While all meditations are, ultimately, tools for reaching liberation, they aren’t equivalent. Some meditations are energizing, some grounding, some clarifying, others supportive. Just like you wouldn’t drink a pot of coffee to help you sleep, performing a complicated deity visualization right before bed can leave your eyes wide open.
Furthermore, while the effects we desire and our circumstances are continually changing, we all have different constitutions so the same things affect each of us differently. Spiritual growth and the relief of our own suffering go hand in hand, so it’s beneficial to have a practice that is compatible with your ways of being (your constitution) and the conditions of your life as it is right now.
Not all Depression or Anxiety are Created Equal
Western medicine tends to classify depression and anxiety as two different things. Ayurveda, on the other hand, observes that there are many manifestations of depression, some of which are caused by excess vata. In the context of the modern world, most of our lives have excess vata: too much movement, too many things to do.
The result of such a lifestyle can leave you feeling cold and solid and inert, or it can make you feel airy, empty, and with chronic internal movement. One person might involuntarily fixate on a single idea while another might feel unable to focus on any idea. Identifying the cause of an imbalance helps us apply to proper remedy. An Ayurvedic doctor can likely help.
Meditation as Medicine
When used a path to balance within ourselves and with our environments, our meditation practice can help us to address the forms of suffering we face in our lives. Here are three practices that help resolve common imbalances:
1. The Joy of Complete Rest: Yoga Nidra
(For insomnia, anxiety, overwork, depletion, creativity recharge)
Culturally, we have a habit of mislabeling distraction as relaxation. Watching television or browsing social media might take our minds off of something, but they don’t offer any rest.
A state of relaxation is prerequisite to all meditation. The rub is that relaxation – real relaxation – is a skill, something we have to proactively do. It doesn’t just happen when we come home from work or put the kids to bed.
Luckily, there is a perfect teacher of relaxation: yoga nidra. Yoga nidra is performed reclined. Lying comfortably and supported, we allow the body to relax completely and learn how to direct our awareness.
Much of our suffering, both during our waking hours and those we’re trying to sleep, comes from our awareness rampaging around, completely outside of our control. Yoga nidra enables us to tame our awareness, making it an ally, through tools like sensations, concentration and visualization.
The practice of yoga nidra provides deep rest, restoration, and revitalization beyond what most of us experience during sleep.
You can begin by listening to a recording, such as mine, on Insight Timer, Yoga Nidra -- Rotation of Consciousness.
2. One Thing at a Time: Mindfulness
(For overwhelm, pain management, burnout, acute emotion stress, existential suffering)
For a person whose mind is racing around like a hamster on a sugar high, the idea of sitting in silence and thinking of nothing often seems impossible. If that person isn’t an experienced meditator, he’s probably right.
Mindfulness meditation engages fully with perceptions and movement rather than withdrawing from the senses. We can do it at any time with any tools. Wherever we are and whatever we are experiencing, we can turn our attention to the one thing we are doing right now. Doing so helps us to learn that our experience is constantly shifting. Though our minds lock onto descriptions, our internal experience varies even from breath to breath.
A person can even use the breath as a tool to process experience. For example, a person experiencing fear might say to herself: "Breathing in, I acknowledge feeling fear. Breathing out, I feel my feet solid on the ground. Breathing in, I notice tension at the center of my chest. Breathing out, I release my shoulders."
Noticing what we are feeling right now with each breath, and how it changes with each breath, can help us avoid getting stuck.
Many people with anxiety find they are better able to focus on movement than in stillness. In walking meditation, each step is different and our surroundings, such as where we are in a room, are changing, allowing us to focus on each footfall. Which part of our foot touches the ground first? What do we feel? Slow repetitive movements of other types can be useful, also, for grounding our experience in the one moment we are living.
Some daily activities lend themselves to learning how to do them mindfully. When doing the dishes, we can immerse our awareness in the act of cleansing with warm water, feeling the sensation change from one moment to the next. When eating, we can be aware of the color, aroma, texture, temperature and flavor of each bite. For practice, you might try a fruit or other food that is new to you, giving it as much attention as you can. (Learn more in 8 In-the-Moment Techniques to Cultivate Your Mindfulness Practice.)
3. Developing a Mind Like a Laser: Mantra Meditation
(For anxiousness, stupor, depression, dispelling negative or destructive habits)
When our minds are playing hopscotch, it’s hard to have a quality experience of meditation or anything else. Mantra meditation engages the senses to train concentration, without which we can’t effectively meditate. Mantra meditation is also, in itself, a potent form of meditation.
Mantra meditation soothes anxiousness and can be uplifting. The sound vibrations we create in mantra meditation disrupts negative patterns in the mind and even those embedded more deeply in the causal body. It offers us a chance to reset and start fresh, as many times as we need, bringing our habitual state ever closer to the fresh, purified awareness we experience during and after the practice.
To perform mantra meditation audibly, we take a deep inhale and then use a long, sustained exhale to repeatedly form the same sound or series of sounds. Long exhales are known to activate the parasympathetic nervous system – the part that helps us to rest and digest, that soothes distress and discomfort.
The sound waves of different mantras have different effects on us, not all of which are suitable to all people. Unless you get one from your teacher, it is best to practice one of the mighty, universally healing mantras.
Two of the holiest mantras, safe for practice by all, are the great sacred syllable Om and the potent prayer that 'all beings be relieved of suffering', Om Mani Padme Hum. (Learn more in The Meaning of Om Mani Padme Hum.) In your most comfortable seated posture, give your attention completely to repeating the mantra. Try for at least five minutes. Then sit quietly, noticing what you feel.
If you find that you are struggling with your meditation practice, it could be that the particular practice isn’t the right one for you right now. Rather than throw in the towel, reconsider your practice in light of the suggestions above. Could you adjust your practice to be more in line with your needs right now?