Meditation 101: The Beginner's Guide Of How-To.
Welcome to Meditation 101. The beginners guide to decoding what meditation is all about, how to do it, where to even begin and some little tips to help your practice along.
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What is Meditation
Firstly, meditation is not about trying to change who you are. It’s not a method by which to make you a better person or change your personality [though you may find aspects do shift], rather meditation is a training in awareness.
Meditation is a practice that cultivates a state of thoughtless awareness, where you find a profound, deep experience where the mind is silently calmed, yet alert. Meditation is not about switching off your thoughts or emotions and blocking out what arises, but it is understanding that you can observe these thoughts, without judging them. Without following them and elaborating on them, instead choosing to just acknowledging their presence and move on.
Mindfulness, meditations newer trendy counterpart, is the ability to be in the here and now – the present. Without looking back to the past, or ahead to the future, you are tuning in to the moment, by being fully engaged in what is you are doing.
Who is meditation for
Meditation is a practice that is for every single person. There is zero discrimination of this inclusive practice – no age, gender, size or shape that meditation is better suited for, everyone can reap the benefits.
It is a skill that can be nurtured and refined by consistent training. Everyone can meditate, it is only for a certain type of person, or the individuals who can afford a fancy studio, in fact, most often meditation is completely free. Guided or alone. In class or at home. 10 deep breaths or 30 minutes of breathing. Meditation is available for every person to meet.
The benefits of Meditation
Meditation has been practiced and subsequently researched for countless years. Regular meditation practitioners will gladly reel off the benefits for you, listing better concentration, more alertness/clarity, a sense of better memory, a sensation of calm, enhanced sleep, feelings of wellbeing as some of the positive side effects of the practice.
However, if you want some more quantitative evidence, just check out some of the benefits listed below collated from numerous researchers who have spent the time reviewing data and running labs to check out the benefits of meditation.
The "relaxation response" was first described over 40 years ago by Harvard Medical School Professor Herbert Benson who recorded a relaxation response, the physiologic opposite of the fight or flight response, elicited by practices including meditation and deep breathing. This practice and subsequent response was shown to be helpful for numerous stress-related disorders including hypertension and anxiety.
A major reason why many begin meditation initially, there are multiple studies referencing the positive outcomes of a meditation practice on anxiety reduction. Including this 2012 review of 36 trials that indiciated 25 reported better outcomes for anxiety symptoms in the meditation groups, compared to control groups. As well as a 2014 literature review of 47 trials that suggested mindfulness based practices showed evidence of improving anxiety and depression.
Additionally, psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, found positive results in recent studies that Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs can help quell generalised anxiety disorder, a condition marked by hard-to-control worries, poor sleep and irritability.
Lower blood pressure
It has been suggested by the American Heart Association that the practice of Transcedental Meditation can assist in lowering blood pressure.
It is possible that mind and body practices, including meditation, can reduce chemical identifiers of inflammation within the body, showing positive links to helping regulate the immune system, as demonstrated in this 2014 review.
Behavioural interventions, such as MBSR programs designed to reduce emotional reactivity can have a therepautic benefit for chronic inflammatory conditions, as indicated by this 2013 study which showed significantly smaller levels of post-stress inflammatory responses when undertaking a MBSR program.
Helping those who struggle with sleep, this study indiciated that a meditation based program can have positive impacts on insomnia sufferers, with both a generalised MBSR and an insomnia specific program beneficially aiding sleep.
With the strong link between the brain and the gut, the benefits of regular meditation have been suggested in this study to help sufferers of IBS (a digestive condition, often triggered by emotional/stress responses).
When you run after your thoughts, you are like a dog chasing a stick. Every time a stick is thrown, you run after it. Instead, be like a lion who, rather than chasing after the stick, turns to face the thrower. One only throws a stick at a lion once.
How To Meditate
There are a myriad of ways in which you can meditate. From pure meditation practices, such as Transcendental Meditation, to mindfulness programs, such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and additionally a variety of other formats that incorporate elements of meditation alongside movement or tasks.
As a generalised overview, the following two formats of meditation are entry opportunities to formulate a meditation practice.
Concentration meditation involves focusing on a singular point. This could be following the breath, repeating a word or mantra, listening to a gong, counting mala beads or staring at an object. As the mind is attuned solely to a singular focus, the meditation allows you to redirect your awareness everytime you feel attention slipping elsewhere. Rather than pursuing your thoughts, you simply redirect the attention and come back to your single point.
Mindfulness encourages you to be in the here and now, observing your thoughts as they drift through the mind, but not judging nor getting attached to them. Simply being aware that they exist, and moving on. Within mindfulness we tend to uncover patterns of thoughts or emotions and our natural instinct to judge or attach story to them. Over time, we are able to shift this narrative and find a sense of balance and harmony to the thoughts.
There are countless other practices that constitute as a meditation technique. From Yoga practices, Gong Meditations and Kundalini, to ancient rituals of Tai Chi or Qi Gong, the recently popular colouring in books, or even walking through a maze, there are formats of meditation that include movement, sound and modalities that can enhance your experience.
The trick, is to find which resonates best with you, so that you are comfortable practicing it regularly.
When should you meditate?
When it comes to meditation, there are no hard and fast rules, other than making it work for you. The most important thing is consistency, so whether the time of day, the duration or the location for your meditation changes, so long as you keep coming back to it, it will work.
These are some different suggested times of the day to meditate to get you started.
First thing in the morning.
Meditating when you first wake up is a nice way to clear for your mind and set your intention and/or energy for the day ahead
Once you’ve worked out you will have got rid of some of the extra tension held in the physical body which can allow for a calmer nervous system to drop into the meditation state. This leaves you feeling more refreshed, and potentially you may find it easier to sit still after all that movement!
Meditating before you go to bed is a healthy way of winding down the day and easing into sleep. The practice at this time of day can help rinse you of the day that was and connect back into yourself before resting.
Some Extra Tips For Your Meditation Practice
Both literally and figuratively, it is important to get comfortable when undertaking a meditation practice. Sitting still for an extended period of time can be difficult, so find a position that allows you to relax. Whether that is bolstered up with pillows, lying down, propped up against a wall – whatever works for you, find the space.
Additionally, you need to get comfortable with yourself and your mind. Meditating can be difficult. It is hard to meditate for a duration of time, especially at the beginning, so don't give up! Further, many weird and wonderful things arise when you begin to meditate and it’s important to be comfortable with knowing that is just a part of the process.
Develop loving kindness
Meditation practices are not always easy and it takes a level of dedication and discipline to stick with mind training. Try to cultivate a sense of loving kindness for yourself and the emotions, feelings, thoughts or sensations that reveal themselves to you. Being gentle and kind on yourself, as you would be to another individual you truly care for, instead of berating yourself, is integral.
Be Careful of judging
It is human nature to want to categorise our thoughts and emotions, or dive deep into the storylines our mind unfolds as memories or thoughts. When thoughts arise, be careful of the judgement that rears its head to you. See if you can simply acknowledge, without labelling.
Additionally, see if you can clear judgement from your practice. Didn’t quite make it to the duration you wanted – no judgement. Skipped a day, or a week – no judgement. Just keep on trying.
Don’t try to empty your mind
The goal of meditation is not to empty your mind – it is to cultivate a state of awareness. Finding the calm but alert experience. It is not possible to completely empty the mind, so instead redirect your focus, choose to find a concentration point or a mindfulness practice and realise the goal is not empty, it is awareness.
Follow guided meditations
Meditation can be overwhelming to begin with. A great place to start are guided meditations, that allow you to learn practices, focus on direction and are devised solely to aid your practice. If you find sitting in silence to be difficult, or you just do not know where to begin, this is a great spot to start.
As you culminate your practice, say thank you to yourself. You are honouring your body and mind by committing to meditation and it’s a subtle reward to just say thanks!