I was asked the other day about why I sit, what exactly I get from my meditation practice. I found myself rattling off several reasons, but it still felt like it wasn’t a comprehensive answer. How could I articulate exactly what benefits I get from my sitting practice? Sometimes I can’t even explain why I sit other than just saying that I feel “off” when I don’t sit. This process got me interested in writing down just exactly what it is that I am getting from my practice. So here goes…the 9 benefits that I get from my meditation practice.
- Distress tolerance
- Mind/Body connection
- Better posture
- Increased presence
- Increased awareness of thought
- Increased Compassion (Decreased inner critic/Gentler with self)
- Increased Empathy
- Increased Concentration
Many have this idea that meditation is all about feeling relaxed and calm but, in reality, meditation is not always sunshine and roses. In my meditation practice I am bringing an awareness to my experience in the present moment, whether that is of joy, anxiety, frustration, anger, a pain in my knee or neck, etc. Every time that I acknowledge an experience of discomfort and practice not actively trying to change it, I am growing my capacity to sit with the uncomfortable. I have found myself stronger for it, and more able to roll with life’s punches.
I remember very clearly once when I was on a meditation retreat with probably 10 minutes left to go in the meditation, I was completely over it. I started staring down the time keeper (who was completely oblivious of me since he was in the middle of his own meditation). In my head I began screaming at him, RING THE BELL, RING THE BELL, RING THE F@#!ING BELL!! Where was I in such a rush to get to? I had absolutely nowhere to be. My mind was reacting to the antsy-ness we feel when there is not enough mental stimulation. Nowadays I feel more comfortable in my skin, and comfortable with life’s pauses and silences.
When sitting in meditation I am taking note of how my breath and my body feel. Is my breath short and rapid? Do I feel my chest tight or contracted? Over time I have seen a pattern time and time again of how my mental state affects my body. I may get sucked into thinking about a stressful situation in my life and all of a sudden feel that my back or my shoulders have become tense. I have also noticed that if I focus on relaxing the muscles that are being held so tense that I can oftentimes let go of the tendency to keep playing the same narrative over and over in my head.
In meditation, one’s posture is an important foundational component to the practice. When meditating in a seated position, I am focused on making sure my posture is upright yet relaxed. As I notice myself slouching after a few minutes of meditating I again reposition myself upright and relaxed. I continue this throughout the practice for as many times as necessary. This then, ends up seeping through to my life outside of meditation. I notice when I’m slouching throughout the day and upright myself. This allows my body to not strain so much as my natural bone structure is what is holding me upright and not my muscles.
Meditation has taught me, and continues to teach me, to be in the moment. As thoughts come up in meditation I allow them to be, I do not push them away or draw them closer. I return my focus to the present moment and to my breath. This cultivates my ability to enjoy the present moment and not constantly be living two, three, or five steps in the future. This is especially important in working with clients because who wants to be talking to a therapist who is not able to be present and listen to them.
Increased awareness of thoughts
By decreasing outside stimulation (phone, tv, etc.) during meditation and putting my attention on a specific focal point, my thoughts can be observed more clearly. In other words, as outside distractions become quieter, our thoughts can be better heard. It was through this practice that I was able to fully see just how mean-spirited I was towards myself. Once I was able to acknowledge the messages I was telling myself, I was more able to judge whether they were bringing me closer or further away from my goals. Awareness is the key. Until we know something is not working, how can we fix it?
Part of my practice of meditation is watching my breath. Inevitably as I am practicing I, all of a sudden, come to realize that I have been somewhere else completely. I have been either thinking about what I need to do after I finish meditating or replaying some event in my head. My previous pattern here would be to say mean things to myself and shame myself for not meditating “the right way”. With time I have come to see my fantasies/spacing-out as part of the process. I notice the fact that I have veered off and I return my focus to the breath. I no longer have to layer on the judgment. Over time I have become much gentler with myself, not only while meditating but also in my everyday life. I give myself more space to be human, to falter, to make mistakes.
Increased compassion for self can be a pathway to empathy. When we can hold our mistakes and shortcomings with more understanding, we are also able to do the same with others’ missteps. Meditation has helped me to see that others’ patterns are born out of their own pain and suffering. Meditation has taught me how to feel into my pain and this, in turn, helps me to relate to the pain of others. When we can think about what it’s like to experience a particularly painful or uncomfortable emotion, we can start to develop a tenderness towards the other person’s experience.
Meditation is training the mind to remain focused on a particular object of attention (breath, bodily sensations, etc.). Repeatedly doing this has had an effect on my life off the cushion. It is easier to remain focused on other tasks in my life. It’s as if I’ve been training the concentration-muscle in my mind so that when I need to use it in other parts of my life, it’s ready to go.
All this being said, meditation has provided me with so many benefits in my life. As you can see many of these benefits spill over to my everyday life from the work that I do when on the cushion. I would equate it to the benefits that one feels in their body when they have a routine of regular exercise. Many of the benefits are not necessarily felt in the gym or while out on the walk, although there are benefits there too. The larger benefits of decreased stress levels, more flexibility, increased self-confidence, better sleep, etc. are seen outside of one’s workout. The practice of meditation has influenced my outlook on life as well as my relationships with family, friends, and clients. So to come back to the question, Why do I sit? I sit in order to learn how to better my life and those around me.