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May 21st is World Meditation Day, and as a clinical counsellor it reminds me of the recent mindfulness and meditation practices becoming more and more common in therapy. It is something I’ve integrated into my work with clients and in my own life. You might hear from friends or social media that meditation is a really helpful practice, but rarely will anyone tell us how to do it. Our preconceived ideas of meditation are often of monks sitting still and silently, so we might try to do the same: simply sit still and be quiet for a while. But often people find just sitting frustrating, irritating, and don’t stick with it. It doesn’t feel like anything is happening, so it seems like a waste of time.
But there is more going on with meditation than just sitting quietly that provides the benefits we are told about. So I wanted to share with you the specific, step-by-step process that I was taught for meditating.
This particular practice of meditation is one of many different styles, and you might find a different one that works better for you. At the very least, this may be a place to start that can give you a clear structure of what you can do for an effective meditation practice.
The structure of this meditation is based off Cynthia Bourgeault’s book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, as this was my first substantial introduction to meditation. It parallels several other methods that I have come to appreciate and practice including David Hawkins Letting Go (book of the same name) and many mindfulness practices which are originally derived from Buddhist forms of meditation (Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the more prolific modern authors from this community and a great resource).
The method of meditation presented here is known as a “letting go” or “surrender” meditation.
It is useful for a number of different reasons, but people often find it particularly helpful for dealing with anxious, racing or distressing thoughts, calming down or slowing down, peace and relaxation, and spiritual connectedness for those engaged in some form of spirituality.
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I’ll give a detailed overview of the process, but in short, the letting go meditation goes like this:
- Get in a comfortable, quiet place.
- Sit or lie in a comfortable position.
- Pick a word that will be your re-focusing cue to gently “return your attention”.
- State to yourself your intention of meditating, noticing all the fears or hesitations you might have, and let them be there while still pressing on.
- Focus your attention on your breathing.
- When you notice your attention has moved from your breathing to a thought, say your cue word in your mind and gently bring your attention back to your breathing.
- Continue this process of attending and returning to your breathing for whatever length of time feels manageable (perhaps starting at 2-5 minutes and increasing the length as you get more comfortable and consistent with the practice).
The Process of Surrender/Letting Go Meditation
1) Get in a comfortable, quiet place
To start, simply locate yourself in a quiet space. Being in a quiet and calm room helps to put our own minds in a state that is more receptive to the meditation process. You may find it helpful to play some slow, relaxed music at a low volume or some nature “white-noise” (a stream, distant ocean waves, gentle wind, etc.) in the background. Calm is a helpful app that has free resources for sounds and songs like this.
2) Sit or lie in a comfortable position
Sit in a comfortable position, something that strikes a balance between relaxed and alert. You want a position that isn’t going to become uncomfortable in two minutes or strain your muscles. A great position to start with is sitting in a comfortable chair with your feet on the floor. If you prefer, you can also lie on the ground, on a couch or in a bed. This leans more towards the “relaxed” side of the spectrum than “alert”, but this can be helpful if you find it difficult to relax or get comfortable sitting. If you are sitting you can place your hands palm up or palm down on your knees. If you’re lying down you can leave your arms by your side, place them on your stomach or on your chest.
When you are ready to start, it can be really helpful when beginning a meditation practice to set a timer.
The amount of time you meditate for varies a lot by person and by experience. To start, shorter can often be better. There is no point in setting a time for meditation that is so long you will struggle to make it all the way through and may end up feeling like a failure. Give yourself an very reasonable amount of time to start with. Two minutes, five minutes, or sometime around that range is fantastic. When you begin to get more comfortable or begin to find it short, you can increase your time up to a point that feels comfortable. If you want a time to build towards, 20 minute meditation sessions are often reported to be a satisfactory amount of time for practitioners with more experience.
3) Pick a word that will be your re-focusing cue to gently “return your attention”.
Before starting the meditation process, we want to choose a word that will help us cue the process of shifting our attention from our thoughts back to our breathing. In her book, Bourgeault refers to this a “sacred word” but she clarifies that there is nothing special or magical about the word you use.
The word is simply used to represent your intention during the meditation process.
It will help you to re-center and ground yourself. Words like peace, love, calm, rest, surrender, allow or similar are great because they express some of the values of this meditation, but your word can be anything you like. It is recommended not to change your word during your meditation session as it tends to make the process of meditation more difficult, but between sessions you can change your word as often as you want. If you do five separate meditation sessions you could use five different words or one, its up to you.
4) State your intention of meditating
Once you are in this comfortable position and have chosen your cue word, close your eyes (or if you don’t feel comfortable closing your eyes for any reason, I will suggest to clients that they look at the ground or at a fixed point in the room instead), and take a minute or two to set your intention: that is, being clear with yourself what you are doing. An example could be as simple as “I am going to spend the next five minutes in meditation”.
This is helpful to become focused on the present moment, allowing you to leave behind distractions and other concerns just for a few minutes.
It is also a way to give yourself permission to do what you are about to do. It is incredible how often we can come up with other things in that moment we could do – look at Instagram, reorganize my underwear drawer, do my taxes – things that perhaps we normally avoid but all of a sudden seem so appealing. We can also jump right into criticizing ourselves (eg. “you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re not going to get this right”) or second guessing (eg. “this is stupid, meditation probably isn’t going to work anyways”). Become aware of any of these thoughts that show up for you. Its ok if these thoughts happen, just notice that while these thoughts have shown up, you are still making the decision to practice meditation.
5) Focus your attention on your breathing.
Once you have gotten into a comfortable position, stated your intention, have your word, and closed your eyes, start by focusing your attention on your physical body in the present moment. The easiest way to do this is by paying attention to your breathing. You don’t need to breathe in any specific way or change it, just draw your attention into your chest and notice the feeling of air coming in and out of your lungs.
6) When you notice your attention has moved from your breathing to a thought, say your cue word in your mind and gently bring your attention back to your breathing.
As you hold your attention in your chest, you will likely start to notice that thoughts will pop up in your mind. They could be about anything and take many different shapes. Maybe you speak to yourself in your own mind, maybe you begin imagining a scene that happened in your life a few days ago, etc.
Whatever form you notice those thoughts taking, at some point you will likely discover that your focus and attention has shifted away from your breathing and onto this thought.
This is normal, its difficult to hold our attention in one place for a long time. And in fact this is the point of this style of meditation. When you notice that your attention has moved from your breathing to whatever thought you are focused on right now, simply say your “sacred word” in your mind. As you say the word to yourself, gently bring your attention back to your breathing.
There a several very important things that happen in this part of meditation (which we can call “the return phase”). First, this is not “clearing your mind” or “pushing out thoughts”. We actually don’t want to force this thought out of our mind. Instead, we want to gently return our attention back to where we had it before. We don’t want to treat the thought like it is bad, even if the thought might cause us distress.
We can use an analogy from a common mindfulness practice to illustrate how we refocus our attention:
Imagine you are sitting on the bank of a river, and you are watching a steady parade of small wooden rowboats float gently down the stream. Then you discover all of a sudden that you are actually on one of the rowboats instead of on the river bank! At some point, you went from sitting on the side of the river to sitting in the boat, and you are just now recognizing where you are. All you want to do is get out of the rowboat and walk back to shore, and sit down again. No need to destroy the rowboat or push it further downstream or park it on the side of the river bank beside you. Just get out and come back to where you were before.
Sometimes in the literature this is called returning your attention “ever-so-gently” to your breathing. It implies doing so with very little effort or strain. Another analogy used is that we “rest our attention on our breathing like a feather”. There isn’t any forcing or straining required of you in this process.
Second, our attention going to our thoughts is not a “failure” of meditation, its actually part of the point!
When our focus comes to our thoughts, the action of noticing and then gently returning our attention to our breathing is actually a tangible way to practice some really important things, one of the most important ones being that we are not our thoughts. Often we will get lost in our heads or ruminate on certain thoughts over and over and over again feeling stuck. This is a way to experience the separation between your person and what you think. It can be really difficult to deal with a constant stream of anxious thinking, and often people don’t give us tangible ways to shift this type of thinking, they’ll just say “focus on the positive” or “stop worrying”. This is hopefully a more clear action to take: notice your thoughts, gently return to your breathing.
You might find that you have dozens of thoughts coming in all the time that constantly pull your attention, so you find yourself constantly saying your cue word and coming back to your breathing only to be pulled away the next moment. This is ok!
The important part of this process isn’t necessarily keeping your attention on your breathing for a long period of time. Noticing where your attention is placed and returning it to your breathing is the real key. This intentional movement of our attention from thoughts to our breathing is like exercising a muscle. So each time your attention is pulled away from your breathing, it is actually giving you another opportunity to practice the return!
When a thought pulls our attention away from our breathing during mediation, is also giving you a wonderful opportunity to confront any negative or unkind beliefs about yourself.
Perhaps when you notice your attention has gone to your thoughts you start to think of how you got it wrong, or you aren’t doing meditation right, or you aren’t skilled at it. We have a chance in this moment to ask some very important questions to ourselves: are you really such a failure for having your attention pulled away from your breathing? Are you really so bad because of this one occurrence? It’s something we all experience in meditation, its part of the process. Do you really need to be so disappointed in yourself or talk unkindly to yourself? Perhaps you can extend yourself a little understanding, compassion, and kindness. Perhaps you’re allowed to not be perfect, to just be human. Maybe you can try on that idea and see what happens.
One of the keys to remember with meditation, like almost all of the practices and tools I introduce to clients in counselling, is that the effectiveness usually isn’t in using the practice one time to solve a problem, but instead using it consistently over time to shift how we show up in the world.
Having a coping tool to deal with a stressful situation is great, but the experience of deep freedom comes when a stressful event occurs, we feel the fear, sadness, or other emotions, and still having access to a sense of peace.
It transforms the attitude we hold when approaching problems rather than being something to “fix” that one specific issue. It doesn’t prevent us from encountering difficult situations and the painful feelings that come with them, but it lets us go through the experience the way we want to, being able to treat others and ourselves with kindness and compassion which can dramatically transform the outcome of a difficult situation. That’s the power of meditation.
As I work with clients and move through my own journey of life, I am continuously reminded how often we attempt to relieve discomfort in our lives by trying so hard to make our situation different or avoid the issue all together.
Yet often it seems like we humans experience the most relief from discomfort not when we change or avoid our circumstances, but when we slow down, becoming more present to our own experience, we can find peace in the midst of the chaos and challenges.
If you are willing to try, meditation can be one way for you to access this calm in the midst of the storm.
Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by Cynthia Bourgeault
Letting Go by David Hawkins
The Miracle of Mindfulnss by Thich Nhat Hanh
Curtis Dueck is a member of our Ask An Expert column. If you would like to ask him a question about mental health, click here!
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