Meditation is not a “break glass in case of emergency” kind of practice. Very often people decide to develop a meditation practice when they are under extreme stress. The impulse is commendable; they are recognizing that they need tools to manage their situation in a healthy way. The timing is off though. Deciding to sit for meditation at the height of anxiety or depression when you haven’t cultivated a meditation practice is like being bedridden and deciding to climb Everest. It is certainly possible to build a practice at any time, but it will be much harder if you are starting from a stressed and strained mind.
When we talk about about meditation it’s important to define what we mean. The way I define meditation is much less about the posture one assumes when you practice and more about the effort to become familiar with your own mind. There are many activities that can be meditative: running, walking, swimming, biking, gardening — really any activity when we are not engaged in any kind of external pageantry.
If you are someone for whom walking is a form of meditation, then build on that practice. As you head out for your daily walk, see if you can use that as a platform to cultivate mindfulness and awareness. This doesn’t mean that you clear your mind of all thought. It simply means that as you walk or bike, or swim that you keep your attention in the activity, recognizing the sounds and the sensations both inside and outside of your body. When I run, my thoughts are just as busy as they are at any other time of my day, but I don’t engage them in quite the same way. I feel like my mind is a giant train station and each thought is a train, but rather than jump on every passing train I keep my attention rooted in the act of the run itself.
Seated meditation is an important practice, but it isn’t the only practice. If you have the sense that you need a meditation practice in your life start with something that already works for you. If washing the dishes is an experience that grounds you, start there. The work is to keep your attention with your breath and body and not get carried off in a million different fantastic directions by your mind. That work can happen on a meditation cushion, a familiar hiking path or as you rake leaves.
Don’t wait until your heart is racing and your hands are sweating to practice mindfulness. Pick a familiar activity and bring to it new curiosity. From there, see if you can keep returning your attention to where your body and mind actually are. I encourage people to start by just watching their thoughts; don’t judge them, don’t categorize them, just watch them. What we start to recognize is that our thoughts are very often completely separate from where our body happens to be. By working to engage your mind and body together in an activity you are predisposed to enjoy, you are more likely to find that sense of being grounded that can be an antidote to stress.
Stress is the experience of constantly living in an adversarial relationship. Meditation is not a magic bullet, it is a process by which we turn that imaginary adversary into an old friend. Meditation is developing an intimate awareness and appreciation for reality, not about crossed knees and incense so start with your reality and work from there.