As physical distancing measures continue, more people are turning to meditation, and Google searches for information are at an all-time high. It is a practice that has been used by many different cultures and in many different ways, but always to quiet the mind and make us less reactive.
With everything that is happening in the world today, with everything that is out of our control, could meditation be the key to surviving quarantine?
When the first physical distancing measures were instated, my husband and I were already working from home. Now, on top of our jobs, we are also forced to manage our five-year-old’s distance learning. This juggling act often feels impossible, a rigged game in which nobody wins. Sometimes, being around my family – not being able to escape or to focus on one thing at a time – makes me want to scream. At night, I can’t fall asleep. My mind races.
When I get tired of chasing the thoughts in my head, I lie flat on my back, place my hands on my belly and follow my breath. I scan my body, systematically relaxing each part of me from my toes to my jaw. Finally, I sleep.
“We’re all feeling intense emotions right now,” says Jessica Morey, a mindfulness meditation teacher. “We’re cycling through panic and fear and overwhelm and sadness. A meditation practice can help us learn how to be with these intense emotions and shift toward compassion or recognize moments of joy.”
Don’t feel you have to do it right – and don’t worry if you think you’re doing it wrong
“There’s a myth about meditation that if you’re doing it right, you should feel bliss and calm and quiet in the mind,” says the meditation instructor Jay Michaelson. “Then, when you don’t experience that, you think you’re doing it wrong.” Michaelson suggests starting out with just five minutes of meditation. “If you can feel like 10% less of a wreck than when you started,” he says, “it’s totally worth it.”
You can slowly increase your meditation time by three to five minutes at a time as you feel ready, as you would increase weights or reps as part of an exercise routine.
Form a meditation habit
Anushka Fernandopulle, a Buddhist meditation teacher, recommends picking a time and the place where you can do meditation every day. “It can be just a normal chair or a cushion,” she says, “but the regularity can help a lot with developing a habit.”
Morey believes that finding a meditation buddy or a sitting group – anyone who could provide an extra measure of accountability – could also aid in developing a regular practice. It’s the reason why smartphone apps such as Headspace, Calm and Ten Percent Happier, which provide guided meditations and ongoing challenges, are so popular.
Simple meditation No 1: pay attention to your body and breath
Body-based meditations can be particularly grounding, and Fernandopulle shares a seated meditation that allows you to focus on just that.
Meditators should sit in a quiet, stable position, relaxing and bringing their attention to the sensations of the body sitting and breathing. If you remain focused on what’s going on in the body, it becomes easier to let thoughts and sounds come and go like so much background noise. And if you find yourself getting lost in thought, just gently bring your attention back to the body and the breath.
Simple meditation No 2: practice loving-kindness
Another common meditation – and one that can be particularly resonant at a time like this – is the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness meditation.
In this case, after settling into your seat, you silently repeat to yourself phrases of goodwill for yourself and for others: “May I be well. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.” After repeating those phrases to yourself several times, you can begin to wish others well, starting with your friends and family, moving outward to everyone in your neighborhood, and finally sending loving-kindness out into the entire world.
Simple meditation No 3: act mindfully throughout the day
If you don’t feel ready for seated meditation, Fernandopulle says you can practice mindfulness by focusing on your body as you engage in a simple physical task like washing dishes or walking.
“Try to keep attention anchored in the body or hands during the task,” she says. “Notice if your attention goes to daydreaming, worrying or planning. Gently bring the attention back and connect again with the physical activity.”
Taking it further: find the meditation practice that resonates with you
These forms of meditation, which allow us to focus on something simple like the body or the breath, or even a repetitive thought, are accessible to even the most beginner meditator. But as with exercise, if you don’t find a form of meditation you connect with, you probably won’t maintain your practice.
Many of the smartphone apps have introductory programs as well as higher-level meditation courses you can work your way through.
Similarly, there are some meditation luminaries who offer ongoing courses you can take via daily email, such as Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield’s 40-day Mindfulness Daily course.
Eventually, you may want to dig deeper in order to find the technique that works best for you. The turning point for me was reading davidji’s Secrets of Meditation. His book delves into what he described as “the many paths to oneness”, and contained chapters on the various types of meditation – from bodymind meditation to chanting meditation – and the various forms each of those types could take. His website acts as a living reference manual and also contains opportunities to take online courses and teacher trainings.
Sites like Audio Dharma, an archive of Dharma talks given at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California, contain a treasure trove of information on Buddhist teachings and meditation techniques. And Mindful provides also provides guided meditations and courses.
And of course, during this time, many brands and meditation teachers are making their teachings more accessible, with free access to their apps, or with virtual meditation sessions. Fernandopulle herself is doing guided meditations on Instagram Live every week.
Just remember: meditation won’t be a cure-all for everything you’re feeling right now. But what it can give you is a sense of control, and the ability to react to whatever life throws at you with greater equanimity.
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