When you think of meditation, what is the first image that comes to mind?
My 8-year-old niece demonstrated “meditation” to me very easily by sitting in a cross-legged position with her eyes closed and her fingers in a position that you often see on magazine covers. We see a person sitting in a peaceful place, typically by a lake or in a forest or a place that evokes relaxation.
While meditation can include this posture, it is more multi-dimensional than that classic image. If you are curious about meditation but do not yet practice, this “Meditation 101” guide will give you the background and tools needed to try it yourself.
Meditation is a practice of quieting and calming the mind and the body. It begins with awareness of one’s breath and body. Meditation cultivates focus and attention, as well as intention. Most practices involve stillness, at least in the beginning. Typically a person sits upright, though there are practices where people may lie down or that may take place while walking. Some meditation practices involve yoga postures in a “flow” or series of poses.
Jon Kabat Zinn, who was instrumental in bringing mindfulness meditation to medicine and Western society, says in his book “Mindfulness for Beginners”:
“It tends to be a momentous occasion to intentionally stop all your outward activity and, just as an experiment, sit or lie down and open to an interior stillness with no other agenda than to be present for the unfolding of our moments – perhaps for the first time in your adult life.”
Whether in formal sitting practice or as an opportunity to observe an ordinary experience in our lives like washing the dishes, mindfulness meditation invites us to be fully present in the moment. This means paying attention to all of our senses. As we wash dishes, we feel the temperature of the water, notice the motions of our hands, inhale the scent of the soap, hear the sound of the glass clinking, watch the stacking of dishes. In this way, mindfulness meditation can be a practice we employ in any area of our lives, not just in a formal seated practice.
Meditation suggests that the mind has a “life of its own” and that thoughts arise and can give rise to certain emotions, memories, and associations. By paying attention to these thoughts and observing them, and then letting them go, we notice patterns and habits in our thinking. We notice that we are NOT our thoughts, and begin to identify a little less with them. We separate the observer or “watcher” of these thoughts and thus get space from this ever-present and active quality of mind.
Meditation is a practice that can allow us to become more familiar with our inner world and dimensions. A recent book by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson “Altered Traits,” (2017) describes the science behind changes that are observed in meditators. We know from their work and others’ studies that meditation not only can create change in our immediate and daily reality, but it may even alter gene expression when observed over longer periods.
Pema Chödrön, a popular American Tibetan Buddhist teacher explains that meditation as an act of “stabilizing” the mind. Meditation allows us to become less emotionally reactive, and to be better able to choose our responses to events in our lives, instead of being instantly triggered by emotions. Mindful meditation allows us to communicate more harmoniously in our relationships because we can seek to understand people rather than reacting from our thoughts or biases. We can appreciate others’ perspectives as a reflection of their inner world, rather than taking things personally.
There is evidence that meditation can be a helpful tool in helping people heal from both physical illness and also in addressing mental illness. Meditation applies concepts similar to cognitive and behavioral therapy: observing and understanding our thoughts and feelings without being over-identified with them. This can help us with physical or mental afflictions that may affect us.
Meditation can be a powerful tool for introducing calm, stability, perspective and stress-relief into our lives. While it is highly dependent on the consistency of the practice, it is possible to gain benefits with just 10-15 minutes of daily practice. Goleman and Davidson show a dose-dependent relationship related to the intensity and lifetime hours of practice. But the encouraging news is that practicing for even a few minutes a day can have noticeable benefits within just 2 weeks of practice.
Meditation can help with focus, working memory, stress, anxiety and any other types of emotional concerns. While it is not a panacea for all illness and other steps may have to be taken to heal from various conditions, it can be a gateway to healing actions through greater awareness of our needs and struggles.
Typically a sitting position is used, with a straight spine, and a relaxed posture. You can sit in a chair or a couch or even a bed. It is distracting to sit for a long time in a position in which you are uncomfortable, so make any adjustments you need as you settle in.
Closing your eyes helps to calm us by reducing, visual stimulation and allows us to turn inward. Start with a couple of long, deep breaths, emphasizing the out-breath as slightly longer, thus activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Then just pay attention to the in-breath and the out-breath for a few moments. Do not change anything, but just observe.
In the same session or a separate one, noticing bodily sensations can be a powerful meditation practice. Beginning meditators can use a guided body scan meditation which prompts us to scan each area of the body slowly and mindfully, cued by the guide. This observation alone can lead to discoveries about one’s own physiology and tensions that we may be unconsciously holding. We must only notice, with no need to immediately change anything. In this way, we begin to understand our patterns and habits.
The myth that meditation involves “clearing” the mind stops so many of us from consistently practicing. We notice that our thoughts just keep coming, and may feel we are not meditating correctly. But by bringing our attention back, again and again, to a point of focus, to the breath, or the body, or sometimes a mantra IS the practice of meditation. It is this focused attention and intention that begins to reshape our mental habits.
The greatest myth about meditation that it involves stopping one’s thoughts. In reality, thoughts arise. This is what our minds do: generate thoughts. But if we can learn to observe and notice these thoughts in a curious and compassionate way, this is the essence of meditation. Another myth is that meditation is a Buddhist or Hindu practice and that it may be contrary to one’s religious beliefs. The practice of meditation or contemplation is common to many traditions. There is no need to adhere to any specific belief system, outside of an intention toward openness, curiosity, and compassion.
If you would like to try meditating, start small. Try only 5 minutes a day, set a timer, close your eyes and notice your breathing. Set a reminder to do this once a day for at least 2 weeks before you assess your results. If you can, increase that time by a minute each day until you get to 15 minutes or more.
It is helpful to understand that there are many techniques that people use to meditate. These include guided meditations or apps (like Insight Timer, Calm, Headspace, etc) that have timers and can generate ambient noise like ocean sounds in order to help focus. There is no “wrong” way to meditate. The key is to experiment with what works and to enjoy the process.
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