What is Meditation?
Meditation is, essentially, a way to practice being present. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in the field of meditation and medicine, meditation is a practice of cultivating mindfulness, which means "paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally." Let me try to explain what that means, by describing how I meditate:
In the morning, after I finish getting ready for the day, I set aside 10 to 15 minutes to meditate. I turn the sound off on all my devices to disconnect for this period of time. I set a timer using a meditation app, which uses the sound of bells to tell me when the meditation is over. Then I sit and close my eyes (I use a chair rather than sitting cross-legged on the floor because that would be too painful for me).
I focus my attention on the natural rhythm of my breathing. This means noticing the sensations I feel from the rise and fall of my abdomen with each breath, or from the inflow and outflow of air at my nostrils. Inevitably, my mind becomes distracted by worries, thoughts, memories, or plans. When I recognize my mind is caught up in these things, I gently guide my awareness back to my breath. I do this until the bell rings.
And that's it! The practice I described is called a mindful breathing meditation. Other meditation practices invite you to focus your awareness on body sensations (body scan meditation), sounds, thoughts or feelings, and movement (ta chi or yoga for chronic pain relief).
What Can You Learn by Meditating?
Many people want to be more present but have trouble making it a habit. Meditation helps train the mind how to sustain our attention in the here-and-now. This takes practice, just like anything else! It also helps us learn to recognize when our mind wanders off. How can learning to be more present benefit you?
Much of our anxiety comes from worrying about the future or reliving difficult moments from the past, rather than from anything going on directly in front of us at this moment in time. Learning to be present can help reduce stress and anxiety. As my grandma used to say, worry about crossing that bridge when you get there!
Between spending time on your phone or binge-watching Netflix, it's easy to become too distracted to enjoy the small moments in life. Meditation can help us relearn to stop and smell the roses. This is especially important for people living with chronic pain. Even during pain flares there are small moments of enjoyment if we stop and notice them — the taste of a good meal, sharing a hug, a sunny day, or a favorite hobby. Intentionally taking in the good moments by staying present while experiencing them is a powerful way to counterbalance the negative experience of feeling pain.
Mindfulness meditation teachers often compare thoughts and feelings to the weather. The weather constantly changes. Even the worst storms pass and the sun comes out again. To use another time-honored expression, meditating helps us remember that this too shall pass. As you meditate, you notice that thoughts and feelings pop into your mind, only to fade away. Overtime, you realize that what you feel, or what your mind is preoccupied with, changes significantly from day to day.
Knowing this can help you to feel calmer in the face of difficult emotions or challenging situations. Since feelings change, meditation teaches that 'feelings are not the truth of things.' For example, feeling sad does not mean that the world is always a sad place, or that you are always a sad person. Developing a greater sense of equanimity through meditation can help you handle the difficulties of living with chronic pain.
Finally, as Jon Kabat-Zinn points out, a core part of meditation is learning to be mindful in a non-judgemental way. Initially, I was very judgmental of myself when I started meditating because my mind could not stay focused on my breath for very long. Over and over I would notice that my attention had wandered off and I would have to refocus on the present. Eventually, I realized this was a crucial learning opportunity.
As renowned meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg explains, "The invitation to begin again (and again and again) that meditation affords is an invitation to the practice of self-compassion— to heal through letting go rather than harming ourselves with cycles of self-doubt, judgment, and criticism." As you can see from the example above, I learned something about how I treat myself because of meditation. When you pay attention to the type of thoughts that pop into your head, you learn about patterns of 'negative self-talk'. This self-knowledge is powerful. When your inner critic gets on their soap box, you can learn to say to yourself "oh, here I go again, criticizing myself," take a deep breath, and let it go.