There are lots of reasons why learning to meditate is a great idea. Meditation has many general health benefits because it’s an excellent way to relieve stress; to clear and calm the mind; to relax; to deal with anxiety; to help us become less reactive and more tolerant; to create a balanced lifestyle; to gain inner wisdom or ‘insight’; to be a better person, and so the list goes on.
Meditation has been the focus of many research projects recently. Analysis that has clearly demonstrate a range of benefits – from reduced anxiety to increased productivity. Using blood samples of meditators, taken before and after meditation, research has shown meditation reduces the chemicals which are produced in response to stress (such as adrenalin, cortisols, etc.) and it increases our ‘feel good’ chemicals including serotonin, dopamine and others which are used in healing and repair.
This new research also shows that the ‘relaxation response’ kicks in after just three minutes.So it doesn’t take long to initiate that chemical exchange – which means we really shouldn’t make excuses about not having time to meditate!
What is meditation
For some, meditation conjures up religious associations. Although the practice originates in ancient Buddhist, Hindu and Chinese traditions, when it comes to current psychology, meditation is less about spirituality and more about mind management.
Through meditation we develop the ability to quiet the mind, focus the attention, and learn how to be ‘mindful’. That is, to be more observant of our reactions and responses. This helps us to take charge of our lives and respond more thoughtfully.
While meditation is an integral part of many faiths and derives from philosophies and practices associated with certain faiths (Hinduism and Buddhism, in particular), those faiths are not an integral part of meditation and the practice of what most people know as meditation isn’t indelibly tied to religion.
There are many meditation techniques but the key ‘tool’ is concentration of the mind on one particular thing – whether it be the breath or an image, a sound or a word, or a series of words known as ‘mantra’. It can include faith or prayer, but it doesn’t have to. Having some faith that the practice of meditation is actually doing you some good is definitely helpful!
Think of meditation as your “personal retreat”. It allows you to withdraw from the external world into your own internal world, so we can decompress from life.
Willing to give it a try? Here are a few pointers to get you started . . .
What you’ll need: nothing much!
Meditation requires only a willingness to sit still and concentrate on something. You can sit in any comfortable position, with the support of cushions or in a chair, or even lying down if sitting isn’t an option. For beginners, a quiet room without a lot of sensory distractions is a big help. External stimuli can be distracting and tends to draw your mind out to the external reality. Music is not necessary – in fact, it can be imposing.
The basics: following your breath
There are many ways to meditate. Some seem like complete contradictions – “Keep your eyes open and focus on an object” versus “Close your eyes and focus on nothing.” The simplest and most effective way into meditation is to follow the breath. It’s the most universal of meditation techniques.
In “The Miracle of Mindfulness” by Thich Nhat Hanh is a classic text that introduces the thinking and practice behind meditation. It presents a thoughtful case for how the breath is connected to the mind, which in turn controls the body. By actively watching one’s breath, and evening it out, you can bring your entire being to what some call the “still point”. Quite simply, you’ll be focusing on just one very consistent thing, and teaching your mind how to engage that one thing fully. This practice trains the mind to be mindful in other life situations as well.
How to begin:
When you sit down to meditate, begin by settling your body until it feels comfortable and steady. Be present to where you are – the sounds around you, the smells or subtle sensations in your body.
Take three deep slow breaths, then start “watching” your breath, noticing how it comes in and out of the nostrils, then how it moves through the space inside the nose. Then, imagine you can follow the breath all the way from the nostrils down to the navel centre and the same pathway in reverse as the breath leaves the body – from the navel centre all the way back up and out through the nostrils. Let this breathing be your source of continuous focus.
Thoughts may begin to arise in the mind – just let them come and let them go. (There’s no need to try and suppress the thoughts or go in to battle with yourself over having them!) Just continue to maintain awareness of the breath – in and out – let the thoughts come and go.
Gradually your breath will slow down until it is quiet, even, and fairly long. From the moment you sit down to the moment your breathing has become deep and silent, be conscious of everything that is happening within yourself. If the body feels uncomfortable, notice it but come back to the breath. If there are thoughts or images – notice them but come back to the breath. Become the ‘witness’ – remain non-judgemental about what comes up, and stay committed to following the breath.
For some of us, that’s easier said than done. You start focusing on your breath, and after a brief victory, in comes the growing wave – oh that’s right! What about paying that bill that’s overdue?; I totally forgot to tell Dad that I’d be late!; I wonder if I received a reply to that email?; etc., etc., etc.! … Just keep letting those thoughts go and come back to the breath.
If following the breath seems hard at first, you can include the method of counting your breath. As you breathe in, count 1, 2, 3, 4 in your mind, and as you breathe out, count 1, 2, 3, 4. Counting is like a string that attaches your mind to your breath. Without concentration, you can quickly lose count. When the count is lost, simply return to the breath and counting again and keep trying to keep the count going. It’s brain training – neuroscientists love it!
It doesn’t have to be complicated. All it really takes is to have a simple technique and the desire to be still and intentionally not think about anything for a little while. It also takes letting go of the judgement that you can’t meditate! It’s important to realise that whatever happens in your meditation IS your meditation – don’t judge it. You are still receiving benefits just by sitting, becoming still, withdrawing from the outside world, and working on the focus.
Four popular meditation techniques:
- Follow your breath – This is the most universal of all meditation techniques. First, take a few deep, long breaths to clear the base of the lungs of carbon dioxide, or do some simple yoga postures to bring body and breath together and unlock some tension from the body before sitting. Then settle and focus on the breath coming in and out of the body. Follow the breath – from nostrils to navel – navel to nostrils. When thoughts arise or the mind is distracted you simply come back to focusing on the breath – in and out – as though it is all that exists in this moment.
- Focus on an object – Allow your mind to rest lightly on an image. It could be the image of a candle flame, a flower, or a symbol. You don’t need to just imagine the candle flame either – this can be an open eyed meditation too. Sit down, place the candle one arms distance away from your eyebrow centre. Focus on the flame until your eyes need to close and rest, then you will see an after image of the flame beyond your closed eyes. Focus on the after image until the eyes feel rested and then start again gazing at the candle flame. This is known as “Trataka”.
- Recite a mantra – Chanting a mantra provides a source of concentration. It allows the mind to becomes steady and focused. A useful mantra for beginners is the sankskrit mantra “SO HUM” which is said to be the mantra for the breath and to have healing qualities. Tibetan Buddhists use mantras for peace, healing and transformation. “Recite the mantra quietly, with deep attention, and let your breath, the mantra and your awareness become one,” writes Rinpoche.
- Do a guided meditation – Guided meditation is when you are guided, by a narrator, to elicit a specific change in your life. You are first guided to relax your body and mind, to help you reach a deep meditative state before going on a journey, in your mind, to reach a specific goal. Guided meditation is akin to guided imagery, a powerful technique that focuses and directs the imagination toward a conscious goal. (Think of a diver imagining a “perfect dive” before he leaves the platform). Meditation is simple, free and requires almost no energy. It provides a huge range of benefits for body, mind and soul. Give it a try – you’ve got nothing to lose and lots to gain!
Meditation is simple, free and requires almost no energy. It provides a huge range of benefits for body, mind and soul. Give it a try – you’ve got nothing to lose and lots to gain!