My Top 5 Tips for Building a Spirit-Nourishing Meditation Practice

Continuing my series of “Top 5” posts, I share here my best tips and most important practices for developing the energy, mindset and well-being to accomplish what we want to accomplish and live with no regrets. If you want to catch up on past posts, you can read my energy tips here,  my mindset tips here, my well-being tips here and my plant-based nourishment tips here.

I want to be clear that I do not consider myself a meditation expert. However, I am proud to have practiced meditation on a consistent, daily basis for the past year and a half. I realize that is nothing compared to many practitioners, who have meditated for decades, but it feels like an achievement to me because I believed for many years that I was incapable of meditating. I realize now that part of the reason for this was my narrow view of what constitutes meditation. Mostly, I have referred to what I am doing as a mindfulness practice, as opposed to a meditation practice. Lately, though, I have come to view mindfulness as a broader state of being, of which my daily meditation practice is a part. I feel like I have developed my own, evolving practice that serves my needs and feeds my spirit. My goal in this post is to share the most helpful strategies I have used for cultivating this practice.

  1. Approach your practice with self-compassion. The single most helpful idea I have come across regarding meditation is contained in these words by Sharon Salzberg: “Beginning again and again is the actual practice, not a problem to overcome so that one day we can come to the ‘real meditation.’” That idea is so freeing and makes so much sense. Much like what I have learned about living in the present moment, rather than waiting for my “real life” to begin at some future point, when everything is in place, Sharon Salzberg’s words encourage me to recognize the value of compassionately beginning again, when my thoughts distract me. The discipline of doing so is the practice. It validates that, as long as I continually release the thoughts when I recognize that they have highjacked my mindfulness and return to my breath, I am meditating exactly as I “should.” There is nothing to correct, and I am experiencing all the benefits of a meditation practice built on commitment and resilience.
  2. Develop a ritual. Make your meditation practice a non-negotiable part of your day. It has become as crucial to my well-being as exercise. I find that it works best for me to practice in the morning, either immediately upon waking or directly following my morning workout, if it is in my downstairs gym. My mindfulness extends to my time on the bike and, to a lesser extent, walking, but this does not replace my daily dedicated practice time. It is bonus time that is often extremely fruitful, yet my day would be incomplete without my meditation ritual. Look at your schedule, decide what works best for you and implement a ritual for getting into the right mental space. Part of my ritual involves solitude, at least mentally. I am pleased to report that I successfully maintained my daily practice while Biking Across Kansas by meditating in my sleeping bag immediately upon waking each morning. Although I was in a room full of people, I found solitude in the darkness. By establishing a clear ritual that includes a time and place, as well as a beginning routine, you will set yourself up to practice consistently.
  3. Open your mind to what meditation can look like, and allow your practice to evolve.  For a long time, I thought meditation was only sitting cross-legged on the floor and releasing all thought. I can’t remember what changed my mind and allowed me to consider a more expansive definition. My health coach training? Maybe. Whatever it was that opened my mind to crafting my own practice, I am grateful. I believe in finding what resonates with you and allowing it to evolve when your instinct leads you in a different or additional direction. My current practice looks like this: I begin with square breathing. Then, I mentally recite my Sankalpa (which I updated after reflection on my 50th birthday). I express gratitude for guidance, wisdom, direction and protection and release what no longer serves me. Affirmations and visualizations help deepen the meaning of m practice. I include a couple Kundalini yoga poses that I find calming. Depending on what I feel I need, I may include Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). I also always choose a quote for reflection before I begin and spend time simply focusing on my breath. This assortment of components really works for me. Experiment and trust your instincts to develop a practice that is uniquely yours. Be open to allowing it to evolve. This has made all the difference for me.
  4. Use a meditation app. I use Insight Timer (free version) and love it. There are others out there, as well as a premium version of Insight Timer. Find what works best for you. The functions I find most useful are the timer, ambient sound and the tracker. I set the time My life is full, and, at this point, I generally set the timer for five to 15 minutes, although I sometimes choose to continue meditating after I hear my ending tone. I like the variety of ambient sounds offered by Insight Timer and vary them day by day. Finally, I feel motivated by the “streak” I have built up on the tracking log (318 days consistently using Insight Timer). Although it is not the reason I meditate, I want to keep my streak going!
  5. Feel and express gratitude for your practice. Recognizing the benefits meditation has bestowed on me, I am deeply grateful for the freedom and dedication to meditate. I feel like a whole world has opened to me. Part of my practice reflects this gratitude. I truly look forward to my daily meditation and feel a burst of excitement in my body when I prepare to practice. I am so thankful that meditation has become part of my life. Remembering this adds depth and richness to, and enhances the benefits of, my practice.

I have been amazed at the benefits I can attribute to my consistent practice. I feel healthier than I have ever been. There are other factors contributing to my well-being, but I believe that my meditation practice has put me over the top, apparently enhancing my immunity and certainly improving my stress-management ability. I am happier and more peaceful. My gratitude for the many blessings in my life is deeper. I still have plenty of room for growth, but I have become a true believer in the power of meditation. I would love to assist you in your journey toward living with no regrets. Connect with me at sheri@justwindcoach.com. You can also click this link to schedule a complimentary coaching call. To connect with others who are interested in living as well as possible, become part of our JustWind Producers of Power & Purpose Facebook group here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1958072857557272/.

The Bike Is Where I Remember Who I Am

“My workout is my obligation to life. It’s my tranquilizer. It’s part of the way I tell the truth . . ..” –Jack LaLane

The work week and the heaviness of the world can weigh on me to the point where I feel like I don’t have the time, mental space or the emotional capacity to process my higher-level goals or work on the things that matter most to me.

The bike is where I remember who I am.

Part of this is just the gift of the ride. Out on the road—usually alone—my head clears, and space is created for inspiration and introspection. On the bike, whether for one hour or several, I can release the worries, stressors, deadlines and obligations of the rest of life. Although it is temporary, and I am under no illusions that it is otherwise, it is a true gift that has allowed me to find solutions to problems and answers to troubling questions. Often these answers may elude me when I give thought to the questions or issues off the bike. But, setting out on the road opens doors to possibilities that I have not been able to pry ajar during the rest of life.

Alone on the bike, I am free from noise and distractions, and my focus can be given to deeper thought and clearer thinking.

In an article in Scientific American, psychology professor Justin Rhodes explores some of the physiological and neurochemical reasons that exercise enhances thinking. One explanation is the increased blood flow—to the brain and elsewhere—induced by physical activity. Our hyperoxygenated brain is more effective at solving problems and thinking deeply.

Rhodes discusses the role of the hippocampus in exercise. I find this particularly interesting and plan to explore further how the hippocampus may be responsible for much of the mental and emotional benefit I experience during exercise. Memory, emotions and motivation—all factors in the heightened state I feel on the bike—are influenced by the function of the hippocampus.

There is some speculation that the evolutionary explanation for the exercise effect on brain function is that it was beneficial for our ancient ancestors to think more clearly and encode memories more deeply when exerting to fight or flee a danger. While there very well may be some truth to this, I also experience a sense of peace and happiness on the bike that feels inconsistent with a fight-or-flight response.

However, neurochemically, there is basis for this explanation. Albeit volitional and generally positive, exercise is a form of physical stress (which is why it needs to be balanced with rest and nutrition), resulting in physiological adaptations to stress. The brain releases Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), a protein that protects and repairs neurons throughout the brain and body. Endorphins, hormones which act as a natural analgesic, are produced when we exercise, both minimizing physical discomfort and elevating emotions. This produces the experience known as “runner’s high.” As internally produced opioids, endorphins help form the exercise habit and keep the movers coming back for more.

Those are some of the physical explanations for the emotional benefits of exercise.

It is even deeper than that for me, tough. I feel a strong spiritual connection to the Universe, both that which is tangible in nature and that which is intangible.

This connection goes beyond recognizing the natural beauty around me, as I ride on quiet, rural roads. I do recognize it, and it plays a part in my well-being. I also feel more open, though, to receiving guidance and wisdom from the Universe, and I have found that I can beckon the Universal guidance through a process that I have refined, but that may continue to evolve.

It used to be that ideas and solutions would simply come to me on the bike, fairly infrequently, but powerfully, when they did. As I have nurtured increased mindfulness in my life and have felt an acceleration in personal growth since doing so, I have sought the guidance of the road more consciously. By opening myself to the gifts of the Universe, I have found myself more often the beneficiary of this guidance. While I don’t claim to understand fully (or even at all) its Source, I do have a renewed belief in its existence. And, the bike is where it very often finds me. Or, I find it. I am not sure which it is. I just know that the bike is where I remember (or am reminded) who I am.

Importantly, although it is the bike for me, it might be a run or a walk (I have glimpsed it on both.) for you. Or, if you are an extrovert (I am not.), maybe it is in a group dance or exercise class. Maybe it is in a game. Wichita State University basketball player Ricky Torres was recently quoted as saying, “If there was ever a lot going on in my life, I’d go get in the gym. When I’m on the court, I feel nothing else.” (The Sunflower, Issue 21, Volume 123, November 5, 2018) I believe he is referring to the same phenomenon I encounter on the bike.

So, the first step is finding the physical activity that reminds you who you are by helping you shed the layers of stress and heaviness and worries that daily life can pile upon you. This may take some experimenting, or, if you are lucky, you already know what it is. Maybe it is not just one form of movement, but there is likely one that stands out more than others as most consistently eliciting positive physiological and psychological responses. Commit to incorporating it into your life on a regular basis.

Here is my current practice for prompting the benefit in my life:

  1. I choose a quote from my vast collection. I do it randomly, but move on to another if the one on which I land does not speak to me in the moment. I want a quote that evokes thought and invites pondering and/or serves as affirmation. I may paraphrase it to make it easier to recall or more personal. I commit it to my short-term memory for easy retrieval.
  2. Before I get on the bike, I take three “4-2-6” breaths. This means that I inhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 2 and exhale for a count of 6. While there are many beneficial breathing patterns that can be used, and that I use personally, I can’t remember where I first heard this one suggested as a pattern to use when you want to be “on.” (I also use this one before presentations or other times where my performance is important.) In general, controlled breathing patterns stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, or the relaxation response. I have not been able to find documentation about why 4-2-6 works to increase focus and is beneficial before performance. I think it may be as much the act of the ritual as anything, but it is effective for me, so I do it.
  3. I think of my quote as I center my mind.
  4. I have found the addition of an evocative question to be particularly effective at inducing great thinking and inviting inspiration on the bike. On my most recent emotionally and spiritually powerful ride, I used four questions that Rich Litvin asked some of his coaching clients: 1. What are your three biggest gifts? 2. What are your top three professional successes? 3. What holds you back the most—and always has? 4. What is the dark side of each of your gifts? Wow! What I learned about myself by asking these questions was incredible and led me to some clear conclusions about where my energy and priorities should be focused. More often, it is just one question, frequently inspired by the quote I choose as my mantra.
  5. I set an intention for my ride. This usually includes the all-important “staying safe,” but my most introspective, insightful and impactful rides are the ones where I set an intention to have questions answered, problems solved, to be open to the best the Universe has to offer or to find peace around a concern. The more specific I am, the better.
  6. Then, I ride. I usually settle into the ride for a few minutes and get out of town before recalling my mantra. I will often visualize around the mantra and may even recite it out loud.
  7. I reiterate my intention and my openness to receive.
  8. I ask myself the question or questions and ponder them.
  9. My mind opens, and I pay attention to the wisdom and guidance that comes my way. When this happens, I find myself feeling lighter, happier, more excited and stronger on the bike. I often notice that I am smiling. I may want the ride to go on and on.
  10. Eventually, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, I must return home. I have recently become more consistent about reflecting as quickly as I can—maybe just after my shower—on what I have learned on the bike. This is best done in my journal, or, occasionally, in a document on my laptop. Much like waking from a dream, I find that I am more likely to be able to remember and use the insight from the ride by capturing it as soon as possible.
  11. I decide where to take action. This is key. Without action, if the insight calls for it, I squander the wisdom the Universe has offered. I have learned to act, if only by taking a tiny first step. It is a way of appreciating what I have been given.

This blog post is one of the actions I am taking after a particularly insightful, if short and cold, ride I had last weekend. I sense that there is much more to come from what I learned on this ride. I am grateful and look forward to creating possibilities, based on my guidance on Saturday’s ride.

The bike is where I remember who I am. It is where I reclaim my power after work and daily life and stressors have eroded my belief in it and loosened my grasp of it. It is where, even more than in my daily meditation, I find myself to be the most open vessel to collect the best wisdom the Universe has to offer. It is a gift to know this about myself, and it is a gift that I want to give you—the awareness of mindful movement as a tool for growing into your Highest Good, Greatest Self and Grandest Life. I have not reached any of those yet, but I know that my bike rides propel me more quickly down the long, winding, head- and crosswind-riddled road of my journey to realizing these things in my own life. I believe the intentional pursuit of them is my responsibility, as well as my gift, even if it is painful and challenging at many junctures, not unlike some bike rides.

“Say ‘meditation’ to someone, and they usually picture someone sitting in a quiet, dark room. But you can just as easily meditate, relaxing yourself and visualizing, while your body is in motion during a Moving Meditation. It’s where the real you pops out. It’s when your true integrity, drive, passion, perseverance, tenacity, grace, and patience start to show and shine.” –Stacey Griffith