9 Things You Should Know About Meditation
As a kid, I remember reading the book How to Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days!, which—spoiler alert—concluded the only things perfect people can do are drink tea and meditate. As an adult, I recall being stuck on a houseboat with a meditation junkie who made me join his mindfulness circle. Holding hands and timing my breathing with someone I can't stand while clearing my mind is not my idea of fun.
Yet I'm still intrigued by meditation.
Most of the people I respect career-wise swear by a meditation practice, and scientists seem to agree that it's good for you. (To what degree is somewhat trickier to quantify; as The New York Times explains, designing a trial around meditation is not easy.) The root of the pro-meditation movement is the idea that stress is bad and meditation reduces stress.
But how do you actually get started? For an intro to meditation and pointers on establishing a meditation practice, I turned to The Vedic Method founder and meditation coach Kristen Vandivier. The form of transcending meditation that Kristen teaches helps clients find more subtle layers of consciousness. "Our mind is usually on the surface," Vandivier explained. "Imagine it as an ocean. At the top of the ocean, it’s choppy. It’s really hard to think clearly and feel clearly. If you’re able to go to the deeper parts of the mind, it’s much more calm, much more quiet. You can really get a sense of what you’re feeling, your intuition."
Okay, so getting out of choppy mental waters sounds good, but what exactly is happening in meditation? Why has it become so popular in San Francisco? Here are nine things you should know about meditation.
There are three main categories, and lots of subcategories
Anything related to mindfulness, following the breath, and most of the zazen falls within concentration techniques. Vandivier describes mindfulness as "very similar to the Buddhist techniques where they have you focus on the breath and come back to the breath and when you have a thought." Contemplative techniques are part of a more metta form of meditation. Say you’re contemplating compassion or love or peace; wherever you put your intention, grows. "You’ll actually see a change," Vandivier said.
The third category is transcending techniques. Vandivier's practice, The Vedic Method, falls into the transcending category, and focuses on a type of mantra called a bija, or seed, mantra. (Vandivier said the bija mantra has no meaning; it just lets your mind and body settle to a state of relaxation that's beyond thought.) It’s deeply relaxing, so it releases a lot of stress as your body reaches that state of deep relaxation; that’s where the health benefits come from.
Relaxing takes patience and practice
According to Vandivier, "If you’re frustrated with your practice, that’s not a good sign. It should be something you’re enjoying, that you look forward to." But that doesn't mean it's easy. Vandivier said she initially struggled to meditate before she understood the process. She beat herself up because she was not relaxing and that made her feel guilty.
"There are a lot of myths about [meditation], like you need to sit and clear your mind. That’s impossible. The mind thinks just as the lungs breathe. You can’t fully clear your mind. If that’s your impression of what meditation should be, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment."
If you're in it for the long haul, find a teacher
An app doesn't offer the same interactive experience as having a teacher. In Vandivier's courses, for example, she's actually responding to clients' situations to teach them how to meditate. Those situations could include whether or not to let go of a thought, and how to respond if you fall asleep while meditating.
"There are lots of resources for meditation in the Bay Area, like the Buddhist Temple of Marin, the San Francisco Zen Center at Green Gulch, and Spirit Rock in Woodacre, plus many independent teachers of various styles. For people who want to get into it, I say find an actual human being to help teach you," Vandivier said.
Think of meditation like yoga
When Vandivier encounters meditation skeptics, she bridges the cognitive gap with yoga comparisons.
"It’s interesting because the word 'yoga' actually means union," Vandivier explained. "In India, yoga is called asana, which is the word for the poses. For example, the type of meditation I do is actually a form of yoga. It’s called nishkam karma yoga, which means 'union with effort hardly done' as opposed to hatha yoga, which is 'union by force' or 'union with effort.'
"People are so familiar with yoga already, and they know it has a spiritual component that you can either participate in or not, or you can just do the poses and get the benefits from it. You don’t have to believe in yoga for yoga to work. You don’t have to believe in meditation for meditation to work. It is a physical process that happens".
Meditation class styles vary
What happens in a class can vary by the type of practice or instructor. If you go to a guided meditation, the instructor will probably teach you the zazen technique and how to follow your breath. Vandivier's four-day workshops are designed to train clients how to meditate and continue the practice on their own.
Her process begins with a puja ceremony to express gratitude for all the teachers who have carried the tradition through the generations. After the ceremony, she gives meditators their mantra, and they practice together. "There’s a collection of them; they all work, but some work better than others based on their mind body type."
Over the next few days, Vandivier teaches clients how to use the mantra, how to time the practice, what happens if they fall asleep, when are the best times of day to meditate, and how to fit the practice into a busy day. She also dives into the mechanics of stress release, how meditating using the mantra works to release stress from the body, and how to recognize the hallmarks of that process. On the last day, she covers the higher states of consciousness. "Once you start meditating for awhile, you start reaching greater levels of awareness," she said. "I go over that with people and how to know that’s happening—basically letting them know where it’s going."
The amount of time depends on the type of practice
If you've used a meditation app or book, you know that five-minute meditation is a thing. The precise duration of a practice varies according to the type of meditation. "The practice I teach is 20 minutes, twice a day. It’s a pretty committed practice," Vandivier said. That said, if you skip it, it’s not like anything bad happens. According to Kristen, doing five meditations a year is far better than doing none. It’s like exercise. If you do it every day, it’s going to be better for you than if you only do it occasionally, but even occasionally is better than nothing.
Kristen suggests giving yourself six weeks to start seeing benefits and to get the habit engrained.
There's a reason people meditate in groups
Once you've learned to meditate, you don't need to practice in a group, but you might find that you enjoy it." People like to meditate in a group because sometimes you can actually feel a greater effect," Vandivier said. "Imagine a bowling ball on a trampoline, bending a trampoline. If you put four bowling balls on a trampoline, it bends it even more. Now imagine that trampoline as the consciousness field. If you’ve got a few people meditating in a room, you can actually feel yourselves getting pulled deeper. That’s why people of my particular style will choose to meditate together."
How meditation became popular
"We within the community talk about it in terms of the collective. The collective is actually becoming more aware, so it’s more accepting," Kristen said. She also thinks it's a sign of the times: with the amount of stress in the world, people are looking for a way to disconnect from the news and connect with one another. "There’s nothing more unifying than meditating," she added. "Even though it seems like you’re isolating and going within yourself, you’re going within yourself to find that part of yourself that touches everything else."
A practice—any kind of practice—can help you live better
"If you make your internal experience better, the external takes care of itself, Vandivier said. "Then you eat better without having to think about it. Then you’re nice to you’re family without having to think about it. Without having to try."
Interested in studying with Kristen Vandivier? Check out The Vedic Method. Kristen offers a tiered-fee schedule, allowing clients to pay according to their means. Courses start at $500 for clients with less than $50,000 in annual income and go to $1,500 for clients who make more than $250,000 annually. She also offers a community service option, allowing a student to show proof of 20 volunteer hours from a qualified 501(c)(3) organization in exchange for classes.