Five Tools to Build an Effective Meditation Practice

Meditation, healthy mind and body, stress management concept.

Cygnus is quite a unique character, a little deep-sea diver immersed in an aquarium on the set of Gaia’s VUmind Meditation Training Program. With the sediment settled and the water agitator turned off, Cygnus can see for miles in every direction: the tank’s a bright, beautiful, healthy place to live. Cygnus (dare I say it?) is happy as a clam!

But what happens when the tank is stirred? All the debris from the bottom gets kicked up and disturbs the pristine waters. At first, it might not seem so bad: I can still see you, Cygnus! But if the agitation is very strong or doesn’t let up, the effects in the tank get progressively worse: thick silt clouds the water, a grimy film begins to coat the glass, particles swirl all around, some of the bigger pieces of gunk even smack poor Cygnus in the head: Ouch!

Now Cygnus’ world’s turned chaotic and topsy-turvy: I can hardly see you anymore, little buddy! What happened to that calm, clear environment? Can Cygnus ever hope to clean up the tank?

Minimize the Mental Commotion

Just like our friend Cygnus, we often find ourselves at the center of a dizzying cloud of mental debris, unsure which way is up (or even how we got so disoriented in the first place). Sound familiar? Memories, dreams, stories, hopes, fears, worries, anxieties, images and sounds float by and endlessly churn through our heads. Sometimes your tank (a.k.a. your mind) gets so disturbed that it’s too late to do anything constructive about it and you just have to ride out the storm. To survive all this turmoil, Cygnus might hunker down in the tank, frantically cursing and swatting at the swirling debris, or maybe alternate between silent sobs and desperate shouts for help.

What do you do when things get crazy inside? Pull the covers up over your head and wait for your thoughts and emotions to settle back down? Yell and scream at the nearest warm body? Melt into a puddle of self-pity? Run around haphazardly? Do you really need to escape “real life” in order to relax and enjoy the moment? What if you had some tools to minimize all the mental commotion? Or better yet: What if you had the just the right tools to proactively do something in order keep your tank from becoming disturbed in the first place? What if you could take control of your own mind? Wouldn’t that be great for Cygnus? Wouldn’t that be great for everyone?

Learn How to Control Your Response to the World Around You

You can’t always control your environment, but you can control how you respond to the world around you. It’s easier than you think, and it’s called meditation! Meditation is simply the practice of focusing your attention free from distraction. But there’s a few things it’s helpful to learn and understand prior to your first session, and the VUmind trainers are here to guide you every step of the way. The first few times I tried to meditate I got up and quit because I wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing, why I was doing it or how on earth sitting cross-legged on the floor and staring into space was going to help me at all. I would probably have been more successful if I had been a bit more familiar with my own home and my body, mind and nervous system. Then I might have known what I was doing, why I was doing it, and how counting my breath was supposed to help. Maybe I didn’t have the right tools, or maybe I didn’t just didn’t know to use them.

Cygnus can calm the swirling tank, and you can calm your swirling mind.

Five Tools to Build an Effective Meditation Practice

The Internal Selfie: Get to Know Your Mind from the Inside Out

Before you sit down to fine-tune your mind, it’s helpful to evaluate the clutter and perform a mental inventory of your body, thoughts and nervous system. You can accomplish this by taking what we call an Internal Selfie. It might sound silly at first, but give it a try; it’s a handy tool that really works! You all know what an external selfie is

  • that’s when you take a picture of what you look like on the OUTSIDE. We want to turn the camera inward to see what’s going on INSIDE: Does your body feel tense or relaxed? Is your mind distracted or focused? An Internal Selfie gives you a snapshot of “where you’re at” in any given moment in time. Just as it’s helpful to actually see what’s disturbing the waters inside Cygnus’ tank, it’s helpful to see what’s disturbing the landscape inside your own mind. Practice awareness with The Internal Selfie.

The Belly Breath Superset: Relax Your Body and Deactivate the Nervous System

With an accurate picture of the disorganized state of the tank, Cygnus might wonder: How will I ever clean things up? I can’t even stand without getting whacked in the head by giant pieces of flying debris! Cygnus has to take care of the BIG stuff before before scrubbing the walls or raking up the finer gravel: Turn off the water agitator first, little buddy! In your day-to-day life, your own personal “agitator” is most likely running 24/7, and it’s is taking a toll on your health, wellbeing, and overall happiness. You’re probably operating on a low-grade adrenaline drip that’s keeping you chronically activated all of the time. It’s very difficult to slow down (let alone meditate!) when your physiology is out-of-whack.

The perfect tool to help you deactivate and get rid of the mental “big stuff” is the Belly Breath Superset. Belly Breathing can help relax your body and settle your nervous system, and is an important step in developing a truly effective daily meditation practice. The Belly Breath Superset gives bodily cues to your brain that you are safe and secure; this brings your nervous system out of the fight-or-flight response, and into rest-and-digest, where you want to spend the majority of your time. Belly Breathing can help you relax right in the moment, right when stress is happening, by giving you an ON/OFF switch for your nervous system. Learn the Belly Breath Superset in The Body Electric.

The Contact Exercise: Explore Your Body-Mind Connection and Get Familiar with Focusing Practice

Cygnus took an Internal Selfie and found out the aquarium was a mess. With some Belly Breathing practice, Cygnus can stand up straight without getting bonked in the head by big chunks of flying debris. But what about the smaller sediment? Now it’s time for Cygnus to calm the waters even more. The Contact Exercise is a practical tool to help you settle your mind. The exercise introduces the fundamentals of following the breath, a classic meditation technique. Finding (and following) the breath isn’t easy during meditation. So you’ll start by practicing anchoring attention, experientially, on a specific point-of-contact. Use the tactile sensation of your hand placed on your stomach to get initial contact. Feel the sensation of your stomach rising and falling as the breath flows in, out, and then in again. Gently scratch with your thumb (just above the navel) to keep your attention focused on a specific spot.

When your mind wanders, recreate the point of contact by gently scratching with the thumb to bring your attention back again. Try to make that spot your whole universe and focus deeply on the sensations in your body. Keep breathing. Return to your stomach, rising and falling with the breath, over and over again. Hey, Cygnus! Are things settling down in there?

Watch the second half of The Body Electric to practice the Contact Exercise with Mark, Bill and Cygnus.

The Dimmer Switch: Regulate Your Nervous System and Find Your Sweet Spot

The Belly Breath Superset gives you an ON/OFF switch for your nervous system. But we all know life is more subtle than just ON or OFF and our activation levels vary throughout the day. We’re usually unaware of all the dynamics happening in our nervous system – a lot happens automatically, without conscious thinking. When we’re under chronic stress, we operate on autopilot, and miss the mark more often than we’d like. Watch what happens to Bill’s nervous system as he goes through a typical day. For a sound body and a good life, modulation is imperative. Sometimes you need to activate and get things done; other times you need to dial it back a bit. Bill and Mark will introduce you to two classic Chi Gong martial arts exercises. Learn how to adjust your nervous system and find your sweet spot in The Dimmer Switch.

The VUmind Toolbox: Use Your Tools Everyday

The fifth tool is your Vumind Toolbox. Get to know your tools and keep them in a handy location to use them whenever you need. Let’s review the tools we’ve been using so far:

  1. The most basic tool in your VUmind Toolbox is the Internal Selfie. The Internal Selfie gives you the ability to see what’s going on inside by asking: What is the state of my body? What is the state of my nervous system? What is the state of my mind?
  2. In The Body Electric, you add the Belly Breath Superset to your Toolbox. Belly Breathing lets you turn your activation switch to the OFF position (just like when Cygnus turns off the water agitator). Cygnus uses this tool daily to settle the big stuff in the tank, and you can use this tool anytime to calm raging thoughts and emotions in the mind
  3. You’re introduced to the third useful tool in the second half of The Body Electric: the Contact Exercise. Establish the foundation for traditional meditation practice by learning to focus on a specific sensation
  4. Finally, we’ve put a Dimmer Switch on our nervous system so we can dial our system UP or DOWN. This gives us a control to find our sweet spot and put our activation anywhere we want for any given situation

Hey, Cygnus! Looking good in there! Start your 14-day challenge and train with Cygnus today!

Commit to a Daily Meditation Practice with a Little Help from Your (Gaia) Friends

  1. Rodney Yee and Maritza’s Daily Meditation
  2. Cyndi Lee’s beginner Meditation 101 series
  3. Noah Levine’s Dharma Punx: An Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation
  4. Padma Meditation: Counting Audio Meditation for beginners
  5. Padma Meditation: Breath Meditation


Nancy Young

Nancy Young did her undergraduate work at Yale University in religious studies and comparative literature, and received her master’s degree in contemplative psychology at Naropa University. She has practiced child and family therapy, and owned an eightbed assisted living/hospice care home. Nancy has practiced Tibetan Buddhism for over 25 years. She enjoys yoga, hiking, reading, and exploring the mountains with friends and family.


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