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Wellness Pioneer Anna Bjurstam talked with author and meditation teacher, Jeff Warren, on the basic “medicines” that we cultivate when we sit still.
(lightly edited for clarity)
Anna: How did you get started meditating?
Jeff: Meditation was for my survival. I have a very active mind and working as a journalist, I was very much in my head. I had a hard time controlling where my mind was going. My thoughts were dysregulating and made me anxious. I got interested academically in consciousness first. I was curious about how it worked but underneath that was my unconscious interest to figure out what was my medicine. How could I regulate my mind body? First, I started reading about meditation and then I got into the practice. It’s a classic conversion experience. At first, I was a skeptic and then when it started to help me, I got very passionate about spreading the word. I’m not trying to get people to meditate but I’m more about understanding the skills underlying a meditation practice and how to have those skills in everyday life.
Anna: We all have a monkey brain and a lot of people say, it’s not for me, I can’t do it. Is it for everyone?
Jeff: Practice is for everyone. Everyone has a practice that can help regulate them and can act as medicine inside their nervous system. It’s for you to figure out what that is. A seated, silent meditation practice is not for everyone but the genius of seated meditation and stillness is that if you pay attention to what is happening, you can see what the skills are that are helping and then you can unbundle those skills and apply them to your fishing or running or whatever it is that you do. But there is something beautiful about sitting in stillness.
Anna: When I tried to learn how to meditate, I failed terribly. Then, I enrolled in a 10-day vipassana retreat which was like a meditation concentration camp and that was the only thing that would work for me. Before then, I couldn’t sit still. Since then, I’ve meditated in a variety of ways. Is that a good way to start?
Jeff: A retreat is an extreme way. There is a more natural and simple way. I’ll guide you in a three-minute practice to show you how simple it is.
Jeff: Even before we begin, the fundamental skill of this practice is to be ok with your existence, with what it feels like to be a human being right now in your body. The first thing I do is find equanimity or peace, which means I’m not going to get uptight about sounds around me or uncomfortable sensations. You start and say, this is what it feels like to be a human being. That’s how you start meditating. Calibrating to your life and what’s here. Some people meditate like that and let themselves experience what happens. Some people want structure and focus on the feeling of the breath or the warmth of their hands. What you’re doing is giving yourself a home base to settle into, something to do with your mind. Sinking into the sensory experience. When you have a thought and get distracted, just come back to yourself. Don’t make it into a big thing. It’s a time out. A time out of the doing, to check into a simple, ungarnished state of being, a baseline. Then if you really want to get advanced, you can enjoy it. Think to yourself, I like having a body, the creaturely comfort of it. Appreciate the opportunity to take a break knowing you’ll get back onto the hamster wheel soon enough. When you’re ready, open your eyes. That’s meditation. Not very exotic but it will do the trick.
Anna: I love the way you started it, focusing on being a human being. There are so many styles of meditation. Which one is best?
Jeff: I do a seated practice where I get out of my crazy and just notice my body’s being-ness and that can be a nice reset. I do a lot of practice, though. I’m continually noticing when I’m fixated and I let go of that and that’s a mindfulness-in-action practice, and that’s so helpful. I have an exercise practice where I run and workout. I have a lot of energy so it depends on where I’m at and what I need in that moment.
Jeff: No matter what style of meditation, though, it offers five basic medicines.
You need to practice these skills somewhere in your life but often, there’s nowhere to do it. Meditation gives you a simple and free way to get there. Knowing and tasting these medicines make a huge difference and then you can make your practice out of the material of your life. Meditation skills or medicines transfer so you don’t only have it on the cushion but when you’re with your child or friend or when you’re doing your work.
Anna: I love that you call it medicine. In these times we’re worrying a lot about the future and the unknown and that can eat you up from the inside. It’s hard to get out of the rat race of those thoughts.
Jeff: That’s the practice. You work to get connected to your center and then some intensity will arise that takes you out of that moment and there are a lot of intensities right now. And that just speaks to how much more important it is. You’re not checking out. You’re checking in so when you return to the challenges in life, you have more resources to deal with that difficulty. Just like your life has ups and downs, culture goes through those same ups and downs and it brings you with it. We’re in a big one right now so find a community, know you’re not going to be centered all the time and accept being human.
Anna: What are misconceptions about meditation?
Jeff: There are so many myths. One is that meditation is the height of passivity, it’s disengaging from the world. That’s the biggest misunderstanding. The single bravest thing you can do is sit and face your life as opposed to just acting on every impulse. You need the centered stillness to lead a life of effective action so understanding the role meditation plays in the life of being a doer is important. Another myth is that I can’t do this, I have to stop my thoughts, which is very hard to do but once you realize you don’t have to stop your thoughts, you just have to be aware of them, it becomes more accessible. Also, people believe they have to do it “right” with a specific practice. Because there’s so much variety, people get spun out trying to find the “right” practice. Just sit, relax for 10 minutes and see how that affects you. Don’t make it a big thing.
Anna: I like doing Metta or loving-kindness meditation.
Jeff: Loving-kindness meditation is great to start with. When I started meditating, I needed self-compassion. I was so hard on myself at the beginning. So start with just noticing when you’re having a hard time and then don’t get worked up about it. Take that moment and check in with yourself and that’s huge and what we all need. And that’s the basis of how you give compassion to others. If you can’t give compassion to yourself, when others get close to you, you act in the same mean way you treat yourself. The more you are compassionate to yourself, the more you can be compassionate to others and the world needs compassionate people right now.
Anna: My last question is what five things do you do to keep healthy – except meditation since you’ve already said that?
Jeff: Exercise is number one. Hanging out with my friends, even at a distance, and telling jokes. My wife and I do a practice called Focusing every few weeks where we describe what’s happening in our bodies and emotions in a way that’s blameless. When we do it, we calibrate to each other. It’s very healing and sanity building for our relationship. I play with my one year old too. And nature, being in the sun and nature keeps me healthy.
Jeff Warren makes meditation and practice accessible to diverse audiences in order to help people live more sane lives. He has taught meditation to US Army cadets, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Arizona cops, Google executives, distractible teens, suspicious journalists, burned-out caregivers, formerly-incarcerated youth, and every other conceivable demographic of freethinker, including squirmy six-year-old kids. He is also the co-author, with Dan Harris, of the book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics.