Guest article provided by: Marisa Gray Atha
In February of this year, I was happily teaching private voice lessons in my home studio, my three young daughters were attending a school they loved, and my schedule was comfortably balanced to leave me with ample time for self-care. With time to be alone in my home, I could curl up with a cup of tea and good book, or spend twenty minutes on the cushion of my meditation corner. I could venture off to practice yoga at my favorite studio, or catch a spin class with friends. My life felt balanced between work and recuperation, parenting and work, the yin and the yang.
As our country jolted into a new landscape of pandemic in March, my life changed along with everyone else’s. Suddenly, parenting and work were smashed together into one ridiculous jumble as my daughters plunged into distance learning while I transitioned to working online. My partner and daughters were home… all the time. Given to introvert tendencies with an eye towards spiritual development, this round-the-clock mess of personalities, with no boundaries as to personal space or time, made for a necessary shift in perspective.
The last eight months have offered such ripe ground for imaginative problem-solving, for learning to cope with change, and to find resilience I didn’t know existed. Part of this growth has included creatively shifting the definition of meditation to include a broader scope of possibilities.
Just as so much of yoga takes place “off the mat,” meditation can be so much more than our time spent on the cushion. By finding ways to include mindful awareness into our everyday lives, we can continue doing our good work.
Foregoing our idyllic vision of meditation—in a Zen-blissful space, on a perfectly placed cushion, legs folded into lotus position, candlelight flickering, in silence or with contemplative music playing, with pure concentration, practiced regularly at the same time each day—let’s imagine 10 other forms “meditation” may take.
- Establish a yoga practice that you use as a form of moving meditation.
Yoga is uniquely suited to serve as meditation because its principles are founded with the intention to unify body, mind, and spirit. Asana (the physical poses) are just one of eight limbs of yoga—the others include practices such as breath control, ethical considerations, concentration, meditation, and observation.
The physical practice of yoga allows us an opportunity to focus within. As we move through our physical postures, we allow thoughts to enter our minds (implementing the external instruction of the teacher along with witnessing our passing internal dialogue), we can continue returning our awareness to our breath. This perennial return to awareness IS the meditation.
Although yoga is such a rich, accessible environment to practice moving meditation, there are plenty of other options. Any activity that includes rhythm and/or repetition would suffice—dancing, running, cycling, swimming, walking. As long we use the time to focus our awareness, then we are meditating.
Move your body to a steady beat, listen to the pounding of your trainers on the pavement, feel the cyclical motion of your legs on your bike, glide through the water with steady strokes, match your inhales and exhales to the rhythm of your walking feet… there are so many ways to use our physical exercise time to hone our minds and spirits as well.
- Get out into nature.
Take a drive to your favorite nearby nature preserve, hiking trail, city park, or just step into your own backyard.
Sit, walk, or lie down, and simply absorb.
Take in the magnitude of a tall pine or redwood tree. Admire the foliage of a grand sycamore. See the myriad of fall colors adorning the maples and dogwoods. Seek the openness of the sky—whether by day or night, its bigness reminds us to step outsides ourselves and into the wider consciousness of the universe. Listen for birdsong and delight in the voices of your winged neighbors.
Wherever you choose to place your focus and appreciation, soak in the soothing balm that nature offers.
- Invite others to join you.
If you can’t find time to be alone in your meditation space (probably the situation for many people during these challenging pandemic times), then invite guests to join you—even small, unruly ones. Over the past months, I’ve found small moments of peaceful joy when meditating with my daughters, ages 11, 8, and 5. To engage young children, the secret is to include meditation “activities.”
Take turns tapping a singing bowl, and challenge your children to close their eyes until they can no longer hear the sound. My 5-year-old lasts longer than I do, so focused is her concentration.
Allow each person to choose a special stone or crystal for to hold. Cradle it gently in the palm with reverence, or fold it between hands at heart center. Then take ten deep breaths together, as slowly as possible.
Incorporate the ritual of lighting a candle, watching the flames flicker, and blowing it out together.
Choose from a deck of animal spirit cards, then close the eyes and have a silent adventure with your animal. Afterwards, share with each other where you went and what you did.
Drum together, seeking out a unified rhythm. Experiment with faster and slower rhythms.
At the end of a session, bow to your sacred space and leave the meditation circle refreshed. Yes, the time may be shorter, there may be interruptions, and it may not look like a classic meditation session, but the energy and awe of children provide a rejuvenating mind-heart connection.
- Use your sleeping hours to work on your meditation practice.
No, I’m not suggesting you meditate while you sleep… although that would be handy. Use the moments when you’re having trouble falling asleep due to anxiety, overwhelm, fear—in spring, there were many nights I was riddled with insomnia as my mind tried to comprehend the growing pandemic and the ramifications it would bring. Perhaps I couldn’t fall asleep for hours at the beginning of the night; perhaps I awoke midway through and remained awake, too wired to return to sleep.
Often, sleep experts will give advice for insomniacs to perform a body-scan to help transition to sleep. I’ve found that the body-scan technique wakes me up even more—I’ll start with the feet, and by the time I’ve reached the knees, I’ve already tuned out, my mind whirling on to every world-scale problem that obviously must be solved by me, alone, that very night. With frustration, I’ll start with the feet again, willing myself to do the body-scan correctly and fall asleep already!! (You can understand why this technique doesn’t work well for me).
Instead of the larger goal of a body-scan, I will simply tune into my breath. With each exhale, I seek a sensation of heaviness, then lightness. I allow my mind to wander to parts of my body that feel uncomfortable—a little move here, a little shift there. I resettle into ease again, and return to the breath… heavy, light, heavy, light… meditating gently, finally drifting off to sleep.
- Use your active hours to pause.
Throughout your day, find moments of pause.
Imagine for a moment that your partner is tired and stressed. At the end of the day, while you are cooking dinner, he/she enters the kitchen and tosses out a gripe about some laundry you left in the wash machine overnight. You immediately react, firing back your own snipy comment… you can guess the direction this evening will continue to take.
In contrast, picture that, after hearing your partner’s initial gripe, you pause. You take a breath. You allow the light footstep of compassion to enter. You understand how it feels to be tired and stressed. Instead of reacting in anger, you respond by softening your tone, and inviting your partner to join you in conversation as you stir the pasta sauce.
These little moments are opportunities sprinkled throughout our day, every day. We have so many chances to quickly react, often contributing to negativity. And we also have many opportunities to return our attention to our center, using the breath as the bridge from mind to heart. Every time we consciously return to this place, we are practicing a moment of awareness—of meditation.
- Take advantage of tasks you dislike.
Perhaps you detest your daily commute. Or maybe you can’t stand cleaning the bathrooms, or doing the dinner dishes, or folding the laundry.
Pick an annoying, yet benign activity, and use it to your advantage. Instead of focusing your attention on what you’d rather be doing, or ruminating on a worry, tune in to the present moment.
This may mean turning your attention to the breath. Or it may mean turning you focus to the movement of your hands as they fold two socks together, or the sensation of the warm water as you scrub the pan. It may mean driving while feeling your feet on the floorboard of the car, your sitz bones on the seat, your hands at the wheel, your neck tall and aligned.
There is a reason that Buddhist monks are assigned menial tasks to carry out for hours every day—they provide the perfect opportunity for meditation.
- Make friends with a mantra:
The word mantra may conjure the idea of an obscure Sanskrit chant that we hear as the soundtrack to our vinyasa yoga class.
But it can also mean a simple sound, a phrase, a song, a set of words.
Choose a mantra that means something to you—even if it’s just one soothing sound, such as “mmm.” Return to this mantra periodically throughout the day, as a way to check back in to the present moment, to bring awareness to your inner experience as you navigate through your day, and to check in with intention as you continue on.
- Step out of the past and future, and into the present:
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, defines mindfulness meditation as, “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”
We can use our meditation time on the cushion to engage in this mindfulness, but we can also use small moments, sprinkled throughout the day, to bring our attention back to the present moment. Each time we draw our mind back from where it was wandering, we have an opportunity to enjoy our life, as it is, right now.
Life is lived in the present, but only if we remember to be present—over and over again.
- Find refuge in kindness:
The Dali Lama said, “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” Coming from a revered Buddhist monk who has spent many of his waking hours sitting in meditation, these simple statements speak profoundly.
Meditation can bring us so many benefits of wellbeing—overall body and mind health, and an avenue towards a spiritual path. But we can also walk the same path simply by turning our hearts towards kindness. Every time we step out of our own experience, and into that of another person’s, we are halting the autopiloted train of thought that highjacks so much of our waking consciousness. When we think or act in kindness, we have chosen the higher path. The more we make this effort, the more pathways our brain creates to redirect us to this choice over and over.
Let moments of your day be meditations of kindness—you, and others around you, will reap the fruits of this practice.
- Cultivate gratitude as a practice:
Lastly, cultivate gratitude as a meditation practice. Given measurements of our energy bodies, gratitude is one of the highest vibrational states.
Every time we remember to feel gratitude, we are tuning our body, mind, and spirit to a more unified, joyous, and healthful state of being. The Buddha said, “Our life is shaped by our mind, for we become what we think.”
Just as with every other meditation practice listed above, we point our attention towards a single focus—in this case, the rich saturation of gratitude—and return our gaze there, again and again.
Whether you choose one primary form of meditation, or play with the many alternatives, the practice remains the same: turn inward, with presence, with kindness, with intention, and with regularity. In this way, meditation becomes a living practice you can sustain, no matter what life brings your way.
Marisa Gray Atha is the owner of Three Sparrows Studio. She provides private voice instruction, using a holistic approach that empowers her students to find and free their own natural sound. With a BA and MM in Vocal Performance, BA in English, and Minor in Psychology, Marisa enjoys practicing yoga, and is currently working towards her teacher training certification. She has studied Eastern spirituality for the past eight years, and offers all manner of spiritual, musical, and wellness musings in her blog.