Meditation is an essential tool for good mental and physical health, but it is not always easy for many of us to reach the meditative state, especially using traditional meditation practices. This article will explore some alternate ways to enter the meditative state that may work better for you than traditional methods, especially if you tried traditional methods only to end up frustrated, which made you give up on the practice altogether.
Most traditional methods of meditation involve stillness, which is a perfectly wonderful way to meditate if you can be still. Granted, the exercise of becoming still is the way to meditation, but for many people, sitting quietly, staring at a flame, working on breathing, or listening to soothing sounds only increases their mental activity; they end up much more “in their head” than out of it.
One way to enter the meditative state is by doing a task. It helps if the task is repetitive, but also has to require some degree of your concentration. In his book The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation, Thich Nhat Hanh describes how washing dishes by hand can help someone enter the meditative state. To enter a meditative state using a task, it is important to do so consciously.
He writes about acknowledging the feeling of the water as it runs, whether it is cold or hot. How do you prepare to start the task, how do you perform the task, and how do you complete it? It helps if the dishes are nice and messy, requiring more concentration to complete the middle part of the task, the performance, and the washing. The first time you do the task with the intention to meditate, note each step, even the “letting the dirty dishes pile up” phase.
Start with a nice sink full of dirty dishes, figure out how you will wash them, dry them, and put them away. Figure out your own process, trying different steps until you figure out the way that works best for you. So, do you start with dishes or glasses or silverware? As you run the water, let it run over your hand as you wait for it to warm up and get hot, stay connected to the water until it is hot. Make every action deliberate.
It is the deliberate actions that will help you work towards a meditative practice using “washing dishes” as your task. Once you perfect the task you will be able to enter the meditative state more quickly and more deeply each time you engage in “washing dishes” and using your perfected meditative method. You can use any type of household chore to do meditation. My personal favorite is folding laundry, especially after I watched an episode of Big Bang Theory and saw the character, Sheldon, using a folding board!
Another way to enter the meditative state is by action, which might seem counterintuitive. Once again, the action needs to be a blend of repetition and variety, with just enough variance to keep you from getting trapped in anxious thinking because the repetition works against your mind instead of in favor of it. This “sweet spot” in the process is what helps you get into and maintain the meditative state, which is why something like trail running or trail walking can work so well. If you run on a trail rather than around a track, you can experience the variance needed to draw your attention, but not “too much”. If you run or walk a trail, especially one that has different pathways, you can learn the trail, but choose different pathways each time you go out to run or walk for meditation to keep the variance in play.
Cycling with a goal in mind, besides riding a long distance, can also work. Perhaps you need a single grocery item or need to deliver something to someone. Use the goal to set an intention and the process of riding to get there as the opportunity to enter a meditative state. Riding a path or on streets you know will allow you to trust that your awareness of your surroundings will keep you alert without having to concentrate on being alert.
To help you find the meditative state, think about the feel of pedaling, the wind, the bumps in the road … attend your mind to the ride, knowing it is the riding that will get you to your destination so you can complete your goal and return home. In one of the best books on Zen, archery is the action that helps the person enter the meditative state. Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel, R. F. C. Hull, et al is a wonderful primer for action meditation.
Using Meditation for Problem-Solving
Once you can find your way into the meditative state, you can begin to use it to address concerns, problems, and goals in your life. If you are having difficulty in a relationship and you are “running it over and over in your mind”, you are unlikely to break out a limiting pattern of thinking, even though you are spending tremendous energy “thinking” about it.
The power of meditation is in its usefulness to break your mind cycle so you can see with a fresh perspective after you go into and come out of the meditative state, having entered with the intention to address, but not think about the issue. Part of successful meditation is giving yourself permission to take a break from your concern, knowing you will reenter it at the end of the meditation.
So, let’s say you are struggling with an issue involving your mother. You want to see what you think about the issue after your meditation. You have a task meditation you have worked out for yourself. Before you begin to do your task, tell yourself that you will set aside your concern while you do the task and refocus on it after the task. Start your task meditation, which, if done properly, will require you to focus on the task with enough effort to pull you out of your concern.
While you are out of concern, you will unconsciously make contact with a solution you can put into action when you return from the meditative state back into the messy, conscious life.