When You Can’t Go Outside, Go Inside: Basic Meditation For Crisis, Non-Crisis, and Everything In Between
As I write this, we’re currently going through the most universal crisis of our time. We’ve all been affected by COVID-19 and we’re all facing great uncertainty. If you’re reading this post-pandemic, congrats on surviving(!) and, as a bonus, this guide will still be useful.
While it’s not a panacea, I feel fortunate to possess the tool of meditation. The majority of my knowledge about meditation comes from courses taken from Dhamma.org. They require participants to give the technique a full try by completing a 10 day silent meditation course before moving to shorter (or even longer) courses. I posted about the experience here and followed it with Metta For Haters Like You and Me.
Even though most of you are not interested in taking such a deep dive, it does not mean that you can’t benefit from meditation. I will share the three meditation practices taught to me (breath, body scan, and lovingkindness) with audio links so you can try them and eventually be able to practice wherever and whenever you want.
This is not a shortcut to enlightenment nor is it a replacement for an actual course. However, I believe you can benefit by reading this short simple description and begin to practice regularly based on the audio links shared here.
Please note: the audio has a white noise machine in the background to help with outside noise distraction. If you don’t like it, the prompts are simple enough that you should be able to practice without my audio after listening a few times.
Meditation strengthens your mind just as exercise strengthens your body. Occasional physical exercise is better than no physical exercise at all but maintaining a regular routine is best. The same goes for meditation.
Ideal meditation occurs in silence for longer periods of time but, with enough experience, you can practice it with your eyes open: while driving, stuck in a boring meeting, waiting in line, etc and still benefit from what would otherwise be wasted time. I do.
Anapana (Breath) Meditation
Breath (anapana) meditation increases calmness and concentration. The breath is a natural choice to focus on as it serves as a bridge from the unconscious to conscious. We breathe all day unconsciously but, when prompted, we can consciously observe and alter it. While some forms of meditation increase calmness and concentration through the repetition of mantras or focusing on objects, these methods require an attachment to something a step away from your body. Breath meditation allows for similar benefits while increasing awareness of the breath, a familiar and integral part of your system.
When attempting to observe the breath, that simple task quickly becomes nearly impossible for more than a few seconds at a time and you realize how little control you have over your mind. Fortunately, the practice described below will help you gain some control.
To begin, with the mouth closed, breathe with the nose, and observe every breath, the entire breath, as it goes in and out of the nostrils. Breathe naturally without controlling it. When the mind wanders, and it will almost immediately, calmly observe that it has wandered and bring the attention back to the breath.
Try not to get frustrated. Our minds are difficult to control and the only way to improve control is by calmly returning to concentration and awareness of the breath. Eventually, you will be able to hold concentration for longer periods of time but the improvement will not endure without consistent practice.
Vipassana (Body Scan) Meditation
Body scan (vipassana) meditation requires a calm and concentrated survey of the entire body to develop awareness and equanimity. As you observe sensations such as pain, pleasure, heat, cold, tickling, and pulsing throughout your body, you realize that ultimately every sensation is impermanent. They will all eventually pass away.
While you scan each part of the body, merely observe each sensation. Do not try to create or sustain enjoyable sensations or imagine painful sensations going away. Make yourself a calm observer. The awareness that results from observing non-judgmentally and without reaction will lead to increased equanimity in the real world, when you are not meditating. To effectively scan your body, you will need a calm and sharp mind. Begin with breath meditation before progressing to body scanning.
To practice, click on the audio link for a 6 minute session (2 minutes anapana meditation + 4 minutes vipassana)
Metta (Lovingkindness) Meditation
Lovingkindness (metta) meditation was extraordinarily difficult to incorporate into my daily practice. The name alone initially nauseated me but I’ve learned not to dismiss its fundamental value.
When you generate negative emotions like anger or hatred, you become the first victim of your negativity. You become miserable and your misery infects others. The anger doesn’t stop cleanly at the intended destination, and instead spreads to others. It’s a virus, if you will. Fortunately, the opposite is also true. When you direct love, compassion, or goodwill to others, you are the first beneficiary of that positivity.
Practicing metta is not a magic trick. By merely wishing someone else peace, of course, they will not automatically receive it telepathically. However, your inner peace will emanate and be contagious.
To practice metta meditation, you follow a specific sequence of inner dialogue. Remember that you are wishing peace upon someone without expectation of anything in return and without consideration of merit.
Start by wishing peace to yourself. This practice is about sharing your peace. So if you don’t have any, you will have none to share. Give yourself some peace even if you’re a horrible human. Next, wish peace to a benevolent being in your life. If you can’t think of a person, consider your dog. This step automatically helps grow your own peace. Next, you wish peace to those closest to you (children, parents, siblings, friends), followed by a stranger, followed by someone you don’t like, followed by a larger group, and conclude with wishing peace to all beings.
Pick someone you see on a regular basis who you don’t interact with and, during your metta practice, wish that person peace every day for a week. You may be surprised how you feel the next time you bump into that person. Of note: if you are reading this mid-pandemic, please do NOT bump into anyone.
Metta meditation can be practiced without first completing another form of meditation but I recommend at least a short breath meditation before initiating metta.
To practice, click on the audio link for a 4 minute session (2 minutes anapana meditation + 2 minutes metta meditation)
Putting It All Together
We have a constant desire to complicate meditation, which makes sense considering human nature and, more specifically, the practice I shared can be tedious. Besides, the improvements are often not felt during meditation. Commonly, you will not feel any benefit until after the meditation has concluded, especially with longer sessions. Keep this in mind if you are struggling with frustration during a session. Just sitting in silence for an hour unplugged can produce powerful benefits for those who are otherwise in constant stimulation.
If you have tried the shorter audio sessions above and want to challenge yourself more, click on the audio link for a 20 minute complete meditation session. This is the minimum that I practice twice a day. I understand that many of you will not want to invest 20 minutes twice a day immediately. It’s fine. But if you are practicing every day, I suggest gradually increasing the session length and making it fit into your schedule.
If you want to try something more serious, click on the audio link for a 1 hour complete meditation session.
Although these three basic practices taught to me, in my opinion, put together are exceptionally complete, other varieties of meditation exist with more exciting and engaging platforms. It’s as if I just told you to run alone and do push-ups, even though Peloton and personal trainers exist and might be a better fit for you. Apps like 10% Happier, Waking Up, and Headspace are also very good alternatives.
Since the price is right, try what I shared here first. If you go to a course or center, I don’t recommend spending a lot of money. All of my courses have been free of charge and the lack of cost served as an important filter of intention.
Keep your practice as simple as possible and remember, in this endeavor, you are your own best teacher. You already have all of the tools you need to succeed.