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What the Fuck is Meditation?

“Your calm mind is the ultimate weapon against your challenges. So, relax.” 

Bryant McGill

People have meditated for thousands of years.  

The practice didn’t move into most Westerners’ consciousnesses, though, until the past few decades. And only within the last several years has it become a mainstream topic, often referenced as a tool to improve your inner self. 

What the fuck is meditation, though? Does it actually work? What about on the bike? Where does mindfulness enter the picture? And how the hell can you get started?  

Read on, my dear friend, and turn your life’s radness level up to a 10. 

What Meditation is—and Isn’t 

There’s a throng of hokey-pokey, deepity bullshit surrounding meditation these days. And the idea that it takes decades of training inside a mountaintop cave to achieve ‘enlightenment.’

The reality is that meditation couldn’t be more straightforward, and it’s a real-world tool that you can harness, hone, and use to build something tangible.

The word meditate comes from the Latin term meditatum, which means ‘to ponder.’ Consequently, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines meditation as: 

  1. to engage in contemplation or reflection  
  1. to engage in mental exercise (such as concentration on one’s breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness 

The point of this contemplation, reflection, and mental exercise? To hone mindfulness: the ability to remain fully present.  

Related: What is Mindfulness?

According to Dr. Jarrod Spencer, sports psychologist and author of Mind of the Athlete, Clearer Mind and Better Performance, “Mindfulness is the ability to be more awake and aware, to be more attuned to the environment around me. I can be present with my inner dialogue, as well as the external factors around me.” 

Meditation, simply, is the physical expression of mindfulness. 

And when we’re mindful, we don’t let our brains distract us from the richness that the present moment has to offer. We’re not lost in a dream, perpetually recalling the past or fretting about the future. 

Instead, mindfulness allows us to watch our thoughts as they float along our ‘mental river’ while cultivating awareness about how they make us feel: happy, sad, tense, eager, etc.

Related: What is Suffering in Buddhism?

As Sam Harris puts it in his Waking Up Introductory Course, “The purpose of meditation is to discover what your mind is like when you’re no longer perpetually identified with the contents of your thoughts and to make progress, you simply need to be willing to begin again.”

Death is a great reminder that it’s never too late, as long as we’re willing to begin again.

How to Meditate 

There’s no ‘Right’ Way to Meditate 

There are tons of different meditation techniques, and no single option will work for everyone. It’s all about what’s most comfortable for you and which ones allow you to meditate regularly. 

Scott Forrester, founder, CEO, and author of The Aware Athlete says that “meditation comes in many forms and is done for different reasons.” There’s no single option that will work for everyone. It’s all about what’s most comfortable for you and which allows you to meditate regularly.

Scott says he specializes in the Feldenkrais Method, which acts as “a bridge between sitting meditation and real life,” and uses “self-observation and movement exploration to increase practical, real-world self-awareness.”

In my case, I like keeping it simple. I have not-so-great knees, so sitting cross-legged, even for a few minutes, is a no-go. Years ago, I used a folding meditation bench that placed my knees on the ground. Nowadays, I just grab a few pillows, position them underneath and in between my legs, and get to mindfulness-ing. 

Set, Setting, & Timing When Meditating 

Find a quiet, pleasant setting where you can spend 10 minutes free from distractions, which you can increase as you become more skilled. But keep in mind that it’s better to meditate 10 minutes at a time for five consecutive days, versus just once for 50 minutes. The key is to avoid burnout.

When meditating, time slips away quickly, so I typically keep a timer running on my phone, whether in the included app or a third-party meditation app.

Building Mindfulness Through Focus 

After taking a moment to settle into my seat, I simply watch my breath. I prefer to focus on the sensation of air entering and leaving near the tip of my nose, but I sometimes also aim my attention toward my chest as it rises and falls, or even my diaphragm.

I watch my thoughts as they float past. Monitor how they make me feel. Avoid attachment. Always focus on the cycling of my breathing. In and out. Presence. Simplicity.

With my phone nearby, I’ll frequently include soft background music or even participate in a guided meditation, while flying solo for other sessions.

Feel free to try different options until you settle into a comfortable rhythm.

The Vitality of Compassion 

You are going to suck when you start meditating. Your mind will kick and scream like that person who gets drunk at parties and picks fights with everyone.

Even during a 10-minute session, I’m frequently caught by thoughts about my past or future, worries, fears, stories told by my ego, and a million other roadblocks my mind throws up to deter me from introspection. Buddhists call this state monkey mind

Monkey Mind.

The cure? Continued mindfulness, repeated effort, and a hefty dose of compassion (often referred to as ‘loving-kindness’ within Buddhist traditions).

Related: Why is Compassion Important?  

Once you become aware that you’ve become trapped in thought, mentally smile, set it back into the current of your mental river, compassionately watch it float away, and think to yourself, “That one sure got me, didn’t it?” Rinse and repeat.

The easier alternative? Harshness. Scolding. What if someone treated you this way when you learned to ride, wobbling, and falling all over the place? How long would you have persisted? At the very least, what kinds of resentment would you have held?

Consider this: if you wouldn’t allow someone else to treat you with harshness, why would you do the same to yourself? 

Instead, the healthier, long-term plan is to maintain a soft approach and remain compassionate with your thoughts. 

Remember, meditation is a skill. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You fucking rock, and you’re progressing. 

How Does Meditation Work? 

The medical community isn’t sure exactly how meditation works. But they do understand that it increases our brainwaves’ amplitude and slows frequency so that it rests somewhere between alpha and theta states— optimal for focusing on a singular task in front of you, to the point where everything else fades away. 

Jarrod further explains that meditation can help “balance the sympathetic (go, go, go) and parasympathetic (relax, relax, relax) parts of our nervous system,” which can help improve sleep, maintain energy throughout the day, and manage stress. 

Is Meditation Effective? 

Not only is meditation simple, but it’s also potentially effective against a swath of conditions, in addition to sleep, energy, and stress.

According to a smattering of studies listed on the National Institutes of Health’s PubMed, mediation in general, and mindfulness, specifically, may offer benefits related to pain management, addiction prevention and treatment, stress reduction, and anxiety and depression, to name just a few. 

For these reasons, Jarrod quotes Sting: “Everyone should meditate an hour a day. Unless you’re really stressed,” he says. “Then, you should meditate for two hours a day.” 

Consequently, studying the relationship between mindfulness and athletics has shown that meditation could help reduce stress and injuryimprove performancefacilitate flow experiences (that’s the alpha-theta balance discussed earlier), and increase mental toughness, to name just a few. 

“One thing I’ve found especially true is that meditation helps athletes slow things down in their mind,” Jarrod explains. “When they’re out on the court, ice, or field, they’re able to process things a little bit better, and they’re also able to reserve some critical judgment. It can really do wonders.” 

What’s the Link Between Meditation and Cycling? 

Like meditation, with its repeated motions and intense focus on the present, cycling can be deceptively simple yet enormously impactful. 

When cycling, I can apply many meditation principles: remaining aware of my breathing, monitoring my thoughts and emotions, and focusing on the present moment. Fully experiencing my bike beneath me, the sounds its tires make rolling against the road, the calls of nature surrounding me. Gently bringing my attention back to the moment, the wind against my face. 

Cycling is my way of maintaining mindfulness while in motion. A type of moving meditation that I can use to carry the wisdom I earn on the bike into the real world. And vice-versa.

Wisdom behind handlebars.

Whether meditation or cycling, if you put in the time and effort, you will experience benefits in many aspects of your life.

Are There Any Good Meditation Resources?

Scott says, “there are so many online resources [available] for someone who has never meditated.” He recommends “picking a series of lessons, starting very, very slowly, and working mindfulness into your life as it fits with what you want to accomplish. Keep exploring.”

“There are some great YouTube videos and podcasts with guided imagery” available, Jarrod adds while emphasizing that mindfulness meditation can also entail “hypnosis, visualization, or even an act of prayer.”

“Meditation can take on many different forms. If you’re just starting, consider different avenues,” he recommends.

With these details in mind, I’ve listed several popular resources below, including a mix of articles and videos: 

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