Mindfulness and meditation are two buzzwords getting thrown around more and more every day, it seems. Why all the hype?
According to an article in the Washington Post, it can take as little as eight weeks for the effects of meditation to be seen in your brain. One report states that people who meditate have a smaller amygdala, which is the part of your brain that responds to fear, stress and anxiety. Yet meditation has much more to offer than stress relief.
A common misconception is meditation means sitting cross-legged for hours with an empty mind. In reality, meditation is not about removing thoughts from your mind, it’s about stepping back and seeing your thoughts and recognizing your emotions.
So how do we get there?
Through practice. Stephanie Sutherland, Mindfulness Meditation Yoga E-RYT/YACEP at the Dan Abraham Healthy Living Center in Rochester, has been practicing meditation for 12 years and has a lot of insight into what meditation is, and how and why we should practice it.
“Meditation is about awakening. Meditation isn’t about fixing or changing, it isn’t about judging, it’s about awakening to yourself,” she says. Think of meditation as a check in with yourself, a coffee date to catch up on what’s going on in your own life. Only by intentionally taking time for yourself can you begin to know your self.
She goes on to say hard, difficult feelings and emotions don’t go away when we meditate. Instead, we learn to sit with them and give their presence space in our lives.
What’s the point of meditating if we aren’t escaping our emotions? Isn’t the whole point to be empty minded?
Not at all. “There is no empty mind while we’re alive. We’re supposed to be thinking and creating and imagining,” says Stephanie.
“I think it’s really important to find a place where I can master those thoughts, rather than my thoughts and emotions mastering me.” By allowing your thoughts and emotions in during meditation, you start to see them and how they fit into your life. “When you sit still in silence,” Stephanie continues, “you start to develop a different relationship towards those feelings.”
That idea, facing your emotions, can be extremely daunting. That is why meditation is a practice, something you strive to do every day as you begin to open up to yourself. Because ultimately, meditation is a practice in self-recognition, and understanding that your feelings are universal. This knowledge is a crucial step on the path to compassion.
One of the biggest challenges we face in meditation is being honest. We are filled with shame, guilt and self-judgement—I’m not good enough, not smart enough, not outgoing enough. “We think the way we feel or think is unique and specifically terrible for us…which prevents us from connecting with other people,” says Stephanie. Once we are open and honest with our self—can I see my anger and be honest about it—will we begin to find the truth, that all other humans experience the same emotions we feel. “Meditation is like cracking the door open into our own wisdom.”
That can be scary, looking inside yourself and realizing you aren’t the only one wresting with these feelings and emotions. But by sitting with your emotions, giving them space, you can begin to find peace.
What you can do
A final point of consideration as you embark on your meditation practice is to focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do. “I can’t do an hour of meditation. Who told you you had to?” asks Stephanie. “Can you do three minutes? No? How about 60 seconds? That’s it. That’s all you need to do. Maybe tomorrow you’ll do 90 seconds…It’s not about what you can’t do, it’s about what you can do.”
Celebrating what you are able to do means celebrating and recognizing where you meet resistance. “If you’re struggling, if you’re resisting, if you’re sad, let yourself be. Nobody needs to tell you in seven easy steps how to get out of that. Actually, what if you just be right where you are, and open to what is available?” As you become more comfortable with your self, it becomes easier to sit with your feelings and emotions. Not easy, just easier.
Consider also that it is only through practice you will come to understand. “Your practice will teach you about meditation; not your books, not anything else but just practicing,” says Stephanie. And if you have a community to support you, it makes practicing easier. Meditation can be lonely as you turn inward to face your self, so having other around you creates a network of communal support you’ll find beneficial.
The most important aspect of meditation, says Stephanie, is its ability to teach you to listen. “Can you sit still and just listen to your thoughts? Just listen to yourself talking to yourself.” The ability to listen, no matter what ideas, feelings, emotions are flying at you, will serve you every day of your life as you interact with others.
Looking to start a meditation practice? Read that article here.