There’s a mystique associated with meditation. People (myself included) love to share misty quotes from Thich Nat Hanh or the Dalai Lama talking about stillness and quieting the mind and being in the present. Images of sunsets in Hawaii abound.
No matter how much is made in mainstream publications of the wonderful effects that even 10 minutes of sitting quietly can bring, people still believe that meditation “isn’t for me,” “I don’t have time for that,” “I tried but I can’t sit still,” “I feel like it’s a waste of time.” Really all variations on the same notion that meditation is practiced in a perfectly lit, perfectly quiet room while sitting on a bejeweled cushion, or on a beach at sunrise with your perfect blond locks moving softly in the breeze.
I totally get this, because I felt that way myself for years. It took a long time of trying cheap yoga classes and enjoying the quiet of savasana at the end before I realized that maybe I was “hippy dippy” enough to try meditating. Once I started, it was hard to let go of the idea that I wasn’t cool enough, peaceful enough, pretty-girl-on-the-beach enough to meditate regularly. Over time, I found peace enough in my practice of meditation that I stopped worrying about those things.
And then, over even more time, I found peace enough with myself to embrace this simple truth: No one is perfectly one thing or the other, because none of us is perfect at all. And whoever I am for the other 1,430 minutes in the day is also who I am while I’m meditating.
So if I am a mom of (wild and extremely messy) boys, who loves loud music and dirty jokes, who swears like it’s her paying job, who also takes huge chunks of time out of her day to snuggle her children and make them feel heard and seen, who prays every day, and who has also taken her toddler to a bar because she couldn’t watch the game on the TV at home, then I am still that person when I sit down to meditate. I don’t have blond hair, I don’t live near the beach, I don’t have a bejeweled cushion, I fucking hate sitar music, but I love to sit still and breathe.
It’s a growth thing. The first time I tried to learn the ABC’s I imagine I sucked at it. Luckily, that was long enough ago that I don’t remember it. But anything we learn will take time and seem impossible at first. So why bother?
Well, meditation has been shown to decrease stress levels, lower cortisol (that ugly stress hormone that wreaks all kinds of havoc on our immune system and mental health), it can help us sleep better, maintain a positive outlook more consistently, and reduce the number of times I whisper, “Are you fucking kidding me??” near my children.
Okay, that last one isn’t really “science,” but it is 100% true.
And while it is hard to master, meditation is pretty easy to get started with: Find as little as five minutes (hell, three minutes is better than none) when you aren’t likely to be interrupted. Sit down in a comfortable position (curled up on the couch is totally legit). Either close your eyes or let your eyes rest by gazing at the floor a few feet in front of you. Take a deep breath in through your nose (unless your children gave you a cold and you need to breathe in through your mouth), then let it out slowly. On the next inhale and exhale, relax the muscles in your face, then your shoulders, then your torso, your hips, your legs, all the way to fingers and toes. Keep breathing deeply through this process.
I found it hard to consciously relax at first (it felt kind of like someone yelling at me to calm down), but a way of thinking of it that helped me was to think of allowing all my muscles to become pudding. I don’t know why that worked exactly, but it chilled me out when I was getting started.
After about 6-8 breaths you should be reasonably more relaxed – now start to concentrate on the breathing itself – the feeling of the air coming in through your nose, down your throat, into your lungs, maybe your belly expands a little, then the air going back out, slowly.
Focus on the air moving, on your lungs filling, or your belly expanding – pick something that is a natural reaction of your body to the breath – no need to force your belly to move, for example. And don’t try to train your mind on a particular thought for now – it can easily turn into an argument or emotional reaction if you do. Over time, you’ll find that it all comes easier, that it takes less time to feel relaxed, and that finding more like 10 minutes or 15 starts to become desirable.
That said, even if you don’t want to set aside time to meditate every day, here’s the truly cool thing: You can simply use it “in the moment” to keep from yelling at your kids or gritting your teeth so hard they creak (anyone else?). This is one of my favorite things I have gotten out of meditation. I listened to a guided meditation that taught me how to count breaths. And now I use
it all the time. Are you ready for these incredibly nuanced instructions? Take a deep breath in. Now let it out. Think to yourself, “One.” Take another breath in, then let it out, then think, “Two.” Keep going until you have counted ten breaths. Start back over at one. Repeat as long as you’d like, or until the urge to knock your children’s heads together has passed.
It works in so many situations: Kids just spilled paint all over the floor right after you said, “Stay seated there, sweetie, so we don’t spill the paint,” in your most honeyed tones? Stop and breathe. Nervous about bringing your kids into a grocery store? Stop and breathe. Finally got both (or however many you have, you warrior mamas of three and more) kids in the damn car?! Stop and breathe as you get into the driver’s seat and buckle in.
For what it’s worth, the car is my favorite place to use this trick. My oldest is a dawdler of epic proportions and my youngest is, well, two, so it’s a lot of work to get them in the car and all buckled up. Once I do, I get in the driver’s seat and then I start breathing in and out while counting the breaths and I feel so in control I could giggle.
Really, I feel almost giddy with relief. It usually takes at least one full count up to “ten,” but if that’s not enough, then by the time I hit “three” on the next round it happens: I feel almost like a slight tremor of peace run through me. It’s hard to describe, but it softens my face and loosens my shoulders and makes me feel like everything is going to be alright.
If you’ve never tried it, I know how unbelievable it can sound. I’ve been there. And I tried it in small ways for a while before I felt like it was doing anything for me. And I am hardly an expert now. But, however much I resisted thinking I was “the type” to meditate, keeping at it even in small ways, helped me immeasurably. If I never did it again any other way than just counting breaths throughout the day when I needed to, it would still be a great help in my parenting. I hope it helps you, too.
Counting Breaths Mediation