I grew up Buddhist, and my parents took me and my sisters to temple on a regular basis. I was always really intimidated by temple: no one spoke any English, I didn’t understand the rites, rituals or reasoning and I was hugely terrified of doing something wrong around the monks. As a Buddhist, you learn about meditation pretty early on, about how good it is to still your mind, how it soothes your tumultuous quasi-self and it plays some weird, vaguely grand part in achieving nirvana. But as a kid, of course, you basically just sit there and try not to fall asleep.
I remember taking a class called “Systems of Meditation” at Duke that explored different methods that various religions taught to either still the mind or access another level of consciousness, whether it was Sufi chanting, Theravada Buddhist “insight” meditation or a Wiccan moon ritual. I remember one of the main assignments was keeping a journal of our experiences and insights, which we’d have to turn in at various intervals to the professor. He’d comment on my meditation journal, “You’re doing it wrong!” but I didn’t take it personally. Some friends of mine who’d taken the class basically made up their journals at the last minute, often by smoking pot or mushrooms and then writing out their various “thoughts” while stoned out of their minds. Those got a “Wonderful!” from the professor, so you know, maybe he had a certain idea of what altered consciousness meant from his old hippie days.
Then I lived in San Francisco for awhile, where yoga and meditation are basically municipal requirements for residence. Everyone and their guru was into some kind of Eastern-based or New Age practice. I dated a guy with a formidable collection of meditation CDs and special Zen meditation cushions. He was super-dedicated to his meditation practice and would spend hours in that perfect meditation posture.
Me, though? Despite the serious, high-minded influences around me, I have never been able to maintain a “serious” regular meditation practice, despite my best efforts and intentions. I knew the benefits of meditation: you really do feel calmer, chilled-out and more centered after you meditate. Over time, it alters your brain in interesting, good-for-you ways. It makes a big difference in your life if done regularly. My problem? Keeping it on the regular, you know? I used to think this was a big flaw, at least for a little bit. Everyone is like, “Kat, what’s up with you? You’re so disciplined already! You just need FIVE MINUTES!” But in my mind, this translated to Oh my god I need to sit in lotus position with the perfect mudra and chant and have a good cushion and blah blah blah. In other words: I had this Platonic ideal of what meditation was, and if I couldn’t reach that, I didn’t do it because it wouldn’t be “real.”
Of course, this idea is super-ridiculous and I snapped out of it. Because deep down, you shouldn’t be attached to what something is supposed to “look” like, whether it’s your livelihood, your romantic/life partner, your career trajectory or whatever. You can meditate in a million ways. You don’t have to “carve out” time to do it; you can do it on the go. (Though, please, don’t do it while driving, ya bish?) You don’t need a fancy cushion or lotus pose; you can just lie on your bed or recline on a sweet grassy knoll. You can do it while walking or sitting on the train. You can keep your eyes open.
Some people can get really purist about adapting Buddhist or other Eastern practices to modern lifestyles, yelling about how you’re stripping it of dogma and the “real ideas.” I say “pah!” to that; adaptation is precisely how these ancient and wise practices stay alive and endure. (Buddha himself would be way chill about it.) And most people have something to gain from incorporating even just a tiny soupcon of meditation into their lives, in whatever manner suits their temperament, glamour factor or lifestyle. Here are my favorite tiny ways to do meditation…no fancy zazen cushions or lotus pose required.
This one is as hard or as easy as you make it. Basically, you find a place you can either sit or lie down comfortably, eyes closed if that helps. And then….you just count your breaths. Close your eyes, inhale nice and slow, then exhale nice and slow — that’s “one.” Again for “two.” And so on. Start off with just ten breaths — everyone can manage just ten, right? (If you can’t, no big deal, just do five.) Sometimes it gives your monkey mind something to do to imagine “looking” at the number in your mind — sometimes I’ve imagined a countdown clock as I’ve breathed. Or you can say it in conjunction with your inhale or exhale in your head. (I’ve done “ahhhhh…one.”) Just try to do a set where you try to focus on the breath. Five is nice, ten is great, and 60 starts to feel pretty awesome, truth be told. Now I can work up to about 100, and for some reason, 60 is my “float point.” 100 breaths is a nice 10-12 minute set as well, which is the daily amount experts say really begins reprogram your brain.
Walking meditation is an actual Zen practice, I believe, and there are several different kinds, but this is the one that works for me. Basically, you just focus on and absorb how it feels like to walk. You become aware of what it feels like to shift your weight, to have your feet touch the ground, how your breath feels as you move, how the air and sun feel on your skin, the sound of the cars and people around you. Your awareness is shifted out of your mind and into the world. If you notice your mind wandering to your sweetheart’s weird demeanor that morning or your to-do list waiting at the office, just gently bring your awareness back to your body and the environment around it.
It’s ideal to do this slow to really absorb the nuances, but you know, you just can’t walk slow sometimes, so it’s perfectly fine to do it at the pace you need to be at. Sometimes I’d focus on my walking just for a set of blocks — say from my front door to the subway station. You can go hardcore and find a park or a trail to walk on, and that’s a lovely experience…but it also works when you walk from your car into the supermarket, you know? Or walking up the stairs to your fifth-floor walkup — this kind of meditation is how I made my multiple ascents a day more bearable. Any minute grabbed is better than nothing.
One Pop Song
This one is fun! It’s simple: just listen to a song. The trick, of course, is to put your focus and awareness on just the song. Absorb its rhythm, the sound of each instrument, the vocals, the bassline. Surprisingly, you’ll find how often you don’t really listen to music, and how easily your mind starts to wander into memory, fantasy or reverie. You’ll likely have to constantly lead your mind back to the song. The structure of the pop song, though, is perfect for an on-the-go or short meditation. And it fits in easily with modern life.
Breathing in Pink and Gold Glitter
This is like my girlie-glam adaptation of the Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen meditation, because, well, if you can make anything pink and glittery, then why not? (I like to include my inner Vegas showgirl in my search for enlightenment.) Tonglen, in a nutshell, is basically breathing in pain and breathing out peace. Its aim is to transform suffering and tumult: you acknowledge it, take it in, let the breath transform it and then breathe out peace and softness into the world. Most people try to avoid suffering, but in tonglen, you confront it gently and with great respect — and then dissipate it with your own gentle efforts. So it’s really kind of a warrior practice. It’s associated with the larger Buddhist practice of metta, which means loving-kindness and features prominently in Tibetan Buddhism.
This is how I was taught to do it: you close your eyes and just do a few deep breaths, calming the mind and settling into your body. Then, with an inhale, you imagine breathing in your suffering, sadness, worry, anxiety or anger. Imagine taking it into your lungs. Sometimes it helps to imagine a swirl of black smoke entering through your heart, or call up the image of a recent event in your mind and “breathe in” the suffering in the air of that scene. Or you can simply breathe in the wish to take away that suffering and pain. Then, on your exhale, you breathe out peace, joy, happiness or harmony. I often imagine breathing out plumes of clean white air, or, yes, pink and glitter clouds because it amuses me, and because it’s a more primal, immediate way for me to access those positive emotions.
You breathe in black yuckiness and breath out beauty and peace, basically. You start with yourself and your own woes and worries — because love and compassion must begin with how you treat yourself — but ideally, you begin to expand outwards. Your family, your friends: imagine their sadness and suffering, breath in the wish to help them and breath out peace and happiness towards them. If you are really advanced, you start doing people you’re more neutral towards, like perhaps your co-workers or your classmates. And if you’re really, really advanced, you do tonglen for the people who give you trouble: enemies, frenemies, toxic people, ex-partners in romance, whoever. And once you get that far, you can expand to all sentient beings on earth. That’s definitely for no slouches.
Tonglen is interesting, especially when you do it in times of crisis, because that’s when we want to avoid suffering as much as possible, and we drink, overeat and overspend to take our minds off of our problems. But as you do tonglen during these times, it will often bring up waves of difficult emotion. The trick is to just let it arise, breathe through it, and send yourself some love with each exhale. You do feel a lot more peaceful afterwards, and very light and clean.
As you can imagine, you can sit for a long, long time doing tonglen, because there are so many people in the world and so much suffering to transform! But you can also do it on the fly, like when you see someone in the world clearly have a bad day: just breathe in their sadness and breathe out your good wishes for health and happiness towards them. I have to say: this is really a transformative practice if you do it often enough and with great spirit. It can start off tiny, but it easily grows into something beautiful and epic. And that’s the way it is with any kind of meditation.