Meditation is an ancient practice at the heart of countless religions and faiths. Though the spiritual benefits are hard to measure, a mountain of scientific studies have proven that meditation has hundreds of benefits from fostering creativity to decreasing the need for sleep. Everyone knows it also decreases stress and depression and increases immunity and focus; yet carving out an hour of your day still seems like a huge leap—at least it did to me as a college student. And now that I’ve been meditating regularly for a few years now, I’m always looking to extend my practice into everyday life. A Korean Zen master Seung Sahn asks in Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, a collection of his teachings, “But when you are driving, when you are talking, when you are watching television, when you are playing tennis—how is it possible to count your breaths then? Sitting is only a small part of practicing Zen.” So whether you devote countless hours to zazen and Vipassana or haven’t given it a try, here are a few alternate ways to maintain a balanced state of mind.
Mindful Breathing During Exercise. Running was a meditation gateway for me since you’re already removed from most distractions and forced to think about your breath. It’s common practice to align breaths with steps, most recommend three steps to an inhale, and two steps for an exhale. I like to change these up depending on whether I’m going uphill, downhill, sprinting, etc. See what ratios work for you! And running is just one form of exercise; you can count breaths between sets of weights at the gym, or see how many breaths it takes to hold a minute plank. Regardless, focus on regulating your air intake and calm the voice in your head.
Sound Awareness. Instead of plugging into a podcast on your next commute, try listening to the sounds of the bus instead. You can start by trying to hear your body, listening for your pulse or your exhalations. Then expand your circle of awareness from the rustle and murmurs of those around you to the outside cars and traffic. You can then reverse the process by retracting the circle slowly back to yourself, and feel free to linger in any realm you like. Let yourself notice whatever you hear without annoyance, interest, or any processing at all; just smile at the sounds that arise and vanish.
Walking Meditation. It’s hard not to mention Thich Nhat Hanh when writing about walking meditation; after all, he wrote a whole book on the subject called Peace is Every Step. Essentially, try to slow down so that you can feel each step connect with the earth. Take note of your environment and surroundings: listen to the birds talk to each other, admire the architecture, smile at passersby, and allow yourself the freedom to investigate anything beautiful or curious. Or as Thay would say, “Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.”
Eating Meditation. Chances are, you eat a few meals by yourself from time to time, (or maybe with a fellow mindful-minded friend!) and can sit in silence and be thankful for what you’re eating. It’s common practice at most Buddhist monasteries to dine in silence, contemplating the flavors and textures, as well as the labor involved to get this meal on the table. So really think about the journey your food has taken from seed to plate; I thank the farmers and the drivers, the grocery store clerks and even myself for cooking it. Thank the sun for shining and each plant for its fearless growth. Be thankful for a sense of taste and a body that needs nutrition. Feed yourself!
Also by Aubrey: What It’s Really Like Being Vegan in China
More meditation inspiration: 3 Simple Meditation Techniques from Top Spiritual Teachers
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Photo: Abigail Keegan via Barnimages