Meditation: On and Off the Trail
We’ve all felt it. We’ve felt it in those moments when at a particular mile marker, the rhythmic repetition of our feet on pavement, grass or sand allows us to slide into the zone of one-pointed focus, clarity of mind or even dare I say a state of bliss. Or, we’ve felt it perched on a surfboard scanning the horizon, catching a wave, sweating on a trail, pulling ourselves up on a rock wall, pedaling furiously on a trail, or even gazing off into the horizon.
While people talk about finding that meditative state in running, hiking, surfing, biking, climbing, or in the midst of whatever activity of choice, a separate meditation practice can have rewards all its own. These benefits, such as enhanced concentration, ability to focus, and increased awareness can then improve performance or even encourage an overall attitude adjustment.
Research into the benefits of meditation has uncovered a seemingly endless list, touting its ability to do everything from lowering blood pressure to reducing anxiety and mitigating our body’s stress response. Meditation can improve athletic performance, help students concentrate on tests, or even to help us find that elusive quality of happiness. Now-famous research assessing the actual brain waves of long-term meditators reveals that meditation does, in fact, change the mind.
The word itself may be intimidating, or it may conjure up images of incense and foreign chants. It may seem esoteric, or unattainable. Some people see meditation as removing all thoughts, stopping the process of mental chatter, which may feel close to impossible. But this is a misunderstanding, really. Meditation does involve quieting, calming, slowing or sometimes even controlling the mind or the thoughts. And it is attainable, even accessible to those willing to practice, or to make the attempt.
All pursuits share the qualities of improved performance with practice, and meditation is no exception. Just as lifting weights develops physical muscle, or aerobic training conditions the heart and lungs, developing the mental muscle of attention thus sets up the condition where it becomes easier and easier to focus. Just like slipping into a familiar training route, the mind slips into the zone with greater ease and rapidity. Meditating off the trail makes the moving meditation that much more fluid.
Meditation practices exist throughout traditions around the world, unlimited by culture or creed. Many of the practices are centered not necessarily around stopping the thoughts, but directing or controlling them. Or the techniques are focused simply on noticing, becoming more attentive, developing mindfulness.
The actual practice of meditation can involve elaborate ritual, preparation with a physical yoga asana practice, or simply finding an object upon which to focus. A traditional and often used prop is a candle’s flame, a flower in blossom or a sound. The practice can involve silence, music, or a repeated word or phrase to create structure.
Books and tapes, instructional videos and numerous classes are available. Many yoga classes, or other forms of movement training may include instruction on centering, quieting the mind or forays into relaxation practices.
In actuality, meditation requires nothing, no props or equipment, not even a pair of properly fitted shoes. Sitting upright, with a straight spine is recommended. This distinguishes cultivating mindfulness with falling asleep or engaging in other activities. If sitting on the floor is agonizing, use a cushion to lift your hips and straighten your spine, or you can sit in a chair, feet on the floor.
Eyes can be open or closed and different schools of thought advocate different practices. Choose what works for you, and continue to use it throughout your designated practice time. In general, when choosing a technique for a single practice, stick with it. If it doesn’t work, try it again until you become used to it, or vary techniques until you find the one that appeals to you. Switching part-way through a session, though, is not the preferred method for cultivating mindfulness.
Begin slowly, like sliding into the shallow water in the pool and letting your body get used to being wet, rather then diving too far into the deep end in one plunge. Five minutes can be a good starting time. Follow the fluctuations of your breath, noticing the inhalation and the exhalation. If you are an auditory person, listen to the sound. If you are kinesthetic, feel the sensation of the air against your nostrils. If you are visual, perhaps turning your gaze to a candle flame, or image of your choosing, will enhance focus. Set an alarm, or just pause, follow your breath and savor the silence.
Finding the inner quiet in meditation is akin to diving into the water, experiencing the deeper quiet beneath the fluctuations of the endless waves.