“I’d Love to Meditate, but I Can’t”
I’ve heard it so many times — students, colleagues, friends — “I’d love to meditate, I’ve tried, but it just doesn’t work for me.” After years of hearing some version of this, it occurred to me that some people believe they can’t meditate because the image this word conjures up for them is antithetical to something about their being. If I’d have said “let’s take a time-out and chill — I just learned a great new technique,” I know I would have gotten some takers. I’m not claiming I understand the dynamics behind why meditation does not appeal to some people, but I am certain my non-meditation-meditation can work for just about anyone.
I developed this tool while teaching at Bastyr University, partially for myself, partially for a new course, and it has become a go-to when I need immediate stress relief and I don’t have a lot of time. I’ve even done this while sitting in a waiting room annoyed because the doctor is late.
You don’t have to do it with your eyes closed, but I do find it helps. You can sit in a chair, or on the floor; your position doesn’t matter very much as long as you are comfortable and aren’t in fear of being stepped on. I start by doing Ujjayi (oo’jai) Breathing; it’s a form of deep breathing often used in yoga that’s been around since approximately 200 BC. There’s a story about where I learned Ujjayi, but I’ll save that for later.
Ujjayi focuses on deepening your breath so that you fill your lungs completely, which pushes your diaphragm down toward your belly, hence it is often referred to as belly breathing. Start by taking a slightly deeper breath than normal, and when you exhale, pretend you are trying to fog up a mirror, or clean a pair of glasses. As you do this, notice the “huh” sound that you make — this is what you’re after! Try making a similar sound as you exhale through your nose instead of your mouth. The sound reflects constricting your throat and narrowing the air passage. Once you establish the exhale and its sound, then try to make a similar sound while inhaling through your nose. It’s all about narrowing the air passage, slowing down your breathing rate, and increasing the depth of your breaths. Some people think it sounds like Darth Vader has entered the room.
As you get the hang of it, start to focus on filling your lungs with air; it may even feel as if you were breathing into your belly. Let your mouth close, breathe through your nose, and listen to the sounds of the breath going in and out. I like to count the number of seconds passing on my inhale and then on my exhale. It gives my mind something to do, and tells me if I am relaxing — the more relaxed I am, the higher the number I can count to. During a typical session, I do seven Ujjayi breaths. By the end of the 7th, I am usually calm; if not, I continue.
Next is sensory attention. I bring my full attention to each of my five senses, one at a time. I usually start with the easiest, which is hearing. What do you hear? Building sounds, people, traffic, birds? Where are the sounds coming from — above, below, outside, inside? And can you hear the sound of nothingness behind all the other sounds? That is my favorite thing — becoming aware of the sound of nothingness! It’s hard to describe — maybe it’s a little like white noise or cotton in your ear or the sound a cloud would make as it floated by if a cloud made noise. Cool, I’m hearing it as I type!
Then move your attention to what you feel; I call this doing a body check. How is your body positioned? Can you feel your legs against the chair or the floor? Are your thighs pressing down? Are your feet and ankles comfortable? Is your butt supporting your weight? Move up from your tummy… can you still feel the breath moving in and out, your chest and stomach expanding? Is your back straight or slouched? Are you holding tension anywhere in your body… if yes, release it! Relax into the moment, and become aware of each and every muscle, bone, and joint. It’s always at this moment that I realize my eye itches or something hurts. Sometimes I say to myself “yes, I do have an itch, but I’m going to ignore it and move on…” Other times, I adjust myself so I’m again comfortable, and I continue the body check.
When you’ve finished checking in with all aspects of your physical body, ask yourself if you can taste or smell anything. I have to admit here that I rarely taste or smell anything while doing this non-meditation-meditation. There is the occasional remnant of coffee or a recent lunch, but typically not, and I just move on to the final sense — sight.
You’ll remember I said I do this with my eyes closed, so you might be thinking — what the heck? But I do see things even with my eyes closed. I’m not Houdini, but I noticed at a very young age that when I close my eyes and pretend I’m in a movie theater, the big white screen in front of me, colors start to appear, followed by shapes. It tends to work better when you are in a room with natural sunlight. I am amazed that I see lots of oranges, purples, and blues, sometimes a red or a yellow. If I wait long enough, actual images may appear — a turtle, a person’s face, a car — they aren’t like photos, rather like the colors rearranged themselves into an image that my brain recognizes and almost as soon as I notice it, it disappears. Still, it’s pretty cool!
OK, we’re through the five senses. Sometimes, I stop here, refocus on my breathing for a few more minutes, and slowly open my eyes and return to the reality in front of me. If I have more time, I will try to hold two of my senses in my consciousness simultaneously — sight and sound, or sound and body feel — or all three if I’m having a good day. You can also try to focus on one sense and your breathing. The increasing challenge occupies your mind so you aren’t thinking of anything that might mess with your calm.
But that brings up a good point — as you are doing this you are bound to get caught up in something coming across your consciousness — what you just ate for lunch, the report you need to finish at work, your annoying boss — when it happens, just say to yourself “Duly noted,” and gently return to wherever you’re at in the non-meditation-meditation. In the beginning, it tends to happen a lot, which I believe is one of the reasons people say, “I just can’t meditate.” What they are really saying is “I can’t clear my mind, I can’t clear my mind, I can’t clear my mind. It’s happened three times, I was annoyed the first time, I’m not any good at this. What am I doing wrong? I don’t want to have to practice clearing my mind — that’s stupid!” So it’s easier to just say “I can’t meditate.”
So, a quick recap of the “how I learned about Ujjayi breathing” story. In the early 1990s, Deepak Chopra held a weekend retreat in Oakbrook and I decided to spend the money to attend and stay in a nearby hotel. He and his whole team were there, and the time was chock full of experiential learning, thought-provoking seminars, and opportunities to meet and bond with like-minded people. One of those experiential learning moments was held in a large hall with about 250 people, and we were all learning to practice Ujjayi. Just listening to the sounds in the air was energizing, but by the end, the room was positively radiating electricity. I left that day feeling like I was walking 3 feet above the ground, no worries, no stress, completely awash in peace and serenity.
Since then Ujjayi has come and gone in my life, but these days it is something I keep very close. And here’s a secret: You can do it without making a sound (if you practice long enough) or closing your eyes, so in a minute you can transition from heart-pounding anger, stress, or fear to relaxed and serene, and no one will be the wiser!