myself what I feel and where I feel it. When I identify the physical location of a feeling, often just a mild pressure somewhere in my abdomen, chest or throat, I visualize it with a texture and/or color.
Physically, emotions are just chemical signals travelling to different parts of the body, stimulating nerves along the way. Many people are aware of the physical sensations associated with intense emotions, but even mild emotions have physical sensations. And those “mild” emotions, once identified, get very interesting very fast.
Focusing on these sensations transitions my thoughts out of the well-worn habitual grooves they are stuck in during most my normal waking life.
Once I discovered that I have a dramatic internal landscape of shifting colors and sensations, I realized I always have something to “tune into”. It’s like riding a roller-coaster at night, in the dark, with colored lights on the tracks. Definitely not boring. And my regular obsessive thoughts are temporarily forgotten, which is the whole point.
Sometimes I sleep
If I need to sleep, I sleep. I might meditate after I wake up, or I might get up and meditate another day. I don’t try not to sleep. When I don’t need sleep, I easily stay alert and aware even during a deeply focused meditation.
Meditating has actually healed my nighttime sleep problems. For most of my 40’s I have struggled with sleeping through the night, but since I started meditating, I fall asleep quickly and I stay asleep.
If I do have trouble sleeping, I just lie on my back, take a few even breaths and ask myself what I am feeling. Then, I either meditate, or I sleep. Either of which are more restful than lying awake at night and stressing about trying to sleep.
For years I have felt anxious when I go to bed, worrying that I am going to wake up in the night and feel bad. Since I’m no longer fearful of feeling bad, and I know I can just “ride out” any tense, wakeful emotion as if I were riding a roller coaster, I don’t feel anxious when I go to bed.
I do feel more calm and clear
I don’t TRY to feel calm and clear. But taking a tour of my emotional landscape every day or so absolutely makes me feel both. Often after I meditate, the solution to a current conflict or problem is suddenly obvious. I can see exactly how and why I was making my own life more difficult through the confused way I was thinking about it.
Since I started meditating, I get a regular perspective shift, greater clarity of thought, lightness of heart, and deeper compassion for myself and everyone else. I drink far less, spend less time on social media, less time reading headlines, and I read actual books and write every day. These are all things I've tried to do for a long time, and now they are changing effortlessly, without even trying.
I don't try to do anything at all.
I hope this post is useful to anyone who has wanted to meditate but has struggled to do it enough to experience the benefits.