As I’ve cultivated my meditation practice I’ve discovered some fun little exercises that I wanted to share. Some may be obvious to seasoned meditators, but hopefully they’ll inspire at least a few of you to try something new or go outside your comfort zone.
Separate Yourself from Gaia
My favorite one comes from a melding of lessons from the book Breath, by James Nestor, and an insight by an ecologist, friend, and fellow Gaian, Dan Fiscus. As Nestor describes, holding your breath has significant value: in strengthening your lung capacity and in reducing panic (both getting you mentally used to less air but also rebalancing your O2/CO2 levels). In a Gaian discussion this spring, Fiscus noted that “I am completely unified with Gaia. If I want to test the myth that I’m separate, all I have to do is hold my breath. And I get 4 minutes.” That is the perfect scientific and spiritual reality to consider while doing breath-holding exercises! Perhaps you’ll last a minute, maybe even two (or if you’re a trained freediver, even 12), but then you’ll need to draw in the air of Gaia to survive. Try doing this exercise five or ten times* each time repeating the mantra: “I am separate from Gaia” over and over while holding your breath. You can try to wish it true, but as you inhale you’ll realize it never can and never will.
Rain (or Snow) Meditation
Over the winter, I enjoyed meditating in the snow and freezing rain several times. The soft melty cold and the sharp intense stabs of cold tickled or shocked my cheeks and made me smile involuntarily. I didn’t last long—I was quickly drenched—but it was definitely a joyful experience. Normally, we try to avoid the elements, either by staying inside, or protecting ourselves with an umbrella or rain gear. Do you ever stop and appreciate the refreshing drops of water falling from the sky and landing on your face and arms (other than when you were a kid)? It’s a really nice experience when you’re not worried about having to remain in wet clothes and can just enjoy the rain and snow.
Let Your Worries Float Away
During the winter, I also sat in the snow several times at our weekly forest meditations, right next to a babbling brook. I couldn’t help but think of the metaphor that Andy Puddicombe shared in the Headspace Guide to Meditation documentary series about imagining thoughts like cars driving by on a busy road. Don’t follow them, don’t chase after them, just let them appear in your mind and let them go by. After I saw that I shifted that metaphor to sticks or leaves floating by in a river—it felt more calming than loud rumbling trucks and zooming cars.
Then while sitting in the snow one afternoon, I packed up a snowball’s worth of snow, imbued it with a specific worry, and threw it into the stream, letting go of that worry—symbolized not just by releasing it into the water but by not following its path down the river. Once it was out of my field of vision it was gone. And knowing it was snow that would soon melt made this feel even more right. But of course, if you don’t have snow then you can use a stick.
Note, you can also do this on a clear and breezy day. Look up into the sky (something we don’t do often enough). If there are some fast moving clouds, let them float by your line of sight and consciousness. It’s a nice summer version of this meditation.
That brings us to another exercise. I recommend simply looking up at the sky for a moment before you start every meditation. First, it stretches out your neck, which counters the ‘always looking down’ position that computers and smartphones have brought about. But also: how often do we stop and appreciate the immensity, the beauty, and the sheer variety of the atmosphere? It’s blue, it’s clear, it’s gray, it’s cloudy (with 10,000 variations of that), it’s dark, it’s starry, it’s moonlit. The sky—which is also part of the living Earth—in all its splendid diversity, is worth greeting/embracing/considering/respecting for a moment each time you start your practice.
Finally, I listened to Robert Wright discussing Why Buddhism is True on NPR some time back. His point: meditation and mindfulness help to short-circuit natural selection: the constant desire for more food, more sexual partners (or reproductive success), more power, as well as the desire to avoid discomfort, danger, and so on. Mindfulness practices allow us to grapple with our instincts, deconstruct them, and take away their power. To an extent.
There’s one story he tells where at a mindfulness retreat he wanted to see if intense mindfulness could numb the pain of an abscessed tooth (which was extremely painful every time it was exposed to liquid). So after 30-minutes meditating, he ‘bathed the tooth in water.’ He still could feel it, but there were moments where he could also detach from it and observe the pain external to himself.
So, no need to cause yourself real pain but on your next outdoor meditation, if it is winter, underdress. The pain of the cold wind will tell your body: go inside, I’m cold, I’m in pain! But, acknowledge that your warm home is right there and there is no threat to your body. Analyze and then let go of the pain and keep meditating. (I first practiced that accidentally as the temperature dropped dramatically from one early March day to the next and I didn’t want to disturb my sleeping wife to get some extra layers.)
Live in a hot climate? Perhaps try overdressing to a ridiculous degree. Montaigne once said that thinking about death is like wearing a fur coat in the summer just because we’ll need it at Christmas. He meant it was unnecessary and uncomfortable. But I’d argue that through that discomfort, we can prepare ourselves—and suffer far less discomfort when we really need that funerary coat.
I hope you’ll give some of these a try, and if you do, let me know how they go in a comment below!
*A few tips on this exercise (from page 222 of Breath): first inhale, then exhale normally (don’t try to get all air out of your lungs). And then hold your breath until you feel a “potent desire to breathe” making sure you don’t take a panic/labored inhalation but a controlled inhalation. He suggests pinching your nose closed, though I think that is unnecessary. Take a few regular breaths and then repeat. Note: never do these exercises where you can injure yourself if you get dizzy (walking in dangerous places, driving, etc.).