When you hear the word meditation what does it mean to you? Do you have images of it being a weird cult-like practice where you stop thinking for yourself and see visions? Or where you rest in some strange celestial space? Meditation has been around for thousands of years and has been practiced, in some form, by all religions and cultures. It’s actually quite mainstream.
When I first started to meditate, I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into. I had heard about this technique that was supposed to help with stress. Initially, it was difficult to maintain my concentration on one object. My mind would wander all over the place. At certain times, I was more committed than at others.
My body would ache from sitting. However, I deeply sensed that this was a valuable technique and if I could just continue to commit myself to meditating, I would see some benefit. Slowly, I began to be able to sit and concentrate for longer periods. I also began to notice some changes in myself. On the days that I would meditate, I was more likely to be at peace, less reactive to life’s events and more accepting of others and myself.
Unfortunately, when life became very busy and hectic, I often decided that I didn’t have the time to meditate and I felt even more stressed. As time went on, I would notice that after I meditated I would go to work and suddenly it seemed as if my mind had shifted into a lower gear. I was really present to what was going on. I felt happier, my inner voice was quiet, and I could listen to people without judgment and with a sense of connection and understanding.
The effects of meditation don’t just happen while you’re meditating. They can last throughout the day.
I have made a commitment to meditate on a regular basis because I have experienced positive changes in myself. This didn’t happen suddenly. There were no lights, or explosions of discovery. It was a slow process requiring commitment and perseverance. My meditations are not all “great.” However, I have experienced changes in myself that truly have been beneficial and have allowed me to live my life in a more peaceful and happier fashion.
In the practice of meditation, the mind slowly becomes focused and quiet as you enter into a state of stillness and silence, moving beyond your thinking mind. In that open expansive state, you may feel a certain connection to your true inner wisdom and to all living beings.
Some people say, “My mind is too busy. I could never sit in stillness!” My reply to that is, “Do you have something that you’re passionate about?” When you’re dancing, playing sports, listening to music, taking pictures, or painting are you totally fixated on what you’re doing? Does time stand still? Does anything else exist at that moment? We all have the ability to deeply concentrate and these experiences in our everyday lives are a form of meditation. Sitting in meditation is just a matter of training the mind to become focused on a specific, chosen object of attention.
Meditation has been demonstrated to have positive physical and mental effects. It decreases anxiety, improves depression, and reduces the frequency and intensity of panic attacks. People with cancer tend to cope better. It improves high blood pressure and helps with various painful disorders.
Recent scientific investigations have demonstrated that there are functional and structural changes that occur in the brain when a person meditates. A brain scan, called an MRI, has revealed that in meditation, parts of the brain that are responsible for positive emotional states become more active. Another brain scan, called a CT scan, has revealed a change in the size of part of the brain, called the cortex, with meditation. I find this information very exciting and motivating. Through meditation, we have the ability to change the way our brains work. We are not trapped forever in brains that can’t change. We can move beyond the idea of, “That’s who I am and I can’t change!”
As you meditate, unconscious negative thoughts and emotions from your past may arise. Meditation allows you to discover these thoughts and emotions, to examine them and with awareness, acceptance and self-compassion, allow them to dissolve.
Meditation also provides a way to proceed along a spiritual path. When you’re resting in that calm, centered space of awareness and openness, you may feel a sense of universal connection to all of existence. You move beyond the narrow focus of an “I”-based perspective.
Twelve Principle Points of Practice
Before you sit down to begin your first meditation practice, you’ll be glad to know that you’ve already started! Just by doing the previous breathing and mindfulness exercises you’ve been doing a form of meditation. The object of your focus, your breathing for example, is always slipping away as the mind naturally wanders and jumps around. It helps to know a few more things about what to expect and how to go about your practice in order to really enjoy its benefits. These twelve principle practice points will help you get started and stay committed, so that you can really begin to take advantage of all that meditation has to offer.
Why are you meditating? Is it to achieve calmness and peace of mind, or are you also trying to find a greater truth of existence beyond yourself? Bring awareness to your purpose without striving to achieve it. You can set your intention for meditation at the beginning of each sitting.
Choose a space that you can dedicate to meditation. It can be anywhere in your house, but it should be a place where you’ll have some peace and quiet with few interruptions. If you meditate in the same place all the time, you will naturally come to associate that location with meditation and you’ll begin to relax just by being there.
Time of Day
Everyone has his or her own daily rhythm. Some people like to meditate in the morning when they first get up, as their minds are naturally quieter. Others prefer afternoons, or when they go to bed to help them sleep better. Choose a time that suits you, but try to be consistent. Make a daily appointment with yourself for that time period. It’s best not to meditate right before, or after eating, as the process of digestion will interfere with your concentration, as will feelings of intense hunger. Choose what works best for you personally and then stick with it!
Focus Your Attention
When meditating, you’ll need to pick a focus for your attention. You might choose to focus on your breathing, a light, a sound, a mantra, or whatever the most prominent, mental, or physical sensation happens to be at that time. A mantra is a combination of syllables or words. For some, awareness itself is the object of their attention. When you have chosen a focus for your meditation, it’s important to stick to that one object of focus at first, in order to create some consistency in your practice.
Duration of Practice
In the beginning, you should start with shorter meditation times and then gradually build up to longer intervals. Initially, try for five to ten minutes, once a day. As you continue to progress, you can increase your time by five to ten minutes weekly or whatever seems right for you. With practice, over time, you’ll be able to meditate for anywhere up to an hour or longer per day. Don’t panic! Life can get hectic but any time that you can commit to meditation is time well spent. Use your watch or cell phone alarm, or even an egg timer, to signal the end of the designated meditation period. That way, you don’t have to worry about the time and it helps to develop the persistence to practice until your designated time is up.
In order to see some benefit from meditation, it’s important to meditate on a daily basis. Make it a habit. It’s only with continued practice that you will develop stability and peace of mind. If you truly can’t take the time to meditate daily then make an attempt to meditate as often as you can. If you miss a day, don’t worry; just form the intention in your mind to make this a part of your daily routine.
Making it a Priority
We all lead very busy lives and in order to find time to practice you may have to be creative with the time you have. You may have to decrease the amount of time you spend watching TV, on the computer, or reading, in order to give yourself the time you’ll need to meditate. Let your family and friends know not to interrupt you and that this time is your quiet time. Make it a priority. Your health is important. Take a few minutes to meditate on especially hectic days, wherever and whenever you can, but don’t forget that it takes time to develop a new and healthy habit. Give yourself the time you need.
Wonderful and positive changes will occur with meditation. The most important thing you can do is keep practicing as often as you can. Stick with it, even if you feel that nothing’s happening. There’s always an unconscious, progressive impact. There are great health benefits in just coming to your meditation place no matter what you experience in that particular session.
Meditation is a slow, progressive process that is always evolving. Don’t expect an instant “aha!” after a short time. Be patient with your own progress. It can be frustrating when it seems that your mind is always wandering and always thinking. There will be times when you can’t seem to concentrate on the object of your meditation. Can you remember when you first started to learn something new like how to play a musical instrument or a new sport, or when you first learned to drive? You weren’t an expert overnight. It takes time to learn a new skill. Just know that if you spend enough time practicing, your concentration will improve.
Simply be present to whatever occurs in your meditation experience. If you find yourself feeling frustration, anger, happiness, or sadness during the course of your meditation session, then just acknowledge, or recognize what you’re feeling without trying to grab onto the emotion or engage it. Also, don’t try to forcefully push the emotion away. Accept the presence of whatever occurs as it happens. Be aware of thoughts and feelings as they try to pull you into the past, or entice you into thoughts of the future. Return your focus to your breathing as soon as you’re able. Refocusing on your breath-cycle will guide you back into the here and now.
You should not be concerned about whether the meditation practice that you’re doing is ‘perfect’ or if you’re doing it ‘the right way’. You’re doing an awesome job in just practicing. Try not to have unrealistic expectations about the way you think the meditation session should be going. The meditation that you’re experiencing, at that point, is what exists for you in that moment. You’re benefiting from the routine of meditating no matter what you experience in any given session.
Your meditation will be different every time. Sometimes it will be what you may perceive as a “good” meditation, other times it will be a more challenging experience. Try not to come to your meditation with an expectation that it will be ‘good’ like the last time. Come to your meditation with no expectations. As long as you’re trying to meditate, you’re doing just fine! Be kind to yourself.
I promise you that the benefits you will get from meditation are invaluable. With time and practice you will experience this. If you can make meditation a priority, then it will become so important to you and your well-being, that you will always make time for it in your life. In the beginning, you may just have to trust that these benefits, which may not be so obvious to you initially, will gradually reveal themselves. Promise yourself that you will give meditation your best effort.