Learning to meditate can be hard. Maintaining our posture, being still and keeping the mind focused on the breath can feel a bit like learning how to drive a stick shift; lots of simple tasks that, when performed at once, can feel overwhelming.
Remembering these four "R"s can help keep your Zen Meditation on track:
Recognize when you are distracted: One of the benefits of a meditation practice is an increase in self-awareness, which is generally regarded as the foundation for emotional intelligence and emotional wellbeing. When we’re meditating we need to, without judgment or self-criticism, recognize when our brain has started to run away from being present. Adopting a watchful, vigilant or curious attitude will help us recognize when our mind wonders.
Release the thought: I challenge you to try and release a thought midsentence. Don’t wait and try to think it through to a conclusion. The brain has an endless supply of chatter it can generate. When we set our timer for 3, 5 or 10 minutes to practice Zazen for the day, we commit to be fully and completely present to our breath. Our nagging thoughts of to-do lists, fears about the future, daydreaming and regrets from the past can be dealt with later. If it is important, we’ll remember another time. This short period is for letting go of this kind of distraction as soon as we notice it.
Return to your breath: How do we release a thought? Nature abhors a vacuum and when we are first learning to let go of thoughts we need to do so by replacing them with something else. By returning our attention to the sensation of the breath we use up our “mental bandwidth” with the richness of the experience of being rooted in our body. This is a valuable skill for when we’re stressed out in everyday situations. Knowing we can instantly drop our worries and return to the experience of our breath gives us a safe place to retreat to whenever needed.
Repeat, repeat, repeat: The brain thinks. In the same way that our eyes see and our ears hear, brains think. When we sit for 3, 5 or 10 minutes a day it is unrealistic to expect our mind to stop thinking. Our Zen Meditation practice is the mental equivalent of going to the gym and strength training. We are going to encounter thoughts over and over again which we commit to recognize and release, allowing us to return to our calming breath. With each repeated effort we get a little bit stiller, a little bit calmer and a little bit happier. Eventually we become grateful for the waves in our mind because they give us something to practice with.
Bonus Tip – Relax: Our body and mind are deeply interconnected. When I think something is sad, I cry. When I’m hungry I get irritable. A deep tissue massage puts me in a good mood. If we want our mind to relax, we need to relax our body. If we want to let go of stressful thoughts, letting go of physical tension in the body is important too. If your mind is busy, check in with your body and notice if your jaw is clenched or your shoulders are up around your ears. Where there is a muscle, there is the opportunity to let go of tension. Meditation is a great chance to just take it easy for a little while.
I have enjoyed chewing on these “R”s this week. It has helped focus and strengthen my practice. It is easy to over complicate meditation. Let’s reminder ourselves that is in fact a simple process: recognize, release, return and repeat. The self-awareness and the self-control I develop through this kind of training gives me a mental fortitude that I benefit from throughout my day.
May your practice go well!
Anthony A. Cernera, M.Ed.