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Another Example of Meditating Under Duress

Skip the spiritual stuff and go meditate somewhere scary.

I just posted a GoPro video of me hiking up Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park. It’s 58 minutes of me freaking out because I am absolutely and completely terrified of heights.

I like to describe my fear of heights as 10% irrational and 90% rational. Heights screw with my depth perception and that makes me scared that I’m going to lose my balance and tip over. That’s a rational fear. Then because I’m scared, my body is tense and my coordination is shot. So I’m even more of a danger to myself.

Here’s where meditation kicks in. Most people approach meditation like it’s some sort of ritual that you have to get perfectly right in order to generate a deep spiritual enlightenment. I know because I’ve taught meditation and I’ve gotten all sorts of questions about things like the perfect way to hold your hands. The answer is: hold your hands any way that makes you feel good and doesn’t distract you.

Students who ask early on about how to hold their hands are coming at meditation as if it’s a ritual. Unfortunately, this meditation-as-ritual mindset gets in the way of one of the main benefits of meditation, which is that it can make your day-to-day life much better. Training to meditate is training to be calm and mindful anywhere.

So I personally like to meditate under duress and I like to recommend other people do as well.

Here’s me practicing mindfulness of my deep and intense fear of heights as I scramble up the Angel’s Landing trail in Zion National Park.

If you deconstruct meditation, you’ll identify the breath as not something particularly special. To meditate, as it’s most often practiced, you need a point of focus. Your breath is always with you, and so it’s a convenient solution to that need. Breathing has a few other benefits, but it’s a replaceable element in your meditation.

You can replace your point of focus with almost anything.

In the hike above, I made my fear the point of focus. Sometimes I’d get distracted, but I’d come back over and over to the sensation of fear.

Monitoring my fear in that way started to separate out my rational goals from my emotional experience. And by the end of the hike, my emotional reaction had completely dissipated.

I’ve done variants on this exercise with people. I had a group put their hand in a bowl of ice water and meditate on the sensation of pain. What they realized is that the sensation is different than the emotion. That’s a big epiphany. It means pain can be overcome.

Later I had that same group do a plank and then meditate on the sensation of their muscles failing — that’s a very curious experience if you can get past your emotional reaction to the pain.

So, I’d encourage all of you to think about how to meditate when it’s noisy, how to meditate on a sensation, how to meditate when meditation seems impossible. That’s how you train yourself to be mindful everywhere.

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