Meditation is something that I am very passionate about.
When someone asks me about it I tend to word vomit and blab about how amazing it is and how it has changed my life. So I thought instead of rambling about the topic, I would ask my friends (who don’t meditate) what questions they have about meditation and mindfulness. Therefore this post is a bit of a general Q&A about my experience with meditation.
What is meditation?
A lot of people think that meditation is about not thinking and relaxing completely. However, meditation is more about conjuring awareness of the mind, breath, body and feelings. It is a practice used to assist with every day life, by making us slow down and pay attention to things that we normally take for granted. Meditation promotes emotional calmness and mental clarity. During meditation you take the time to pay attention to the breath and focus the mind, showing yourself loving kindness and compassion. Normally I practice mindfulness meditation formally every day and informal mindfulness during daily activities when possible. Mindfulness is a form of meditation, with practices often being referred to as mindful or mindfulness meditation.
How did you get into meditation?
I actually got into meditation through attending a MBCT (mindfulness based cognitive therapy) course for my mental health. I attended this course about a year and a half ago. I have been practising meditation on and off since this course. Within the last 6 months, I have been meditating multiple times a week, trying to aim for at least once a day. I am still very new to the practice in relative terms, and yet the benefits I have received are immense. I hope this is something I carry on with throughout life.
What was your initial reaction to meditation?
As someone with a scientific mind, my gut reaction was to roll my eyes. I thought mindfulness and meditation were a gimmick preached by those with religious backgrounds and hippies. However after I got over my initial hesitation (and judgement) I was astonished to find out the quantity of scientific literature supporting meditation to promote positive mental health. Here are a few journal articles to get you started if you are interested in the literature (1, 2, 3).
How does the reality of meditation compare to media representation/stereotypes?
Often society portrays meditation in a strictly religious context e.g. Buddhist monks. However this is far from the truth. Meditation has always been popular in the East and it is currently becoming more popular in the Western world. The media often portrays meditation as a hypnotic type state one enters into, however you must be awake and aware in order to meditate. A good way to learn about and understand the benefits of meditation, is to watch TED talks about it. An example is this one by Sara Lazar, PhD. It’s only 8.5 minutes so well worth a watch!
How does it feel to meditate?
Meditation is different for everyone. We cannot see inside each others minds, so this is just my personal experience. When I meditate it allows me to slow the world down and concentrate on myself. In a life where we are told ‘busier is better’ it allows some quiet downtime, where I am immersed in my body and mind. By the very nature of the practice, meditation allows you to be in control and aware of your mind and body in a way that you normally are not. It feels peaceful, as though all will be well and makes me feel whole and complete.
How do you stay focused?
This is a common misconception about meditation, the fact that you need to be focused all the time. The state of complete concentration and mental clarity are incredibly difficult to obtain, many years and thousands of hours of practice are needed. Especially in the beginning focusing on your breath or body can seem very difficult. For example, if you are meditating and attending to your breath, if your mind gets distracted that is okay. Simply noticing that you are thinking and have become distracted is a good thing, it shows you are more aware of your mind. In this situation you should simply acknowledge the thought and let it go. If it helps, you can imagine thoughts passing like clouds in the sky or fallen leaves flowing down a river. After practising for a short while I still have thoughts, it is incredibly normal. So long as you are aware of the thoughts and distractions, they actually become a part of the practice as you are being mindful of your own thoughts. Staying focused on your breath or body does become easier over time, try not to get frustrated, treat yourself with kindness knowing it is normal. Being kind to yourself is a big part of meditation, by showing ourselves and our thoughts kindness we allow ourselves to grow.
How does it make a difference to your daily life?
Most days I find my mind flitting between a million different thoughts and attempting to multitask. Meditation gives me the mental clarity to be able to tackle the world and focus better. I have also found that meditating has taken me off of autopilot in a lot of scenarios. Where I would sometimes carry out a task without even thinking e.g. walking to the shop, making a cup of tea, or driving to work, I am now more present and aware in these moments meaning life seems more fulfilling. I have found since meditating, I am more readily able to deal with difficult situations and emotions. I am able to often take time to contemplate my reaction to a situation instead of reacting instantly. Meditation has also helped me deal with chronic pain by learning to accept and be with the pain, instead of fighting it. I have had a lot going on in my life in the past year and a half, I feel that meditation has helped me deal with these changes and accept situations how they are. I feel better in myself, more confident and less overwhelmed by daily life.
How do I start?
All you need to start is yourself and a desire to better your quality of life. Try following the simple meditation below or perhaps attending a meditation class put on by local mental health services (e.g. Mind or University Counselling Services) or a Buddhist Centre.
How can I meditate in a really simple way?
Simply find somewhere relatively quiet that you are unlikely to be disturbed. Sit either on a chair with your feet flat on the floor and your hands resting on your thighs, or perhaps lie down with your knees bent and your arms down beside you. To meditate, you want to be in a comfortable posture where you are alert and awake but not strained in any way. I personally find sitting cross legged on my bed with a pillow propping up my back is a good position, but many people find crossing their legs uncomfortable so find a position which works for you.
From here, take a deep breath in through your nose and out through your mouth. On the out breath gently close your eyes or lower and soften your gaze. When you have done this, try to focus on your breath, breathing through your nose. To start with you can think ‘In’ and ‘Out’ if this helps. Rest your hands on your belly and make sure you are breathing from your lower abdomen not your chest. Feel your belly swell under your hands as you breathe in and relax as you breathe out. Pay attention to the sensation of breathing, for 3 breaths. If after this you feel you wish to continue then do so for as long as you feel comfortable. If you begin to be distracted by thoughts, don’t get frustrated, simply kindly acknowledge you are thinking and bring your attention back to your breath. It is normal to be very easily distracted, especially at first, because you are so used to having a busy mind.
Another way to meditate simply is to download a meditation app. These often provide guided meditations. One of my favourites is “Mindfulness: finding peace in a frantic world” which is best to use in conjunction with the book. “Simple Habit” which is a great way to fit meditation in around your daily life, you can choose the amount of time you have and the mood/situation you are in and the app will give you a guided meditation. “Insight Timer” is another favourite because it allows you to set a gentle timer to meditate to as well as background music if you wish, it is a lot nicer than the regular iPhone timer sounds!
I hope this answers some of your questions about meditation. I think I will continue to do these as my experience with meditation grows, please do feel free to ask me any questions you may have!