Recently, I had the profound gift of sitting side-by-side to meditate with a companion for her first time. Meditation spots are not usually so idyllic, but in this case we happened to be on an Australian beach at sunrise. So the conditions were favorable for her to take on a challenge a colleague had offered: “Can you sit down and do nothing for 15 minutes before this month is over?” I was grateful to be in the right place at the right time to support this invitation. When she asked, “How do I do this?” we made a date for the next morning.
That evening, I thought about what to say to a first-timer about meditation, keeping in mind a core guiding question How simple can it be? The next morning, as we made the 2-minute walk down to the beach, I offered these guidelines:
Sit in an upright, comfortable position that allows your head, heart, and belly to be aligned. Your eyes can be open or closed. Let them open and close as you wish throughout the practice. Follow your breath, in and down. Become aware of the loop of your breath, the pause at the top of the inhalation and at the bottom of the exhalation. If thoughts start to take over, count your breaths from 1-10, 1 for the inhale, 2 for the exhale...and start over when you get to 10. A bell will ring midway and at the end.
It was helpful for me to reground in the simplicity of meditation. I realized that through all the practice, experimentation, and learning, I have found what works for me...and I saw how the brief guidelines eased my friend’s entry. We didn’t say anything else before or after the 15 minutes. But there was plenty spoken within and between us as we sat near one another, facing the waves.
• • •
Besides appreciating the simplicity of the how through this experience, I was also reminded of the why: meditation is a practice in pausing, with the goal of perfecting our love. A beloved teacher of mine, Jack Kornfield, says:
“The point in spiritual practice isn’t to become a perfect person, to perfect your personality or your body or those kinds of things...but really to perfect your love—which is the love of this mysterious incarnation with its 10,000 joys and its 10,000 sorrows.”
No matter how many times I hear his quote, it moves me, even shocks me a little, because I find I have to continually remind myself of this point. Every single day, I have opportunities to perfect my love:
When I feel judgement rise like a bird from the grass
When I distance myself from another person or from awareness
When I talk more than I listen
When I criticize myself harshly
When I forget to feel
I believe the power of a pausing practice is less about the minutes we spend in that state, and more about its influence on the other 23+ hours of the day; it builds the muscle of being able to pause in other instances. And it is within the pause that we heighten our awareness and become intentional rather than habitual about our actions and reactions. On days when I meditate (and because of this practice over time), I know I am more able to listen, connect, feel, and behold with curiosity rather than judge.
Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, captured the gist in his famous line:
“Between stimulus and response is our greatest power—the freedom to choose.”
(Fascinating side note: Covey was summarizing a key insight of Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl in his classic text Man’s Search for Meaning when he wrote this line.)
So, whether your practice is meditation, prayer, a few deep breaths, time in nature, or making something beautiful—remember that one of its gifts is that it gives you the power to pause and perfect your love for yourself, others, and the world…over and over again.