It seems that everywhere we look these days, there is a new a study sharing the benefits of meditation. It’s said that a regular meditation practice can help reduce stress, lower high blood pressure, reduce anxiety, alleviate mild depression; some even say it can help us lose weight! Meditation studies have shown that just 15 minutes a day can provide both long-term physical health and psychological benefits. What the studies don’t indicate is how challenging it can actually be to meditate. One definition of meditation is “the state of non-distraction.” I find it a very rare circumstance to actually be in the “state of non-distraction.” More often, I find myself recreating a stressful situation or getting caught up in my to-do list. I suppose this is why people say that we “practice” meditation.
With that being said, in our incredibly busy worlds, with packed schedules, too much time behind a computer screen, the stress of looming deadlines, obligations with family and friends, just the idea of taking time for you to meditate can feel like a luxury. Even though all of these studies declare the many benefits of meditation, why would I spend my very limited free time doing something that is so difficult? Just as we know that eating a diet filled with vegetables, whole grains, and regular exercise is good for us, our discipline naturally wanes as our schedules grow busy and French fries and a beer look too good to pass up. How can we continue to keep ourselves inspired to do what we know is good for us?
They say it takes 3-4 weeks to form a habit. Establishing that habit at the same time and daily can help it become part of our routine. It has also been said that forming a trigger, some kind of small activity we do just before our habit, can help us to create a new pattern (or in some cases, get rid of an old one). I’ve tried using these tactics to some measure of success, but I never quite felt that meditation came to the point of relieving stress in this way. It always felt more like I was eating spinach – I do it because it is good for me. That is, until I took the time and went on a meditation retreat.
Outside of my normal routine, it was much easier to feel the direct benefits of meditation. I felt calm, present, aware of my thoughts and emotions, and aware that there is more to all of us than just the narrow world we usually live in. It truly felt like I was living all the benefits I had read about. I was inspired and committed to bring this experience back into my every day life. Rather quickly after my return, I felt the challenges of meditating return. Almost instantly, I noticed a difference between the way I felt when I was on a retreat to the way my mind was in my every day life. I no longer felt spacious but was back to my reactionary ways. I no longer felt present because I was constantly making mental checklists of what I needed to do. But because I felt the tangible effects of meditation while I was away and knew that something beneficial was happening even if I couldn’t quite feel it, I was committed to integrating this new habit.
During the meditation retreat, several skills were imparted to help integrate mindfulness into our daily routines. One was to create the atmosphere that serves as a trigger to inspire a session of meditation. Creating a small space, which could include a small shrine of inspiring images set up in our home, could help encourage us to take the time to meditate. For those of us with a spiritual teacher, listening to short teachings throughout the day could help us remember our motivation to be more peaceful and aware. I began listening to my teacher, Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, on my commute to and from work. It was also encouraged to have the intention of being calm and present in our interaction with others and not just while we are sitting on our cushion. This is a way to truly experience the benefits of meditation. All of these small things helped build the bridge between the retreat and my every day existence.
Historically, going to a place to practice meditation has been the way many people have finally understood the importance of meditation and the vast benefits it can bring. The Buddha traveled to Bodhgaya and sat under the Bodhi tree to attain enlightenment – that’s quite a benefit! Every year, millions of people go on pilgrimages of all different religious backgrounds to help quench their spiritual thirst. While for me, going to a place to practice meditation was essential in establishing a foundation for my personal practice, I also needed to figure out how to build a bridge between being on retreat and being a part of society. On occasion, we need to give ourselves permission to care for our deeper nature. That could be allowing ourselves to occasionally go on a retreat somewhere or going to receive teachings from a spiritual teacher. Fortunately, this time, I do not need to travel so far to shore up my spiritual foundation. Sogyal Rinpoche, a well know teacher of Buddhism to western students, will be coming to the east coast this summer to give teachings. Many have said that Sogyal Rinpoche has the incredible ability to create the atmosphere I found so inspiring when I went on my first meditation retreat. I am very much looking forward to being reminded of the refuge that we all have within ourselves, and reinvigorating my daily habit of meditation.
Jessica DuVal has been in the field of education for the past 10 years. She spent most of her experience working with underserved populations in the state of California. In 2010, she relocated to upstate New York with her husband to work for an educational non-profit. She has been practicing meditation since 2005 and (eventually) found it to be a great support to her.