I just ran an image search for "meditation" and got the results above: Twelve of the first 13 shots show people seated in a soothing, peaceful environment, backed by the ocean, or the setting sun, or the ocean and the setting sun. (The thirteenth image is, of course, a lotus flower...floating on the ocean...under the setting sun.)
These results are consistent with the popular image of meditation as a break--a soothing, peaceful experience during which we "clear our minds," leaving us feeling blissed-out and relaxed. But this is not how many people actually experience meditation, and the contrast between the stereotype and the reality is a serious problem.
I--and many others--often experience meditation as a challenging, difficult, and even stressful experience. And that's by design, because for us meditation is a workout--a challenging, difficult, and even stressful process aimed at building our capacity to direct our attention, focus our thoughts, and manage our emotions.
Meditation can serve many other purposes--I'm not presuming to speak for all meditators. But in my work as an executive coach to senior leaders and in my Art of Self-Coaching course for Stanford MBAs I discuss and promote meditation specifically for these purposes, a position backed up by substantial research by such figures as neuroscientists Richard Davidson and Daniel Siegel and therapist Linda Graham, among many others.
From this perspective the primary task in meditation is to deliberately focus one's attention on a specific object--I typically choose the physical sensation of breathing. But almost immediately upon beginning a meditation session, my focus is disrupted by an unbidden, automatic thought--a memory of a past experience, anticipation of a future experience, a personal or professional relationship, a problem I'm facing, or just some random item on my to-do list. My goal is to acknowledge this intruding thought and then gently but deliberately return the focus of my attention to its chosen object. This sounds ridiculously easy in theory, and it's ridiculously hard in practice--and it's even harder when the intruding thought is accompanied by or triggers a corresponding emotion, because by design emotions are attention magnets.
This process occurs over and over (and over) again in every meditation session, and if that sounds like hard work, it is. The good news is that research shows that meditating for just a few minutes a day over a period as short as several weeks can yield measurable results. Consistent meditators have a greater ability to focus their attention, avoid distraction, cope with stress, and manage emotions more generally. But the bad news is that the popular perception of meditation as a break can create a disincentive to persist with the practice.
Many of my clients and students have told me that they're open to the idea of meditating, but when they've tried it they felt discouraged because they were continually distracted and found it impossible to "clear their mind." Rather than feeling blissful and relaxed, they felt stressed by the profusion of thoughts and emotions that came rushing forth. As a result some even concluded that they were simply "bad" at meditation and abandoned the practice entirely.
I can empathize--I've joked before that I'm a "terrible" meditator, but I'm a persistent one. And I'm able to persist because I know that the idea of meditation as a break is an illusion--in reality it's a workout, and just like any workout it will often feel challenging, difficult, and even stressful. That's not a problem--that's the whole point of the process.
Here's how I encourage clients and students who are considering meditation to get started:
- Select a time when you can insure that you won't be interrupted. The more consistent you can be about this time on a daily basis, the better.
- Select a location that offers as few distractions as possible. You don't need perfect silence.
- Find a comfortable position. I find the lotus position a cruel joke--I usually lie down with a pillow or a foam roller under my knees. Your comfort is what matters, not a stereotyped image of what meditators are "supposed" to look like.
- Set a timer for 1 minute. Seriously, just 1 minute.
- Focus your attention on the process of breathing. How does it feel to breathe?
- You will almost immediately be distracted by an automatic thought. That's fine. Acknowledge that thought, let it go, and return your focus to your breath. Repeat this step over and over again.
- At the end of 1 minute, stop.
- Use a very simple process to track the days on which you complete this process. I highly recommend Don't Break the Chain. Simplicity and ease of use are essential.
- Try to extend your daily streak. When you're consistently meditating for 1 minute on a daily basis, increase the time to 2 minutes. Don't increase by more than 1 minute at a time. Daily consistency is much more important than long blocks of time.
If you'd like to know more about meditation's benefits and the neurological basis for its impact, I highly recommend Davidson's The Emotional Life of Your Brain, Siegel's Mindsight, and Graham's Bouncing Back. Jon Kabat-Zinn's work has had a significant impact on my perspective and on my own practice, specifically
- Arriving at Your Own Door: 108 Lessons in Mindfulness
- Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief
- Full Catastrophe Living
And Scott Eblin's Overworked and Overwhelmed discusses how mindfulness practices including meditation can support our efforts to be more productive and manage stress more effectively.