You have probably encountered traditional images of meditation, seen in media ads for everything from travel destinations to financial planning to quiet luxury cars: a practice of sitting cross-legged on the floor in a serene setting, eyes closed, transported somewhere else. The image of an oasis from our stressful lives may sound appealing but daunting, or perhaps not terribly practical. Stress comes to us in the midst of everyday activities, when it may not be feasible to stop, light an aromatherapy candle, and empty our minds. So how can meditation practice help, when most needed?
Stress finds us everywhere. Last evening it found me in a huge muddy field full of cars. I was attending a hot air balloon festival; just as it was ending, with hundreds of people heading for the makeshift parking lot, the skies opened up. The exodus of cars came to a full stop, with no lights, no signs, and no idea how long the wait would be. Stress level rising, unable to move, I wanted serenity in the midst of the confusion. My eyes had to be wide open.
Meditation practice, fortunately, takes many forms. Sometimes we are free to follow a Zen-like discipline of noticing and letting go of things that give stress, irritation, or hurt. That does not mean we lose awareness of a hurtful comment, or forget that we are sitting in a dental office. The practice of meditation, rather, allows us to separate the worry from the reality, the unfinished conversation from the present moment. It allows us to replenish, and to be at peace for now, knowing all of it will change.
In the middle of the field, I could take stock inwardly, and notice that I was safe and dry, the parking lot was finite in size, and the sound of the rain was actually soothing. All would eventually be well. Sometimes, though, frustrations or worrying thoughts clamor for our attention, even though they are not helpful at the moment. The discipline of meditation requires more than just the intent to let go of them, and to focus on the rain, that detail that is easily overlooked and spirit-nurturing.
Ordinary activities can be a form of meditation, if done with the right intent: to gently reset our focus to the present moment. This allows us to set aside the intrusive thoughts that, no matter how important, are presently sabotaging our peace. I have a friend who is refinishing a wooden table; she tells me that the sanding of wood has become a form of meditation. Any activity that is rhythmic and requires just enough attention to stay on task, but does not require moment to moment decision making, can become a form of meditation. Weaving is an ancient form of meditation practice; in order to weave, it is necessary to temporarily let go of arguments with partners, or difficult decisions at work. Digging in the garden can become meditation. So can walking, or biking, or chopping onions, or watching birds on a wire, or counting blue cars, or drumming, or making numbers add up.
What makes an activity meditative is not merely that it distracts us or keeps us busy. Replacing relationship stress with a high stakes sporting event or an argument with the phone company, may relocate frustration, without necessarily changing our relationship to it. Instead, find something that will allow you to suspend the habit of living in a state of stress. It is everywhere, but it is not your whole life. First, breathe. Instead of just doing it automatically, savor the moment.