Meditation for the New Year
In the beginning of a new year, many people take the opportunity to set intentions for the year ahead. A common one is the commitment to start a meditation practice. We’ve all read how the practice of mindfulness can help us relax, reduce stress and improve our overall health but, like so many other resolutions that get tossed aside by the second week in January, meditation is difficult to convert into a daily habit. Most people will say that time is the biggest hindrance to sitting daily and that is certainly a consideration. But when you think about it honestly, who among us doesn’t spend (at least!) 20 minutes a day scrolling mindlessly on our phones - a habit we know has little to no value. Yet, the same amount of sitting in meditation has immense value, including reducing cortisol, a cause of inflammation in the body and major contributor to chronic illness.
Part of the issue is that we go into meditation believing it will be easy. We expect that someone in a whispery voice will guide us through a visualization of sitting on a beach with elevator music playing in the background. That we’ll be deeply relaxed and float away on a cloud. So when we sit and try to meditate and we’re physically uncomfortable and we can’t stop the chatter in our minds we give up, thinking “I’m really bad at this and this sucks.”
Joseph Goldstein, founder of the Insight Meditation Society, says “meditation is simple, but not easy.” Just as going to the gym is training for the body, sitting in meditation is training for the mind. Yes, we practice consciously relaxing the body the mind by bringing awareness to the breath, but in addition to that we are observing and being mindful of thoughts and emotions. This is challenging! The mind continually wanders away, gets caught up in planning, drums up worst case scenarios and all sorts of other unpleasantries. But the instruction is simple - observe and come back to your breath. Over and over and over again. Simple, but not easy.
What we’re doing by coming back to the breath (or the anchor) again and again is creating new neural pathways in the mind. Training the mind to notice that it’s fallen down the rabbit hole and coming back to the present moment. Another way of looking at it is creating a different way of relating to our thoughts. When we start to become aware of the thinking mind, we are less likely to be yanked around by every fleeting thought (and by the way, we have more than 6,000 thoughts a day, so there’s that). When we are not lost inside our thoughts we can observe them with curiosity, noticing if a particular thought is beneficial or not. We can ask ourselves the question “will this thought lead to greater happiness or suffering?” and then decide whether to engage with it, or not.
In Buddhist teachings it is said that mindfulness is like a bird: it needs two wings to fly. Those two wings are awareness and compassion. So, don’t let meditation be one more thing to beat yourself up about. Good luck with your practice and Happy New Year!