There’s no question that these are unusual times, one could even say traumatic times. There’s also no question that it is hard to stay focused during these unprecedented times. Procrastination is at an all time high, and the ability to maintain a daily routine is at an all time low.
Our entire way of life has been upended and paused. People are suffering, and fear and anxiety is prevalent. Maintaining our mental health during this quarantine season feels like a full-time job.
Even though the world stopped, life is still moving—sometimes too slowly and sometimes too fast—and as much as we want to stay under the bedsheets and wait for it all to pass, the reality is that we must move with life, rather than run away from it.
We can read all the articles on the mental health benefits of meditation, but right now reading more scientific reports and statistics may feel overwhelming. So I’ll spend the next few paragraphs explaining the benefits of meditation during traumatic times without graphs and numbers, but with words, from one human to the other.
The curse of “doing”
In times like this, it can feel hard to do anything on a regular basis, but to sit idly and feel like we are doing nothing feels taboo. So we spend one day overworking, and one day doing nothing. We begin to feel useless, and as products of a culture that inspires us to “do, do, do” we start to become angry with ourselves for not doing or accomplishing something, anything.
We debate taking online courses in things we don’t really want to learn about, or we start trying to learn that instrument we never actually liked, or we try to learn Japanese, and then spend a week later wanting to cry in self-pity because we are no good at Japanese, or anything for that matter (cue tiny violin).
We are cursed with the modern disease of doing. If we notice time we can fill, we try to fit in learning a new skill or completing an old project. Sitting still is the last thing we want to do.
But let’s all be honest, really all we want is a distraction from this madness. We want to fill our time so it passes faster. We want to know when this will all end, and if no one will tell us we will keep baking those chocolate chip cookies to the point of maniacal frustration, vowing to not give up until they’re better than any goddamn chocolate chip cookie we have ever had (maybe that’s just me…).
So, though meditation may feel like the last thing you want to do right now, it may be worth giving it a try. It’s easy to resist meditating because it doesn’t lead to a sense of accomplishment or a golden trophy.
I’ll let you in on a little secret, becoming a perfect meditator doesn’t exist, because you’re human, and meditating is a process of getting to know the human that you are.
“So then why is meditation worth it?” you may ask me through the tears or apathy you are feeling right now.
Because meditation is meant to prepare us for moments like this; we sit in meditation practice during the less tumultuous times so we can strengthen our meditation muscles for chaotic times like these. Though meditating through uncertainty is hard, it can be like a lifesaver thrown our way when we feel like we are about to drown at sea.
What if I’m a bad meditator?
Meditation is not about being a good or bad meditator. Meditation is a practice, and just like anything else you practice, some days you will be great and other days you will be awful. That’s how you learn. We are human beings, so some days our emotions are positive and some days they are negative.
As a result, some days our minds may be racing with thoughts or be still, but it’s all part of the practice. Despite how society has conditioned us to seek achievement and accolades, meditation is not about becoming an Olympic gold medal holder—it’s actually not about accomplishing anything.
But I thought meditation was all about making me a better person
As we begin to sell mindfulness and meditation in today’s world, marketing makes us believe we should meditate so we can become better people. It tells us we should meditate so we can magically improve a lifetime of habitual neuroses in with some quick-fix that involves sitting cross-legged on a cushion for 20 minutes a day.
Spoiler alert: meditation is not about going in and doing a full personality remodel so you can throw out all the ugliness and change your crazy, angry, sad, anxious, narcissistic, or horrible selves (Too rough? The sad truth is this is how most of us speak to ourselves.)
We are often our own harshest critics, so even though it may be hard to admit, we may want to meditate partially so we can get rid of the parts of ourselves we don’t love.
Thinking of meditation in that way is inherently an act of self-aggression towards you (yeah, you! You are not all those awful things in the paragraph above). Sure you may be a little kooky, but mixed in that mess of what you may see as imperfections are the hidden treasures of what makes you who you are.
So meditation is not about changing yourself, or getting over your anxiety, or forcing down your anger, or suffocating your depression. Like a season that comes and goes, emotions and feelings are just a part of your present experience, they are not you. So if you can begin to view them as something that will naturally ebb and flow, it becomes easier to not get too attached to anyone way you are feeling at a certain moment.
Meditation makes you your own best friend
Meditation is a way of learning how to befriend yourself, and I mean all of yourself, the beautiful parts, and the not so beautiful parts. Once we can let go of the self-aggression towards ourselves for feeling a certain way or acting out of negative habits and patterns, we can begin to ease how hard we are on ourselves.
By lessening that self-aggression towards who we are, we can begin to rest in and accept all the parts of ourselves. Through my own practice, I’ve learned the more I am able to accept these less attractive qualities in my own being, the more they naturally seem to fade away. They do not disappear, but once you accept them, the resistance towards them decreases, so when they come up in the future you are not as likely to get triggered by the old stories you told yourself about how awful and hopeless you are.
Meditation can make you your own best friend, and as sappy as it sounds, sometimes it’s nice to be able to lean on yourself when things get hard and the whole world is feeling a bit stressed out. Meditation empowers you to find the strength to sit with your own emotions and your own quirks, so you can accept them as they come and send them away with a bit of love. Each time you approach these heightened emotions with a bit of care, you’ll begin to notice they will soften and instead of staying for days on end, they’ll only stay for a few hours.
Where do I start?
So now that you’re convinced, and probably sighing in exasperation, because you weren’t expecting to become a monk or a nun this week, but you need something to do, here are some helpful tips:
In-person or live virtual guided meditations are a great way to start
Though you can’t physically be in person, these practices add a shared bit of accountability because you can’t just get up and leave. So try and start a meditation group or find a friend to meditate with so you can hold yourself accountable to sit through the meditation rather than getting up to eat another snack or bake another batch of cookies. (I’ll be teaching on @bloodmilkwomen every Monday so you can check me out there @sara_shah_).
Take a pause when your emotions are overwhelming
It’s okay to take a break. Your mental health is important and your emotions are deserving of your attention. Some great ways to pause are simply disconnecting from any screens or devices and taking 10 deep breaths. Another great trick is placing one hand over your chest and the other hand over your belly, and just closing down the eyes. As you take a few deep breaths with your hands here, just notice the way your body moves as you breathe.
Choose a time of the day to meditate and stick with it
Meditation is a practice, and to ensure you feel the benefits, it is a practice that requires discipline. So choose a time of the day to meditate and try to stick with it. Researchers recommend choosing a habit you already do daily, like brushing your teeth or drinking a morning cup of coffee or evening cup of tea, and pairing your daily meditation with this established habit. This is called habit-pairing, and it can work wonders in terms of helping the brain incorporate meditation into your daily routine.
Go for a walk. Yes, walking meditation exists
If you’re lucky enough to be somewhere where you can go for a walk outside then, by all means, take advantage of the fresh air. But even if you are subject to staying indoors, you can still practice walking meditation. Walking meditation is the simple act of becoming more mindful and aware of your footsteps as you walk. You can do this by simply saying “right” to yourself as your right foot touches the ground, and “left” to yourself as your left foot touches the ground. So on days when you feel like you just can’t sit still, try to practice mindful walking for 10-15 minutes of your day, coming back to the feeling of your footsteps whenever your mind begins to wander away.
***On Saturday May 23rd, 2020 I’ll be teaching a virtual meditation retreat with all the basics! Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested 🙂