by Alex Carr
The challenges and stresses that we have experienced due to COVID can make meditation potentially both more useful, but also more difficult to start, sustain and get help with. If you are one of the people who picked up a mindfulness practice early on, found it helpful, but have lately been struggling, now may be a good time to step back and reconsider just what you may need to develop your practice.
Start as small as you can
If you are an enthusiastic new meditator, or just desperate for some relief from your own mind, you may be tempted to dive straight into long meditation sessions. Go slow! Your mind might not be used to meditation. All the ordinary mind-states that come up when we meditate – boredom, resistance, irritation, the to-do list – will feel all the more frustrating if you have committed yourself to a forty-five minute session. So, start small and simple, and make it as easy for yourself as possible. Consider starting with practicing for 5 minutes on the first day, then 6 minutes the next day, and 7 minutes the day after that. Building a ten to fifteen-minute practice every day is enough to notice a difference in your daily life (though feel free to meditate longer, or multiple times in a day).
Something small, done regularly, will be contained enough that your mind will be able to metabolise what comes up. Dealing with the restrictions, controversies, and sense of uncertainty has been hard on all of us and it may leave you feeling tired and numb. Considering this new environment, it’s wise to be gentle with yourself when you start meditating. You are learning something new, and there’s no rush.
If you are in a lockdown situation or there are limits to social interaction, you might have spent a lot of time alone already. Even if we’re surrounded by others at home, sitting by ourselves for several minutes every day can seem very challenging. There are other things that press for our attention; there are the voices in our minds that, when we’re still, suddenly have a new urgency, a chore to be done or an email to be sent. There’s also the ever-present desire to numb ourselves from our thoughts – another episode of Netflix or scrolling social media on our phones. For many of us, what we need for meditation to feel most supportive is a sense of being alone, together.
Perhaps the biggest myth about meditation is that it is something that you do by yourself, alone. It’s a myth that the secular Buddhist group in Wellington, New Zealand that I facilitate -One Mindful Breath – tries to bust whenever we can! Meditation has historically been a communal activity and once you try meditating with others you’ll see why. Mediating with others in a supportive environment can really deepen and sustain your practice. It’s also a great way to get new, interesting practice techniques.
So, figure out where you most need support, inspiration, and guidance from others, and seek it out. There are many opportunities to join online sanghas which have regular meditation sessions. Many secular sanghas are resuming in-person weekly sessions (like One Mindful Breath) which can provide great structure and routine. Tara Brach’s excellent weekly podcast and meditations offer a fresh perspective. Or try the Secular Buddhist Network’s weekly, online meditation group. Experiment, and find the balance of being alone and being with others that helps you best.
Know When Not to Meditate
Sometimes meditation is not the right response to what we’re feeling; certain states of mind might be better tackled in other ways. If there is a lot of energy in your emotions, walking or exercising can be especially helpful. When in the grip of anger, stamp it into the ground; if you are feeling very anxious, move your eyes around as you walk, taking in the space, the sky, the trees – trying to feel as present as possible. Sometimes this can be the most mindful way of responding if you are in the midst of something difficult.
If you are experiencing strong emotions, simple adjustments to your meditation practice can also help. If you have a lot of anxiety, then sitting upright, with your back supported by a cushion against a wall or the back of the chair, can feel more supportive than sitting on a cushion. If something overwhelming comes up while you are meditating, then opening your eyes, looking around the room, and pressing your feet against the floor can be very grounding.
Like any other commitment, a meditation practice which seems interesting is easier to sustain. Each time you meditate, try dropping a couple of questions into mind: ‘What thoughts keep arising?’ ‘What am I feeling in my body?’ ‘What is this?’ Afterwards, it can be helpful to take a moment to journal your answers. It needn’t be much – a few words, or phrases – but as you become more familiar with the flow and habits of your own mind, connections and insights will arise.
Over time, you will start spotting patterns not only in meditation, but also as they pop up in your mind during your daily life. You will start to spot triggers and reactions – and you will also start to notice what helps. You might find that taking the attention to the sensation of your breath helps in a moment of doomscrolling, or that sensing your sit-bones helps you stay grounded when you are irritated with a Zoom call. Try it and see.
A final tip: play dirty
I think of meditation as being a fence at the top of a cliff, rather than an ambulance at the bottom: a daily practice will protect your wellbeing and give you more “bandwidth” to help others.
Getting a meditation practice to be a daily habit may require you to be kinder and more compassionate to yourself than you would usually be. As adults we seem to expect that we can, through sheer force of will, compel ourselves to do anything. However, in practice we often need just as much bribing and cajoling as children. Don’t be afraid to bribe yourself or use tricks to support a habit of meditation.
One member of my sangha would tell himself that he would only meditate for 10 minutes but set his timer for 12 minutes to trick himself to push his practice a little longer.
For me it was high-quality dark chocolate: having a piece after every practice (regardless of whether it was a “good” meditation or not). You might find your own way to treat yourself, like a star chart or playing video games. Meditating in difficult times can be hard, so do whatever you can to make it easier.