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If you've tried to meditate and wound up feeling frustrated or disappointed, join the club. For many of us, quieting down and finding peace with meditation can be elusive, if not impossible, so we give up. Here's how a “doing” or "focused" meditation usually goes:
The Yang (or Active) Approach to Meditation
- You sit in a “meditation” posture, like Easy Pose or on a pillow, stack of blocks, you get the gist.
- You start with some kind of meditative technique, such as repeating a verbal phrase or mantra, or watching your breath, or focusing your attention on a physical sensation like the touch of your hands.
- You probably notice that while doing all that your mind wanders and keeps wandering. And each time you become aware of that fact, you try to gently, non-judgmentally, bring your attention back to the mantra/breath/sensation. It's a lot of work and usually hard to do.
- At the end, you feel irritated and hopeless (ugh, “failure”). Or if you've been doing this practice for some time and can successfully direct your attention, you might instead feel calmer, grounded, and more peaceful (hurray, “success!”). In other words, your “failure” or “success” at meditating is based on how well you’re able to stay with the experience you’re focused on.
I call that “Yang” (or active) meditation because there is a specific agenda to focus on a specific thing. It's the most popular and dominant approach to meditation—but it's not the only one.
The Yin and Yang Theory in Meditation
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine's Yin and Yang theory, Yang qualities of mind are connected with our ability to direct our attention, control our focus, and create specific outcomes. Yin qualities of mind, on the other hand, relate to our capacity to be receptive, to allow, and to become reflective. What if there were a more attainable way to meditate using Yin? There is.
In Yin meditation, rather than directing your attention, you start with the intention of being gently receptive to your experience, exactly as it is, without trying to change anything one way or another. You allow your attention to be led by whatever sensations, feelings, sounds, or thoughts come along. You don't try to stop anything. Of course, you might wonder: "Doesn't this Yin approach just lead to more and more thinking and less stillness?" Not necessarily. That's because there are two kinds of stillness.
The Two Types of Stillness During Yin Meditation
1. Fragile stillness: A quiet, calm state of being that is dependent on surrounding conditions and circumstances supporting it. In other words, you need to be in a quiet room, free from distractions like honking cars and the neighbor’s leaf blower, in order to maintain your attention. Your mind and body need to be quiet, too—no nagging thoughts allowed, no aches, itches, or twitches. I call it “fragile” because it's easily broken; the slightest sound, the faintest flicker of thought, and the stillness is ruptured.
2. Fluid stillness: A quiet, calm state of being that happens independent of circumstances and is able to adapt to all conditions. It's quiet within the noise, a stillness within the movement, a peace within the agitation. Some might call it the “eye of the hurricane.” This stillness is available in all circumstances.
Why You Should Try Yin Meditation
Yin meditation helps you cultivate fluid stillness. It encourages you to ride the waves of your experience. By being more receptive and interested in the totality of your experience while practicing, you gain greater insight and understanding about your inner world. Instead of banishing thoughts and feelings from your mind, you gently explore your thoughts and feelings with kindness and interest. This cultivates an understanding about yourself that allows you to step outside of your conditioned patterns of reactivity and engage with things from a responsive place that is unconditioned by the past. By being more receptive—less resistant—to whatever is happening, the mind tends to grow calm on it’s own. The classic metaphor for this is a basin of agitated water left undisturbed. Sooner or later, the surface of the water will become smooth and still. In other words, by doing nothing, the mind becomes still.
3 Steps to Practice Yin Meditation
Sit in a comfortable position, either on a chair, couch, or meditation prop like a pillow or bolster. Set a timer for 5-10 minutes. Then follow these simple meditation instructions:
1. Relax and allow yourself to become receptive to whatever experiences may be happening.
2. Allow your mind to be inclusive of all that is there. There’s no special experience to have. Simply, let your mind receive whatever sensation, sound, thought, or feeling that comes along.
3. Notice how you feel when the session ends. It's that simple.