Mark Newman is an optimizer. Despite chronic, severe back pain, he called me to schedule time with a meditation teacher because he wanted to tap into the “superpowers” of meditation. He wanted better concentration, sharper mental performance, and a more acute memory.
He was curious to experiment with different forms of meditation to see how each made him feel and how they impacted his output at work and his competitive edge amidst a pool of brilliant colleagues. I explained that to fully understand the impact, we needed to dedicate time to a consistent practice. While it’s true that we can try something and immediately feel that it doesn’t resonate, gathering information about the potential true impact required deeper work.
Mark approached the initial meditation sessions as a way to determine which forms he was attracted to and which he had an aversion to. However, he was insightful enough to understand that sticking with a practice that he may have initially felt an aversion to could have value. There are times when our negative responses are signposts to direct us toward what we need, and there are other times when those reactions are meant to be observed, felt, and eventually overcome.
Resistance or fear can be there to protect us, or it can show up as an obstacle that we are meant to face head-on. It’s not always easy to tell, and deep listening and exploration of this can be needed to know when it’s time to choose another method, practice, or approach, and when we must plow ahead. Unlike many of my clients, who display vulnerability with me, Mark was voracious and confident. He was looking for answers.
He would ask me whether I thought a certain practice had the potential to shift his thinking. He wanted specifics about how long he should meditate and how often. He wasn’t comfortable sitting on the questions, which is part of the path of meditation. He wasn’t looking for practices that would help him open up but rather practices that would give him an edge.
I believe his meditation fantasy was that he would sit in a disciplined way for a short amount of time and feel as though he “leveled up” his performance and eliminated his blind spots. He wanted to feel like a superhero. Nonetheless, because our approach is to meet people where they are, we agreed to try different practices. As it so often happens, the reason he thought he came for meditation was different than why he needed meditation.
In the beginning, I want ed to build trust with him, so I let him call the shots. After all, this was his journey, not mine, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. We tried many forms of meditation and talked about the experience after each session. His questions after each session showed me that he was anxious, looking for the right medication instead of meditation.
We reached a point of trust that allowed me to tell him that meditation, like yoga, wasn’t going to transform his life immediately, although research has shown that the impacts can be felt in a matter of weeks.15 Regardless, it’s a path that requires a beginner’s mind of not knowing. The secret to meditation, which is a hard pill to swallow for many, is that to experience the proven effects, meditation requires consistency, commitment, dedication, and repetition, without expectations of arriving somewhere.
Only then will the benefits reveal themselves. Patience and persistence are worthwhile as “a large body of research has established the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions in reducing symptoms of several disorders. Meditation and mindfulness practices change our brains and in turn, impact every aspect of our lives.
Mark has expectations, so patience wasn’t the answer he wanted to hear, but he was intellectually willing to understand that meditation is about spacious focus, not laser-sharp and goal-oriented. While meditation may be the secret weapon to the superpowers that he’s looking for, those superpowers probably won’t show up in the way he expected. A beginner’s mind was not something he could easily grab onto. As he built trust in us and felt himself learning about things he didn’t already know, his anxiety lessened, and patience increased.
We practiced a combination of breath-based mindfulness and yoga Nidra, which is a type of meditation that incorporates body awareness (and will be explained more fully in an upcoming section). At first, Mark thought he should practice twice a day for twenty minutes, and he tried. He found consistency challenging in this format due to family obligations, which felt defeating, and he was self-critical about this perceived failure—not the point of meditation, of course.
We agreed that once a day would be a great place to start and that setting aggressive but realistic goals was best. While a stretch for his super type A personality, it felt healthy for Mark to give himself a break and choose a middle path as he explored the practice. After three or four months of consistent practice, once daily for twenty minutes, he began to experience the benefits of meditation practice, but not necessarily in the way, he thought he would.
Mark found himself less reactionary to his thoughts and his colleagues, more present and compassionate in his conversations, meetings, and phone calls, and with less anxiety. A bonus was that his back pain decreased. As he released his anxiety and was able to dwell in his body, his physical tension lessened. Over time, meditation helped Mark connect to his body.
When he first came to Namaste, I could tell that he was disconnected and disembodied, but my suggestion to combine yoga with a meditation practice fell on deaf ears. After about nine months of meditation, he was open to adding gentle yogic movement. Then, after six months of yoga practice, he said he wanted to start thinking about how he ate. I’m not a nutritionist or dietitian, but I did tell him I thought he should eat in a way that felt nourishing, mindful, and good for his body.
He worked with a nutritionist on my team who helped him use food to both care for himself and “level up” at the same time. Mission accomplished. We had started with meditation because that’s what he asked for. Meditation helped Mark open the doors to the other pillars.
He was able to find alignment with a different perspective of what meditation could mean for him and came to understand that meditation was more of a journey than a destination—and he found that journey interesting and rewarding. As an aside, Mark’s wife sent me a note about a year into his work with us explaining how he was “like a different person” at home. More patient with his children, more unplugged on the weekends, and more present in their love life. She was grateful.
Meditation as Medication
Many people come to us to learn meditation to lower or manage their stress. When Yogananda first traveled to the United States in the early twentieth century, people were curious about esoteric topics like yoga and meditation. Many were moved to learn to meditate as part of a journey on a spiritual path.
In the last several decades, and particularly since the digital age has dawned, people have taken a secular approach to meditation, seeking mental health and stress management in place of enlightenment. As mentioned, people who meditate benefit from these practices with deep spiritual origins to face real, everyday life problems. In my twenties I spent a lot of time at a Zen center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, meditating for many hours each day.
In the end, each person was called in to meet with the Zen master, who asked a question called a koan. I felt that I should have an answer, but regardless of the question itself, the answer this Zen master wanted from his students was this: don’t know. It turns out that was the answer. Meditation, at least for me, helps me sit with the spaciousness of not knowing, which can feel like a void in the beginning.
It enables me to let go of the need to have control and find my way into the present moment with less anxiety and “holding on.” Many people come to Namaste with the idea that meditation is a magic pill that will eliminate stress and inspire happiness and high performance. While meditation can have that effect, it’s a practice that supports us in getting to know our mind, which enables us to navigate our lives with greater awareness.
We return to meditation again and again, and it’s a journey that will ebb and flow through the different seasons of life. My clients are often focused on solving problems linearly, and this way of getting things done seemingly works for them in many areas of their life. Their strength can become their greatest weakness, however, when the very way of being successful is also the cause of distress and a less-than-fulfilling experience of their life. Opening up to a different way of thinking can be scary, especially when our modus operandi has served us well until it doesn’t.
Forms of Meditation
Oftentimes, actions precede feelings. If we wait for the inspiration to do something—exercise, meditate, write a book, learn to paint—it may never happen. In the beginning, we may have to apply a “fake it till you make it” mentality because it is the practice itself that will manifest the inspiration and feelings we are looking for.
When my alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m., I don’t necessarily want to get up and begin my morning routine that includes meditation, but it is the memory of the feeling that yesterday’s practice gave me that convinces me to do it again today. I know my morning practice will make my day feel exponentially better. I “just do it” and I’m always glad I did. There’s not one kind of “right” self-care routine that works for everyone.
Instead, it’s important to create practices that are enjoyable and right for us based on our needs, goals, interests, and stage of life. Self-care shouldn’t be one more thing on our to-do list but rather woven into our life until it becomes part of the fabric itself. But the fabric of our life changes and the practices will change and be expressed differently as we move through ages and stages.
My practice today—with a family to care for and a business to run—is different than the practice I had in my twenties when my life was more carefree. I imagine that it will continue to evolve as I age. One of Namaste’s clients, Jessica Strong, who is the CEO of an extremely large tech company, has a standing Sunday evening appointment with a meditation teacher.
While mindfulness is the foundational practice, the meditation style can shift depending on what she needs in her life. It’s her mindfulness practice that has enabled Jessica to develop the ability to listen deeply to her thoughts and feelings, and on days when a Metta (loving-kindness) practice is called for, or a restorative, guided practice is most supportive, she knows how to give herself what she needs.
If we meditate once a week or one minute a day, it’s a beautiful place to start. This type of quiet, sacred space is scarce for many people who are not engaged in organized religion or a spiritual community, and something is always better than nothing. Whether we feel aligned with the idea of organized religion or not, going to church, going to temple, or engaging in daily prayer is a time-out from the daily grind.
If those observances are not built into our weeks, it makes the need for creating space for quiet stillness even more important, in my opinion. There are many places to enter a meditation practice. The various schools and full scope of meditation practices are too numerous to list here, but we can look at some general types of meditation. Remember: just because we learn one style doesn’t exclude the others, although going deep with at least one practice will serve our exploration of others.
After having meditated for over twenty-five years, I often find myself using a meditation that best fits my mindset that day. While my foundational practice is a breath-based mindfulness practice, if I’m feeling extra anxious, I might work with a guided visualization; if I’m feeling distracted, working with a mantra or using prayer beads can help me focus.
Breath-Based Mindfulness Meditation
Breath-based meditation can be the simplest and most challenging practice. During breath-based mindfulness practice, we sit upright, our spines straight and long, but without rigidity. Our eyes can be closed or softly open, gazing on a spot on the floor a few feet ahead. At first, as we breathe normally, we settle into our bodies by noticing the physical sensations, the sounds around us, the temperature of the air, and the experience of the surrounding environment. We then come to rest in the awareness of the breath, feeling, observing, and following our exhalations, without controlling the breath itself.
When the mind wanders, as it inevitably will, we watch the thoughts without judgment. When a thought arises—like Oh, shoot, I forgot to send that email—we label it “thinking” and let it go, returning to the breath. Every time the mind wanders to a thought, we label it “thinking” and return to the exhalation. We simply notice our thoughts without becoming identified with, reactive, or attached to them. It’s natural for the mind to wander. We work toward bearing witness to the patterns of our mind without judgment.
Breathwork and Pranayama
Breath is our life force, which makes breathwork an incredible practice. Inhaling is the first thing we do when we’re born, and upon death, we sigh one last exhale as if our whole existence is contained in that one lifelong breath. Breathwork bridges the mind, body, and spirit. I like to think of breath as connecting us. With each inhalation and exhalation, we’re sharing a giant breath of air, giving and receiving the universal life force.
Many of us tend to disconnect from our breath or hold our breath, and as a result, we’re disconnected from our life force and each other. We can reconnect to our breath through movements such as yoga and pranayama and meditation practices. Breath can be an anchor for cultivating mindfulness. By resting our attention on the breath, we can stay present in our minds and bodies at any moment.
Many energy practices from Eastern meditative and yogic lineages use specific, focused breathing practices that create a sense of calm, clearing, or infusion of energy. The ancient practice of pranayama is a powerful meditative exercise. We count and hold the breath—for example, counting to five on the inhalation, holding the breath for two counts, then counting to five on the exhalation.
Another practice follows alternate nostril breathing, where we inhale through the left nostril and then exhale through the right nostril, inhale through the right and then exhale through the left. The “breath of fire” is an energizing pranayama practice where we exhale rapidly through the nose while contracting the belly.
These powerful energetic practices are best learned from a teacher. A live teacher brings a dimension to the experience that has been a part of the oral lineage for thousands of years. These practices have a life force unto themselves, and learning in the presence of a pulse helps infuse the power of ancient wisdom at our back.
Mantra meditation is powerful. While traditionally it is a Vedic meditation path, the modern practice has become more secular. In mantra meditation, a word or phrase is repeated out loud, chanted, or said internally. It can be a Sanskrit word, an energetic word, or an affirmation we create, such as “I am light” or “I am brave.” In practices like Transcendental Meditation (TM), a teacher gives a student a personal Sanskrit mantra to use during meditation that has a powerful energetic resonance.
The mantra provides something more concrete to rest our attention on than the breath, and the rhythmic recitation of a mantra reinforces deep fluid breathing. Specifically, mantra meditation can be a balm to anxiety or panic attacks, as it gives us something to focus on in challenging moments. A vocal meditation can be a simple as saying, “Ahhhh” during an exhalation.