It’s a new year and a new decade... again! I originally wrote this post 1o years ago when I was blogging as The Pragmatic Yogi. A lot has changed since then but some things have remained the same including the fact that meditation is the one aspect of yoga that I find most challenging. My practice is still sporadic at best but I know that there are many real benefits including decreased anxiety, better sleep, improved mood, enhanced immunity, and improved performance and judgement. (Check out this list of 100 benefits of meditation).
What exactly qualifies as meditation? Does it have to be a half an hour of more of sitting silently on the floor, actively clearing the mind while remaining physically motionless? Can it be done during repetitive motion such as walking, running, swimming or knitting? What about during so-called ‘adrenaline sports’ that require intense concentration like surfing, rock climbing or downhill mountain biking? In order to answer that question it’s important to define meditation.
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines it as: 1. to engage in contemplation or reflection 2. to engage in mental exercise (as concentration on one's breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness
It is defined in the Yoga Sutras as: Meditation (3.2) is a state of constant attention, wherein the concentration is not broken by those other distractions.
But my favorite description of meditation is this simple comparison: to pray is to make a request, to meditate is to listen for the answer.
Combining the above definitions, I came up with my own working definition. Meditation: A mental exercise in which one pursues a state of unbroken concentration for the purpose of gaining contemplative insight.
In my experience with ‘adrenaline sports’ (rock-climbing, snowboarding, mountain biking) I have enjoyed that sensation of flow or being ‘in the zone.’ It is a beautiful, awesome sensation. Being able to block out all thoughts, emotions, sensations and to feel like you are one with your bike (the rock, the snow, the waves, whatever) feels like a higher state of consciousness, but I don’t believe it qualifies as meditation. It certainly can involve unbroken concentration but I don't think that much contemplation or reflection occurs as you’re racing down the side of a mountain. At least I personally have never had any great flashes of insight during those moments. Flow? Yes. Enlightenment? No.
What about moving meditation, during walking, running, swimming or even knitting? One can definitely contemplate and reflect during those activities so I do believe that mediation is possible during such activities. The key is make it a mental exercise. Just letting your mind wander or listening to internal chatter does not qualify as meditation. In order for the mental exercise aspect to occur, you must clear the mind of chatter and develop better mental focus. This is more easily done by listening to your breath or using a mantra in coordination with the breath, or with the movement of the body. Or perhaps listening to a guided meditation. There are so many apps and programs available now that didn't exist in 2010 (or at least I had never heard of them. Apps weren't even around until 2008!) This past spring in 2020, I started doing walking mediations that I found to be very helpful in bringing my emotions to the surface and having the ability to experience and release those emotions. I used a free program from Oprah/Deepak Chopra but Headspace is another good app that is free to try.
In 2010 I wrote that doing seated meditation is the method that is the most challenging but possibly the most effective. The ability to sit, do nothing, think of nothing and find peace of mind is truly a skill. I suspect that as you develop this skill of concentration, you can more easily apply this to other situations in life. For example, when you get highly irritated while driving your car, you can much more easily draw peace of mind from that experience of seated meditation than from say, running meditation where your focus may be dependent on the rhythmic sound of your breath, your feet pounding the ground, or the steady state of endorphins flowing through your blood. Ten years later, I think that the logic still holds but the reality is that I for now, will not dedicate much time to sitting still to meditate. Now that I am a mom to two active boys, I want to spend my available time either exercising or fully resting! And as my PT/yogi mentor Ginger Garner says, most people in our culture already spend too much time sitting. So if we can weave a mediation practice into other self-care activities such as walking or taking baths, it will likely be healthier and more sustainable.
The root of the word meditation derives from the Latin mederi, to remedy, heal. So the most most essential element of meditation, whatever its form is to be a remedy for whatever ails the mind, the body and the spirit. My experience with walking meditation in the early months of this pandemic were certainly effective at bolstering my mind and my spirit so that I was able to face the reality of our situation with the resolve to make the most of this challenging year. I have fallen out of the practice in the past few months so my New Years intention is to recommit to doing moving meditation at least twice a week and a meditative, restorative practice once a week. And I will ride my mountain bike whenever I can... just for fun.
Wish me luck and let me know what your experience and aspirations are!