One of the most common questions I receive from students is about how to make meditation less of a fight. For many, meditation feels like a struggle. People struggle with the physical discomfort of sitting. They wrestle against their minds: the thoughts, stories, and emotions that arise.
By now, we’re aware of the incredible benefits of meditation: better sleep, less stress, more calm, and greater perspective. But how do we break through to the other side? How do we cultivate a meditation practice that feels kind enough that we might benefit from it?
Confession: I was not born a natural meditator. It took me years of practice to find refuge on my cushion. For years, I strained against the discomfort of my body and thoughts.
What I’ve learned, through tenacity and a few simple and kind tools, is that meditation can be ground for compassionate transformation. Simply by tweaking a few things in my practice, I’ve found the beauty within myself that I’d been seeking when I first sat on my cushion.
If you want to begin — or reach new understanding in — meditation practice, here are some easeful tips to take the sting out of sitting:
Set yourself up for success. Sure, sitting for 45 minutes at a clip won’t always be comfortable, but by beginning from a more comfortable position, you’ll find less strain.
Make sure that your hips are supported so that your knees can drape downward. Your spine (and crown) should have the freedom to lift long and tall. If sitting on a cushion on the floor isn’t appropriate for your body, try sitting in a chair. You’ll want your feet flat on the floor and your back upright (not leaning back).
If sitting truly doesn’t work for you, try movement instead. There are numerous meditation practices that include easeful, subtle movement. Walking meditation is a common practice in Buddhism and allow the practitioner to mindfully walk, instead of sitting.
You might also try a mindful movement practice like (gentle) yoga, tai chi, or qi gong. Even doing the dishes with sincere concentration may allow you to access many benefits of mindfulness.
Connect with your breath
The breath anchors us to the present moment. There will never be a breath quite like the one you’re experiencing now, nor another moment like this one. By connecting with your breath, and placing your attention there, you’ll have a touchstone to which you can return again and again.
The breath is both constant and fleeting — the perfect lesson in meditation. It gives us something on which to concentrate, rather than being carried away by our thoughts. The breath can also help us to move emotion, discomfort, and energy through the body, mind, and being.
This frees us, rather than keeping things pent up inside.
Connect with the earth
As we connect with our breath in order to move energy, we can rely on the earth in a similar way. During your meditation, bring your awareness to the places where you are touching the earth (or floor). This can help to ground us in the here and now.
The earth is also a remarkable sponge. We can release to the earth anything that is no longer serving us: beliefs, thoughts, patterns. If there is something that comes up during meditation that does not serve your practice, imagine the earth absorbing it.
Give your thoughts and emotions permission instead of power
There’s no need to fight your thoughts or feelings. Our thoughts and emotions protect and support us in many ways. During meditation, we do no aim to shut them down. Instead, we allow them to come and go, as they will, without attaching meaning or judgment to them. We do not need to assign them power.
We do not need to change our thoughts. Instead, try naming them as, “Thought,” and then setting them free. This way of working with thoughts can be just as useful in our everyday life as in meditation. There’s no need to allow our thoughts or emotions to upset us, simply let them rise and then fall away.
Give your mind (or hands) something to do
If you are still struggling to find a sense of centeredness in meditation, try using a mantra (a simple phrase repeated silently during meditation). There are a huge range of mantra practices, including lovingkindness (metta) meditation, so find one that suits you.
You might also trying using a mala — a string of prayer beads used in some meditation traditions — counting the beads as you repeat your mantra. Mantra and malas offer our minds something a bit more complicated to chew on as we practice. By having a phrase to repeat or something to do with our hands, there is less space left for pesky thoughts to flow in. Instead, our minds already have something fairly satisfying to work with during our meditation.
Finally, my best advice for making your meditation practice more kind is to make it completely personal and customized to you. Experiment, play, and discover what feels nourishing and resonant for you. An effective meditation practice is the one that you do. It is one that you feel called to practice. So allow yourself to create one that works for you. Meditation is an invitation to get closer to your own heart — give yourself permission to go there.