7 Alternatives to Meditation- Part 1
Updated: Sep 10, 2018
Meditation is more popular in America today than it has ever been. Studies from the National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Medicine report that 18 million people are benefitting from spending several hours a week sitting quietly, releasing thoughts as they come, and learning to tolerate stillness.
A meditation practice can be a wonderful counterbalance to a high-pace, over-scheduled, over-stimulating, information-ridden, technology-ruled life. One of my first yoga teachers used to say that “once you start to meditate, you'll crave it.” Great! I thought, Finally, a craving that is good for me! For some folks, I imagine her prediction could come true. In fact, it sounded so good that, when I began to teach yoga, I would repeat that same line to my students. Yet there was always a barely detectable quiver in my voice because for me it didn't actually happen that way.
My relationship with meditation has been a rocky one. I've experienced periods of time in my life when I feel like I'm really getting it, when I'm reaping the promised benefits of the practice- feeling calmer, less reactive, more present throughout my day. During these times, I have more “good” meditations and am able to feel less attached to the “bad” ones. I am able to hold appreciation for the process and for myself. This has been true of my meditation practice and me for probably about a year in total over the past ten years since I began meditating. I have had periods of begrudgingly practicing, periods of no practice, bursts of enthusiasm followed by frustration and deflation and, more often than I'd like to admit, a sense of disconnection from myself in response to the practice.
Through listening to seasoned meditation teachers like Pema Chodron, I've learned that my experience is not at all uncommon and not, in and of itself, a reason to abandon the practice. She normalizes the reality that you can practice meditation for twenty years and still have an insanely talkative mind when you sit. Noticing this without judgment is what is important, and this is the part many of us have a really hard time with. We've learned to be highly self-critical, constantly comparing ourselves to others and to the idealized, fully actualized versions of ourselves that we think we should already be. Pema emphasizes the importance of acceptance and compassion toward oneself. According to her, this is the heart of the practice, a heart we need to learn to return to more often.
Recently, when facing the daily choice of whether or not to meditate, I've been asking myself what the most compassionate and loving choice is for me today. This is an entirely different framework from what I was operating under previously. Many teachings tell you that a daily, consistent practice is mandatory for any kind of spiritual
progress. (The concept of “spiritual progress” is itself problematic and... something for another post perhaps). Under this framework, taking a break or making different choices each day translates to lack of dedication, to self-sabotage, to weakness or even failure. There's a rigidness of mind and soul to this that doesn't really benefit us.
Spirit has been trying to teach me a lesson with this one for some time. When I was training to be a Kundalini Yoga teacher, there was an emphasis on taking on a 40, 90, 360 or 1000 day sadhana- meaning you practice the exact same set of postures and movements every day without missing a single one. You miss one day, you start back at zero, all previous effort erased. I latched onto this challenge- the feelings of mastery, self-control and accomplishment were addicting. Forty days, no problem. Ninety, well, I wouldn't say no problem, that was actually much harder but, damn, it felt
good when I got it! And there was this sense of loss when, at day 91, I was left to my own devices again, forced to figure out what to do in order to take care of myself that day. After completing my training, I decided to take on a short but strenuous set as my daily sadhana. I was determined to get to the 360-day mark, heck, maybe even 1000! The set I chose
to practice each day involved, among other things, doing push-ups while in the downward facing dog position with one leg lifted off the ground. To this day, I wonder at what point my body was giving me signals that I needed a break, that I was, in fact, doing irreparable damage to my shoulders and neck by stressing the same muscles day after day with no
opportunities for these poor muscles to rest and rebuild. How did a practice that had initially restored my connection to body and spirit somehow become a means of disconnecting from and actually harming my body? To this day, 7 years after reaching the 390-something-th day of this set and finally letting go, I still cope with daily shoulder and neck pain that sometimes flares up to the point of forcing me to stay in bed, perhaps atoning for denying my body a simple break during my year-long sadhana.
My point in sharing this story is that there is no one-size-fits-all practice or way of practicing any technique or tradition. What is healthy and growth-inducing for one person can be detrimental and habit-entrenching for another. A teacher who tries to tell you otherwise is leading you astray and projecting their need for certainty and security onto you. The dogmatic way in which many teachings are disseminated (or the dogmatic way in which we interpret and apply them) does way more harm than good and works against the cultivation of this enlightenment we are all chasing.
Recently, I've been practicing greater honesty with myself when it comes to my meditation practice. For several months I was forcing myself to sit for 20 minutes every morning without really believing it was doing me any good. In fact, the dissonance between my meditator-identity and my lived experience was evoking old feelings of pretending and hiding that I've dedicated my life to moving away from. So I began asking myself what I really wanted from this practice.
What do I want feel/experience/learn through meditation?
1. I want to increase my tolerance for uncomfortable emotions. I want to reduce the frequency with which I distract, numb or otherwise avoid unpleasant feelings.
2. I want to become more aware of how I'm feeling and where the feelings are coming from.
3. I want to feel more patience and compassion with myself- with my feelings, my short-comings, all of my beautiful imperfections.
4. I want to cultivate present-moment awareness- to strengthen my ability to release thoughts of the past or the future and focus on the here and now.
5. I want to serve others and be an agent of healing and justice in the world.
6. I want to feel a greater connection to Spirit, to the field of consciousness of which we are all a part, and to feel more connected with ancestors, spirit guides and beloved departed ones.
7. I want to connect to my creativity, to feel it coursing through my blood and working magic through me each day.
How about you? What is on your list? I found that actually writing this out helped me not only clarify what I wanted to get out of my practice, but also the fact that I wasn't getting any of it with my
current strategy of enforced sitting meditation. So I did something really radical. I gave myself permission to DO OTHER THINGS in place of meditation that would provide me with the experiences, feelings and growth opportunities I was seeking. Here is my list of alternatives to meditation that support me in feeling more centered in the present moment, more compassionate with myself and others and more connected to Spirit.
1. Intuitive or non-directed movement aka "spontaneous yoga"
2. Free-style journaling
3. Being in nature- including walking meditation
4. Intentional Brainwashing aka listening to dharma talks, inspirational speakers, spiritual teachers, etc.
5. Prayer and Ritual, particularly the individually or co-created variety
6. Creative exploration aka "playtime" (art, music, writing, dancing, inventing, etc.)
7. Engaging in Conflict (this one is juicy... keep reading)
And, I have to add one more because, for me, it is too important not to name...
8. Going to therapy
This is a short list that I expand upon in Part 2, so if you have questions about the practices I name, please read on.