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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Spann, Ph.D.

What is Meditation? (and that time I fell in 5th grade)

Updated: Apr 19, 2020

"To meditate is to stop and listen to the music of life with a sense of reverence, connectedness, and awe."

—Jack Kornfield

The first time I meditated on a cushion might have been the most awkward I've ever felt. That's a lie. The most awkward I've ever felt was during my 5th grade reenactment of Babe where I played Esme Hoggett, the farmer's wife, and tripped and fell in front of the entire 6th grade class (MY BIGGEST CRUSH WAS IN THAT CLASS). Fairly certain I had a concussion.

Regardless, meditating was strange. I thought I was supposed to be instantaneously enlightened and emerge as the Buddha reincarnate (side note: i t took me 4 attempts and a Google search to accurately spell Buddha :( I'm trying). Because I sought this magical pill of enlightenment, I automatically assumed I wasn't doing it correctly when that wasn't the outcome. Where were my hands supposed to go? Should my eyes be opened or closed? Why the eff to my knees hurt so bad?!?!

After five years of practicing and researching meditation, you may be sad to know that I still have those thoughts sometimes. But it's different. I'm not seeking enlightenment. Rather, I'm coming home. Coming home to my breath, body, and mind and taking the seat of observation. (Hat Tip to Dr. Rick Hanson for the "coming home" phrase).

So what is the point of meditation? Is it to shut out your day, your thoughts, your worries? Not really.

The purpose of meditation is to train your mind—to gain control of your thoughts so that you can ultimately explore the nature of reality. Remember that the aim of meditation, from the Buddhist perspective, is not to relax and be well, but to find liberation from the self. Our culture, myself included, is so obsessed with finding ways to relax and be happy that we confuse meditation with self-care. Certainly, the by-product of feeling good and relaxed and joyful after meditating isn't a bad thing; it just isn't what meditation was designed to address.

The thought of meditating is scary for many. The most common response I hear is: "I can't do it." Hate to break it to you folks, but, yes, yes you can. What I think people mean by "I can't do it" is that something magical didn't happen during their practice. Remember, you will not become the Buddha as I thought I would. You simply start by focusing your attention. Typically it's your breath, but it could be a body part or a sound if that's easier. Over and over again, you bring your attention back to the anchor you've chosen. Your mind will wander off to that time you made an inappropriate comment to your boss (you were just trying to be funny!), but then it will come back. And that, my friends, is the practice. Bringing your attention back every single time it has wandered. Whenever you notice your mind has left your anchor, smile. There you are. Then bring your attention right back to the point of focus.

One of my teachers always said, "Whenever you notice your aren't aware, you are."


So it may look mysterious and you may feel awkward initially, but all you’re doing is a mental workout. To do this mental workout, we need to do away with all of the visual distractions, so we usually close our eyes or lower our gaze to one single point. By doing so, we’re giving ourselves more space to control, regulate, and pay attention to our minds.

For those of us who feel like we can't sit still for long enough, first I recommend starting a practice for extremely short periods of time. Even one minute of focusing attention to the breath. Practice this daily, multiple times a day, until you can slowly begin to to lengthen this time period to 2, 3, 5 minutes at a time. Before you know it, you'll be the Buddha reincarnate. Just kidding. You won't be. You'll still be you, just a more regulated and aware individual. Go you!

In addition to really short formal meditation, you can meditate while you move. Yoga, that practice where we envision weirdly flexible females morphing their bodies into pretzels, is a great way to combine meditation with movement. I don't want to explain why you don't have to be a weirdly flexible female to practice yoga, but just know that anyone can sync their bodily movements and breath in a way that controls and regulates their thoughts.

This summer, I interviewed Dr. Andrew Nicholson for the course I'm co-instructing called The Science and Practice of Yoga. Dr. Nicholson is an Associate Professor of Asian and Asian American Studies at Stony Brook University where his primary areas of research are in Indian philosophy and intellectual history. He’s also studied Sanskrit, Hindi, Indian philosophy, and yoga with teachers in India.

Here is Dr. Nicholson's response to my question, "What is yoga?":

Note at 1:27 Dr. Nicholson says, "I think it's a mistake to say 'I do yoga and meditation', because yoga really is a meditation." I couldn't agree more. And not only because this means I get to practice yoga and not feel guilty about avoiding my cushion, but because when I practice yoga, I truly am engaging in the same practice as I am when I'm sitting on a cushion. Yoga is an active practice of bringing my attention back to the present, over and over, every time my mind wanders. Granted, it's a bit more difficult for your mind to wander when you have all but one limb in the air and you may or may not land on your face.

The moral of the story is that meditation isn't an impossible feat. Meditation is quite a simple act of tuning into our thoughts, feelings, and body, observing the nature of our minds. Though it is simple, it isn't easy. Meditation requires practice. Repeated practice. Nothing else will do.

So, the challenge is to pause. To observe yourself as you are right now. Whatever form your meditation practice takes is a step in the right direction. And it's OK if you trip and fall.

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