Have you ever seen something so beautiful that your mind simply stops? Perhaps it’s a vividly colorful sunset, and you are totally wrapped up in experiencing the beauty of the moment, or perhaps you are on top of a mountain and you can see breathtaking views for miles and miles around you. In moments like these we devote all of our conscious attention to soaking in the beauty around us and there simply isn’t room for thought.
Times like these are actually moments of meditation, which is the experience of fully living in and experiencing in the present moment. We are always living in the present moment of course, but you might be surprised at how often our attention is wrapped up in thought rather than fully experiencing the here-and-now. We only have so much attention to give to anything, so if half of your attention is wrapped up in thought only half is left to experience the world around you.
Here is an example of what happens when most of our attention is wrapped up in thinking:
Driving from point A to point B, have you ever gotten to your destination and don’t remember any details from the drive itself? Back when I was driving I certainly did, and while some of my awareness was on the road driving the majority of my focus was caught up in thinking. I was basically on autopilot, not remembering the drive afterwards because thinking had been my primary experience while driving was merely a background to these thoughts.
I want to be clear that thinking isn’t a bad thing and it is incredibly important for many aspects of life but it is important to bring awareness to how our thoughts work (and don’t work) within us. When we really tune into our thinking patterns it is easy to see that they are often unhelpful and repetitive. Often this repetition is trivial but at other times it can really create emotional difficulty. In living with ALS for example, my thoughts have naturally gravitated towards worry and fear about what the future will hold. Thinking patterns like these spin in circles like reruns I’ve seen a thousand times but have had trouble turning off, and meditation has helped me with this.
Meditation allows us to get out of constantly living in the past or future and to find peace within the present moment. It helps us to give our minds a break from endless to-do lists, labeling, and categorizing, and from a constant need for control. The mental stillness that meditation provides allows for more peace and aliveness to enter our experience and increases overall enjoyment of life.
What is Meditation and How Does it Work?
As I mentioned earlier, meditation is the practice of fully experiencing the present moment. I like to bring awareness to my body as an anchor for attention during meditation, allowing myself to feel whatever sensations arise as I feel into it. I don’t try to analyze, make judgments, or think about what I notice while I meditate, and as the minutes pass my thoughts slowly lose their momentum and more peace begins to enters my experience.
When you’re living with ALS a meditative practice of feeling your body can be challenging at first, especially if like me you have some shame, fear, or sadness around the state of your body. Meditation isn’t about getting lost in stories of what is happening to us physically or getting wrapped up in the emotion of it however. All of this just involves more thinking, and the goal of meditation is to take a break from that. We just want to feel and notice whatever is happening in the body in a conscious way, and the body appreciates this attention!
When you are just beginning to meditate it isn’t easy to feel without the need for thinking and analyzing. This is a fast-paced world we live in and the mind is so accustomed to constant thought that it actually resists attempts to meditate. It will try to distract you with your to-do list and many variations of thoughts that you don’t have time for this meditation mumbo-jumbo.
It is perfectly natural to experience mental distractions like this during meditation, but if you decide to sit down for five minutes with your eyes closed it is important to stick to it. If you’re able to endure the mental acrobatics telling you to get up and do something else I promise that you will end up having more control over your mind as a result. When you notice that you have been distracted in thought as will inevitably happen, simply return to experiencing what you are feeling in your body.
The more frequently that you meditate the easier it becomes to find and hold mental stillness and peace, and I like to put this to use when I go outside. When I’m rolling around in my power chair I like to slow my thoughts down so that I can more fully enjoy the beauty around me, and I find that this really enhances my enjoyment of the experience.
There are many types of meditation but I don’t want you to get overwhelmed or to think that meditation is overly complicated. Something as simple as closing your eyes for a few minutes each day while sitting is a great way to start meditating and it doesn’t necessarily need to be any more complicated than that. Simply find a comfortable place where you are unlikely to be distracted for a few minutes, sit down and get relaxed. I find that it is helpful to have a relatively straight spine while meditating which helps the energy to flow and assists in keeping me alert (so that I don't fall asleep.) It may also be helpful to download a meditation timer app on your cell phone so you can choose the duration of your meditations and be notified with a bell when the time is up.
If you are curious about meditation I encourage you to try it, as it has been a huge benefit in my life in general and more specifically while going through the challenging emotional experience of living with ALS. It helps me to slow my mind down so that fearful thoughts do not run as rampant, and to shift my thinking patterns to be more positive and supportive.