We all know that meditation can benefit our overall health and wellbeing. The key to developing an effective meditation practice is doing it the right way. If you are not sure how to begin, Sharee James brings you a Beginner’s Guide that will help you “soothe the mind.”
I still remember the first day I met her. She came to me for a massage, years ago, when I was running a home massage clinic while studying naturopathy. She had something about her that I noticed immediately, a palpable sense of peace and clarity that shone through her eyes and radiated out from her very core. She seemed to be the most spiritually grounded person I had ever come across. I conveyed these impressions to her and asked if she had some sort of spiritual practice.
Oh, my word, she sure did! 20 years of getting up at 4.30am and meditating for 3 hours every morning. Impressed, I asked her what it gave her to make her so incredibly dedicated – aside from her calm glow… A sad story ensued… her youngest daughter diagnosed with leukemia and passing away – something that could destroy a mother and a family irreparably. Her meditation became a lifeline during aher darkest times.
In those hours of stillness, she let herself surrender. She surrendered to her pain, she embraced her grief fully, riding the waves of her deep emotions until her consciousness was able to drop even deeper, to that still, silent place within that is ever-present, but often obscured by the constant chaos of thoughts and feelings that consistently obscure our awareness. She became the ocean, rather than the wave.
Those three hours became a path to healing. They kept her sane, and they kept her strong for the rest of the family. Of course, a mother will always experience a sense of loss and sadness after losing her precious daughter, so please don’t think I am implying that meditation takes away the emotional pain in our lives or helps us to escape our feelings or problems. It doesn’t. But it does help us to get in contact with that part of ourselves that is beyond them.
From that brief hour with this inspiring woman, I realized just how important it is to learn to access and live from this place within us, so that we are not so easily thrown around by the changing external conditions of our lives, and so that we can meet life’s challenges with a sense of grace rather than resistance. And so began my own meditation practice.
WHAT MEDITATION IS…AND ISN’T
For some reason, many people have this idea that meditation is a really hard thing to do that requires an epic amount of discipline and mental willpower. They also think they have to stop their thoughts and so they try it and rather than immediately ascending on a cloud of peace and tranquility, they find that their minds are as crazy as a bunch of monkeys on speed. The result: they give up, resignedly saying ‘I just can’t still my mind’ or ‘It just doesn’t work for me’. (Or another common one – ‘I just can’t sit still.’ Really? What a terrible affliction! How did you get through school? How do you watch a movie or fly on a plane?) So, let me set the record straight. Meditation is actually really simple. And you don’t have to try to stop your thoughts.
There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of different meditation techniques but they usually have two things in common:
1. Intending to focus your attention on an object of concentration (perhaps your breath, the sensations in your body, gazing at a candle or a mandala, or repeating a mantra).
2. When your mind wanders, as it will, over and over again – you simply notice and patiently bring it back to the object of your attention. Rinse and repeat. Pretty easy, right? Over time, rather than learning how to stop your thoughts, you start to develop your ability to not get lost in your thoughts. And you begin to tap into a whole other part of your brain: your aware mind.
THINKING VS AWARENESS
So up until now, as you go about your daily life, you are most likely continually plugged in to your thinking mind and accompanied by a non-stop internal radio of usually inane, repetitive and often judgmental thoughts: “Hmmm what do I need to do next, I have so much to do, after this I have to…” “What is she wearing, seriously, does she realise what that looks like” “OMG, WHY did I just do that, I am so stupid” “Remember that time….” Our thinking mind, sometimes referred to as our egoic mind, loves to gnaw on problems and create a lot of drama and noise. It is also usually fearful, worrying and critical of self and others and either rehashing the past or rehearsing for the imagined future. Now is never enough for the thinking mind, it is always searching and seeking for something better, the next best thing that will truly bring some contentment and peace, but it is never satisfied… as depressing as this sounds, the very nature of our default thinking minds (as proven by neuroscience) is dissatisfaction. It is completely out of touch with the present moment and the true beauty of our lives.
The good news is: we have a whole other aspect of our consciousness – awareness. Awareness is clear, non-judgmental observation of what is going on in the moment. It sees reality as it is without the overlay of our mental filters. It surrenders and accepts. It is pure, wide, spacious and calm. It is also free; from attachments, preferences, dramas and stories. And it is satisfied because it seeks nothing, only experiences the moment as it is.
Unfortunately, living in a culture that encourages and rewards the over-developed, thinking part of our minds, we don’t often get to experience prolonged states of awareness in modern day life. But perhaps you have had a taste of it – a moment when you were listening to a beautiful piece of music and all thought stopped, or when you took in an extraordinary sunset and just for a moment, time stood still and you were filled to overflowing with peace and wonder. Sports people sometimes experience it for brief moments when they are suddenly “in the flow” and their movements become completely effortless.
Meditation retrains your mind to slip into awareness more easily. And that awareness starts to spill over from your meditation session into your everyday life – and then everything can change from the inside out.
7 WAYS MEDITATION CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE FROM THE INSIDE OUT
1) MEDITATION CAN HELP YOU MAKE BETTER CHOICES FOR YOURSELF.
“We become what we repeatedly do” – Stephen Covey. As you learn to cultivate awareness you begin to naturally start paying more attention to yourself and your habits, noticing the small choices you make each day –and how these choices add up to the sum total of who you are and how you live your life. You can’t change what you are not conscious of, and when you can take a step back and get a bird’s eye view, you are able to pause and change tack, and these small moment-by-moment changes can eventually transform your whole life.
2) MEDITATION CAN HELP YOU TO LET GO OF STRESS, WORRY, DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY
Depression, stress, anxiety and worry are based on the illusory concepts of past and future and have very little to do with what is happening in this moment, right now. And yet so often we taint the present moment with these unreal imaginings. Meditation helps you to get real and tune in to the present moment, the only place where peace can reside. Inner peace will never come once everything works out perfectly some day in the distant future, inner peace is a choice and it is always here, now. And this isn’t just some nice, fluffy philosophy either – this has been backed up by cold, hard science too. It has been known for ages that the amygdala (the “lizard” part of our brain responsible for fear, stress and anxiety) can enlarge and become more reactive after trauma and long-term stress, but a recent study by Harvard University and the Massachusetts General-Hospital has proven that it can work the other way too – that meditation can actually shrink the amygdala, making us less prone to stress, worry and anxiety and more emotionally resilient. Another study done by the John Hopkins University Hospital, found that regular meditation was equally as effective at managing depression as antidepressant medication. Yes… wowsers!!
3) MEDITATION CAN HELP YOU TO GET SH*T DONE – CALMLY.
There is another stereotype that serious meditators are flaky, mungbeanmunching, navel-gazers allergic to that dirty four-letter word… W-O-R-K. I beg to differ. When the mind is scattered, we start to think of all of the things that need to be done, or worse we try to do everything that needs to be done all at once, switching from one thing to the other, and we end up overwhelmed and exhausted. This can lead to procrastination, poor performance and a lot of time wasting. Meditation cultivates clarity, and a clear mind can focus laser-like on one task and complete it with ease without running off in different directions like those crazy monkeys on speed. This sense of clarity and focus actually allows you to get more done in less time without the stress and drama. (You may even get nominated as employee of the month!
4) MEDITATION CAN HELP YOU TO BE KINDER TO YOURSELF
You know how in the private, dark spaces of your mind you can be kind of mean to yourself? Well, it’s not just you. Brain scans have shown that when we are idly lost in thought, the parts of our brain that become most active are the ones associated with self and with finding errors and problems. (Additionally, also finding fault with others… pretty negative, huh?) In other words, we are wired to pick on ourselves, unfortunately. (Because we are such a social species, our brains have evolved to judge ourselves constantly to make sure that we are acceptable and liked by the ‘tribe’ to ensure our survival. Evolution doesn’t always come up with the brightest ideas). Meditation can help to lessen this in a couple of ways – firstly, by cultivating awareness you become more aware of the world around you and the ‘self-focused’ and fault-finding/judgmental areas of the brain get less and less activated, meaning that you become more compassionate and less self-involved. Also, meditation in itself is a profound act of self-acceptance and self-compassion. A regular meditation practice means showing up for yourself each day, meeting yourself wherever you are at and being willing to accept yourself with an open-heart, no matter how you are feeling, and no matter what thoughts might be circling in your monkey mind. This kind of unconditional attention and acceptance is deeply healing food for the soul.
5) MEDITATION CAN HELP YOU TO BECOME KINDER TO OTHER PEOPLE
Just as our default mindset involves a lot of self-criticism, unfortunately it also does the same to others. But thankfully meditation develops compassion and empathy in general, making you much more able to relate to others. The self-awareness gained through meditation also makes it possible to be less reactive…providing a moment of space where you can choose how to respond to people rather than automatically losing control over your emotions or blurting out something hurtful. You also start to develop a greater awareness of others and may not take things so personally when you start to see that other people’s seemingly hurtful behaviors and actions have a lot more to do with them than you. Additionally, being able to be more present in general means that you can be more present with others. When someone is speaking to you, you can truly listen and hear what they are saying instead of judging their words, thinking about what you want to say next or even just thinking of something else entirely! Deep listening is a profound gift to offer others.
6) MEDITATION CAN HELP YOU ENJOY YOUR MOMENTS
How often do we rush through our days in a blur of thoughts and busy-ness? We charge on through without even a moment’s attention to ourselves or to the world around us. As John Lennon famously said, “Life is what happens to us while we are busy making other plans”. Meditation helps us to slow down, and pay attention – to ourselves, our body’s messages, our loved ones and the world around us. This helps us to become more embodied and present – and to enjoy each precious moment of our lives.
7) MEDITATION CAN HELP YOU TO ACCEPT LIFE’S CHALLENGES WITH GRACE AND EASE
As my story above about the woman whose meditation practice helped her cope with her daughter’s death, finding that internal anchor within that is able to be still during the stormy times of life, is perhaps one of the most valuable benefits of meditation. Self-trust, self-compassion, resilience and the ability to process and regulate your emotions effectively are essential tools for life’s toolbox and a regular meditation practice can gradually strengthen all of these qualities.
5 TIPS FOR STARTING YOUR OWN MEDITATION PRACTICE
1) UNDERSTAND THAT CONSISTENCY IS KEY
Like anything, meditation requires practice to fully realise its benefits. Setting up a daily meditation habit is the best way to get results, and just like exercise, this takes a little bit of willpower and dedication in the beginning until you start to enjoy it and then your natural desire will keep you motivated to stick to it (most of the time). Just like going to the gym or running, put it in your schedule to make it real.
2) UNCOVER YOUR BIG “WHY”
When starting any new habit, it helps to be emotionally engaged with your motivation and reasons for expending time and effort in starting something new. Delving deeply into why YOU want to meditate and the benefits you would like to see in your life can help you to stay inspired. Think about the big picture and the impact it could truly make to all areas of your life. Perhaps you want to reduce anxiety and worry so that you can live your life more happily and confidently. Maybe it would mean snapping at your kids less and living in a more harmonious family environment… or being calm enough to enjoy your moments with them while they are young rather than just trying to get through the day and get everything done. Perhaps for you it means being able to find self-compassion and let go of worrying about what others think or being scared to fail or make a mistake – freeing you up to live life on your own terms. Or maybe it is simply a fun journey of self-discovery, being able to access your own inner wisdom and uncover your deepest passions, purpose and answers for yourself. Once you have discovered your big why, remind yourself of it regularly. Perhaps you could write down the key feelings and benefits you would like and tape them somewhere you can see them. Or maybe you could create a vision or a mood board of images and words that evoke the feelings and benefits you desire – you could put this on your wall or even take photo of it and use it as a screen saver on your phone or PC.
3) WHEN YOU FALL OFF THE HORSE, JUST GET BACK ON IT – NICELY…
Try not to set unrealistic expectations that you will transition into your new meditation habit seamlessly. You will most likely slip up, get distracted by other things or just have days where your motivation completely leaves the building. When this happens, it is crucial to mentally speak to yourself positively, without beating yourself up, and to remember your big why and then re-dedicate yourself to the habit. It is also important to realise that every moment presents you with a new choice, and the best time to begin again is today.
4) DON’T “SHOP AROUND” FOR DIFFERENT TECHNIQUES
There are heaps of different meditation techniques out there, and I have come across some students who try one for a few sessions, decide it doesn’t work for them, and then go on to the next one, constantly searching for the “perfect” technique that will magically make them feel peaceful. It is important to understand that the technique itself isn’t that important, it is the regular practice of it that trains your mind and brings results. An analogy I like to use is: the technique is like the car that gets you to the temple. But it is not the temple… and it doesn’t really matter which “car” you take to get there…just get going! Of course sometimes we genuinely may prefer one technique over another, so when you want to try a new one give it a good chance – say a few months -before deciding if you want to stick with it or try something else.
5) DON’T GET ATTACHED TO CERTAIN EXPERIENCES
Sometimes when you meditate, some freaky sh*t happens. Maybe you see lights, hear sounds, feel incredibly blissed out or feel powerful vibrations in your body. These come and go, they are not a big deal and they are certainly not a marker of “progress” or “spiritual evolution”. They are just experiences. It doesn’t mean you had a “good” or a “bad” meditation session, and it is really important not to let your ego puff up if you experience them or feel like you are doing it wrong if you don’t experience them, they are not the goal of meditation. Likewise, if you experience deep states of peace and calm, don’t get attached to or chase these feelings. While it does get easier to experience feelings of peace and bliss the longer you have been meditating, they too come and go. Central to Buddhist philosophy is the concept of “anicca” or impermanence – that every sensation arises and passes away and liberation and true peace comes from being able to observe whatever is occurring in the moment with neither resistance nor clinging. So hopefully, you can see for yourself how incredibly beneficial a regular meditation practice can be and you can hardly wait to get your butt on a meditation cushion! I invite you to sign up for my free online mini-course below and get on the waitlist for my more in-depth course starting soon. And if you found this article useful, share the love!
About the Author:
SHAREE JAMES is a naturopath and a yoga and meditation teacher dedicated to helping people like you to live your life with more calm and less struggle.Grab her free cheat sheet at www.ashimaliving.com