Peace of mind is hard to find these days and I’d say it’s harder to find than ever before because, while the world is just as full of suffering as it’s ever been, social media shoves it in our faces, unfiltered, every day.
Despite this, I’m less stressed than I’ve been in a long time and I owe that in large part to mental health counseling, prescribed medications, and most recently meditation.
I wish I had known about this particular meditation in college — before an exam, after an exam, hell, during an exam. I could’ve used some peace of mind throughout the chaotic grind of study sessions, last-minute projects, half-baked group presentations, and understaffed clubs and volunteer work. Who wouldn’t?
What I’m about to share with you is a Buddhist Calming Meditation, and it does exactly what it says; however, it’s no replacement for mental health counseling or medications which studies show markedly improve depression and anxiety.
For me, combining meditation with medication and counseling has started to create a triad of well-being I’ve found increasingly helps me throughout my day-to-day life, even through my often frustrating work combating climate change.
So how do you do a calming meditation?
First, find a quiet place where you can sit or lay comfortably for however long you want to meditate.
You don’t have to meditate for very long. You might lose interest if you force yourself to meditate for more than an hour, or even half an hour, especially if you’re new to meditating. Start with 5–10 minutes.
Second, once you’re in a comfortable position, focus on your breathing. Specifically, where you feel it most.
Don’t think too hard about where you should or shouldn’t feel it — shoulds and should-nots are the fastest way to rip yourself out of the meditative state.
I used to tell myself I ought to feel my breathing in my diaphragm because that’s the source of the breath, but this actually distracted me from focusing on my breath because I was actively forcing my attention to my belly when I truly felt it most at my nose.
So focus on wherever you feel it the most. Maybe it’s the rise and fall of your belly, maybe it’s the cooling sensation of air flowing in and out of your nostrils, maybe it’s the expansion of your chest. There are no wrong places to feel it, even if you feel it in your elbow or your butt cheeks.
If you have trouble focusing on your breath, try counting your breaths.
Breathe in, that’s one.
Breathe out, that’s two.
If counting your breaths distracts you, don’t do it. Meditation is a practice you must adapt to you and your individual needs—one size does not fit all, and slower and deeper doesn’t necessarily mean better.
When many people first start meditating, they think they’re supposed to take big deep breaths, like a sleeping giant. They think this helps them reach a deeper state of meditation.
This isn’t true. You’ll instead become more focused on the idea of how you want to breathe in the future and less focused on your breathing in the here and now.
You distance yourself from the present moment, which is one of the main purposes of meditation. Especially a calming meditation.
Don’t worry about how fast or slow you’re breathing, how shallow or deep—you could always breathe slower, you could always breathe deeper, but as long as you focus on these thoughts, you’ll feel like you’ve missed the mark. You’ll become unsettled when you’re trying to relax.
The goal isn’t to breathe, it’s to watch the breath. Observe it.
Breathing isn’t something you do—you don’t have to consciously will yourself to breathe—breathing is something that happens to you, something your body does for you. It’s a passive process that needs no control just like your circulation.
In a calming meditation, you watch the breath as an observer, noticing how it never needs to hurry or slow down yet everything is accomplished.
Your lungs fill themselves when they need to. Your lungs empty themselves when they need to.
As you pay attention to your breath, you’ll notice your mind wandering.
That’s not a possibility, it’s a guarantee, especially if you’re new to meditation, if you haven’t done it in a while, or if you’ve got a lot on your mind.
Forgive yourself for getting distracted every time you catch your mind wandering. Yes, every time. Even if your mind wanders a thousand times and you feel like you’re herding caffeinated cats, forgive yourself and go back to focusing on your breath. Guilting yourself only makes it more difficult to fall into a meditative state.
Feel free to readjust your posture if you feel uncomfortable. You’re not a statue and you certainly can’t relax if you’re as rigid as stone.
And don’t worry too much about the “proper meditation position.” I always meditate lying on my back because I have a slipped disc and sitting in the lotus position causes me a lot of pain. Again, you can’t relax if you’re not comfortable, so throw social conventions to the wind and find your sweet spot, whatever it is.
Focus on your breath. Count the breaths if it helps; don’t if it doesn’t. Forgive yourself for your mind wandering no matter how many times it roams.
Do this, and you’ll find yourself gradually, ever so gradually, you’ll fall into a concentrated, highly focused rhythm of calm.
When should I do a calming meditation?
Buddhist monks recommend making a “practice” of meditation for the same reason it’s better to exercise consistently, not once in a blue moon when you feel like it.
If you exercise rarely or inconsistently, you’ll always feel out of breath, weak, and exhausted doing the same thing you did last month. And it’s no wonder. You haven’t exercised enough for your body to make consistent changes to help it function better next session.
This doesn’t mean you have to meditate every day. There are no hard and fast rules for meditation and more doesn’t necessarily mean better. Some Buddhist monks find themselves only able to meditate for 10 minutes at a time on one day, and 2 hours on another. They accept this as part of the flow of the mind and move on.
There’s no shame in this — shame carries judgment; judgment takes you out of the meditative state. You can judge yourself to your heart’s content before or after the meditation, but during, do your best to remain an observer to your thoughts — don’t name them, don’t judge them, even if they’re weird!
You can do a calming meditation at any time of day too. Unlike prayer in certain religions, there’s no strict schedule to stick to.
“I must meditate at least three times per day, once in the morning, once at noon, and once at night or else I’m a failure.” No! Do it when you want to or when you think it might help you.
That said, I like to do a calming meditation when I’m anxious or bored, which may be two sides of the same coin.
When you’re anxious, you fret over what you’ve done and what you think you have to do.
“I got up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the class and I’m certain everyone was judging me for it.”
“Life-hack bloggers say I should blog every day, but I’m just too tired right now. If I don’t blog, I might fall behind and not build my base fast enough!”
The first example is rooted in the past, the second in the future. Calming meditation focuses your attention on the present. Because your breath flows constantly and will continually flow constantly in the foreseeable future, focusing on your breath roots you in a comfortable, assured state of mind. Your breath is always present. Focusing your attention on your breath roots your mind in the present too.
Then there’s boredom. When you’re bored, you’re suspicious of your lack of things to do. In fact, you’re so suspicious you create more things to do for yourself!
Sometimes these are things you genuinely need to do, like washing the dishes or paying rent. In these cases, your boredom is procrastination in disguise, but sometimes what you feel anxiously compelled to do is just unimportant busywork.
All your basic needs are met. You’re not hungry, but you could eat because you have nothing else to do and eating would fill the time. You don’t want to hang out with friends, but you feel like you “might as well” because the alternative is doing nothing.
Is nothing so bad? Not at all, especially not when we spend so much of our lives doing, doing, doing, or thinking about doing, or worrying about what we haven’t done yet or have failed to do.
A little nothingness goes a long way toward peace of mind, especially when you remind yourself there’s no harm in doing nothing. At least for a little while.
Because your breath flows constantly and will continually flow constantly in the foreseeable future, focusing on your breath roots you in a comfortable, assured state of mind. Your breath is always present. Focusing your attention on your breath roots your mind in the present too.
Keep in mind, this is a balance. Meditation can be used for procrastination just as easily as eating and if you truly have important tasks to do — writing your novel, apologizing to a loved one you’ve wronged, or studying for your final exam you haven’t begun to prepare for—you should consider focusing on those first.
That said, taking 5 short minutes to focus on your breath with no expectations about how well you have to do provides a much-needed break for those of us whose thoughts run around like caffeinated cats up the walls of our minds.