When I tell people that I meditate, the usual response is, “Oh, I’d love to do that, I just can’t clear my head or concentrate for long enough”. This is the false perception of what meditation is.
There are many different meditation practices, designed to improve everything from patience, love, abundance, health; to reduce stress, develop compassion and promote forgiveness. Meditation can be born out of faith, religion, spirituality or simply a desire to relax and take some time back for yourself.
If I say the word ‘meditate’ to you, it may conjure up many different images than if I said the same word to your neighbour.
The following is my opinion, from my own experience, observation and research into meditation.
What is meditation? Or more importantly, what mediation isn’t.
I believe the most common misconceptions about meditation are:
- You must clear your mind completely of all thought to successfully meditate; and
- You have to meditate for long periods of time in certain places and specific positions.
Why do I think this is a misconception? Thinking this way about meditation puts a lot of pressure on the individual. You feel like you’re doing something ‘wrong’ if you can’t sit still for longer than a few minutes, listening to silence while fighting off the shopping list that forms in your head.
We are human. We have brains. They are amazing. They allow us to think. Even about random things like shopping lists.
Meditation, or mindfulness, is not about trying to force thoughts away or being disappointed because you are unable to ‘clear your mind’.
When I sit in meditation practise (notice that word ‘practise’), my aim is to notice my thoughts, but not be drawn into developing a story about them. To allow them to simply pass by, without becoming my focus. Then to take my attention back to my breath.
Then there’s the myth than you need to meditate for long periods of time. True, some schools of thought say 20 minutes is the optimum time to meditate, and indeed with practise (there’s that word again!), you may like to sit for much longer. However, when you are just starting out, even 20 minutes can feel like a very long time to be still.
Bringing meditation or mindfulness into your every day life can be as simple as closing your eyes for 5 minutes on the bus in the morning and being aware of the breath moving in and out of your body.
What are the benefits of meditation and mindfulness practise?
I have been practising mindfulness meditation for more than five years now. My practise involves committing to sit for 10 minutes each day, using the mindfulness app Calm (guided meditation works best for me). The benefits were not instant, but over time, I have noticed these skills I have learned through my practise creeping into my life every day:
- Patience, impulsivity and catching myself. Mindfulness teaches you non-reactivity and catching yourself before you say or do something you might later regret. I used to have a bit of a short fuse when it came to emotional conversations, particularly with my parents. I would revert to a teenage mentality around them, and I hated it. Through practising non-reactivity in my mindfulness mediations, I have learned how to identify when an unwanted emotion like impatience, anger or self-defence is rising up in me and, rather than react impulsively, I am able to observe the emotion, pause to consider why I feel it, consider the consequences of acting on it and – more often than not – let it pass by. This has led to many more patient, compassionate and enjoyable interactions with the people I love the most, where I walk away feeling happy and peaceful, rather than upset and annoyed at myself for allowing my inner teenager to have a tantrum that definitely wasn’t called for!
- Coming back to the present moment. I’ve often felt like life was running away from me, as I struggled to fit in work, friends, family, partner, volunteering and a hundred other commitments into a teeny tiny 24-hour period. When I was doing one thing, I was constantly thinking of what was next on my list. By practising coming back to the breath in mindfulness meditation, allowing that to-do list to float away, focusing on the here and now, I have learned a life-skill of being fully present. By practising sensory walking mediations, I have learned to use all my senses to observe the world around me in detail, in this moment. To slow down, to be here. The practise of mindfulness meditation also encouraged me to make some lifestyle changes, re-focusing and re-prioritising what’s really important to me, what brings me joy. Now, when I’ve decided to take a day off to go stand-up paddle-boarding on a beautiful lake with my partner, I switch off my phone, I leave my work at home and I fully commit to the experience. What wonderful memories that makes!
- A coping mechanism for fatigue, stress, procrastination. I know I can grab my phone, turn on my Calm app, close my eyes and go inwards for 10 minutes, whenever I need it. If I feel my cortisol levels rising and my fight, flight or freeze response building up, I know not only has my practise helped me to identify this feeling before it becomes overwhelming, but also given me a coping mechanism to calm it. A 10-minute sit can be all I need to re-centre myself, calm my physical response to stress in that moment and return to the task or situation I was facing with lower blood pressure, a normal pulse-rate and steady breathing, which let’s face it, is not only better for my mindset, but my physical health too! Feeling that 3pm fatigue? A give in to a 10-minute sit. And if during that sit I feel my body needs to rest longer, I allow myself an afternoon nap. I know that option’s not available for everyone (if you work in a busy office, retailer or on the road, for example), but sometimes just a 10 minute mediation is all I need to perk myself up to finish a productive day. Top tip – toilet cubicles are a great place to get your 10 minute sit in!
Alternative ways to find calm.
Meditation works to calm and centre you, momentarily, away from your everyday life, stress at work, general chaos around you. For some people, this might not involve sitting still at all – have you ever noticed when you run, you don’t think about anything except your breathing and the road in front of you? When I run, I don’t think about work, I don’t think about my personal issues, it’s just me and the road, baby.
Walking meditation is a great way to practise mindfulness whilst on the move. You start by focusing on the lower half of your body, feeling the movements and impact of your legs and feet as you walk. Then you move your attention to tactile sensations, smells, sounds and sights around you and finally, the experience as a whole. It’s amazing how we take for granted the act of walking, and how much more you notice about the world around you when you practise mindful walking.
How do you learn to meditate?
Like every skill, learning to meditate takes practice. Start small and work your way up to longer sessions, if you want to. You may find that 5-10 minutes a day is all you need.
Work out what works for you and stick with it. Whatever your chosen method or practice, I am a firm believer that meditation to the power to change lives.
To give you a head start, I’ve included some tips and ideas that I found beneficial while learning to meditate:
- Yin Yoga – the practice of holding poses, often for three minutes or more, teaches patience and builds strength, but I especially found Yin Yoga a fantastic way to learn to breathe and listen to your breath. It’s amazing how the simple act of gently focusing your attention on breathing in and breathing out in a controlled way can bring total calm to a meditation session. This is also a great method for helping to deal with chronic pain.
- Guided Meditation – if you really struggle with being still and silent, try guided meditation. There are plenty of podcasts you can download on your smartphone or from YouTube.
- Music Meditation – similar to guided mediation, meditating to music can provide a gentle focus for your session, something to listen to with your full attention. Again, if you find your mind filling up with thoughts, you can accept them, then easily bring your attention back to the music. Meditation Oasis has a lovely uplifting tracks, and it’s Meditation RX app is free to download for as long as the Covid-19 pandemic lasts.
- The Ocean and Water – there is something so incredibly calming about the sound of waves lapping on the shore. I love to sit by the sea, close my eyes and take in the sounds of the ocean, the birds, the wind. The same feeling comes from taking a stand up paddleboard out to a secluded (safe) cove, sitting and listening to the water gently kiss the underneath of the board, like the sound of boats gently rocking in the harbour. Beautiful.
When should you meditate?
The morning is considered a sacred time for meditation. When the world hasn’t quite woken up yet, all is still, the air feels sweeter and there’s just something special about the light. Try setting your alarm 15 minutes earlier. Get out of bed and sit in a comfortable chair with your feet planted firmly on the ground and use your favourite form of meditation as you breathe in the energy of morning.
But really, when and how you meditate is up to you. Do what works for you. Find your grove and breathe in the benefits.
Where do you like to meditate? Have you noticed any minor or major changes in your life from practicing meditation? Do you have any tips on getting started? We’d love to hear about them – join the conversation on Facebook or Instagram.