Peace in Troubled Times: 5 Alternative Meditations (for Those Who Don’t Want to OM Under a Waterfall)

Hello my dear ones. Look outside. The sun is shining, or the stars are twinkling, or the rain is falling; the leaves are blowing in the wind and the rivers keep on running toward the sea. The world is still spinning, still here, still able to be fixed. Still able to be healed. So are you.

We’re all feeling the pressure right now; we’re all weighted down with stress. For some of us, it’s academic stress: exam season is looming and panic about grades and scholarships and passing and failing is wearing us down. For some of us, it’s seasonal stress: Daylight Savings just lost us an hour in the Northern Hemisphere, meaning the sun sets at approximately 4:30PM, which is no good for those of us who deal with seasonal depression. For some of us, it’s political, sociocultural stress: we feel disheartened and despairing about current events, oppressed and disenfranchised and tired. We are all so tired.

No matter what your current situation is, it’s probably safe to say you could use a moment of peace and quiet. It’s probably safe to say you’d appreciate a little tranquility. It’s probably safe to say you need a recharge from all the vampiric elements of life, the ones that drain your energy dry.

But in a world so oversaturated with distraction and demand and general bad news, where do you find it?

The simple answer is this: you find it in meditation. Meditating has been proven over and over again to have beneficial effects on your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. It reduces pain, it soothes anxiety, it restores a sense of oneness with self and, importantly, oneness with others. I’m not going to use this post to explain meditation and its benefits, mostly because there are so many other credible and reputable sources that do it for me–instead, I’m going to point out a flaw in this ‘simple’ answer, and give you the tools to resolve it. Here it is:

Some People HATE Meditation

Quite a lot of them, actually. And sometimes the hatred is quite reasonable–sure, a lot of folks turn their noses up at meditation because they think it’s hokey woowoo BS (in which case, I guide you to a study conducted by Harvard on the quantifiable effects of meditation), and a lot of other folks disclaim it due to their own impatience and need for instant gratification (meditation is a lifelong strategy, not a quick fix), but there are those who hold very valid and serious reasons for avoiding meditation and other mindfulness techniques. There are those for whom meditation actually increases their anxiety, for whom it exacerbates their symptoms instead of mitigating them.

For others, it’s not hatred so much as a fear of doing it wrong. My own partner has confessed to me multiple times that she avoids meditation because she feels like she can’t do it right, or like she won’t do it how it’s supposed to be done. And I’ve heard it from scores of other folks before as well. For every person who suggests meditation, there are two or three who believe they’re not cut out for it, that it’s just for the yogis sitting in Lotus Pose under a sacred waterfall, and that all the lesser mortals who can’t stay still for half an hour are just going to have to plough on in misery forever.

Well, in response to that, I am here to share with you a revelation so important it must be shouted in all-caps from the rooftops of the blogosphere.

THERE ARE DIFFERENT KINDS OF MEDITATION

How many? Who knows. Probably as many kinds as there are people. Meditation doesn’t come from just one place, like Buddhism, or Yoga. It’s recorded as being used both as a religious and a secular practice in almost every place on Earth, and with a scope like that you can be sure to find near-infinite variety.

To be clear: you do not have to sit still on a cushion with your eyes closed fingering mala beads and chanting OM to be meditating. Lose the OM, and the beads, and the closed eyes and the cushion and the sitting altogether if you want. There are forms of meditation that don’t require any of those things. There are forms of meditation that will work for exactly who you are and what you require, because the ultimate point of meditation is to reconnect with yourself and the world around you, and there is no ultimate way to do that.

Again–no mater who you are, there is a meditative practice for you out there somewhere. And if it doesn’t look like the meditation that has come to be seen as ‘traditional’ or ‘standard’ in the West, that’s just fine.

I cannot possibly list all of the types that exist, but I can offer you five alternative meditations that I use when I’m personally not feeling the sit-still-on-a-cushion vibe.

1. Metta (Loving-Kindness)

  • What is it? This was personally requested by my partner to be something I mentioned, given the current social climate. Metta is a Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice that can be translated to ‘loving-kindness’ or ‘friendliness’, and which is intended to help “keep the mind open and sweet”.
  • Who is it best for? It is especially useful for those who have trouble seeing beyond their own echo chambers and social bubbles, for those who struggle to face their opponents with compassion. For the impatient and the hot-headed, metta is great emotional skillbuilding.
  • How do you do it? If you click the above link, you’ll discover that there are 4-5 different ways of performing even this specific type of meditation. To keep it simple, here’s how I do it: first, I’ll direct feelings of love and acceptance and gratitude towards myself. Then, I’ll switch my focus to directing loving kindness towards somebody who is very dear to me, someone who fills my life with happiness and joy. Then, I’ll shift again and direct loving kindness towards someone who I am neutral towards (a fellow student, someone I saw on the street, etc). Then–here’s the hard part–I’ll think of ‘a hostile person’, someone I consider difficult, and I’ll direct loving-kindness towards them as well, as best as I can. Lastly, I broaden things out and project love and acceptance to all beings (not just people!).

2. Body Scan

  • What is it? A meditation practice intended to reconnect you to your body and its placement in the space around you. Body scans are good for increasing proprioception (otherwise known as spatial awareness), for noticing and releasing muscle tension, and for that elusive buzzword of a strategy in the mental health world, ‘grounding’.
  • Who is it best for? This one’s for all the graceless folks of the world. If you are an incorrigible klutz, regular Body Scans will actually improve your coordination! It is also for anyone feeling disconcertingly out-of-body or stuck in their head, or anyone who wants to reconnect with themselves in a physical way.
  • How do you do it? Typically I will actually practice this while sitting or lying still, but I will revise it for those who want to incorporate more conscious movement. You begin in a position of stillness and bring your attention to one body part at a time. Depending on how much time you have, you can be broad (2 minutes: feet, legs, torso, hands, arms, shoulders, neck, head, whole body) or very, very specific (20 minutes = “right big toe, right second toe, right third toe, right fourth toe, right pinky toe, left big toe… etc”). If you’re in the mood to be still, you can simply think of that body part and try to feel it internally without moving it–but if you want, you can tense and relax the muscles in each part of the body that you encounter. That gives you the extra bonus of improved muscular control!

3. The Chocolate Meditation (or, Sensory Awareness)

  • What is it? A meditation that focuses on each of your senses in turn: sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch. I picked chocolate because a) food is one of the few things that actually engages all five senses naturally, and b) most people like chocolate. You can use any other food that you like–and it is highly encouraged to try and incorporate at least a minor version of this practice into all of your meals.
  • Who is it best for? Anyone who has trouble focusing on themselves during meditation, or who feels uncomfortable or unsafe spending long amounts of time self-reflecting. This provides a way to connect directly with the world around you through your senses, and so it’s a lot more grounded in tangible reality and a lot less self-searching.
  • How do you do it? Take your morsel of 80% Dark  (or whatever your preference is) and look at it. Really exercise your sense of sight. What are the colours you see (hint: all colours in real life are mixtures of lots of different pigments)? How is it shaped? How does the light affect the surface? Is it matte or shiny on top? Now take a second to feel the piece (but make sure it doesn’t melt!). Is it smooth or are there ridges, bite marks, invisible bumps and imperfections? Take it between your hands and snap it in half, and really listen for the quality of the sound (if you have a bowl of semisweet chocochips, run your hand around in the bowl and listen to them click-cluck away in the bowl). Lift it to your nose and give it a good sniff (hint: sniff in quick short bursts, like a dog. It actually draws up more of the airborne chemicals that transmit smells!). Now, finally, pop a sliver in your mouth and taste it. Don’t just hork it down–really take the moment to savour. Let it melt across your tongue and see if you can detect different flavours on different parts of your palate. You and the chocolate are literally becoming one, so you might as well know what you’re getting into–or rather, what’s getting into you!

4. Guided Meditation

  • What is it? Guided meditations are one of the most popular parts of the mental health and mindfulness craze currently gripping society. They can be anything from a traditional breathing meditation to a walking meditation (prompting you to notice your environment as you spend time outside) to a full-blown story, complete with nature sounds for atmosphere. They take away the stress of remembering ‘how’ to meditate–the only thing you have to do is show up and press play.
  • Who is it best for? People who don’t feel confident guiding themselves through meditation, people who want the mental release of having someone else tell them what to do (it’s surprisingly relaxing, not calling the shots for once!), and people who want a more narrative, imaginative experience.
  • How do you do it? Find a guided meditation and get going! There are literal thousands to be found on Youtube, and there are two websites/apps that are widely circulated and highly recommended, Calm.com and Headspace. My personal preference is for Calm.com–they have guided metta meditations and guided body scans, along with a 7-Day intro to meditation that adequately explains what (contemporary, secular) meditation is all about.

5. Literally Just Freaking Breathe

  • What is it? Exactly what it sounds like. Did you know your body has an automatic relaxation reflex when you breathe in certain patterns? No? Well, you learned something new today.
  • Who is it best for? Anyone and everyone. You can do this anywhere–when you’re on a walk, when you’re on the bus, when you’re on the toilet, when you’re about to go to sleep, etc. You’re already doing it anyway, the only thing left to do is notice you’re doing it. (NB: to all of the Glendon students out there, I am famous for being able to climb the Stairs of Death without getting out of breath. The key? Breathing meditation on the way up!)
  • How do you do it? I posted a long time ago about the mechanics of correct breathing, and the information is still sound. Breathing meditations are one of the simplest and most stripped-down of all meditations: all you do is pay attention to your breathing. You can practice specific breathing techniques (known in the yoga world as pranayama), but it is just as effective to let yourself breathe naturally and observe that rhythm instead. A common breathing practice of mine is to count to four internally as I inhale, and then to count to four internally as I exhale. Eventually I will lengthen the exhales to a count of six, but keep the inhales on four (breathing out for longer than you breathe in triggers a relaxation response in the body’s nervous system). Play around with it until you find your sweet spot.

These are just five of my favourite meditation practices–I use a lot of others, and there are hundreds and thousands of others that I don’t even know about. Pick your favourite and make five minutes of time per day to practice, and note the changes that occur as you do–then come let me know how it goes! And if you have a favourite meditation practice of your own, comment below and share your knowledge!

We all need a space for peace in our lives. We all need a haven to turn to in these tumultuous times. We all need a way to recharge, replenish, and rejuvenate our spirits. I hope you’re on the way to finding your own. ❤

Love and patience,

~Sisi

A photo by Austin Neill. unsplash.com/photos/ZahNAl_Ic3o

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