I would say that by now, most of you would have heard about meditation and mindfulness. Did you know that this practice has been around since our recorded history began? In terms of Western thinking, mediation was once reserved for the hippies or perhaps the ‘airy fairy’ type. Now, meditation has endorsements from the likes of Steve Jobs, Oprah, and so many other industry heavy hitters.
I think we are seeing a renewed interest because our modern lifestyles are forcing us to find a way to alleviate the symptoms of living our lives at full-speed, all the time. We wake up, get on our phone and don’t really stop until we plug it into the charger next to our bed at the end of our long day. We’re stimulating our senses at an unprecedented rate, and its causing us to feel imbalanced, burnt out and not our best selves.
Meditation and the practice of being mindful are a direct antidote to this over-stimulation. By actively moving our awareness and attention into the present moment, we find solace from our endless mind chatter, thoughts in present-and-past and allow our bodies to reset and refresh. Not convinced yet? Just google ‘scientifically proven benefits of meditation’ and be prepared to wade through a mountain of info pointing to the positive of this practice.
And remember, this is no fad. We’re only catching up to what’s been done for millennia.
One question I get asked a lot as a meditation teacher is ‘what is the end goal?’, or ‘what is the point of practice?’ This is a hugely important question to ask.
There is no set answer to this as the benefits of a practice are wide ranging, so it’s up to you to find your reason for sitting. One of the first objectives I would say you should set yourself is to understand that you are not your thoughts.
In Buddhism, they use the term ‘monkey mind’ to describe the first step of the journey of meditation. When we stop and observe, you notice how completely random and nonsensical our thoughts behave. Once this is observed, we can consider the practice of mastery over this domain as the end goal in itself. In modern terms, think of it as the ability to focus on one task for as long as we need to. Imagine the possibilities! Side effects of this practice will include an improved sense of self, increased happiness, empathy, healthier nervous system, better sleep, calmer and much more!
OK so let’s get down to the practice. There are two key areas I would recommend focussing on when you first start out, but please only take my writing as a suggestion. What works for me won’t necessarily be the best option for you. That’s why it’s called a practice. Firstly, we must have a stable, still base to work from. This is your posture. Here are some basic tips for preparing to sit:
- Overall, the goal with your posture is to be able to sit perfectly still and free from tension for an extended period.
- If you can, sit in a comfortable cross-legged position on a cushion on the floor. If this doesn't work for whatever reason, sit up in a chair with your back away from the support. Practicing lying in bed will likely have you ending up back asleep!
- Your posture should be tall yet relaxed. Spine naturally curved, shoulders down and fully relaxed.
- Like the practice itself, the body will slowly soften and open as you gradually build your practice up over time.
- Think stillness, stillness and more stillness. Alongside being free from tension, this is the physical goal.
Once you have a solid base to work from, we move into the practice of meditation itself. Think of this as an exercise of moving awareness from the thought space to the present moment. There are many different techniques to stay present (again google is a great tool to find different practice methods), and I offer my favourite one below:
- Start with your breath. Feel the breath come in from outside the body, and follow it all the way into the body. Pay close attention to the sensation of this moving through all the parts of the body, notice the subtle change in temperature as the breath moves in and out of the body. The more you can immerse yourself in this action, the more of a hold you have on the present moment.
- We also add a mantra to stay present. We use this to engage our imagination and provide a sound as another ‘anchor’ in the present alongside the breath.
- To add the mantra - simply say the word HONG internally with the inhale breath and SAW on the out breath.
- The key here is to make this really 'loud' inside your body. It should attach with the inhale and exhale and you should ‘imagine’ this sound vibrating through the body with the breath.
- Any sound will work and you are welcome to try something that has more meaning to you if you feel like it.
As you sit and practice, your awareness will move back into your thoughts. The practice is to ‘catch’ your awareness in your thoughts, and immediately and gently move back into the breath and sound.
The gentleness in which we move our awareness from thought back into present moment translates into our everyday interactions. This is where we begin to cultivate a less reactive, calmer mindset.
For an effective practice, you simply must go in with the intention to do your best. Take three, deep breaths before you begin your practice. Set an intention with yourself that for the period of time you have set aside to practice, you will be in it fully. If you don’t do this consciously, its very hard to stop the mind from wandering ceaselessly.
Start with 5 minutes. Do this for weeks and months if necessary before moving on in time. Don’t sit for longer periods if you are not enjoying it – you will likely quit before you can make this a habit. Use a timer or stopwatch and stick to the length of time, and only move on when you know you can commit to the next step up in time. Move up like this – 5, 10, 15, 20 and so on. If possible, practice first thing in the morning when you don’t have too much on your mind and not as much noise and distraction. Practicing sporadically will not give great results, so if possible, make this a part of your daily routine. I can’t stress this point enough!
There is a lot more to talk about with meditation but in reality, it’s a simple practice. The best thing is to dive in head first, and commit to forming a habit that you can keep up with. If you spend 3 times in the gym a week at an hour a time – can you give 35 minutes a week total to keep your mind in shape?
There are plenty of great teachers and resources around to find out more, but mostly it’s about your own commitment and intention to the practice. Most of all, be gentle with yourself, and have fun!