Let’s Undo the Hustle 🎶 – A Personal Study in Meditation Medicine
Ingrid Wood, October 2021.
Like most of us do at some point, I’ve found myself struggling with restlessness, stress, and at times, anxiety. With the onset of COVID and the amount of fellowship drastically reduced, I have caught myself being sucked into the cultural norm of busy-ness, ugh. It is becoming clear how big a toll stress has taken and still is taking on me, and everyone around me. I am opposed to most ‘modern’ medical treatments. So, meditation, maybe? It’s all the rage, but what is it really?
Trying to make heads and tails out of meditation hasn’t been a straight path but has become clearer with the help of some friends. As I list these things, I realize I’ve done more meditation than I thought, and I’m still looking … I guess I’m hustling to get there, lol.
For years, I have walked. Walking in nature, to be specific. It can be on a beach in the Netherlands, in the Rockies in Colorado, or around the seminary and golf course here in Ohio. It’s a way to move and get the cobwebs out of my head. I hiked for many years in Colorado; Pikes Peak, Pancake Rocks, Section 16, Cottonwood Creek. Moving my big motor muscles and taking in God’s creation brings peace of mind and fulfillment. Now, again I spend too many hours at this screen.
A few years ago, together with my friend Andrea, I joined a “Power of Eight” group a few years ago, where we met over zoom, created an intention, and meditated over it. This meditation style was created by Lynne McTaggart, who has researched and written books on metaphysics and intention. In 2011, we read her book The Field, and both loved it. I wound up leading that intention group for two years and learned more about intention and the power of the mind. And how easily I get taken out…
Even though the title did not enamor me, I read (most of) the book by Joe Dispenza called “Becoming Supernatural.” I had no desire to become supernatural, but the book was recommended to me in a couple of different ways. Joe used to be a chiropractor and suffered a severe spine injury. “… this voice kept coming up in my head, saying [that] the power that made the body also heals the body. And I thought, ‘… This power is an intelligence. And intelligence is consciousness. Consciousness is awareness. Awareness is paying attention. It must be paying attention to me,’ says Dispenza. He has since become a world-renowned speaker and holds seminars. You can buy his meditations, but I am always looking for a freebie. I have found some of his meditations online, and his ‘Rest and Renew’ Youtube video has been my favorite. His book is quite dense, but what is great about it, is how he ties the metaphysical to the physical. For example, he shows the difference in heart rhythm patterns of those that are at the impact of stress and frustration versus those that are training in meditation.
With my friend Meredith over Zoom, I participated in a ‘sitting’ meditation for about 6 months. We’d gab for a few minutes and then sit for 20 minutes. The purpose of sitting is not to do anything but sit. It is not about monitoring your breathing, getting to empty state or anything like that. Just sitting. Maybe notice that your thoughts drift and take you out of the present moment, then return to sitting. Believe it or not, the number of things that ‘take you out’ is actually limited, such as the latest upset or worry about your spouse, kid, or parent, your health trouble or pain, a grocery list, and what you need to get done for work. That practice of sitting reminds me of the ‘training the puppy’ meditation using my friend Andrea’s Muse headband a few years ago. Keep training the puppy; keep bringing the puppy back to the here and now. I’ve since learned this is a form of Zazen meditation.
Intention-Creation, Meditation, and Prayer
For many years, I’ve been participating in Landmark Education’s work. It is ontological, which means the being of human being as we create ourselves in language. It is transformational work, meaning it is not about adding knowledge, rather it is about becoming aware of the layers of coping mechanisms we have put in place to deal with life. And in the face of them knowing who you are, creating who you want to BE, as a human being, not a human doing. Many times, over the past two decades, I’ve had the thought that these acts of creating, of declaring myself, are much like prayer or meditation. Doing this growth work, together with the nudging of a friend, I created my Ground of Being statement.
In November of 2013, I attended an introduction to the Wisdom Course with Landmark and created this collage. It was only after I created it, that I realized it showed what I wanted: to live in Intentional Community. A co-housing community that is based in faith, creativity, and sustainability. This collage has traveled with me and hung on the wall in my office for many, many years. It still inspires me.
My husband Tim attends seminary; he is now in his final year. During the summer of 2019, before he got started with courses, he did a self-study on Meditation. He also teaches Tai Chi and has practiced some QI-gong. This past spring, Tim took a Spiritual Formation class and asked if we could do a book study on one of the books used, “Sacred Rhythms” by Ruth Haley Barton. The spiritual practices listed in the book include solitude, silence, and honoring the body, and these practices align quite well with the meditative practices I’ve since learned about.
And finally, recently, I started listening to Marianne Williamson’s morning meditations, and here is today’s meditation, and in it “… allow yourself to spend several seconds breathing in the new image, expanding your energy into this new mold. Hold the image for several seconds and ask God to imprint it on your subconscious mind.” We know when our true self shows up.
As I read what I’ve written thus far, it’s still a hodge-podge of things. How are these activities connected, and why is meditation a good idea?
Mental Calm and Clarity
Meditation came into the modern American consciousness in the 1890s. At first as a fringe activity for spiritual counterculture types, but in the late 1960s, it came under increasing study for its benefits to physical and mental health. Despite hovering in the mainstream for lo these many decades, meditation still feels inaccessible for many. Maybe it’s because there is such a wide variety, or because the very idea of stillness and contemplation runs counter to everything American life is about.
But that break from the “always be hustling” mentality makes meditation so effective. If you have a job, a family, a schedule, or just a human body and mind, you can benefit from making meditation a regular part of your life.
For something that’s supposed to bring mental calm and clarity, learning how to meditate can involve a lot of confusion, contradiction, and even stress. The first obstacle is defining meditation; what is meditation, exactly? The end goal of meditation is to “empty your mind,” but what does that truly mean? It’s a difficult state to achieve when you can’t even really imagine what it feels like.
If you’ve tried to learn through doing, that presents just as many questions. You can read for hours about meditation from the world’s leading experts, and still not have a clear idea of what to do when you sit down to meditate. If you have a friend who meditates regularly, asking them how to start can lead you down a rabbit hole of contradictory advice, all while assuring you “there’s no ‘right’ way to meditate.” Not exactly helpful either.
The Mayo Clinic considers “Meditation … a type of mind-body complementary medicine” (Mayo Clinic), where complementary means that it falls beyond the scope of scientific medicine but may be used alongside it. In other words, you don’t need a prescription, there are no counter effects, and with a little research, it’s free.
All meditation styles and techniques are built around two main principles, either:
- Bringing the mind to a quiet, still state. This is known as “shamatha,” or cessation. Think “shhhhh”…
- Observing the workings of the mind in that state. This is known as “prajna,” or contemplation.
“Mantra” is a Sanskrit word that can be translated as “a tool for freeing the mind.” Some mantras have a literal meaning, while others are meaningless sounds — they can be as short as one syllable or involve many words. On a basic level, the mantra functions as a “toy” to keep the brain occupied; on a higher level, the sounds within the mantra words carry a vibration that helps develop different states of mind. The words are meant to lose their meaning as you repeat them over and over, while still anchoring your mind within a state of open awareness.
Known in various cultures as pranayama, anapana, or qi-gong (to name just a few), specific breathing exercises can help deepen your meditation by creating a state of rhythmic calm that links your body and mind. Slow, regulated breathing helps open the channels of your life force, or chi. Having these channels open is essential to experience the benefits of meditation fully.
Some types of meditation involve focusing on a specific image, whether by actually looking at something (such as a flickering candle or a scene in nature) or using your imagination.
Finally, there are the various schools and styles of meditation — hundreds of them, actually. Some are more formal and prescriptive, while others are loose and open to interpretation. This wide variety of options might be daunting, but the upside is that there’s a form to fit every lifestyle, personality, and schedule. We’ve put together a list of some of the most common ways to meditate, along with an overview of how to practice them and what issues they are particularly helpful for.
As you experiment, remember that the end goal isn’t to become some Jedi mind-trick master. (As if you need one more “mastery” goal on your list of to-dos.) Rather, “success” in meditation is defined by “a state of sustained mental rest.” (Doesn’t that sound nice?) Trying super hard is counterproductive to the essence of meditation itself, so if you find yourself frustrated or struggling to grasp a technique, that probably means you’re using a technique that isn’t a good fit for you.
We recommend choosing one type of meditation, experimenting for a week, and finding out if it is a good fit for you. Remember that meditation is an exercise, much like physical exercise, so if you’re going in cold, it’s good to start gently. Set yourself a goal that’s easy to achieve, like meditating once daily for 5 to 10 minutes. You’ll know it’s the right approach for you if you find yourself wanting to spend more and more time with it. Once you discover an approach you like, search for teachers, books, blogs, and other resources to help you go deeper into that style. You may even be able to find a workshop or a retreat that offers more intensive guidance in reaping the benefits of your chosen meditation style.
No matter which approach you choose, you’re guaranteed to benefit from a growing ability to detach from your thoughts, emotions, and cravings. This detachment doesn’t mean becoming emotionless — rather, it empowers you to choose which thoughts to heed and cultivate, giving you the freedom to experience life through a frame of clarity, peace, and even joy.
This meditation incorporates more of the physical body as you train yourself to observe without judgment or reaction. To practice it, you sit upright but comfortably with your hands on your knees, and your chin dropped slightly. After sitting this way for a few moments, you begin to concentrate on the feeling of breath filling your body and then leaving it. As thoughts and impulses arise, you acknowledge them and let them drift away, returning to the focus of your breath. The payoff is an increasing ability to return to your focus without emotion or self-judgment. When you’ve finished, slowly lift your gaze forward, note how your body feels, and then move on with your day.
Best for: Improving attention, making progress toward goals, managing stress, and chronic pain
Guided Meditation (affirmations & body scan)
This type of meditation combines a number of different techniques, such as breath work, visualization, and mantra. It’s one of the most accessible approaches available — you can practice with a coach, use a recording, or practice with your own mantra while listening to calming music or nature sounds. There are even a number of guided meditation options on YouTube.
Best for: Reducing irrational or negative thinking, raising levels of optimism, developing coping skills
Known popularly as “TM,” this is the model people usually think of when they think of meditation — sitting on the floor cross-legged, eyes closed while chanting a secret mantra for 20 minutes or more. Developed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1950s, this form of meditation has been trademarked (cue joke about “TM-TM”) and corporatized to some degree, with celebrities like Jerry Seinfeld and Hugh Jackman paying thousands of dollars for a licensed guru to give them their own secret mantra. However, you can access the benefits for free, if you’re not afraid of some rigorous self-discipline. Unlike other types of meditation, TM mantras are meaningless words that help the mind disconnect from conscious thought. As you continue the mantra, the mind will gradually drift above distractions and emotions and reach a state of restful awareness. This is the coveted feeling that TM devotees say changes their lives, and the more often you practice, the easier it is to achieve.
Best for: Improving calmness, better sleep, lower blood pressure, improved cognitive function and memory
Zen or Zazen
Zazen literally means “seated,” which pretty much sums up what this meditation style is about: learning to sit. It’s harder than it sounds — the end goal is to be able to exist indefinitely in a state of suspended judgment, letting all words, thoughts, and images pass by without getting involved in them. To practice, you kneel or sit in a lotus position, your hands folded over your belly, and your spine straight but settled. With eyelids half-closed (to present yourself as neutral toward external stimuli), begin to focus on your breath’s movement in and out of your body. You can count the beats within each breath, use a mantra to measure it, or observe it. The goal is to arrive at a state of calm, thoughtless focus. However, over time, you’ll begin reaching an even higher state of calm clarity where you can actually think about not thinking.
Best for: Lowering blood pressure, reducing anxiety and stress, strengthening immune systems, improving sleep
Developed by Yogi Bhajan a year before the Summer of Love, kundalini meditation is meant to develop a conscious connection with the energy inside you. This type of meditation has a few more rules than most — practitioners do it either first thing in the morning or right before bed, but never on a full stomach, and it requires choosing how long to meditate before you start. (For some reason, common intervals are 11 minutes, 15 minutes, 22 minutes, and 31 minutes.) You pick a mantra that expresses the state you want to achieve, then begin to either chant it out loud or silently in your head while visualizing the mantra being written down. While chanting, slow your breathing so that each completed breath lasts about 8 seconds. As the breathing lengthens and the mantra becomes automatic, focus on the movement of breath through your body. Eventually, you’ll start to feel the energy moving along your spine and a euphoric state building inside you. The combination of mantra, breathing, and consciousness helps cleanse your mind, making you less reactive to stress and offering a powerful rejuvenation at the end of the day.
Best for: Improving concentration and cognitive function, stress relief, strengthening the nervous system
Metta (“loving-kindness” or “compassion-based ”)
This form is named for one of the four sublime states in a particular school of Buddhism. It involves silently repeating phrases of goodwill directed toward someone else, visualizing them if you like. The word “metta” can be translated as loving-kindness or as compassion, and there are two schools of thought around how this type of meditation is practiced: You can either repeat phrases of hope for another person’s relief from suffering or for them to experience happiness. No matter which approach you take, the idea behind metta meditation is that cultivating kindness toward all beings (including yourself) gradually decreases the tendency to cling to a negative state of mind. A side benefit of metta meditation is that it is effective more quickly than other types of meditation — a study by Psychology Today showed that just a few minutes of metta meditation increased people’s feelings of social connection and positivism toward strangers.
Best for: Building empathy, decreasing bias, improving social connection, lowering stress response to conflict.
Tibetan Sky Gazing
This is a great form of meditation for nature lovers. Guided by the idea that the mind is clear like water, and what you focus on colors that awareness. This meditation endeavors to influence the mind with nature’s beauty and serenity. By gazing into the sky, you can experience openness, clarity, and enlightenment. Start by finding a good view of the clear sky — you can climb to a high place or even lie on your back. Calm your mind with a series of long, deep, slow breaths, then gradually draw your gaze upward until you’re looking directly into the sky. Let go of all thoughts as you direct your awareness into the vast blue expanse, appreciating how your thoughts evaporate into your inner sky the way clouds do. When you’re ready to end your meditation, acknowledge that this expansive experience is, in fact, the most natural state of your being.
Best for: Relieving stress, connecting with nature, improving your perspective
The word “Tantric” is irrevocably associated with sex, but more holistically, Tantric practices involve using energy to create a transformation. Unlike meditation styles that are meant to empty our minds of thoughts, Tantric meditation uses sounds, colors, mantras, vibrations, visualizations, and more to cultivate a specific resonance within the body that produces specific results and eventually leads to enlightenment. There are a number of different ways to practice, but an easy one to start with is visualizing each section of your body filling up with golden light, until your entire body is a glowing column of light, then finishing by exhaling all the light into the world around you.
Best for: Emotional balance, enhanced memory, concentration, and focus, a more vibrant sense of health
If you’re an ants-in-the-pants guy, qi gong might be the perfect meditation style. This practice combines breath, body movement, and mental concentration to unblock energy channels in your body so that your life force can move freely. It can be practiced while standing, sitting, or even lying down. You might be familiar with tai chi, the body movement technique that looks like martial arts in slow motion, which is commonly linked with qi gong. However, tai chi is just one of a number of repetitive movement “recipes” for qi gong. These movement styles range from beginner to advanced, so it’s helpful to begin by following a video tutorial or attending a workshop to find the best entry point for you.
Best for: Improving balance, lowering blood pressure, healing chronic health conditions, achieving clarity of purpose
Taoist Emptiness Meditation
This type of meditation is just what it sounds like: emptying the mind of all mental images (thoughts, feelings, and so on) to experience a state of inner quiet. One of three styles of qi gong meditation starts with sitting in a comfortable upright position, with eyes half-closed and fixed on the point of the eyebrows. As you sit quietly, you allow all thoughts and sensations to arise and fall without engaging with them. While this style of meditation is said to be very challenging, the work (rather than the destination) is the point. The more your practice, the more you’ll sense your life force being replenished.
Best for: Longevity, unifying body and spirit, connecting with nature, finding inner peace
Known as muraqabah in Arabic, this meditation comes from Islamic tradition. Its objective is to purge the selfish, more animalistic parts of your character and replace them with more noble, generous character traits. The practice of Sufi meditation starts with cultivating a state of half-wakeful calmness, but with more practice, you reach a state where you can receive spiritual messages within the subconscious mind, see visions, and access knowledge. There’s a wide variety of ways to practice Sufi meditation, from breathing exercises to gazing practices, vocalization, and even whirling.
Best for: Releasing serotonin and endorphins, releasing stress, gaining perspective, cultivating positivism.
Meditation is a practice with the goal of reaching a state of sustained mental rest, either
- shamatha or cessation: a quiet, still mind
- prajna or contemplation: observing the workings of the mind in that state
These are the most common meditation techniques
- mantra: repeating a word or sound; keeps the brain occupied; vibration helps develop different states of mind
- breath-work (pranayama, anapana or qi-gong): creates a state of rhythmic calm, opens chi channels
- visualization: actual or imagined
|Styles||Practice & intention||Benefits|
|Mindfulness or Vipassana||sitting, breathing, letting go of judgment or emotion||Attention, goals, stress, pain|
|Guided Meditation||with a coach, a combination of techniques, affirmations, body scans, visualization, mantra||Irrational or negative thinking, optimism, coping skills|
|Transcendental or TM||sitting, cross-legged, eyes closed, mantra||Calmness, better sleep, lower BP, cognitive function, memory|
|Zen or Zazen (seated)||Learning to sit, lotus/kneeling, hands folded over the belly. Breath focus. Suspend judgment and let words-thoughts-images pass. Ultimately think about not thinking.||Lower BP, reduce anxiety and stress, immune system, sleep|
|Kundalini||Conscious connection with inner energy. Not on a full stomach, set amount of time, visualize a written mantra, slow breath to 8 seconds, and focus on breathing through the body.||Concentration, cognitive function, stress, nervous system|
|Metta||Buddhism 4 states, kindness to all beings, repeat phrases of hope (relief from suffering) or to experience happiness.||Empathy, decrease bias, social connection, stress, conflict|
|Tibetan Sky Gazing||For nature lovers. Mind is clear like water, influencing the mind with nature’s beauty and serenity. Sky: openness, clarity, enlightenment. Lie on your back, breaths, evaporate thoughts into the inner sky, expansive experience.||Relieve stress, connect with nature, improve perspective|
|Tantric||Energy, sex. Use sounds, colors, mantras, vibrations, and visualizations to cultivate a specific resonance, and eventually enlightenment. Visualize the body glowing with light and exhale all that light into the world.||Emotional balance, memory, concentration, focus, vibrant sense of health|
|Qi Gong||Movement, breath, and mental concentration to unblock energy channels, free moving life force. Standing, sitting, lying down.||Improve balance, lower BP, heal chronic conditions, clarity, purpose|
|Taoist Emptiness||Empty the mind of all mental images, thoughts, feelings to experience a state of inner quiet. Sitting, eyes half-closed, fixed on the point of eyebrow (?)||Longevity, unifying body and spirit, connecting with nature, inner peace|
|Sufi (muraqabah)||Purge the selfish and replace them with noble traits. Half-wakeful, ultimately spiritual messages, visions, knowledge. Can include breathing, gazing, vocalization, and whirling.||Releasing serotonin and endorphins, stress, perspective, positivism|
- Barton, Ruth Haley. Sacred rhythms: Arranging our lives for spiritual transformation. interVarsity press, 2009.
- Batten, Chelsea. “How to Meditate: A Guide for Beginners” The Manual, March 28, 2020. https://www.themanual.com/culture/a-complete-guide-to-meditation-for-men/
- Dispenza, Joe. Becoming supernatural: How common people are doing the uncommon. Hay House, Inc, 2019.
- Dispenza, Joe. “Rest and Renew” Hay House, Feb 23, 2015. https://youtu.be/9h4GiblYrPk
- Mayo Clinic Staff. “Meditation: A simple, fast way to reduce stress.” Last updated April 29, 2022. https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/meditation/in-depth/meditation/art-20045858
- McTaggart, Lynne. The field: The quest for the secret force of the universe. London: HarperCollins, 2001.
- Williamson, Marianne. “TRANSFORM with Marianne Williamson” https://mariannewilliamson.substack.com/s/meditations
- Seppälä. Emma. “18 Science-backed Reasons to Try Loving-Kindness Meditation” Psychology Today, September 14, 2015. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/feeling-it/201409/18-science-backed-reasons-try-loving-kindness-meditation