Ask Havi Today’s complicated Ask Havi should really be about twenty Ask Havis. It’s a big question — a very broad question — about my thoughts on meditation.

Thoughts? Since I have far too many thoughts on this subject to possibly contain them in a post or even a series of posts, I’m just going to try and respond with the things I think are most important or most helpful.

And will be leaving lots of stuff out.

So please don’t take this as any sort of complete answer.

Because that would be ridiculously impossible.

But enough with the hedging. Here’s the non-question question:

I saw an article on CNN about using Compassion Meditation to learn to be more empathetic toward people you don’t like. The article specifically mentioned how such meditative practices can give you a more positive view of the world. Of course, it got me thinking.

Do you meditate much? If so, is there any special technique you use? I’ve really only done the breathe in, breathe out thing. When I try to visualize things, my thoughts get really…loud.

I suspect that’s very normal. Isn’t it human nature to think about things we’re told to ignore? Don’t think about the pink elephant…you’re thinking about it, aren’t you? I am.

I do not currently meditate. If I sit, I get uncomfortable very quickly. If I lay down, I fall asleep the moment I relax. I also develop a sudden desire to scratch my nose or crack my knuckles. I understand that during meditation, you don’t need to ban these feelings…just acknowledge them and move on. But I can’t get to the moving on part.

I have often thought something like yoga or tai chi, which involve movement, would be a little easier for me to get into. Holding still isn’t really my forte. Being a yoga expert, I’d love to hear your thoughts on using yoga or tai chi as a meditative practice.

Thanks!

Wow. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed.

There are more questions in this question than I can answer here. Each aspect of this is a chapter in a book, at least.

But I’m just going to pretend that we’re on a quiz show or a radio interview and that I have to give super quick answers to each one.

Q. “Do you meditate much?”

That depends on your definition of “much”. Compared to my teacher who spends half of each year in a monastery in the Himalayas doing 14 to 20 hours a day of prostrations and silent sitting? Not very much.

But the right amount for me.

My duck and I meditate each morning. Anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour. There was a period of a few months where I’d come out of meditation and it always turned out to be exactly 45 minutes on the dot. But that wasn’t a conscious decision or anything.

After my daily evening yoga practice with my gentleman friend or an afternoon Shiva Nata session with Selma, we also sit for about five minutes or so.

“If so, is there any special technique you use?”

I assume what you’re asking is whether I would recommend a specific technique for you. You don’t want the ones that I use, believe me. Way too complicated.

There are many, many techniques out there and they vary. A lot.

I need to add something here: just sitting or just-sitting-and-breathing is a super-advanced practice. It’s a myth — and an absurd one at that — that we should be able to start there.

Don’t start there.

So many people put so much pressure on themselves because they think they ought to be able to just sit down and focus on the breath. Give yourself a few years before you even try using that as your method. It’s not the place to start.

You’re going to have to experiment a bit.

If visualizing things is stressful, don’t do it. Or: don’t do it for now.

Chanting, mantras, counting prayer beads, pranayama (breathing exercises), repeating a word, keeping your focus on a candle or a picture …

These are all things you can experiment with just to figure out what the sensations that come up are like — for you specifically. And then your practice is just to notice how you react.

And start small for goodness sakes. Five minutes is more than enough to start with.

“Isn’t it human nature to think about things we’re told to ignore?”

Don’t tell yourself to ignore them.

“If I sit, I get uncomfortable very quickly.”

Uh, I’m going to say … that might be your problem right there!

Getting comfortable is important. That’s another myth — that you have to just let yourself be in pain and observe the pain, blah blah blah.

Trust me. Life will give you enough painful situations in which to practice this without you having to recreate it for yourself from scratch each time you meditate.

The first thing I would suggest is to try sitting with your back to a wall, for extra support. Slip a pillow or a folded blanket behind the small of your back so that it isn’t cold or painful.

And then you can put your legs any way that’s comfortable for you. If you fold them, you can prop up your knees with blankets as well.

Just make it a rule that you get to be comfortable. Screw the shoulds and all the “this is the right way to do things and I can’t do it” rules.

Pillows, blankets, blocks, bolsters. Try stuff. See what works.

Also, here’s a revolutionary thought: give yourself permission to move. If you do it consciously and mindfully when you need to, it’s not fidgeting.

In fact, it’s just a natural part of your practice.

Over time, your body will get used to the idea of sitting still and you won’t need to move as much. A good way to help it get better at this is to take some yoga classes. I’d recommend an Iyengar restorative-style class for this just because of the way they teach you to use props.

“I also develop a sudden desire to scratch my nose or crack my knuckles.”

Anyone who says you can’t scratch your nose can go to hell. Go for it. Scratch your nose. I give you permission!

“I understand that during meditation, you don’t need to ban these feelings…just acknowledge them and move on. But I can’t get to the moving on part.”

Right. If you can’t get to the moving on part, that’s the sign that they still haven’t really been acknowledged yet.

Acknowledging is hard work. This can be totally annoying sometimes (sorry!) but yeah, that’s just the way it is. It’s not enough to say “fine, I want to scratch my nose, moving right along!”.

It’s about recognizing that where you are right now in this moment feels uncomfortable. That you are allowed to feel uncomfortable. That you are allowed to hate it. That you are allowed to scratch your nose. That you are allowed to notice that you are upset with yourself for not being able to not scratch your nose.

And then deeper:

That you are allowed to be upset with yourself for being upset with yourself. That you are allowed to think this whole process is annoying and frustrating. That even though you are in a state of deep resistance, this is just where you are at the moment.

That this is temporary and natural and you’re allowed to be there.

Sweetie, right now you’re hurrying the “wanting to move the heck on already” part. It can’t be hurried.

“I have often thought something like yoga or tai chi, which involve movement, would be a little easier for me to get into.”

Yes.

Keep in mind that meditating and meditative are not the same thing, but yoga and other movement practices are useful (and healthy) ways to help prepare your body and your mind for a meditation practice.

Obviously the best way to do that is Shiva Nata (Dance of Shiva), because of the way it makes you use more of your brain than you have ever, ever even thought about using, which ends up with you being able to shut down entirely, but in a good way.

I’ve worked with people (grieving mothers, etc) who were completely unable to meditate due to their extremely stressful situations.

And what we found is that the huge amount of brain power and concentration in Dance of Shiva actually allowed them to finally experience periods of “turning off” and pausing their thoughts.

Which, as you might imagine, is a huge relief to someone in that much pain. If you’re not Shiva-ing it up yet, that’s definitely where I would start. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a big old Shivanaut.

“Holding still isn’t really my forte.”

Yet. :)

In the meantime, don’t make it be about stillness.

And if you’re going to start doing yoga, don’t do forms of yoga that focus on sitting still. Again, Dance of Shiva. Or go do a vinyasa class and sweat it out. Then try relaxing.

Sitting still is not a practice for beginners. It is not accessible to most beginners. It’s something you train yourself to do — slowly, gently, lovingly and over time.

That’s like saying that “fixing plumbing isn’t really my forte” or “painting watercolor landscapes isn’t really my forte”. Why would it be?

Most of us do not come naturally to stillness.

That’s enough for now, I think.

Hope that was helpful and not too overwhelming.

And for those of you who aren’t at all interested in starting a meditation practice, I’m going to go ahead and pretend that maybe you picked up some useful concepts that — who knows — might prove to be fun to think about and apply to other stuff you’re working on. :)