For a few months between the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019 I was churning out an appeal or substantive motion brief every single week. I read through thousands of pages of documents and hundreds of cases to construct logical and viable arguments for my clients. On top of having a mind stuffed with facts, my body was constantly filled with adrenaline as I sped through one heart-pumping deadline after another. How did I do it without losing my mental balance? I relied on my meditation practice, of course.
I know you’ve heard by now that meditation leads to measurable benefits such as reduced anxiety, better sleep, and more mental clarity. (If you haven’t, check out this study showing daily meditation actually affects the structure of your brain by expanding the parts that help you stay calm, focused, and feeling good about yourself and contracting the parts that play a role in anxiety and stress).
What you may not have heard is that, in addition to having a daily meditation practice for more than a decade, I was a meditation teacher for many years. And I used to hear from so many students that they tried meditation but gave up because it just wasn't working. Feeling like you are not meditating correctly is a common experience, but it derives from a basic misunderstanding about just what you are supposed to be doing in a meditation practice.
Contrary to what you imagine, meditation is not about stopping your thoughts–if that were the point then it would really be a herculean task because these days our minds are overflowing with information, data, thoughts, imaginations, plans, memories, fantasies and other forms of internal chatter. With everything going on in our lives, it would actually be weird if we could sit down and turn our thoughts completely off.
Instead, meditation is a series of mind trainings that proceeds something like this:
1. Cultivating concentrated awareness (a.k.a., focused attention);
2. Observing thoughts from an objective perspective (meaning, you are aware of the thoughts as they come to you but you are not reacting to–or judging–them);
3. Experiencing the mind and body as a non-dual, objective reality (this is known as samadhi in the yoga tradition and is the realm where the mind is empty of thoughts–but note it takes a long time to get there).
Don’t worry about understanding all of this up front. Just like you would begin to learn any other trade, art or skill, with meditation you have to start at step 1: concentrated awareness.
Conveniently, practicing just this first step leads to the benefits I mentioned before, i.e., less anxiety and a clearer mind. As luck has it, this is exactly what you need to effectively manage your heavy workload.
But the mind is so (over) active that attempting the first step of meditation is frustrating because the sheer number of thoughts is maddeningly overwhelming. If that has been your experience, then a great way to practice step 1 is to practice with a mantra that is linked to your breath.
Mantra is a Sanskrit word that is a combination of the root word for mind ("manas") and the suffix for tool or instrument ("tra"). So the word mantra basically means a tool for manipulating the mind–away from distraction and towards concentration.
Using mantra with meditation is a long-established practice in all of the world's spiritual traditions. And when practiced together with even, calm inhales and exhales it is a great method for focusing the modern urban professional mind.
The practice involves silently repeating a chosen phrase–one or two words–for each inhale and exhale. For example: inhale "let" ... exhale "go" …
You can use this wildly popular mantra (you’ll hear it at any one of your local yoga studios), or make up one of your own. The only requirement is that your chosen words/phrase be generally positive and up lifting.
Start practicing with your mantra like this:
Sit comfortably with your spine erect (this posture is best to stay alert and engaged);
Set a timer for 5 minutes (so you can relax knowing that you won't meditate through your scheduled phone call or next appointment);
Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths;
Begin repeating your mantra with each inhale and exhale;
When your mind wanders into an endless series of thoughts (and it will, you can be sure of that!), just return to your mantra with each inhale and exhale.
Even if you have to refocus on your mantra 60 times each minute don't worry. That is the practice. You are doing it.
No matter how busy you are, you can practice this simple mantra meditation for 5 minutes a day.
I find it works best to practice meditation immediately upon waking up in the morning, before the demands of the day start to distract me (and I love it so much that I structure my day so that I can meditate for 45-60 minutes before starting work). But for some people that is not possible and practicing for 5 minutes before bed or even in the middle of the day works better.
Find the time that works for you, but make sure to do it consistently–the benefits only come with sustained practice. As one of my meditation teachers would say "work patiently and persistently and you are bound to be successful."
Have questions? Get in touch and I would love to answer them.