I have flirted with bringing meditation into my life for many years. My late husband was devoted to it and he attended 10-day silent meditation retreats once a year for many years. The idea of being silent for more than 30 minutes at a time was unimaginable to me. When Chris died in 2008, his sister and I attended a weekend-long silent meditation retreat in his memory. While the experience was meaningful, I found it very difficult and uncomfortable to sit, silent, for long periods of time.
Now that I’m retired, I am more interested in meditation than ever. And I still find it difficult. Distractions, discomfort, and dis-ingenuousness! A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting at my “meditation table” determined to relax and focus on my breath. Instead, I felt a flash of heat course through my body, followed by a complete inability to relax. I gave up and decided to try again later. On numerous another occasions, I’ve been in constant battle with my mind as I thought about anything and everything except my breath.
So what’s my problem? I talked about it with a good friend the other day and she suggested trying more structure in my meditation practice. Something akin to progressive relaxation. Remember the book, The Relaxation Response, by Herbert Benson, MD from the 1970s? I loved that book and incorporated many of the concepts into my stress management classes that I taught to women at that time. The following is the technique reprinted with permission from Dr. Herbert Benson‘s book pages 162-163.
- Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
- Close your eyes.
- Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Keep them relaxed.
- Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, say the word, “one”*, silently to yourself. For example, breathe in … out, “one”,- in .. out, “one”, etc. Breathe easily and naturally.
- Continue for 10 to 20 minutes. You may open your eyes to check the time, but do not use an alarm. When you finish, sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed and later with your eyes opened. Do not stand up for a few minutes.
- Do not worry about whether you are successful in achieving a deep level of relaxation. Maintain a passive attitude and permit relaxation to occur at its own pace. When distracting thoughts occur, try to ignore them by not dwelling upon them and return to repeating “one.”
So, I’ve decided to “mix it up” in my meditation practice. Some days I try the “focus on the breath” approach. And I’m finding that letting go of my objectives and self-judgments help a lot. I don’t need to be “successful” or reprimand myself for getting distracted. If my titanium knee starts throbbing, I just stand up and sit down again. If I start thinking about my grocery list, I just notice and then focus on my breath again. It’s okay, really!!! Other days, I follow Benson’s progressive relaxation technique. This feels more like an exercise – an approach that feels more familiar to me. I recently read Dan Harris’ 10% Happier and resonated with his experience of “keeping it real.” I’m not a Buddhist monk and I shouldn’t try to be! Meditation is a wonderful practice that helps me to be more mindful of who I am and how wonderful life is. But it isn’t easy – it’s fits and starts.
I am reminded once again that mindful retirement is a journey, not a destination. Bringing meditation into my life keeps me grounded and present to what really matters – the beauty of each moment that we are blessed to experience.