If I had a nickel for every person who said to me “I can’t meditate,” I’d be rich. But for the multitudes of people who have busy, focused lives yet say they cannot meditate, there is an irony to their words. If you can focus, you can meditate. Let me share with you in more detail what I mean.
I live on the Big Island of Hawaii, an island filled with fantastical scenery. In fact, it has 13 of the world’s 14 ecosystems. Where I now live, I am surrounded by black, jagged, and hot lava fields; flowing fiery, red rivers of lava just down the road from my hale (home); and a lush wet tropical jungle filled with the sounds of chirping birds and croaking coqui frogs, all of it spilling out over this new earth into the cool blue sea. Stunning is the simplest way to describe this raw environment. And challenging.
Here you’ll find the cleanest recorded air on earth, waters that are a deep inviting blue, and huge ocean waves on this southeast side of the island. The waves are so big, in fact, that some days it’s not possible to swim at all. Beauty has its price, and each day the environment of this island challenges me. It constantly brings me to a humble place, and I have learned, after several stubbed toes and close-call stumbles, to step in and out of each situation mindfully.
Perhaps this is why I find it so beautiful here—I must move slowly and mindfully over the lava-rock laden trails and paths to move from work to food to play to home. If I swim in the sea, I must be very careful getting in and out of the waters. It takes focus, and this focus has become like a moving mindfulness meditation for me.
Last weekend I had the happy chance to be able to join some new friends on my first stand-up paddleboard experience. I had ventured to the “other side” of the island, Kailua-Kona, where the ocean tends to roll more gently upon the shores and swimming is usually a lot easier. No jungles can be found on this side of the island, just lots of black lava, hot sun, and spectacular white sand beaches.
I was a bit nervous to get out on the open sea atop a paddleboard for the first time, only in that it’s easy to look foolish trying to stand on a moving floor. After getting a tutorial from Ian, the owner of the paddleboard company, our group ventured out into the sea. Fortunately, our two friends were experienced at this sport, so I just followed and mimicked what they did. Kind of like when I started my yoga practice.
We entered into the blue waters through famous Kailua-Kona Bay, the very spot of the start of the Iron Man contest that was to be held in just two weeks. I was feeling wonderfully adventurous, and I was enjoying the pristine beauty that surrounded me. As we moved out through the bay, the bustling town of Kona began to take a back seat to the sounds of the ocean lapping at my board. The fresh air whipped across my face and body with the occasional gust of wind.
These gusts caused ripples upon the ocean’s surface, and worked to throw me off my balance. In this balancing act I found myself laughing and hanging on for dear life. I found myself filled with gratitude. I was even grateful for the touch of fear in my gut as we headed out to open sea with nothing more than a paddle, a board, and our will.
In order to stay standing, this new experience had my full attention. It took focus to stay on that board as the waves came in from several directions. I’d find myself tensing up, which would cause me to tip and almost fall over, then I’d remember my practice: relax and soften, and breathe into the experience. If I focused on relaxing and feeling the waves under my body, I could reclaim my balance.
So, what does this have to do with meditation, you ask? Almost everyone can focus, right? This day, I was focused on staying up on my paddleboard. It’s just deciding on what or where you want to focus your mind’s attention. In my personal practice, I have learned that everything can be a meditation, because meditation is just a focus. I get frustrated when I hear some people say they cannot meditate, because I know they know how to focus, and their misconception of the practice of meditation seems to hold them back.
Our minds will never be completely cleared of thought until we die. Simple as that. The mind works when we are awake, when we sleep—in fact, it’s always working. In a deep state of meditation, or Samadhi, the mind is said to go into a state beyond thought. However, to the beginner, this is not really all that helpful, and the question is: How does the mind go “beyond thought” and what does this mean? I’ll leave this question up to the mystics, and try for a more practical approach.
It can be helpful to think of meditation as a simple focusing practice. Just focus on your breath. Just focus on a candle. Just focus on how a yoga posture feels, to your arms, to your legs, to your shoulder, to your mind. Just focus on how your mind is flowing—from grocery lists, to personal problems or challenges, to your feelings of hunger as you sit and meditate. This focus is mindfulness, and mindfulness is a form of meditation.
My paddleboard experience became a moving meditation for me. As I floated and reflected upon the Iron Man competition that would take this town by storm in just a couple of weeks, I was reminded of how runners are said to get in the “zone”—that place where they become acutely aware of their breathing, their heartbeat, their pace, the wind in their face, and the pain in any particular part of their body. Their mind becomes focused and one-pointed in attention.
This mindfulness can also happen at home while chopping vegetables, at work as we move through a project, and creatively as we write or paint or construct. It most certainly happens in yoga as we move through a series of postures.
So the next time you think that you cannot meditate, see if you can bring your focus to your breath. Just inhale and feel that. Hold the breath on the inhale for a moment or two and feel that. Exhale, and feel that. Hold the breath on the exhale for a moment and then feel that. See if you can focus on three or four breaths in a row. If your mind wanders, forgive yourself and just do the next breath.
Try this technique right now. Do it in your office. Do it before work if you feel frazzled and unfocused. Do it before having an important conversation with someone you care about. Do it all the time.
Remember: You can meditate. In fact, you’ve probably been doing it your whole life.