The Globe and Mail: What meditation can and can’t do
If you’re curious how to mute your mind’s constantly churning to-do list, effectively dispute your inner critic and savour life’s “little things,” then meditation might be for you.
Since meditation was, until recently, outside my wheelhouse, I tried to immerse myself in that world: I brought my mom (age 65) and client Ron (78) to a meditation class at the Toronto yoga studio 889, attended meditation guru Angela Kontgen’s workshop with a colleague (Harry, age 36), read Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg and committed to daily practice.
What to expect
I attended a meditation class at 889, which promises on its website “techniques to calm down the central nervous system and create space for peace in your life.” Picture roughly 20 primed-to-be “zenned out,” mostly female participants perched cross-legged on plush round pillows. The less mobile among us, myself included, utilized an alternative posture: bent knees with shins on either side of a slightly plushier cushion.
The instructor started by “naming, then taming” (a favourite phrase within meditation discourse) the elephant in the room: the fear of being “bad” at meditation. “You might think you have never meditated, but you have; meditation is breathing.” I appreciated this, since a similar quote, by Salzberg –”If you can breathe, you can meditate” – initially filled me with the courage to brave meditation.
Next, an explanation of the main tenets. According to our instructor, meditation is a “retreat for the mind” – a method of “letting go.” Leave punitive self-talk at the door. When your mind wanders, “come back to the breath.”
My mom said she would have preferred an “hour with herself” rather than a lecture. Ron craved more discussion and explanation of the “why” behind the practice. The lesson here: learn the format before going. Match the format to your goals and personality.
Next up: pranayama, the formal practice of controlling the breath. Tips included “breathe into the bottom of your lungs” and, most novel, “alternating nostril breathing.” Try it yourself: plug your left nostril. Breathe right. Hold the breath. Plug your right nostril. Exhale through the left.
Silent meditation concluded the class. I walked out “squishy,” a term I coined to describe the almost non-representational, visceral sensation of feeling relaxed, lacking a caffeine “buzz” and free of all “shoulds.”
Intrigued? Excited by the positives attributed to regular practice? Not sold on the all-too-common hyperbolic promise of meditation as life’s panacea?
A positive is the reminder to breathe. Breathing signals the nervous system to switch from the sympathetic nervous system (stress response) to the parasympathetic nervous system – the system that facilitates digestion and immune health, quiets the “monkey mind” and aids restful sleep.
Another positive is that meditation is both a mirror and a model for life. To quote Salzberg, the goal should not be to become “better at meditation,” but to become “better at life.”
Your thoughts during meditation mirror your daily thought patterns. Is your meditation full of catastrophic “what ifs” or debilitating self-criticism? Through meditation, you learn to let go of your particular brand of toxic thoughts; in effect, meditation becomes the model for coping mechanisms to be used “off the mat.”
I find the analogy of the “swivel chair” useful. Swiveling is “wandering in thought.” The mission is not to “never swivel” but rather to foster the ability to “catch yourself” – to recognize that you are swiveling as immediately as possible and to, with compassion, pull yourself to centre.
The main negative here is potential false hope; meditation is too often touted as the miracle solution for everything from weight loss to elimination of pain and injury.
Take meditation for what it is: one component of your overall health recipe. The parasympathetic nervous system does facilitate a state in which healing is better able to occur, but meditation should not replace other forms of health care. To quote my colleague Harry, “Breathing is always good, but breathing will not eliminate my meniscus tear.”
Plus, like everything, it only works if you work it; meditation will not aid weight loss if you are eating five muffins a day.
Learn the pros and cons. Adopt what works and ditch what doesn’t. Find the meditation “fit” that is unique to you. My meditation “fit” is a 10-minute personalized daily practice (someone else’s voice is a deterrent) that focuses more on the “why” of meditation (the philosophy behind the practice) than the “how.”
My mom’s fit is a group class (paying for the class ensures she shows up). Plus, she loves the social aspect. We had coffee after class. As we hugged goodbye, she said, “We should do this more often,” although she meant the coffee, not the class. Ron was pleased to have been exposed to the concepts, but would rather meditate daily on his own. Many of my clients love meditation apps such as Headspace.
Find the class, teacher or personal practice that works for you. Try breathing meditation, sound meditation, loving-kindness meditation or maybe mindfulness meditation. Meditate in the morning to frame your day, during lunch to centre yourself or at night as part of a bedtime ritual. Remember, the goal of meditation is not the elimination of thoughts – an unrealistic task – but to change your relationship with your thoughts.
Don’t become snared in a quest for perfection. Start and tweak as needed. If you never start, you never have anything to tweak.