(Alternative) Forms of Meditation

Meditation comes in many forms, you do not always have to have your eyes closed and legs crossed to let your mind wander

Toni Engelhardt

Toni Engelhardt

Science, Cognition and Data Analytics

Girl enjoying a shower

Before you dive into this post and explore ways to get your daily dose of zen, let me start off with a disclaimer. None of the activities introduced below can put you into the same deep meditative state as a one hour meditation session. The effects they have on the mind are somewhat similar though, just not as intense.

Let's start by looking at what meditation actually is, how it works and why so many smart people make it part of their lives.

[click here to skip the introduction]

The Problem

Over time our brain accumulates incomplete thoughts and logical loops 1. Sometimes because we brood over something and cannot figure it out, other times because we get distracted or lose focus due to the switching of tasks. Frequent exposure to long periods of stress and the use of applications that are designed to constantly battle for our attention are very common in modern society and they heavily amplify this process.

If you want to dig deeper into how the brain works and how it processes information I can recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow

While we sleep our brain goes through certain phases that were designed by nature to deal with this problem. But sleep alone cannot always cope with the extreme load posed on our brain by 21st century lifestyle, especially if that includes a constant lack of sufficient amounts of sleep.

The importance of sleep is covered quite well in Why we sleep

The result is background noise, which leads to the inability to focus and therefore even more stress.

But don't despair, meditation is here to save the day.

Meditation

Meditation is defined by Wikipedia as "a technique – such as mindfulness, or focusing the mind on a particular object, thought, or activity – to train attention and awareness, and achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm and stable state". It also states that "scholars have found meditation difficult to define, as practices vary both between traditions and within them" 2.

The concept we'll focus on here is to mute conscious thought and to tune in to what is going on in the depth of our mind.

Naval outlined this well in a reply thread on twitter:



Click on the tweet to read the full thread.

The key here is literally to stop thinking. Just close your eyes and let your brain work without interruption. After a few minutes in this idle state, your brain will start to surface the above mentioned loose thoughts and loops and start to organize and rewire them.

This brings clarity in your mind and reduced noise. Most people perceive the time just after a meditation session as peaceful, relaxed and blissful.

That said, I'd recommend you to have actual meditation sessions as often as possible, ideally 30min to 1h every other day. But for the case that your schedule is too busy to arrange that or you just don't have the motivation for that level of commitment you can use the following list of activities to complement your meditation game.

As we've seen above it is all about letting your mind wander. Stimulating it with expressive visuals, movement, sound and smell can help you reach a meditative state.

In general, activities that are monotonous, repetive and involve one or more of the following tasks are suitable:

  • Physical activity
  • Stimulation of the senses: vision, hearing, smell, touch
  • Exposure to heat or cold
  • Immersion into nature or water

Ok, let's look at the list of my personal favorites.


Alternative Forms of Meditation: Showering

Showering

Image: It's a rainy Sunday. You get out of bed at 9:30, brew some coffee, pick up a book and read a few pages before you start leveraging the mellow light to get some work done on your side project. Let's say it is a blog. The caffeine kicks in and you start writing.

About 60 minutes in you start to lose focus, vague ideas float through your head and errands you keep postponing since days make regular appearances in your thoughts.

It's time to take a shower. Let the water drip on your body and calm your mind. Whether you shower hot or cold is not important, but a temperature gradient between air and water is favorable. Shift your focus from active thought to sensing. Immersion into water almost always initiates this shift automatically.

In my experience taking a shower is the fastest and easiest way to reset the brain and bring order into the chaos.


Alternative Forms of Meditation: Cooking

Cooking

This one is not so obvious but nevertheless can also be a form of meditation – well, depending on your cooking style. If you merely cook to kill hunger, skip this section. If you patiently extract flavors and assemble them into delicious dishes read on.

What gives cooking a meditative effect is the combination of routine tasks like washing and chopping veggies and the smell of fresh food and different types of ingredients. Just like immersion into water the smell of food immediately triggers a shift in focus in the brain and instinct takes over.

Image: You arrive home after a long day at the office, drop your backpack on the couch and enter the kitchen. A glimpse into the fridge yields fresh veggies, spices, chicken filet and some leftover rice. You open iTunes, poor a glass of wine and start chopping.

A few minutes later the pleasent smell of fresh food fills the air. While you stir the mushroom cream sauce images of tropical islands start to materialize in your mind and the matters of the day you were contemplating just minutes ago are gone.

While your conscious mind is busy handling all the small tasks that come with preparing a meal and mostly utilizes areas of the brain that are related to motory control and smell, your subconsious mind has the chance to leverage some open resources to process the things that were on hold throughout the day.

NOTE (for Helena): The #1 most important thing in cooking is timing. Cook slow. Chop first, then fry. Avoid stress.


Alternative Forms of Meditation: Strolling

Strolling

Strolling, or just simply walking seems straight forward, but not everyone is priviliged enough to commute by foot. Most of us take a crowded bus or train, or drive to work or wherever we go.

Walking is great because it slightly increases your pulse, it's a monotonous activity and it practically prevents you from pursuing any other tasks than absorbing your surroundings (with some exceptions, like listening to audiobooks, calling someone, etc).

The key factor here is duration. A 5 minute walk will obviously not alter your state of mind in a big way, but 30 minutes and up works well.

The more interesting and beautiful the route you follow the better. Impressions and abstraction of external inputs help the brain to resolve blanks. Postpone active thinking to your destination and let the environment take control of where your thoughts flow.


Alternative Forms of Meditation: Forest Bathing

Forest Bathing

Forest bathing (shirin-yoku in Japanese) is a physiological and psychological exercise practiced in Japan since the 1980s.

You can find a great documentary about it here: Shinrin Yoku: The Art of Forest Bathing.

The practice is all about deliberately disconnecting from society and reconnecting with nature. Whether you take an hour-long walk through the forest behind the edge of your town or travel to Honshu for a multi-day forest hike to experience the real thing is up to you, but the concept is always the same: move and inhale the distinct scent of nature that can only be found amongst a decent number of trees.

Cool, fresh air and a light spectrum deep in the green are the perfect ingredients to silence conscious thought and let your mind wander.


Alternative Forms of Meditation: Surfing

Wave Riding

This one is reserved for the lucky beings that live in proximity of a coastline that occasionally receives enough swell to lift your body out of the water and onto the face of a wave.

But surfing is not only about riding waves. It's also about The Search, patience and passion.

Image: It's a late afternoon, only few people out, no wind and glassy water. The air and the water are both cold, and there are long pauses between 3-4ft sets. Four or five guys sit on their boards, gazing towards the horizon, at the ocean, and at the setting sun. There is nothing to do but to wait. Nobody talks. Silence. You can only hear the water and some birds.

The absence of a task at hand and the eerie silence make this situation a true meditative experience. The cold water and physical activity make your body work. Energy flows through your system and all senses get stimulated. You can smell the sea, feel the sun and the water, hear the waves and the birds and indulge in visuals of the beauty of nature itself.


More

The list above comprises only a small selection of activities that can be practiced in a meditative manner and is heavily biased by personal preference. Here are some more examples that might make it into a follow up post at some time:

  • Hiking
  • Running
  • Cycling
  • Painting
  • Sauna
  • Playing an instrument
  • Camping
  • Gardening


That's it!

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  1. A logical loop in this context refers to a train of thought that connects back to its origin, thus repeating over and over again. A notable example is the chicken and egg problem. If you want to figure out what came first your reasoning might go as follows. The chicken cannot have been there first, because a chicken comes out of an egg. But the egg cannot have been there first because eggs are produced by chicken, aso. To solve a logical loop, one of the assumptions in the chain needs to be altered. In this case the assumption that chicken are the first species to produce eggs is wrong. Eggs have been around since hundreds of millions of years, while chicken occupy the planet not quite as long. Therefore, the egg has been there first, the loop is not a loop anymore, the causal chain has a beginning and an end and makes sense again.
  2. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meditation