Beginners Guide for Starting a Meditation Practice.
So, Meditation… whats it all about?
Firstly, if you’re familiar with Meditation practices and maybe looking for a refresher, or would like some additional pieces of information to help you with your practice, then just scroll down to my Quick Steps to get started. However - for those of you completely new to the practice, or those interested in a little background information first…then we’re gonna jump right in!
Lets begin with answering some of the most common questions I get asked regularly at my classes, workshops, retreats and trainings. No matter what country I’m in, there seems to be some common areas of misunderstanding and confusion…
Are the practices I have been doing really meditation?
Some of us may have been to some yoga classes where they gave a brief intro to meditation or breath awareness, or maybe you have attended meditation workshops, or you may have listened to guided meditations or visualisations on an App, or maybe you’re yet to look into any of these and this is your first look into it all. Well lets break it down so that we’re all on the same page before we get a little deeper into the subject! The practice of one pointedness or bringing your focus to one thing (in relevance to Patanjalis 8 limbed Path) - be that the breath, subtle movements of our body, the sounds around us, energy running through the body, a repeated Mantra or phrase, isn’t strictly speaking meditation, or least to begin with. This practice is actually known as Dharana, the stage that comes before meditation (Dhyana) - which is the practice of directing the Mind to one chosen area of focus or attention and maintaining it for prolonged periods of time. Usually when we first begin the practice, we only have brief moments of being able to focus the mind where we want it to go - many of us will experience monkey mind (the mind hopping all over the place, completely out of our control), we will get uncomfortable or distracted - a constant loop of momentary focus followed by distraction or daydreaming, or maybe…we may even fall asleep! But if we are vigilant and persistent - those moments of directed attention or focus begin to get longer and longer..
So what is meditation then?
According to the sutras of Patanjali, it is part of the practice of calming or stilling of the fluctuations of our mind - our sensory awareness, our imagination (often future based), or our memories (past based), which of course can prove to be a challenge. It is through prolonged and consistent practice of this one-pointed focus (Dharana), that we are then potentially able to find ourselves in a consistent directed + focused meditative state, without allowing our attention to be drawn in by other distractions in our peripheral awareness. In the 8 limbed path, this state is known as Dhyana (Meditation). Of course when we begin the practice, it can be very frustrating, and it requires persistence, patience and practice to both start and maintain a regular practice. You could liken the training of the mind, like training a puppy to sit and stay - When we first try to make the puppy do what we want, it runs all over the place a million miles a minute. However, through consistent daily training, practice and reward - eventually the puppy will stay and sit as we instruct it to.
Meditation is about ‘emptying the mind’ right? How do you just sit there and think of nothing?!
This is a common misunderstanding - that in order to meditate, the mind must be empty, that we must be thinking of nothing. I’m going to make this very clear - that is pretty much impossible for the majority of the population. So what does calming the fluctuations of the mind mean? When we choose to focus on one thing, it does not mean that everything else disappears - but what happens, is these other aspects slip into our peripheral awareness. We know that they are still there (the sights, the sounds, the itches etc) but despite how loudly those distractions may be to us - we are choosing to keep our focus on one thing. You could liken this to holding up your finger to the moon - If you intensely focus on the finger…then slowly the stars, the sky, even the moon will all start to all blur into one. Of course they haven’t disappeared, but your focus on them has softened as you have chosen to focus on your finger. When we are able to focus our attention this way for prolonged periods of time - we are able to soften our focus on everything else so much so that we are able to strongly and consistently focus on whatever it is we have decided to focus on.
Only monks or hippies do that shit - whats the point?
In short, no. Gone are the days that you have to wear robes or harem pants, sit in pretzel postures, never shave, eat a specific diet, or burn incense (to pull on all stereotypical opinions haha *no judgement here*) to practice meditation. The practice of meditation is for everyone and anyone, and can benefit anyone and everyone. I could basically write another article on the benefits of meditation, but to keep this post short and sweet I will just give a short list here for you to have a gander at - and then you can google until your heart is content. So here are some the benefits of beginning a meditation practice: It can reduce worry / fear / anxiety, impulsivity, stress, depression, inflammation. It can improve self esteem, self acceptance, optimism, relaxation, awareness, mood, emotional intelligence, mental strength & focus, cognitive skills and creativity, decision making / problem solving, immune system, sleep, breathing and heart rates. We can probably see why mindfulness, meditation and yoga have found their way into morning or daily routines of many people, and also the offices and working spaces for many business and corporations globally!!
How long do I need to do it for? How many minutes a day?How Many days a week?
There is no real right or wrong answer for this - as it will come down to each individual and what is realistic based on their current lifestyle and commitments. That being said, the more you are able to maintain consistency with the practice, the better. There is a Zen proverb that I would like to share with you, that goes something like this: “If you don’t have time to meditate for an hour everyday, you should meditate for two hours.” As you start to experience the benefits of an individual practice, then maybe you’ll start to see how beneficial a regular meditation practice could be. so where possible, make the time. You won’t regret it - even if for five minutes a day. At least you are keeping that consistent daily commitment to and for yourself.
So now that we have a little more understanding - lets get to it! Below are ? Steps to get you started on your Meditation Journey:
Clear your schedule for your chosen amount of time - let anyone you live with know that you will be busy / not to be disturbed for that amount of time.
Put your phone on aeroplane mode, switch of notifications and disconnect yourself from the internet - no unwanted distractions. Only reason you should need your phone is for a timer.
If you need to be somewhere after your meditation, set a timer - I recommend insight timer for this as some of the alarms on phones can be pretty jarring.
Put on something comfortable, warm and non-restrictive - when you sit in stillness for prolonged periods of time, you don’t want itchiness, clothes riding up into places, or for you to get cold etc
Create an environment that makes you feel comfortable, safe and settled
Acknowledge that every meditation practice is exactly that - a PRACTICE. Try to eliminate expectancy based on previous experiences (Good or bad), remember you cannot be good at meditation, and that there is no such thing as a bad meditation practice either - it’s just more practice. Just taking the time and dedication to sit and practice is enough to be proud of.
Okay - so lets Practice!
10 Steps to get you going!
Seating and Posture - Make yourself comfortable! One of the biggest reasons (and sometimes excuse) to stop the meditation practice is because you begin to get uncomfortable, start to fidget, get distracted and then give up. Give yourself the best possible chance by making sure that you are as comfortable as you can be. If you are a little more restricted around the hips and find it difficult to sit cross legged - then elevate the pelvis on a couple cushions, a block, or a bolster. This will create a little more space making it more comfortable to sit, and also will allow your knees to more or less drop below the hight of the hips, which helps with circulation of blood and reduces the possibility of your legs falling asleep. If you have issues with poor posture, or are stooped - then maybe you’d like to consider placing your back against a wall, or using a chair with a back. Some traditionalists would argue with my latter suggestions - but I’m of the opinion, that if that helps get you started with your practice then it’s all good in my book!
Set your timer - if you are time restricted, it may be worth setting a timer so that when your time needs to draw to a close, it can. Be sure to set an alarm that isn’t too jolting, as you wouldn’t want to stress yourself after having spent time in peace.
Close your eyes - Once you’ve made yourself comfortable and are settled into your environment ready for practice, gently allow the eyes to close. If for whatever reason you would rather keep your eyes open, then just allow your gaze to drop slightly and then soften.
Set your intention - Before you begin directing your attention or focus where you wish, first set a broad intention for the practice. Firstly Your What, and secondly your Why. Example of your what maybe “For the next ten minutes I’m going to practice bring my awareness to my breathing. If my mind wanders, as soon as I have noticed I will smile, recognise and celebrate that Im fully present, and then will return my focus to my breathing.” An example of your why may be: “I would like to have more influence over my thoughts, so that I’m able to develop a more care free and less stressed outlook on life.” Through setting a strong intention, you give yourself the best possible chance of keeping your attention focused where you wish it to be. First we must consciously set intentions, and the stronger they become over time they will become more engrained in our Subconscious.
Start with your surroundings - Once you’ve shut down your eyes, Mentally Acknowledge your surrounding. Slowly allow yourself to consciously take in all that surrounds you - the sounds, the smells, the temperature. Once you have acknowledged it all, then accept that will be in your peripheral awareness for the duration of your practice. As we know, nothing disappears when we are meditating, but the peripheral details will soften and become more hazy when we are able to keep our attention directed on what we want it to be.
Bring your awareness to your body - When we start to bring our awareness from the Peripheral to ourselves, its helpful to start broad. What I mean by that, is to focus on sensations that are obvious. The weight of your sit bones on the floor or your cushion, the weight of your hands in your lap, the movements of your torso as you breathe in and out. Through bringing our awareness to our body, we allow the things in our peripheral awareness to soften, and we begin to direct our attention to the body.
Gradually Narrow your width of focus - as you’re able to direct your focus on larger body sensations, slowly start to bring your focus to more subtle physical sensations. An Example of this would be noticing the tickle of the cool air coming in through your nostrils as you breathe in, and then the tickle of warm air coming out through your nostrils as you breathe out.
Maintenance of Focus - As you start to practice keeping your attention on more subtle areas of awareness, to begin with, you may find that the mind will flicker between where you’d like your awareness to be and something / somewhere / someone else. If you recognise that the mind has wandered elsewhere, smile as you acknowledge you have woken up and are completely present, remind yourself of your intention…and slowly bring yourself back to your intended point of focus.
Finding What Works for you - Narrowing your focus and maintaining it when focusing on something as subtle as the movement of breath in and out of your nose can be very challenging, so I offer you a couple additional tools that can make it a little easier:
**Tool number 1: Counting your breaths. One round of inhale and exhale counts as one. If your mind drifts anywhere else, then you start back at one. Remembering the rule: “Never Less than five, never more than ten.” This technique can really help direct your focus, and eventually this too may fade as you are able to maintain your subtle breath awareness.
**Tool Number 2: Use a mantra to help keep you focused both on the inhale and the exhale. You can get really creative with this, so experiment and see what works for you - but here is one to get you going. As you take a breath in, your silent mantra is “on my inhale I’m breathing in [insert your chosen word that works for you] life / happiness / calm / resolve etc” and as you breath out, your mantra is “and on my exhale I’m breathing out [choose word that works for you] uneasiness / disease / unhappiness / self judgement etc”
Sit with what you experienced, just for a moment + then carry those potential positive feelings into the rest of your day - when your timer goes off, or your practice naturally comes to an end, just sit for a minute or two longer to be with anything that may have come up for you. Enjoy the after experience and the rest of your day!