Meditation Part 1:
What | How
This first part in the series shares a little background and aims to cover some fundamentals to help you get started with a meditation practice.
American-born Spiritual teacher Adyashanti (Stephen Gray) describes meditation as letting go of control, of being present with whatever may happen. This suggests not concentrating hard, but focusing softly on whatever arises in awareness. However, as a technique, we employ a point of focus to 'concentrate' on i.e. repeating mantra in the mind, visualisation, physical bodily sensations or following the breath. This is to help anchor us in the here and now with the intention to encourage a greater state of awareness and focused attention.
Meditation is likened to an exploration of the inner landscape – ‘how does my mind actually work?’ The removal of distractions helps, closing our eyes not knowing what may arise: thoughts (“I wonder what’s for dinner”), sensations (tightness in the neck, clothing brushing against the skin) or emotions (sadness, love this, hate that) – they all come up and sitting there not doing anything about them can be difficult – imagine trying to stop a wave in the ocean. Meditation is not trying to stop our thoughts and have an empty mind free of any distractions or devoid of emotions, it is learning to be with them with kindness and curiosity. And the wave soon merges back into the ocean where it began…
Meditation typically refers to a formal seated practice at a set time, with the intention of concentrating on one thing i.e. on the breath - without trying to control how the breath comes in and out, just being aware of the process occurring, knowing that distractions of a wandering mind are inevitable, you can always bring focus back to breathing – even if this happens once, this is okay – there is no ‘wrong meditation’. Remember that meditation is learning a new skill, and like learning anything new, the beginning may be challenging - the mind will naturally throw up resistance and excuses such as boredom, restlessness and doubt that it’s actually ‘working.’ Sitting to meditate requires commitment, discipline and perseverance - instead of a quick fix, view the process as nurturing a small child and employ kindness, patience and curiosity.
Here is a simple framework you can follow:
1) Take a seat: Find a place to sit that feels calm and quiet to you - as best as possible, free of any obvious distractions.
2) Set a time limit: If you’re just beginning, it can help to choose a short time, such as three, five or 10 minutes. Use a mobile phone timer to allow you let go into the practice rather than clock watching.
3) Notice your body: You can sit in a chair with your feet on the floor, you can sit loosely cross-legged, you can kneel—all are fine. Just make sure you are in a stable position you can stay in for a while. In between comfortable and alert, relaxed yet dignified.
4) Feel your breath: Follow and feel the physical sensations of your breath as it goes in and as it goes out. You may notice the air in the nostrils, the movement around the chest or the rising and falling of the stomach.
5) Notice when your mind has wandered: Inevitably, your attention will leave the breath and wander to other places. Whenever you notice that your mind has wandered—in a few seconds, a minute, five minutes—simply return your attention to the breath. As many times as needed.
6) Be kind to your wandering mind: Notice the tendancy to judge yourself or obsess over the content of the thoughts you find yourself lost in. This is part of the practice. Simply return your attention when you can.
7) Close with awareness and when you’re ready, gently lift your gaze (if your eyes are closed, open them). Take a moment and notice any sounds in the environment. Notice how your body feels right now. Notice your thoughts and emotions. Notice any change from when you began.
That’s the practice in a nutshell - keep it simple, there's no need to make things complicated. We continue to practice with the same kindness to ourselves and a sense of curiosity of our experience.
Meditation Part 2:
“One does not practice meditation to become a great meditator. We meditate to wake up and live, to become skilled at the art of living. The thing about meditation is you become more and more you.”
- David Lynch
We tend to usually relate to our environment cognitively, that is through the lens of our thoughts – our likes and dislikes, all our past experiences shape how we approach this moment, even though most of the time the past has no bearing on now. Through meditation, we can interrupt this autopilot - living in our heads constantly creates a barrier to experiencing what is truly going on in reality; are we living in & through our thoughts (thinking about what might be going on based on what we know, thinking about the past or the future) or experiencing reality as it is?
Meditation helps us to learn about our minds, what makes us tick, what triggers a reaction or makes us uncomfortable, with practice and over time, we can learn to respond mindfully rather than automatically react. Naturally this understanding of ourselves, whilst being kind and non-judgemental about what we find, improves the relationship we have with ourselves, and those around us.
There are many physical and mental health benefits, some key ones include:
1: Understand your pain – paying attention to your senses can help us to re-connect with our bodies and learn where is causing problems
2: Lower your stress – meditation helps to regulate our emotions, meaning we are less likely to trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response in the face of a perceived stressful situation
3: Connect better – becoming kinder to ourselves, giving ourselves more empathy naturally leads to an appreciate of another – we all are going through personal battles so we can connect on a deeper level
4: Improve focus – the concentration we apply during meditation to remain focused on the breath strengthens the neurons in our brain responsible for attention, memory & focus
The benefits of a meditation practice may be very subtle, the external rewards perhaps even more so, but over time it cultivates a greater connection to the present moment as we wake up to our body, mind & senses – this can be called mindfulness. Mindfulness may then be more accessible in the midst of daily life where our practice gets tested by our environment!
So the formal meditation practice strengthens the quality of mindfulness, which we can apply all day every day in any moment. Mindfulness and the human abilities of attention, awareness and acceptance - which perhaps have gotten lost in the whirlwind of our lives - grow with practice over time. Whether on the cushion or chair, this training can help us meet the many things that arise in our daily lives, and enable us to fully experience them, with all our senses.
Meditation Part 3:
This final part looks at how we may maintain a meditation practice and integrate mindfulness (or mini-meditations) into our daily lives.
So you’ve begun to meditate regularly and wondering how you can translate that into your daily life, after all we can’t shut ourselves of from the world in midst of our duties. As mentioned, meditation can help to strengthen the quality of mindfulness, which is something we can bring to anything that we are doing, all of the time.
1: When you first wake up in the morning: before you get out of bed, bring your attention to your breathing. Observe five mindful breaths.
2: Notice changes in your posture. Be aware of how your body and mind feel when you move from lying down to sitting, to standing, to walking. Notice each time you make a transition from one posture to the next.
3: Use any sound as the bell of mindfulness. Whenever you hear a phone ring, a bird sing, a train pass by, laughter, a car horn, the wind, the sound of a door closing—really listen and be present and awake.
4: Throughout the day: take a few moments to bring your attention to your breathing. Observe five mindful breaths.
5: Whenever you eat or drink something, take a minute and breathe. Look at your food and realize that the food was connected to something that nourished its growth. Can you see the sunlight, the rain, the earth, the farmer, the trucker in your food? Pay attention as you eat, consciously consuming this food for your physical health. Bring awareness to seeing your food, smelling your food, tasting your food, chewing your food, and swallowing your food.
6: Notice your body while you walk or stand. Take a moment to notice your posture. Pay attention to the contact of the ground under your feet. Feel the air on your face, arms, and legs as you walk. Are you rushing?
7: Bring awareness to listening and talking. Can you listen without agreeing or disagreeing, liking or disliking, or planning what you will say when it is your turn? When talking, can you just say what you need to say without overstating or understating? Can you notice how your mind and body feel?
8: Whenever you wait in a line, use this time to notice standing and breathing. Feel the contact of your feet on the floor and how your body feels. Bring attention to the rise and fall of your abdomen. Are you feeling impatient?
9: Be aware of any points of tightness in your body throughout the day. See if you can breathe into them and, as you exhale, let go of excess tension. Is there tension stored anywhere in your body? For example, your neck, shoulders, stomach, jaw, or lower back? If possible, stretch or do yoga once a day.
10: Bring mindfulness to each activity. Focus attention on daily activities such as brushing your teeth, washing up, brushing your hair, putting on your shoes, doing your job.
11: Before you go to sleep at night: take a few minutes and bring your attention to your breathing. Observe five mindful breaths.
I remember in the early days of starting to meditate, setting a strict routine for myself - 45 minutes of practice at 4.30am each morning, and it only lasted about a 5 weeks. I remember dragging myself out of bed and hating it, falling asleep sometimes and ruining the rest of my day. And then no surprise, it started to slip - I took the extra time in bed, felt like a failure and beat myself up for my lack of commitment. Then I went a month without any practice at all. In short, for the practice to be maintained (and eventually part of a routine like brushing your teeth) it has to fit in around you, feel right for you and energise you.
A point touched upon in parts 1 & 2, is the importance of being kind to yourself or not being hard on yourself. This can relate to during (being gentle with ourselves if we get distracted), but also our approach to the practice in general – we all have off days, and starting a new routine in our busy lives is not easy, some days the idea of calming the mind seems impossible. Forgive yourself and stick with it as best you can.
We can approach the practice like an experiment, after all, it’s called meditation ‘practice’ for a reason – perhaps a morning meditation is good for you to start the day with, but have you tried in the afternoon to create some space in the day? Some like to practice before bedtime to let go of the day and settle the mind for a good night sleep. We feel different each day, try and feel it out for yourself…
Building some consistency is important with any new endeavour and meditation is no different. It may be comfortable to begin with just doing 2 minutes a day, then 5 minutes a day, and when you feel ready, extending to 10 minutes and so on…the point is to commit and get consistent. Be accountable to yourself, without beating yourself up if you miss a day - perhaps your friends are also experimenting with meditation and that’s a great opportunity to inspire each other and share experiences.
Let go of any expectations – this is a tricky one. Our minds may make up things about what meditating can achieve, like superhuman powers or floating in clouds. If we don’t experience what we may have built up to expect, it can feel like ‘it’s not working’ – letting go things we want to happen by meditating and just doing it for the sake of doing it, can help us to continue on.
Lastly, have fun and enjoy the process. Without a goal in sight, we can experience things as they are, learn about ourselves and let the benefits of meditating take care of themselves.