I've just finished Sharon Salzberg's 28-day meditation challenge. I've been writing about it on my other blog, The Self-Compassion Project. I thought to myself this morning, "Why am I not sharing what I've learned on this blog, as well?" Research studies show that meditation reduces anxiety, and in just a month of formal practice, I've been amazed at the results. I always imagined you'd need years of dedicated practice to notice any differences in your day-to-day life, but I was wrong. Here is what I wrote about week one:
Photo by Karamellzucker via Flickr
I've always had a difficult time motivating myself to do any kind of formal meditation. Let me give you some background.
My first encounter with meditation was about fifteen years ago. One of the psychologists where I worked gave an informal presentation on meditation and then we had an experiential exercise. I don't remember the details, except for the part where I started to cry during the experiential part. I was extremely embarrassed and had to leave the room. I've had similar experiences in yoga classes. During the part at the end where it's more quiet and reflective, I frequently tear up. (I once read in a yoga magazine that this is not unusual, so I guess I'm not too weird.) There's a huge movement in contemporary psychology to incorporate "mindfulness" into the therapy process, and there's plenty of research to back up its usefulness. I've tried to keep up with all the developments. I took an online course a couple of years ago called Mindfulness and Psychotherapy. I'd never taken an online course--it was actually a lot of work. We had reading to do, assignments, and of course, we were supposed to practice the various mindfulness exercises. Dare I admit that I often skipped the practice part?
I have no idea what I'm afraid of:
- If I sit still I'll be consumed with feelings I can't manage?
- My inner life will actually bore me to death?
- I'm incapable of meditating and will be a failure?
So it was with a little trepidation that I committed to this challenge. But I was also excited! There's a whole website devoted to these 28 days, and there are people blogging about their experiences. Some of the bloggers are experienced meditators, and others are novices. Every day I can peruse the site and see what speaks to me that day. And there's a structure to the month (I like structure!) Each week we're focusing on a different aspect of meditation.
Okay, so back to Week One. Week One, which was all about the breath. The first aspect of meditation is learning to stabilize your attention, and the way it's usually done is by focusing on the breath. The directions are really simple. You take a few deep breaths, and then you just let your breathing settle at its natural pace. She suggests you do this for twenty minutes. When you notice thoughts, you just let them go and bring your attention back to the breath. Easy, right? I'll include a link at the end of this post to a three-minute video that shows Sharon Salzberg teaching this.
Here are some random realizations I made throughout the week:
- I can meditate in the middle of a messy room. One day I had the idea to redo the decorations on the fireplace mantle. This led to a lot of other changes--switch out pillows on the couch, bring things in from different rooms... I had stuff everywhere (it looked like a Hobby Lobby clearance sale), and I wasn't happy with the way it was going. I wanted so badly to finish, or at least clean up and put it back the way it was. Yet time was running out and I needed to get my meditation in. I was so proud of myself because I sat down, right there in the middle of the mess, and just did it. (I read somewhere that meditation is mostly about sitting down, shutting up, and seeing what happens.)
- It does not kill me to ignore my phone alerting me of an incoming text, and I will remember to silence it in the future.
- Sometimes focusing on my breath was relaxing and I felt all warm and tingly. Other times, I felt agitated and wanted to get up before it was time. Both experiences were actually okay.
- It's really hard to meditate with dogs around. Lily thinks she needs to be on my lap 24/7! And Larry thinks he's a cat the way he nuzzles up against me.
- I got tearful during a few of my sessions, but I was compassionate with myself (yea!) and was able to keep going without it being a huge sob fest (and even that would have been okay).
- I skipped one day and I didn't beat myself up about it. I did, however, rationalize that there are actually 29 days in February this year, so I was still on track for the 28-day challenge.
- You can't fail at meditating! Sharon Salzberg talks about "The Magic Moment"--that moment when your attention naturally wanders. It's in that very moment when you have a choice to act differently. Do you criticize yourself for this lapse in attention? Or do you simply say, "Oh, my mind wandered. Let's go back to the breath now." She says the magic moment is the ability to start over. One day this week I found myself frustrated and getting irritable. It actually crossed my mind to say to myself, "Hey, this is a magic moment. I can do an attitude adjustment right here and now." I was amazed that just a few days of meditating was already making a difference.
All in all, Week One was freeing as I realized that every breath is a chance to begin again.
Here's the link I promised you of Sharon teaching about the breath.
You can do Sharon's 28-day meditation challenge anytime. I highly recommend her book Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation and the CD that comes with it.
Follow Barb Markway on Twitter, and her self-compassion Facebook page. For more of her writing on self-compassion, go to www.theselfcompassionproject.com