Learning to Love Silence: Life-Changing Meditation

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Greatist Journeys explore amazing stories from extraordinary people. This guest post was written by Rachel Stroud, founder of Alive in the Fire. The views and opinions expressed herein are hers.

Photo by Cara Brostrom

I haven’t spoken in over an hour. Part of me wants to make noise just to hear the sound of my own voice.

Why did I sign up for this silent retreat?

The question runs through my head every now and then. I look around at the group: 15 yogis in a quiet room with hardwood floors, wandering around barefoot or in socks, avoiding eye contact with each other. I watch a woman write in her diary. I feel restless, tired, curious.

The instructor rings a large brass bell, signaling that it’s time to begin seated meditation again. I make my way to my mat, folding into half-lotus pose on my meditation cushion. As I stack my spine one vertebra on top of the other, I feel the ache in my lower back. This is our third round of sitting for the day and I’m not used to being cross-legged for 30-minute periods.

“Let gravity hold you,” the teacher says, taking his own lotus pose. The floor feels hard. The air around me, calm.

I begin to listen to his voice, forgetting about what responsibilities I have after class — what chores I’ve left unfinished at my apartment, my plans for the week. I am here in the room, present in the moment.

By the end of this silent retreat, I’ve spent eight hours in quiet meditation.

Photo by Cara Brostrom

For me, the retreat was a welcome chance to take a break from the hurried pace of normal life and dedicate some time toward self-reflection and physical renewal.

Meditation allows you space to process what’s going on in your life. It gives you a chance to reflect on changes you want to make, and to turn them into reality. In my case, the retreat was a way to re-dedicate myself to my yoga practice, learn patience, and explore new meditation methods, like eating slowly and doing walking meditation.

Meditation has helped me learn to quiet my mind during stressful situations. I have overcome anxiety and fear through repetition of mantra. I am calmer around others because I’ve practiced reminding myself, “It’s OK. As long as I breathe, I can get through this.”

Medically and scientifically speaking, meditation can help you de-stress, find balance, and calm your muscular and nervous systems. Personally, the more I practice yoga and meditate, the more I have been able to overcome anxiety and panic attacks.

I didn’t start by taking on a full day of meditation, though. As a beginner, I found myself feeling impatient and uncomfortable every time I tried to sit. My mind would race with questions: Am I doing this right? Should I spend my time doing something more productive? Occasionally I’d open my eyes, looking around the room, distracted. Or I’d find myself nodding off, too tired to focus on my breath.

I recommend starting small: five minutes a day for a week. Work your way up to longer periods of sitting so that you don’t burn out and get frustrated.

When I first started meditating a year ago, I could only sit for 10-minute periods, mostly because my feet would fall asleep. I’d need to shuffle my seat, rearrange my legs, or wiggle my toes to avoid the feeling of pins and needles. (In case you’re wondering, this is normal. Some teachers recommend trying a bolster cushion or small bench if you experience numbness or tingling in the extremities during meditation.)

Gradually, I worked my way up to half an hour and would often go to a 20-minute group meditation at a local yoga studio. I find being surrounded by other people inspires me to relax through longer meditations.  Now I meditate at least three times a week — sometimes sitting quietly in lotus pose and focusing on my breath, sometimes chanting and singing a mantra as I walk down the street, and sometimes listening to spiritual music and writing in my journal.

If you’re a beginner, here’s what I recommend:

  • If you work at a desk job or a busy schedule, start by visiting this website when you’re at the computer. It’s amazing how challenging it is to do nothing for two minutes, especially when you’re at the screen.
  • Check out some incredible YouTube videos on meditation. I highly recommend David Beaudry’s qigong work and his Pillar of Light video. Julie Rader’s work with yoga nidra is another of my absolute favorite meditations. I find it’s great for calming the mind before sleep.
  • Commit to something. Progress comes from constant practice, so assess where you are and what you can realistically add to your schedule at this time. Then get friends to help encourage you along the way!
  • Take breath breaks throughout your day. Five minutes of pranayama in the bathroom does wonders if you’re in a grumpy or tired mood.
  • Read Zen Habits, MindBodyGreen, or Daily Om. All of these sites have beautiful and practical advice on how to incorporate meditative mindfulness into all areas of life.

Do you practice meditation and, if so, what challenges have you faced? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author @AliveintheFire.

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