Meditation – the how & why

young yoga woman at sunrise mountain peak

To taste stillness and know it is medicine.

That’s a quote from renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk, author, poet and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh. It also pretty much sums up how I feel about meditation.

Like every other woman I know, I constantly feel the pressure of having too much to do, too little time to get it all done and too much ‘stuff’ coming at me. I’ve also danced with melancholia and bouts of depression, for most of my adult life. Finding a meditation practice that worked is the only thing that has really helped me manage my stress levels and emotional state. Mind you, for the most part, I still have a way to go towards maintaining a Zen state for most of my waking hours!

If you need scientific proof, hundreds of clinical studies in recent years have concluded the benefits of meditation include: reduced blood pressure, improved energy and concentration levels, relief from conditions including insomnia, anxiety, depression, heart disease and chronic pain. Meditators also report that they feel calmer, more focused, more creative and happier in their daily lives.

Like everything else to do with good health, there is no quick fix and maintaining a healthy balance requires commitment and regular practice. The real challenge is that you actually have to be basically healthy to be able to meditate effectively. After all, the main reason Yoga asanas (poses) were traditionally practiced was to be fit and healthy enough in the physical body to be able to sit comfortably in meditation.

What is meditation?
To some degree meditation is shrouded in mystery and intrigue. But in the same way that physical exercise helps keep the body strong and healthy, meditation is training for the mind. Put simply, it is just about creating a relaxed state of awareness for the mind and body. Think of it as ‘a defrag for our brain.’

Under normal circumstances, we experience relaxation and awareness as separate states, not simultaneously. Our attention is most often directed to the outside world, whereas in meditation our awareness is directed inwards. Through meditation, we learn to train our mind to a point of clarity and focus instead of being driven by scattered thoughts and negativity.

Why should I bother?
We live in a world of stimulation and are perpetually caught up in our senses. Harvard studies have found that we generate about 50,000 thoughts a day and that in the average person’s day we process more information than we would have in a lifetime 200 years ago.

So we are overloaded with stimulation, and with iPhones, Facebook, Twitter and everything else coming at us every moment of our waking lives, it is just getting worse. Unfortunately, our nervous system hasn’t changed in the past 200 years, even though the demands on it have, so we are stuck in a state of stress overdrive.

As a consequence, we have short attention spans, it is almost impossible for us to sit still and because we are in a constant state of ‘fight or flight’ response, we react inappropriately to little things that shouldn’t faze us. Basically, we are too stressed out to be effective, let alone happy.

On a positive note, most happy, successful people say that the key to happiness is have many different experiences. But for most of us, we repeat the same experiences over and over again. The good news is that meditation helps overcome this because as a ritual it becomes a gauge for us to observe our thoughts and progress every day.

Where to start?
If you are like most people, you probably know that you should meditate, but don’t know how. You might believe you can’t meditate because you think too much, or you don’t have time. Perhaps you’ve tried but it didn’t work. Or you just think it’s too hard. But it shouldn’t be – the trick is to find a technique that works for you and then stick to it.

Find the technique that works for you
The biggest mistake people make in learning to meditate is expecting the process to be hard or trying one technique and giving up. There are also many different types and traditions of meditation so it is worthwhile experimenting to find a style that suits you. It took me 10 years to find the practice that worked for me. I tried everything from guided visualisations to whirling, walking meditations, chakra meditations and Vipassana (10-day silent retreats) until I found the technique that worked for me, so it’s worthwhile exploring different styles until you find one that suits you.

Although there are many good books, DVDs and podcasts offering step-by-step guides to meditation, it’s worth finding a good teacher to start with. As a starting point, try the Meditation Techniques below to help steer you towards the style that may be suit you.

It’s about focus not emptying the mind
The other most common mistake people make is that they find it impossible to empty their minds. Instead the point is to develop a trained mind, not an empty one. This is why every meditation technique will incorporate an object of focus – whether it be the breath, a mantra, a guided visualisation or sensations in the body.

My meditation teacher also described the process as being a bit like shaking a can of soft drink. When you first open the can, a spurt of bubbles overflows and it’s all a bit messy, but eventually the bubbles recede. He said the same thing happens when you start practicing meditation. At first everything gushes to the surface, but over time the repetitive thoughts and discomfort stop and it not only becomes easier, but you start to tap into the stillness where our innate wisdom and creativity come from.

Create the time and space
One of the most important things when you start practicing meditation is to create a ritual.Establish a daily routine for meditating and put aside a particular time each day. Even 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes at the end of the day is enough to get results.

In the beginning, find a quiet place to meditate where you won’t be interrupted. But as your practice develops you’ll find you can practice on the bus to work, on the plane during take off or sitting in the park waiting for a friend to arrive.

Learn to relax
My friend and ex-Buddhist monk, Christos Dorje Walker (Dorje), says that,

Unless you can relax, you can’t meditate,

and according to him, this is one of the biggest obstacles for people learning meditation. Dorje uses the following easy relaxation technique to guide his clients into a relaxed state.

  • Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes.
  • Draw your awareness closer and closer to your body. Become aware of the sensations on the skin. Feel the breath flowing in and out of your body.
  • Imagine as you breathe out, black smoke is leaving the body. This can represent tension, rigidity, stress, worry, anything you don’t want.
  • Keep breathing out in this way and letting go. Continue until your breath becomes lighter, clearer, smooth and comfortable.
  • Enjoy a few moments of peace and relaxation.

Mediation techniques
Although there are lots of different meditation styles and techniques, there are only really two ways to approach meditation – through the body (such as Vipassana, Kundalini or Zazen techniques) or the through the mind (such as mantras, Transcendental Meditation, Bhakti Yoga, Darshan or guided visualisations).

I taught the following techniques on my Yoga retreats as a kind of ‘taste test’ of different meditation techniques. The idea is to get a feel for what style of technique might suit you and then explore that a little bit more with a course or a good teacher.

Mantra-style meditation (Mind technique)
This technique from the Theravaden Buddhist tradition is good for getting rid of fatigue, building energy, and improving digestion and blood quality. This technique is especially good for people who need nurturing and to like themselves better. The premise behind a mantra is that the sound of the mantra is more intriguing than any thoughts you’ll have, and therefore helps to focus the mind. In this example, I’ve suggested working with the sound ‘aum’ but you can work with alternatives, preferably under the guidance of an experienced meditation teacher.

  • Sit comfortably and close your eyes.
  • Take a few moments to focus on your breath, then drop into your mantra by silently chanting the sound ‘aum’. Imagine that you can draw the source of your thoughts back to your centre. At any time that your mind starts to wander, bring your awareness back to the mantra.
  • Stay here for 10-20 minutes.
  • To come out of the meditation, keep your eyes closed and lie down on your back for 5-10 minutes.

Zazen meditation (Body Technique)
This is a very grounding technique from the Zen Buddhist tradition and is good for building belly pressure and drawing energy into the lower body. It’s very ‘Yang’ in nature, so is a good technique to practise to still nerves before a presentation, hot date or visit to the dentist!

  • Sit kneeling with your big toes crossed.
  • Place your hands in your lap with your left hand on the right (palms up) and your eyes half closed.
  • Count from one to 10 (focusing on the exhalation more than the inhalation).
  • Focus on bringing awareness down into to your Hara (belly).
  • Stay here for 10-20 minutes.
  • To come out of the meditation, close your eyes for a couple of moments and then gradually open your eyes.

Getting started tips

  • The two fundamental things about learning to meditate is that you must create a ritual and work hard, especially for the first three months, before you get real results.
  • Aim to eventually practice 10-20 minutes, twice a day. But be patient, start small and gradually build up the time you sit in meditation. A few minutes a day is enough to begin with. It is not the amount of time you spend in meditation that counts, but your understanding during that time. If you try for too long initially it won’t be something you look forward to. Remember that consistency is more important than the length of time for each session.
  • There’s no right or wrong way but if your meditation isn’t helping you in some way, there may be something you need to change. You should feel something initially, but don’t expect it to happen every time. Look into other techniques or find a teacher to guide you.
  • It’s a good idea to get out of your body a little before you sit down to practice. After your Yoga practice is perfect, or at least do some simple stretches before you sit. A couple of rounds of alternate nostril breathing also helps.
  • Don’t judge yourself. Meditation is an adventure and like all adventures there may be pitfalls or times when your progress seems frustratingly slow. For me, every meditation is different. Sometimes I come out of it feeling something akin to orgasmic bliss. Other times it feels like I’ve been wrestling crocodiles!
  • Don’t worry if your mind starts to wonder. Imagine your thoughts are clouds drifting in the sky. Observe them, then let them go and gently refocus your attention.
  • Meditation can produce strong emotions. Try to observe them rather than react to them.

Remember, meditation is a personal journey, so your experience may be different to others and what may work for one person might not work for another. Bear this is mind and experiment to find out what works best for you – then stick to it!

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