Emergency Meditations: Easy Short Meditations

by | Meditation

Many people have a limited sense of meditation. One unexpected aspect of expanding our sense of meditation is learning how to shrink it, so to speak, into what I refer to as “Emergency Meditations.” People often think that meditation only works when you engage in formal and extended practice.

Short Sessions Repeated Often

Most of the scientific data gathered supports longer sessions. But this “all or nothing” approach limits us. In the highest schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the meditative maxim is: “short sessions many times.” Like drops of water gradually filling a pond, short sessions add up. They also allow us to practice on the spot, flashing onto the qualities of the meditative mind in an instant.

It’s like “exercise snacks.” Studies have shown that even four-second bursts of exercise improve fitness.[1] “Let’s get people out of the mindset that exercise is this special thing we do,” said Martin Gibala, professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario. “You can just be active, even if it means setting your watch to trigger you to do some squats or walls sits for one minute.”[2] It’s precisely the same with meditation, but we replace bursts of motion with spurts of stillness. Stillness is good for the mind, motion is good for the body. But we don’t have to make either event special. A few seconds of stillness is like taking a sip of space, which nourishes the mind.

Jonathan Little, associate professor in the school of health and exercise at the University of British Columbia says, “I don’t think it replaces regular exercise, but we think you can get some bang for your buck with a small amount of these exercise bursts.”[3]

I call on these brief practices – these  “emergency meditations – when I really need them. They also magically come to me in the nick of time, like a lifesaver tossed to a drowning man. I may be in a difficult conversation, just about to lose it, when one of these practices will rescue me by popping into my mind, reestablishing my sense of stability and presence.

While I still engage in extended daily practice, and maintain my annual retreats, I find myself working with these emergency meditations more frequently, taking more and more sips of space. They also help me bring meditation to life. I can sprinkle these practices throughout my day, under any circumstance.

One-breath Meditation Session

Bring your attention to the natural movement of your breath for the duration of one inhalation and one exhalation. That’s it. It could not be easier. You’ve gotten your practice session in for the day! Take that sip of space, it’s amazing how refreshing one lungful of space can be. It’s like hitting the “pause” button on your life.

I often find myself extending the length of both the in-breath and out-breath, but that’s just me. You can do this practice randomly throughout the day, or you can anchor it to an experience. For example, whenever I pull up to a stop sign, I do a one-breath meditation. I often do it whenever I start to feel contracted. If I’m hearing something difficult on the news, in the paper, or with a person in my life, I use that feeling of contraction as a reminder to pause . . . slow down . . . and take a breath. It’s an adult version of “time-out,” but without any reprimand.

By taking that breath I’m taking a ride back into reality, back into the present moment. This emergency practice interrupts my usual story lines, and prevents knee-jerk reactivity, inviting a more sensitive response. After doing it for years, I find myself more open, response-able, and therefore kind. So practice the power of the pause. Work with impulse control. When you receive a text message, don’t instantly reply. When an email pings into your inbox, wait a day to respond. When you feel that insatiable urge to check your phone, pause and take a breath. The proverbial advice of counting to ten before you respond remains valid. Thomas Jefferson said, “When angry, count to 10 before you speak. If very angry, a hundred.”

The one-breath meditation also doubles as a gratitude practice. It reminds me how close I am to death: I only have to breathe out, don’t breathe in, and I’m dead. I am literally one breath away from death. This is not a morbid recognition, but a celebratory one. It makes me appreciate every breath I take.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/30/well/move/can-4-seconds-of-exercise-make-a-difference.html Accessed February 14th, 2021.

[2] For an Exercise ‘Snack,’ Try the New Standing 7-Minute Workout, by Tara Parker-Pope, The New York Times, January 4th, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/04/well/move/for-an-exercise-snack-try-the-new-standing-7-minute-workout.html Accessed February 14th, 2021.

[3] Ibid.