Ok, don’t worry, you don’t have to be a zen master or a great yogi to experience the benefits of meditation! It is actually a simple process and anyone can do it.
So what is meditation? It is a tool to train what is called the ‘monkey mind’. Monkey mind is that constant urge to think, churn, do things, and distract ourselves from just being. When you create hundreds of scenarios in your mind for a situation that has not even happened – that’s your monkey mind. Meditation is a tool to gain control over your mind and thoughts.
Our emotions are born from our thoughts. We can literally think ourselves depressed, sad, fearful or angry. Most of the time we are not aware that we have the power to stop these thoughts or replace them with more positive ones. The good news is that it works another way around also – we can think ourselves happy too! It just requires some awareness and understanding that we are not our thoughts. Meditation is a key to that awareness.
Meditation allows you to see things more clearly and understand what is really happening in your mind – what’s real and what’s just your imagination. The more clearly you see, the easier it gets to see the reality in a more objective way, not based on false perceptions or beliefs. Then you react less – you experience less anger, fear, jealousy, etc, and you act more – you simply do what needs to be done. You feel more peaceful, content and confident. You are present, you are not dwelling in the past or feeling worried about the future. You are now.
Meditation reduces stress and activates your parasympathetic nervous system, your mind-body healing abilities. When you meditate you help your body heal naturally. The practice benefits cardiovascular and immune health. It slows ageing and encourages a healthy lifestyle. It increases happiness and acceptance.
Ok, so how to meditate? To start with, find a nice quiet place and make sure you feel good there. You can light some candles or have some objects around that are meaningful to you. This will help you relax and start meditation with a positive attitude. Make it nice and special, then you will really look forward to it! Once you are used to meditation, you can do it anywhere and anytime.
A very simple method is to sit still with your eyes closed and your back straight and to watch your breathing. You can count each inhalation and exhalation as one, feeling the air coming in through your nostrils and all the way down to your chest and belly and the air coming out when you exhale. Count till ten and start again. You can do it for as long as you like, even if it’s only for five minutes – it’s a good start! Then try increasing the time gradually. If you loose count or get distracted, it’s ok, just bring your attention back to your breathing and start counting from one again. You can eventually stop counting, just continue observing your breathing. Watching and controlling your breathing is the first step to gaining control over your thoughts, including fears.
If you want to make it really simple, try doing a guided meditation, where someone leads the way by giving you physical sensations to observe or talks you through a relaxing visualisation. You can also try meditating with music to start with. Treat music as your meditation object, give it your full attention, listen and follow the magic of sounds. Classical music is perfect for this. YouTube is a great source of all kinds of guided meditations and meditation music.
When I started meditating, I was overwhelmed by understanding how busy my mind was! A 15-minute meditation was a torture! There was so much stuff in my mind! If you feel like this too, it’s ok – everyone has too much stuff in their head. And that’s why meditation is so powerful. As you mediate, your mind will constantly throw things at you – your plans for tomorrow, what to cook for dinner, your conversation with your boss earlier, how much longer you are meant to sit there, anything and everything! Don’t judge yourself and your thoughts and don’t indulge in them, just acknowledge that they are there and let them pass. And gently bring your attention back to the object of your meditation, be it breathing, guided meditation or music.
Research has shown that meditating daily improves your memory, focus, attention, information processing and decision making. Meditation gives you mental strength, resilience and emotional intelligence. It also makes you stronger against pain and improves your psychological well-being. Meditation increases awareness of your unconscious mind. It increases the ability to express love, compassion and empathy.
The good news is you don’t have to mediate for hours to reap the benefits. Research has shown that even 20 minutes daily can make positive changes in the structure of the brain. That doesn’t mean that you should limit your practice to that, however. Nor does it mean that a ten minute practice is a waste of time. Even five minutes when you wake up or just before you go to sleep is a great way to start! I started with with a 15-minute practice (and it was hard!) and I now meditate (seated) for an hour a day and enjoy every minute. In addition, you can turn any activity into meditation – walking, washing the dishes, eating, dancing – do it mindfully and with your full attention!
Image: painting by Lori Portka