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What Meditation Really Looks Like

Meditation needs a serious PR makeover. A major image reboot. If you do a google search for meditation, you’ll come up with all sorts of pictures of beautiful people on the beach. They look calm. They look perfect. (And they all look the same! Ever noticed that all meditation pictures showcase white, blond, thin women? And how does their hair always blow in the breeze in just the right way?!)

The pictures look one way. But anyone who’s ever tried to meditate knows that what it looks like on the outside is nothing compared to the rampant chaos that is most likely taking place beneath the surface. Our minds are so busy, jumping from daydreaming to planning to worrying. We get distracted by both external and internal stimuli. And, no matter how many times we tell ourselves otherwise, there’s this sense that it should be a certain way. Even if someone tells you that you aren’t trying to reach a particular state when you meditate, there’s that judgment that you’re doing it right when you’re calm or it feels good and doing it wrong when it feels unpleasant.

And this is where the makeover comes in. Because meditation isn’t about making you perfect or feel good or have breezy hair. It’s not about stopping the thoughts or feeling any particular way. It’s the very simple, though not very easy, act of being where you are.

It’s just being where, who, when, and how you are. Noticing what that’s like. And letting it be okay. Meditation teacher Shinzen Young calls these focus, clarity, and equanimity.

The actual practice of meditation is really quite mundane. You sit and you notice what it’s like to sit. You breathe and you feel yourself breathing. You see your mind going a mile a minute, you acknowledge it, and you choose to return your attention to where you are, this present moment. And that’s it. It’s not trying to reach enlightenment or float off the ground or make all your thoughts or problems go away. It’s actually much more about turning towards those problems (or itches, thoughts, agitation, sounds, hunger pangs, etc.) than trying to get rid of them.

Being with them, noticing what’s happening, and letting it be okay.

And your mind will wander because that’s what minds do. So it wanders and you bring it back. And it wanders again...and you bring it back again. And the actual ‘work’ comes in here in two ways 1) the practice of seeing that mind, seeing what’s happening as it’s happening, and 2) choosing to be nonjudgmental and kind each and every time it happens.

It’s in these tiny moments of noticing and being kind where change actually happens. It’s the little moments that you repeat a million times until it becomes easier to be gentle with yourself than to berate yourself. The more you practice it, the easier it becomes.

We are always training our minds, one way or another. Meditation is simply doing this deliberately. Instead of training our minds to solve problems, get from A to B, fix the leaky sink, figure out whatever ‘new math’ is, or do our taxes, we are training our minds to be more patient and more present. Instead of what so many of us do automatically, which is training our minds to be good at self-criticism and self-judgment, we are training our minds the way we choose, training them to respond in a way that’s softer, more allowing, and more compassionate.

It’s just: being with what’s happening, noticing it, and letting it be okay.

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