Some aspects of healthy living just get easier with time. Meal prepping on Sundays, waking up early to exercise, avoiding single-use plastic—I’ve found it can all become second nature with enough practice and repetition.
I’ve always been daunted by one part of wellness, though, no matter how often I try to whittle away at it: meditation.
The benefits of the practice are what kept me in hot pursuit of it. Nearly every night for the past year or so, you could find me in my bed militantly repeating a mantra in an effort to quell anxiety, increase compassion, and refine my focus. And every night, after a few minutes of futile attempts to reel in my mind, I inevitably opened my eyes frustrated.
The point of meditating before bed was to let go of negative thoughts and worries from the day, but sometimes it left me even more stressed. I had the sneaking suspicion that I was somehow doing it “wrong.” I expected to start craving these nightly meditations after a while, but closing my eyes and coming back to the breath just remained another task on my to-do list.
The meditation technique that changed my relationship to the practice.
A few weeks ago, in the thick of my mindfulness rut, I journeyed to Costa Rica for a week of doing nothing but yoga, breathwork, and—you guessed it—meditation.
Expecting to meet the same kind of resistance in the jungle that I did in my Manhattan apartment, I figured I could just pretend to meditate during longer sits. (Nothing I hadn’t done before!) But on day two, a strange thing happened: Our leaders Erica Matluck, N.D., FNP, and Paul Kuhn, who put on healing retreats focused on the seven chakrascalled Seven Senses, told the group to essentially forget everything we knew about meditation.
For that day, which was spent in silence (no talking, no eye contact, no writing, no reading—no looking outside of yourself as a distraction), we were to leave our mantras and body scans at the door. These, too, Matluck, a naturopath and seasoned integrative medicine practitioner, explained, could be a way to turn the attention away from the self.
Instead, we were told to breathe normally and simply notice the physical sensation underneath the nostril, above the upper lip. That was it. The only directive.
Just like that, we were off. With nothing but a curtain of palm trees as a distraction, I was fully prepared to become restless and frustrated after a few minutes. But 10 minutes passed, and I was still content sitting with that feeling under my nose. Then 20, then 30. We were invited to stay for another 30-minute sit. And, much to my own surprise, I did.
It felt so much more gentle, so much less rigid, than what I thought meditation was supposed to be.
Instead of forcing my breath to be rhythmic, I allowed it to do whatever it wanted. Instead of clutching onto a mantra (and cursing myself when it escaped from my grip), I politely paid attention to the super-subtle sensations on that one area. It felt so much more gentle, so much less rigid, than what I thought meditation was supposed to be. It wasn’t a task but a delight—to catch my thoughts wandering and then happily return them to the moment at hand.
It’s the first time that I didn’t want a meditation to end.
Afterward, Kuhn, a sound healer, told us that this study in sensation was a reminder that physical feelings—like thoughts—are fleeting.
This lesson from Matluck and Kuhn, one of what felt like hundreds I picked up that week, really brought home the idea that thoughts don’t need to carry so much weight and power. Instead, we can choose to let them pass over us like a tickle on the skin.
How I’m keeping up with it.
Thousands of miles removed from the Pura Vida life, I’m still trying to keep up with this breath awareness. Since my trip, my nightly meditation routine has become less of a chore and more of a respite after long days.
I’m reminded of what mbg Collective member and class instructor Light Watkins said when he talked about making the breath an anchor. By tuning into the physical feeling of the breath, it has become easier for me to sit with. Some nights, if I’m lucky, I’m transported back to that special place where all there was to think about was the rustling of the jungle and the sensation of being alive. And what a meditative space that is to be.