Holy Week and Easter are right around the corner. For some, this is a special and important time of the year. For others, it may not be a celebrated holiday. I understand both points of view as I am a Dominican woman raised Catholic who is married to an Indian man raised Hindu, whom are raising an interfaith and biracial son.
Irrespective of what spiritual holidays you celebrate (Ramadan, Yom Kippur, etc.), have you ever intentionally chosen what impact you would like these special periods of time to have on your life? Sometimes, we participate out of routine or obligation. Often, we opt out because the holidays seem filled with ceremonies we do not connect with.
What if we took the upcoming week as an opportunity to check-in and assess our internal state? What if we chose to take this week to plant the seeds that will cultivate greater peace and happiness throughout the rest of the year? For me, next week will be an opportunity to strengthen the inner peace that will allow me to live with greater faith.
We all have our own unique relationship with faith. For many, faith represents the ability to trust that what is to come will be for the greater good. Faith can consist of many components, such as the belief that a power greater than us will help us, that the outcome will be what is best for all, among much more.
One important component of faith is “the waiting period” between today and the future.
I am referring to the moments when someone says to you “have faith”, after you’ve shared an issue that is troubling you. Or maybe it has been you that has given these hopeful words to a friend, “have faith”, when their pain has been heartbreaking. “Have faith” can be our first recourse, before we set out to take actions in our life that will improve our current state, and the last recourse, when we realize there is just nothing left to do.
To “have faith” means to “wait”. Yet sometimes, how we “wait” can contradict our beliefs. Sometimes, how we wait does not represent our faith. We wait with anxiety. We wait depressed. We wait in a bad mood, being short and angry with those around us. We lose our temper and withhold love. We “wait” thinking about the past and the future, and choosing not to live in the present. We fret over the actions we could have taken, or we imagine with angst the future that is to come.
How can we say that we have faith and yet wait with such doubt and fear?
Yet, let’s not be too hard on ourselves. The reality is that we do not intend to wait in this way. For many of us, we have never been taught HOW to wait.
My ability to “wait” with greater peace, calm, and tranquility has dramatically improved throughout the years, and I can give credit to one activity for having the biggest impact: Meditation.
Meditation has taught me to “wait” better, because meditation is what I do while I wait.
Meditation has taught me to “wait” with less doubt, nervousness, and negativity.
Meditation has helped me “wait” while living in the present moment, and less in the past and in the future.
Most importantly, meditation has allowed me to “wait” while living in faith.
What is meditation?
What is meditation? Let’s first clarify what it is not.
Meditation is not a religion, nor does it have to be religious. It is simply a mental practice that allows us to live in the present moment (not in the past, nor in the future) by creating greater self-awareness.
One misconception about meditation is that when you are doing it, your mind should go completely blank and no thoughts or feelings should exist within you. This is a misunderstanding. When we achieve greater self-awareness, we actually begin to realize how many thoughts and feelings we have within us that we have been ignoring. Those realizations can lead to the uncovering of many emotions and feelings we did not know existed, but that are affecting our behavior.
I love this definition by one of my first meditation teachers, Jack Kornfield:
“Meditation comes alive through a growing capacity to release our habitual entanglement in the stories and plans, conflicts and worries that make up the small sense of self, and to rest in awareness. In meditation we do this simply by acknowledging the moment-to-moment changing conditions—the pleasure and pain, the praise and blame, the litany of ideas and expectations that arise. Without identifying with them, we can rest in the awareness itself, beyond conditions, and experience our natural lightness of heart. Developing this capacity to rest in awareness nourishes concentration, which stabilizes and clarifies the mind, and wisdom, that sees things as they are.”
How incredible does the above sound? The practice of meditation allows us to live in the present moment, and thus “releases us from the entanglements, conflicts, and worries” that cause us so much pain. With meditation we experience our “natural lightness of heart” while the practice “nourishes our concentration and wisdom”.
And we meditate by “simply acknowledging our moment-to-moment changing conditions, the pleasure and pain, the praise and blame, the litany of ideas and expectations that arise in our mind” (more on how to meditate in a few moments)
I have been meditation for 12+ years, and this is one of the best explanations I have heard.
There are many different types of meditations. Saying that you meditate is like saying “I do sports”… That’s great, but what kind of sports? Tennis? Baseball? Soccer? It is the same with meditation. Here are just some of the types of meditations that exist, and all ones that I either practice today or have practiced in the past:
- Guided visualizations
The benefits of meditation
The benefits of meditation are incredible. What is even more incredible, is that science has begun to prove many of these benefits. Here are just some:
- Increases immune function
- Decreases pain
- Decreases inflammation at the cellular level
- Increases positive emotion
- Decreases depression
- Decreases anxiety
- Decreases stress
- Increases social connection & emotional intelligence
- Makes you more compassionate
- Makes you feel less lonely
- Improves your ability to regulate your emotions
- Improves your ability to introspect
- Increases grey matter
- Increases volume in areas related to emotion regulation, positive emotions & self-control
- Increases cortical thickness in areas related to paying attention
- Increases your focus & attention
- Improves your ability to multitask
- Improves your memory
- Improves your ability to be creative & think outside the box
I have personally experienced many of the benefits of meditation. Specifically, these are just a few examples of how meditation has improved my life:
- I have less stress
- I have more time
- I look better
- I don’t get sick as often as I did in the past with the common cold
- I find it easier to give love
How to meditate
Here are 5 steps that will allow you to do a simple mindfulness meditation. I resort to doing this meditation often, as it ground me and creates an incredible sense of peace within.
- Find a comfortable seat. You can sit on a chair, on a cushion, on top of a bed, in your car…really anywhere where you have found a quite space for a few minutes. The goal is to sit comfortably yet with a sense of dignity for yourself and of honor for the time you are taking to practice meditation. I tend to sit on a cushion, though I often sit on a chair. Wherever I choose to sit, I make sure to sit with a sense of dignity and honor. I sit upright, though I make sure not to be too rigid or place too much strain on my lower back. I sit with attentively and with a feeling of wanting to pay attention to what is about to begin. If you cannot sit, you can lay down…You’re just going to have to concentrate a bit more so you don’t fall asleep!
- Close your eyes and begin to find your breath. If you have experience with meditation and would like to keep your eyes open, or semi-open, go ahead. To find your breath, start by taking three very deep breaths. When you are done taking deep breaths, allow for your breath to go back to its natural pace. When this has happened, notice where you “feel” your breath the most. Is it at the point of entry, in your nose? Or is it in your body, by your chest or stomach as the breath settles inside of you? I feel my breath the most in my nose, though I know many who feel their breath in their chest and stomach. When I started meditating, I found it hard to “find” my breath and “feel” it. So one way I helped myself out at the very beginning was by noticing what the air felt like at my nostrils. Was it cold? Was it warm? Was it heavy with humidity? Or was it dry? I would breathe in and out at my normal pace while I tried to feel the air that became my breath and feel how it felt.
- Focus on your breath. Through meditation, we want to create greater self-awareness. We do this by having a single focus (in this case, our breath) so that we can begin to observe what is within. What you want to do in this step is focus on your breath. Doing so will help you observe and quiet many of the distractions you have within (many meditation teachers call these distractions the Monkey Mind). When I started meditating, I struggled here as well. I helped myself out by bringing a greater level of concentration to the focus of my breath. I would try to see if I could smell even the faintest scent in the air. I would repeat the word “in” when I inhaled and “out” when I exhaled. I went through a period of time where I counted my breaths. I learned from a teacher to count to 10, and then start all over again at 1 until I reached 10 again. I even incorporated a bit of gratitude into my meditation. When I would feel my breath, I would express gratitude for it: “My breath, the one thing I do have. My loyal companion. My loyal supporter. It is always with me, even when I am not aware of it. Here it is, and I am grateful.” Afterwards, I would continue to feel my breath as it entered, as it settled within me for a short period of time, and as it left.
- Accept that thoughts and feelings will arise. This will happen. It happens to everyone. A terrible misconception about meditation is that we will experience no thoughts or feelings while we meditate. This is incorrect! So much so, that meditation teachers have shared stories of experienced meditation students that have come to them concerned that they are regressing in their practice. These students share how, all of a sudden, after a period of inner “peace”, they are experiencing a lot of thinking and feelings during their meditations. The teachers shed great insight on these observations: The thoughts and feelings had always been there, and now, as the students deepen their practice, they are just becoming more aware. When thoughts and feelings come up, notice them. I once had a meditation teacher give this beautiful example. Think of the sky. It has many clouds that come and go. Some of these clouds have rain. Some of them are quite dark. But they float on by and eventually pass. Just because the sky has some rainy clouds passing by does not mean it is a rainy sky. It is a sky that is holding rainy clouds, almost like a container. Eventually the clouds pass along while the sky remains the same. That is the same with you. You are not your feelings. You are not angry, or envious, or revengeful. You are someone who experiences the feeling of anger like a cloud floating by. It enters you and passes by, and you are like a container that holds the feeling that can observe it as it passes by. And that is what we want to do. We want to observe our thoughts and feelings like clouds that pass by. We can experience them, but we can also let them go. When you catch yourself thinking or lost in your feelings, do not judge yourself. Remember that this happens to even experienced meditators. One of my favorite meditation teachers always says to just “begin again”. She beautifully describes the healing power of always being able to begin again. You notice yourself lost in thought… you begin again. You notice yourself caught up in feelings… you begin again. You can always begin again. Actually, I want you to congratulate yourself the moment you catch yourself thinking or ruminating (especially when you are early on in your meditation practice). Because the reality is that noticing that you have become distracted is a success. It means that you have realized that at that moment, you weren’t living in the present. That you were either off thinking about the past or the future. The moment that you realized that you were thinking, you became aware, aware of the present moment. Jack Kornfield, gave a wonderful example that I first heard more than 12 years ago when I started meditating. He explained how training your mind to focus on the breath is like training a puppy to stay. You tell him to “stayyyy” and he stays for a moment. And then he runs away. And so you bring him back and tell him to “stayyyyy” and he stays for another moment. And then he runs away. And so you do this until he learns to stay. You will learn to stay with your breath too.
- End your meditation kindly. It is not uncommon to feel a bit disoriented after meditating. I have even gotten headaches if I end too abruptly. When you are done with your meditation, take a minute or two to orient yourself back into the room that you are in. Open your eyes if they have been closed and stretch your body if you feel like that is needed. Get up slowly and drink some water if you need to.
I hope this article was of service to you.
Do you know someone who would benefit from “waiting” better? Share this article with them, or share it with your friends and family so they can also start creating the life they want to live. As always, leave a comment or question below, I would love to hear from you.