There is never a bad time to meditate. But I believe the moment we are in, that unprecedented moment of separation and suffering, is uniquely ripe to sit down and practice being present with what is (the core of mindfulness meditation). In fact, I would argue that if you have ever thought about starting a meditation practice one day, this is the perfect time.
Consider our current situation: We are individually and collectively full of uncertainty, stress, loneliness, fear, grief, fear, depression, anger, insecurity, restlessness, frustration, hopelessness. Being human in the moment means having the urge to escape from the present moment through various forms of denial, numb, and distraction. These are solid coping mechanisms when used in conjunction with other mental health strategies. But if they’re all you rely on, you may find that the pain and discomfort lingers in the background – once the distraction goes away, you still feel bad.
Meanwhile, those of us who are socially distancing ourselves and seeking protection are forced to spend unprecedented time in isolation with the one character we can never seem to get a goddamn social distance from: our thoughts. And the most important people on the front lines who cannot create social distance – they need to maintain enough clarity and emotional well-being to get their job done while putting their health at risk.
Mindfulness meditation (also called insight or vipassana meditation) doesn’t make any of these deeply uncomfortable feelings go away, either, just to make this clear. The goal of the exercise is not to get rid of or alter anything in your experience. But what it does is cultivate your ability to be with what arises in other ways, to witness it without doing what we usually do: judge it, push it away, hate it, and war to lead against it or to buy it, lose yourself in it, tell stories about it, immerse yourself in it. These mental habits are so ingrained and automatic that we don’t even notice how we put unnecessary suffering on top of inevitable pain. Doing differently is not the mind’s natural tendency, so it takes practice.
However, to start meditating can be confusing and overwhelming and frustrating. You are never quite sure if you are doing it right or why you are doing what you are doing. That was certainly the case for me when I started meditating a few years ago after writing a SELF piece on the profound benefits of the practice for both physical and mental health. You will get restless and bored and tired and most of all distracted – you will keep being completely lost in thought and completely forgetting that you should actually meditate.
This is where guided meditations come into play. When you have a wonderful teacher who teaches you WTF what to do and leads you back to the present time and time in a gentle and compassionate way (usually with the breath as an anchor), time and time again is critical. In my opinion, through insightful conversations and dialogues with teachers, you will learn the logic behind these practices and the ups and downs that you are likely to encounter. Guided meditations and conversations have helped establish and deepen my own practice in recent years, along with some books and silent meditation retreats.
Fortunately, thanks to the ubiquity of meditation apps and online resources, our access to teachers and resources who can help us build a practice has never been better. It is no exaggeration to say that access to the words and wisdom of some of the best meditation teachers in the world is in the palm of your hand. Note that most of the teachers in these apps – mostly Westerners, mostly whites – naturally had their own teachers. They are broadly beneficiaries of the widespread spread of Buddhist teachings westward, such as meditation, which were freely given to them in the mid-late 20th century by teachers from various Buddhist traditions in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Tibet and Myanmar. Decades later, we can learn these meditation practices (or westernized and secularized versions of them) from teachers who represent a variety of trainings, approaches, and styles – all from one device that fits in our pockets.