About 7 months ago, I was part of a training session for teachers, and part of that session was learning to meditate. We were taught five exercises in total, and it was our teacher’s hope that we would do at least one of the exercises each day. They were all really good exercises, and I could feel their effects, but the school year started and suddenly, I got so busy I couldn’t even find space to really think.
Moving On. Here are the exercises.
1. Gratitude Exercise
This exercise can be done anytime of the day, but from my experience, it really helps if you do it in the morning, right before a cup of coffee or tea. It takes about, 1 minute where you try to concentrate on your breathing, and then 5 minutes where you just think of either a place, person, event, etc., which you feel gratitude for. For example, it can be your dad, a sunrise or staying warm in a non-leaky tent while it’s raining outside, etc. All these things count.
Prep Time: 1 Min
Duration: 5 Mins
Shortcut: There’s this shorter version called the Heart Warm-Up. It’s a 2 Min exercise for anytime in the day where your need a pick-me-up. You take a minute to concentrate, and then another minute to think of the things you feel gratitude for. This works too, but it’s a bit speedy and I always feel like I need longer to really get into the nitty-gritty parts of my gratitude.
Prep Time: 1 Min
Duration: 1 Min
Purpose: This exercise was described by my instructor as a mental vitamin. By just thinking positively, all these good hormones and chemicals in your body react to produce a healthier outlook for the day. I haven’t checked the science for this, but, I’ve done it, and for days where I feel particularly unprepared, it has helped me to carry through and teach better.
2. Thinking Exercise
This exercise is quite interesting. You find a simple, uncomplicated, man-made object, like a paperclip, or a pen. And then, you spend 1 minute looking at it, smelling it, feeling it, really trying to imprint it into your memory. And then after the minute is up, you close your eyes, and for 5 minutes, recreate it in your mind in perfect detail. After you’ve recreated it, you can then think beyond the appearance of it, such as exploring thoughts on its purpose, what is it made of, where did it come from, etc.
Prep Time: 1 Min (looking at your object)
Duration: 5 Mins
Purpose: Our minds can be like flitting butterflies, going from one flower to the next. If we don’t concentrate, we can find ourselves on these mental pathways that we had no plans of ever pursuing. It’s like that one professor in college that was supposed to talk about the political situation in Africa, starts talking about his vacation trip to Africa, and in the end, discusses everything but the political situation in Africa. I don’t know if this has happened to you, but this has happened to me plenty of times. I start conversations on one thing, and then five topics later, I don’t know what started it all.
In the end, this exercise is to help us take control of that. By concentrating on one object, you end up exercising your mental muscles on “focusing”. This may seem pretty simple, but it’s not. Before doing this exercise, I never knew how much of a flibbertygibbet my brain was. If you do this, the process would be, you notice your mind wander, you catch yourself in action, and then you go back to what you were doing, which is “sticking to a focused mental path”.
3. Will Exercise
This one’s the shortest and the simplest. First, think of an innocuous action, such as straightening your tie, unbuttoning and then buttoning a cuff on your shirt, or putting your eyeglasses of and on. Second, think of a time in the day, such as 6:05 AM, or 5:00 PM, and then when the minute hand hits the mark, do your action. This seems simple right? It can be, but it comes with conditions. You must do your action without an external alarm such as your phone or a friend to remind you. You have to remember that at this specific moment, you must unbutton a button, scratch your arm, or perhaps, take out your phone. Once you are then doing the action, you must make yourself conscious of everything that you are doing. Awareness of the moment must fill your being, from moving your arm to that button, touching it, and then slipping that button out of that hole, to then slipping it back in and returning your hand to its place.
Duration: As long as a minute, or short as a second.
Purpose: It brings up an awareness that isn’t in your mind, but in your body. It’s like those people that can wake up at 5:00 AM every time, even without an alarm. In the simplest sense, you can train yourself to have a body clock, but from a bigger perspective, it exercises your will to “do”. From having an idea, to executing the action, there’s a lot of mental thought that happens in between. But in exercising the action of “doing” that involves no external reminders from outside (like alarms or people telling you to do something), the act of doing can more naturally come from within.
4. Equanimity Exercise
This is my favorite. I think everyone needs this, and does this in some way or form, if they want to keep sane. For 1 minute, try to focus, then for 5 minutes, think of a situation that has been troubling you, such as problems at work, school, or family. Then, imagine that you are on a cliff, and the problem is far below you. See yourself from outside. Think of what led to the problem, and what will happen after, not in terms of days, but years. Think objectively.
Prep: 1 Min
Duration: 5 Mins
Purpose: This one, I was actually quite familiar with. I think we all are, in some form or other. The purpose is to help us see problems objectively. In the moment that they occur, they might seem like the biggest issues on this Earth, but seen from the perspective of the cliff, their significance dwindles. Will what happens now really matter a year from now? Two years? Five? These are the thoughts that normally come to mind after doing the exercise.
Equanimity: (noun) mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.
(I love this word. I plan to have it tattooed on my arm.)
5. Backward Review
This one is a true challenge. The humdinger of meditation exercises. At the end of the day, ideally before you sleep, adopt a comfortable position, and then for 1 minute, focus your mind. Then, for the next 15 minutes, picture your day… backwards. You can do this in words, or as a movie after hitting the Rewind button. You can do this sitting, standing, etc. Try to be as specific as possible.
Prep: 1 Min
Duration: 15-30 Mins (I put in 15 minutes above because it helps to put a deadline on yourself. The sensation of this exercise, possibly taking too much time, lessens.)
Purpose: It improves memory and focus. It also exercises parts of the brain we don’t normally use. It’s not natural for us to mentally backtrack. The brain normally thinks in a linear way of past-to-present. Going the opposite direction stretches mental and spiritual muscles that we don’t naturally use. In a bigger sense, it focuses you to be more conscious of the entirety of your day. If you go through it, mentally asleep, you find yourself having a very difficult backward review. You don’t know which came first or second.
These exercises woke me up. I noticed that I had a tendency to go through my days, just moving from one thing to the next, not really noticing what I was doing. Whether I was busy or being lazy, I was going through my days as if through a fog. When I was busy, I constantly felt that I “had” to be busy. Anything else would’ve been laziness. On the other hand, when I was being lazy, I stayed in bed and slept my days a way, which was the complete and utter opposite, but also just as ineffective. Something had to be done. These exercises brought up the questions of which is better, the “quality” of my days, or the “quantity” in them? Would I truly be satisfied living the majority of my life in a fog of busyness? How slow would I need to take it without losing myself? Where was the middle ground where I could truly be conscious of the moments I was living?
These kinds of questions came up a lot and I struggle with them even now. As a teacher, my days can get pretty busy. At times, there is no time to think. I’m still going through the process of trying, failing, and gradually figuring out what works for me and what doesn’t.
I know there are a lot of exercises. In a hectic work day, they can’t all be done, so pick one, and try it out for a month. Hopefully they helped you as much or even more than they helped me. If you notice something changing in you as you do them frequently (daily, hopefully), message me privately or comment here. I’m always interested to know what impact these exercises can have in other people’s daily lives.
PS: I don’t claim to be an expert on these exercises. I’m just sharing what I was taught. These exercises were a revelation to me when I learned about them, and when I did do them, so much changed in me that I really felt like they were worth sharing. So enjoy!