The word “meditation” can paint many different pictures. You may imagine it as something only reserved for monks or ascetics, or followers of a certain religion. On the contrary, you may already be aware that meditation is the fastest growing health trend in the West. With it’s wide array of benefits that provide the perfect counter-balance to our fast paced lifestyles, you can easily understand why this trend is occurring. You may hear or believe it’s good for you, but imagine it as something that just isn’t for you, with your busy schedule and your crazy kids who never stop and your road rage and your spouse that knows exactly how to get on your nerves. You may ask yourself, how can I possibly find the time to sit and do nothing? How can I quiet my mind? How is this worth losing precious productivity time? What if I’m not a Buddhist? What the heck do I do? These are all valid questions that you deserve to have answered. Read on.
Let me just start this off with a disclaimer. I am not a medical professional. This is for informational purposes only and not intended in any way to be a replacement of any medical treatment, advice, diagnosis, or medication. If you have a history of mental illness, please consult with your health care provider and do your research before attempting any form of meditation.
What is meditation?
Meditation is something I do to feel better, plain and simple. Meditation, in its truest form, is a blissful state of being of pure awareness, free from attachment to thought, full of compassion and joy. When one sits to meditate, they sit to practice meditation. As a beginner, that’s one thing you’ll need to understand, that you’re practicing meditation. This gives the understanding and acceptance that you will not be perfect, far from it actually, and that it will take effort and practice to get “good” at it. Practicing meditation, you are:
- Exercising and strengthening your brain’s levels of attention and awareness
- Calming your mind by learning to detach and observe your thoughts and feelings
- Learning to understand the inner workings of your mind by non-judgmental observation
I’ve personally been practicing around 5 years. I haven’t reached nirvana, enlightenment, God-realization, whatever it is you’d like to call it. With that being said, there are still plenty of aspects of meditation that I’m not even aware of, which are reserved only for the people that have reached those higher states. For us regular people who just want to feel a little more calm, happy, and peaceful, let’s take some baby steps first.
Benefits of Meditation
Some of the possible benefits of meditation include:
- Reduces levels of stress, anxiety, and depression
- Improves immune function and energy levels
- Increased feeling of well being, including self esteem, self acceptance, and emotional intelligence
- Better decision making, problem solving, and cognitive skills
- Increases memory recall and retention
- Lowers blood pressure and risk for hypertension
Where do I start?
One of the hardest steps in the beginning process of your meditation practice may simply be getting yourself to do it. The brain likes what it’s used to, what it’s comfortable with. It will send you fully justifiable, convincing reasons as to why you can’t or shouldn’t try meditating and you will run with it. But, you’re here for a reason. It’s caught your attention, and something deep inside of you knows it may help you. I believe that no matter where you think you are in life, if you sincerely meditate, it will benefit your life in some way, shape, or form, at the very least. Who doesn’t want a more organized mind?
Making time out of your day is possible. For beginners, I encourage setting small goals such as 5-10 minutes per day. Anybody, I don’t care who you are, can set aside 5 minutes a day to sit with their eyes closed. Don’t worry too much about length of time, consistency is one of the most important things when it comes to meditating. You need to build up your strength. Think of meditation as a muscle. You don’t go to a gym your first day and bench press 350 lbs. It takes work, faith, and dedication. When you put in the proper work with your career, you eventually get better at it and become more successful. When you put in the proper work with your body, at the gym and with proper eating, you will gain physical strength and have better energy. It’s the same with meditation. If you meditate properly and consistently, you will see and feel the emotional and mental benefits of growth.
Inspire yourself. For me, I knew there was imbalance in my life. I recognized that, and was open for suggestions. I stumbled upon the idea of meditation, just as you did, and simply started reading. I read a lot of online articles on the benefits of meditation and people’s real experiences of how it has altered their life positively. That motivated me, I wanted that for myself. Then, I read some more, this time on HOW to meditate. Below, I will give you a beginning technique that is simple, easy to understand, and straight forward.
Set aside 5 or 10 minutes that you can be alone in silence. This can be in the morning when you first wake up or right before you fall asleep, or really, whenever during the day, everybody’s life situation and schedule is different. When I meditate in the morning, I start my day off on the right foot. I’m more calm, alert, focused, and content. I’m less easily stressed at work, I’m friendlier with my clients (the pain in the ass clients too), and I can focus on my tasks with less possibility of distraction. When I meditate at night some time before bed, it calms my mind from my busy day, which in turn calms my body from the accumulated stress and tension. It allows me to unwind, and usually fall asleep much easier. Pick your poison. If you can squeeze in time for both morning and night, you’ll reap double the benefits.
Before I begin, there are tons of different methods of meditation. Eventually, you will need to see what works best for you, through trial and error and your own research. This technique will serve as a good home base, something that you can always go back to and rely on, that will continue to benefit you even as you grow down the path. This technique also does not require you to be a follower of any type of religion or belief, and will not conflict with your existing religion or belief.
Find a comfortable seated position, whether that be on the floor or on a cushion cross legged, or simply sitting straight up in a chair. I recommend sitting over laying down as this will keep your focus sharp, since our minds tend to go into rest mode while we’re laying down. Just make sure you’re comfortable, especially if you have any injuries.
I recommend closing your eyes also, but if you don’t feel comfortable doing this yet, that’s fine. You can gaze down and shorten your gaze, maybe with eyes half open. I really recommend closing your eyes, especially as a beginner, as this will lower the amount of possible distraction by cutting off one of your sensory tools, and you will want less distraction, especially starting off. You will have plenty of those to deal with already with your thoughts, let’s make it easier on ourselves.
Your breath will become your best friend from here on out. Remember, we’re training our minds and strengthening our level of attention and awareness. You do so by focusing your attention, plain and simple. Work that muscle.
Close your eyes, feel the stillness around you for a second. Grab control of your attention and focus it on the breath, preferably where it enters your nose. Feel every micro-second of the inhale, notice the pause, and then keep your attention right where it is for the length of the exhale, then notice the pause. If you’re able to hold your focus on one whole inhale-exhale cycle, without becoming distracted or forgetting what you were supposed to be doing, you’ve successfully meditated for that one breath. Congratulations.
You can see, just from that one breath, how focused and still you have to become, how present you have to become. You can then see how practicing this level of attention will sharpen your mind. You can see how practicing being that present, detached from your thoughts, will calm your brain. Focus, awareness, calmness, presence. These are all skills we are capable of. Not only are we fully capable of these skills, but we can master them, and repeat them through practice so much that they become a part of who we are.
That first breath is your first step. When you sit to practice meditation, you’re repeating that same, simple process, one breath at a time. Just know that you will forget. Your mind will wander. Your focus may be dialed in for a few breaths, and then you’re off in your thought world for the rest of your sitting almost. This is completely normal. We are strengthening our attention, which is more than likely very weak, as you can see after just one meditation session. The ‘aha’ moment where you notice you’re not focused on the breath, is a crucial moment to pay attention and give importance to. Do not, I repeat, do not generate any feelings of disappointment or negativity that you failed. Calmly accept that your mind has wandered, and softly bring your focus back to your breath. The ‘aha’ moment is important, we want to reinforce more of these moments to happen, you don’t do that by generating negativity towards it. Most of your meditations will be a cycle of you being focused, forgetting, mind wandering, and bringing it back. You will notice the periods of mind wandering becoming less lengthy and less often over time, while your ability to hold your attention on the meditation object (your breath) is getting stronger and becoming more second nature. This is because your attention and awareness are growing stronger. Practice. You are practicing.
Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.C.G. Jung
Before I dove head first into my meditation practice, I felt less than normal. I was very nervous, anxious, and felt I couldn’t connect with people. I used alcohol as a social crutch and marijuana as a way to cope with my feelings of boredom, loneliness, and sadness. I looked for quick hits of dopamine on social media, and floods of it from porn and sex. Because of my addiction to pain-numbing instant gratification, I never truly felt what one needs to feel to grow as a person. I was never (or rarely) truly present to take everything in. When the high I chose to chase came down, as they all do, I always felt like something was missing. Pain and dis-ease is your body’s way of telling you that something isn’t right, something needs to be done differently, something needs to go. When you’re numb or distracted for all of your discomfort, you miss the chance to listen to your body and the opportunity to grow stronger from the learning process that pain provides. I’m not saying this is the case with everybody that uses alcohol and/or marijuana, social media, video games, internet, sex, pornography, and food. I believe it all depends HOW you use anything, but that’s for another discussion.
Meditation has taught me that life isn’t bad, or good. It just is, it just happens. What makes life feel “good” or “bad” is our judgement and labeling, our reaction to it, our mental activity. When anything happens in the external world, we either react with a positive, neutral, or negative judgement and/or emotion. It happens so fast, we have seemingly no control over it, for the most part. We react on a dime, that’s what our brains are unconsciously wired to do. Meditation helps put space between your thoughts and reactions. By increasing your brain’s level of attention and awareness, you are increasing your level of conscious awareness. This means that when the external world happens, you’re now more likely to consciously respond as you choose instead of unconsciously reacting how you’re automatically wired. As the old, negative habit patterns of the brain slowly fade from not being used and reinforced, and are replaced by new, more mindful and beneficial habit pattern, since you are literally acting differently, over time, you will start to think and feel differently as a result of your new set of positive actions. This is great news for us that have bad reactive patterns of anger, anxiety, sadness, lust, greed, animosity, arrogance, pride, impatience, envy, dishonesty, that we’d like to change, or at least become more aware of. That is the first step to changing a problem after all, we must first become aware of the problem’s existence. Meditation helps me create that space, that space of awareness and presence.
I’m not perfect because I meditate, but I can honestly say that I feel better as a person. I feel more calm and in control of myself. I take more responsibility for how I feel, and blame external factors less. I still get angry, anxious, prideful, and negative. I know deep within myself though, that my life situation would be a lot less favorable had I not found this beautiful practice. When I fall out of my routine, my consistency of practice, I feel the difference. Those days aren’t as good, for the most part. I love the feeling of being in the zone of presence and tranquility. I hold in high regard those that are peaceful, loving, and focused. I look at life through a different lens. The trajectory of my life has changed in the direction of a more connected, happy, and equanimous future. I now strive to source all of my joy and contentment from within, while remaining present and focused enough to handle my external world with more love and care. I look forward to gaining more wisdom and balance with age. That is why I practice meditation.
For those looking to further their knowledge and read up more on meditation, I highly recommend the book The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa (John Yates, PHD). This book really explains the mechanics of meditation from a psychological and scientific perspective. It will walk you through each and every “phase” of your meditation journey, and is something I recommend to all beginners, or practitioners looking to deepen their understanding.