Several years ago, while traveling in Kyoto, Japan, I waited in a very long line to see Ryōan-ji, considered one of the last and best examples of a Japanese Zen temple garden. When I gazed at those few strategically placed rocks in clean, immaculately groomed sand with profound, intentional space in between, the noise at this bustling tourist attraction faded. The setting was the epitome of serenity and calm.
Sounds like the perfect setting for meditation, right? While it would be nice to have easy access to spaces like this in America, meditation is not just about unwinding in ideal, quiet, no-stress situations, but more so about developing personal steadiness and calm to breathe through any circumstance, even in a setting as hectic as an airport, busy streets, or a shopping mall.
My first true meditation guide was Cyndi Lee, the prolific author of several yoga books and the owner of Yoga Goodness in Lynchburg, Virginia. When I began meditation at her former Manhattan studio, Om Yoga Center, I learned to sit for 30 minutes at a time in an immaculate, quiet space. About five minutes in, I thought, “How long do I have to sit here?” and then, “Darn it, I’m not supposed to be thinking that.” I wondered if I was missing something about meditation. I came to understand that coming in and out was part of the meditative process of learning how to be present.
“In that process, we realize we have thoughts, they arise, we come out, and we come back to the breath,” says Lee. “We realize that things are impermanent. We place attention on our breath, and sit, and our mind goes elsewhere.”
“There’s this idea that being present means ‘I’m calm,’ and that calm is like getting a good massage—relaxed, not worried—like a picture with fuzzy edges,” Lee continues. “But, being present is a state of being alert and relaxed.”
If your laundry room is your Ryōan-ji, so be it. Steal away for five minutes. Think you can’t meditate at the mall? Stop your errands and sit. Five minutes is better than none at all, and even short sessions are beneficial for stress relief and rejuvenation throughout the day. Each little session adds to your meditation practice and the lifelong ability to be awake, grounded, and steady as a natural state from moment to moment.
If we can learn to manage thoughts and not react, we can create a kind of clarity that comes with many good things in life. Mounting scientific evidence corroborates this ancient practice as a way to heal and change: Work up to 15 minutes of meditation each day and you might make better decisions. Practice meditation for eight weeks and you may experience measurable, positive changes for your brain and stress levels. One study found that the ability to meditate, or produce a relaxation response, helped two gastrointestinal disorders: irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Other measurable benefits include better focus, less pain, lower anxiety, and more happiness.
On a spiritual level, meditation can also help you build a more intimate and wise relationship with yourself as you learn to sit with your emotions instead of avoiding them with distractions.
So, how do you get started with this transformative practice? This five-minute meditation from my book Happy-Go-Yoga: Simple Poses to Relieve Pain, Reduce Stress, and Add Joy, is a good place to begin. This brief exercise will help you learn to allow thoughts to arise and dissolve and overcome self-created stress and mental clutter. Find a comfortable seated position and then follow the instructions below.
- Visualize clouds in your mind.
- Breathe in and out through your nose, evenly.
- Draw your focus to a single cloud as you inhale.
- Exhale, and imagine the cloud floating away (it make take a few breaths; it’s okay, keep going).
- Repeat as the clouds keep drifting in, and let them drift away as you breathe.
- Notice clear blue sky as the clouds in your mind pass.