Getting Somewhere and Nowhere with Meditation

by Amy Vigliotti, Ph.D

By now you have heard about all the good things meditation has to offer – stress reduction, reduced rumination, better memory, focus, emotional stability, relationship satisfaction, cognitive flexibility, self-compassion, and insight. Meditation has been around for centuries but we now have the research to support its ongoing practice!

Even so, with all its bells and whistles, maybe you are one of those people that says: I hear good things about meditation, but who has the time? Or maybe you are someone who meditates when you go to yoga class when guided by an instructor. Or perhaps you’ve tried, got frustrated and shouted: it’s impossible to clear my mind!

Here is the good news: You have everything you need – right here, right now! You don’t need money, a degree, a uniform, the right ambiance, or Enya. Just you, wherever you are in this time and place.

There is a practice of meditation called mindfulness that simply means noticing what you are doing in the present moment without criticism or judgment. So you don’t need to be sitting in a dark room or holding triangle pose to actively cultivate this state of being. You can be washing the dishes and noticing the feeling of the suds on your hands; feeling the textures of your clothes as you get dressed in the morning; noticing the taste of the minty toothpaste on your tongue. It is the simple (yet effortful in its own way) act of staying in the present moment without radically altering your daily routines.

A more formal meditation practice can be established where you set aside time to practice being in a space of quiet non-judgment. There are guided meditations where someone’s voice directs your attention; there are visualizations where your mind envisions a relaxing space and you relax as you let yourself soak in your imaginary senses there. Many meditations involve choosing an object of attention, often the breath, or your body as in progressive muscle relaxation.

When you choose an object to focus your meditation on, you will notice your mind wander off and you’ll lose sight of this object. Our minds are uncontrollable and unpredictable. Like the ’61 song from Dion, our minds are constant wanderers they “roam around, around, around, around.”

When I first started my meditation practice, it reminded me of walking my dog in the morning. Some mornings I wanted to get her around the block and back home – stay on the path, no distractions. Perhaps I had a morning meeting I was focused on or I was still tired and groggy from the night before. It didn’t matter. The more I focused on what I wanted, the less accepting I was of what was actually happening and the more suffering I was causing for her and me. She wanted to sniff this hydrant, say hi to this neighbor – wander here, wander there. The more I resisted, the irritated I was. Trying to get somewhere was getting me nowhere with my mood, energy and attitude. Once I learned to accept this was the way of the walk, I could gently redirect her back to the path and we were both much happier. Being on the path with her meant letting go of the morning meeting and enjoying the zig-zag start to our day.

Such is the path of the meditator. It’s crucial to be patient and accepting of whatever comes up, gently bringing your mind back to the object of focus with non-judgment and non-criticism. You are not giving yourself a hard time because your mind left the breath. You just accept your mind for drifting off and gently but firmly return it to the breath. Working regularly with the resistance of your own mind, rather than fighting against it, builds inner strength and resilience.

So if you’ve been putting it off for a while, here are some basic steps to launch your meditation practice today:

  • Find a comfortable posture where you can be alert and relaxed and open.
  • Tune into your breath. The breath is centering, it’s our life force. Enjoy the gentle rhythm of your belly rising and falling with your breath. When you focus on the breath, you are anchoring your awareness in the body, in a basic, rhythmic, flowing life process.
  • Practice on your own, in a group or with a friend.

There are at least five common obstacles that every meditator faces:

  • Grasping – wanting more or looking for something different from what is happening in the here and now. (that’s me walking my dog on a busy morning!)
  • Aversion – any form of pushing away. Could be fear, anger, disappointment, etc
  • Restlessness – feeling agitated and/or jump; trouble sitting still
  • Sloth and torpor – feeling sleepy, lack of alertness

When you accept these as hindrances everyone faces, you can turn your energy and attention toward it, rather than run from it. You’ll be pleasantly surprised what happens when you sit with curiosity. You become an observer and a participator rather than a critic.

Remember meditation is essentially a non-doing, an acceptance of life as life happens. It has no goal other than for you to be yourself.  If you are looking for a special state or outcome to occur, whether it be relaxation, forgiveness, or peace, then you are trying to get somewhere else other than where you already are. Gently remind yourself just to be with your breath in the present. Paradoxically, this is the most direct way to “get somewhere” and to nurture relaxation, calmness, concentration and insight.

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