Last updated on July 17th, 2018
Meditation was long considered an activity of monks and new age hippies, but it is rapidly becoming accepted and practised by millions of people seeking greater peace, fulfilment and happiness. It may be considered too difficult, ineffective, or only appropriate for followers of eastern religions.
However, meditation is so important that it should be considered as fundamental to daily hygiene as cleaning your teeth, and it would transform society and the world if it was taught from an early age in school.
What is meditation?
Meditation itself isn’t a technique, but a natural state of being that is experienced when the overzealous, hyperactive thinking mind slows down and one becomes more and more aware of the wonderful, limitless unfolding of deeper, more subtle levels of consciousness.
It is a natural state of thoughtless awareness, of non-doing, of just being. Meditation is like falling asleep; when you create all the right conditions for it and then just let go and do nothing, it happens, but trying to force it to happen doesn’t work.
One can be in meditation sitting in the lotus posture on a Himalayan peak or while walking or going about one’s daily activities. However, for beginners, it’s easier to start by sitting in a quiet, distraction-free place with eyes gently closed.
What are the benefits of meditation?
There are a huge number of benefits from meditation, and investing even five minutes every morning to meditate will reap great rewards. More and more research is proving that the benefits of meditation are very real and not just anecdotal. Here are a few of the benefits:
- Enhanced feelings of peace, calmness and well-being
- Greater ability to concentrate and focus
- Improved memory and learning ability
- Higher creativity
- More patience and equanimity towards others
- Lowered stress levels
- Improved immune system function
- Increased self-compassion and confidence
- Better relationships
- Improved general health
Another important benefit of practising meditation is that it improves your ability to do effective creative visualisation, which is a powerful way to enhance your healing, well-being and success in all areas of life.
While these benefits should be enough to convince you to add meditation to your daily routine, people struggle to believe that they will actually benefit while believing that it’s just too difficult.
How to meditate – a simple but effective technique
Meditation is easier than you might think. While it’s true that in this modern information age most of us are caught up in incessant thinking and activity, we can all access that blissful calm, like a still forest pool within.
There are countless meditation techniques, but here I will describe one of the most simple, yet universal and effective ones:
Observing your breath
- Find a place where you can meditate undisturbed. It is ideal to choose a quiet place where you feel peaceful and inspired to meditate. Find a spot at home that you can dedicate to meditation, somewhere separate from where you work, watch TV, or sleep. When possible I like to meditate outside in a beautiful place like the top of a peak, a forest or a beach. Turn off your phone, close the door, make it your special time for yourself.
It is easier to meditate if you make a regular time for it each day. Just after you get up in the morning is generally the best time, but if your mind is racing too much with the busy day ahead and you really struggle to concentrate then, the evening might be a better time. Meditating both early morning and evening is even better, with sunrise (or before) and sunset being the best times.
- Find a comfortable sitting position. You can sit cross-legged on the floor or on a chair. The important thing is to have a straight back and to be comfortable and relaxed. Use whatever cushions you need to sit on or to put under your knees for support if sitting on the floor.
If possible, avoid leaning against anything – if sitting on a chair, sit towards the front of the chair with your feet flat on the floor. Just do whatever you need to be comfortable with a straight back. You can rest your hands on your knees, have them clasped together in your lap, or whatever you find most comfortable.
- Set a timer so you know when it’s time to finish without having to open your eyes to check on the time. It’s a good idea to start with a short meditation like five minutes a day so that you don’t risk getting bored and giving up.
Once you get into it you will want to increase it to 10, 15 or 30 minutes so you can go deeper and enjoy greater well-being. Sometimes I’ve meditated for 3 hours or more because it’s so wonderful and amazing and I lose track of time.
- Gently close your eyes. If you wish, you can look up towards a midpoint between your eyebrows with your eyes closed as if looking at the inside of your forehead, but don’t strain or go cross-eyed. Just do it in a relaxed way that feels natural. This helps focus your attention and slow down your restless mind.
- Take three deep belly breaths, completely filling the lungs, holding for a couple of seconds and then letting it all out while relaxing the whole body. Keep your back straight while you relax though. Start each breath from your belly, feeling it expand as your diaphragm pulls down, then expand your rib-cage and fill all the way right to the top of your lungs. As you breathe out let your ribcage deflate first and then your belly.
- Set an intention for your meditation, but have no goals. Remember, meditation is about the journey, forget the destination, just be where you are in the now. Examples of intentions include themes like serenity, self-healing or healing for someone you love, self-love, sending love or peace out to the world, connecting with your higher self, or simply being fully in the present moment.
Setting an intention is like making a wish from the heart and then letting go and trusting the universe. Whereas a goal is a fixed focus on an outcome and how to get there. After setting an intention, feel gratitude for being able to devote this time to practice meditation.
- Observe your normal breath. Breathe normally through your nose and observe the sensations of the movement of air and changes in temperature as the air enters and leaves at the tip of your nose. Or if you prefer, you can chose to observe the sensations you feel as your belly rises and falls. Try each method, choose whichever one you find easier or most comfortable and then stick to it. Just observe closely, with detached curiosity.
- Keep coming back to observing your breath. Thoughts will come, and that is totally natural; so when you notice that you have been distracted by thinking, just gently come back to your breath. Don’t judge yourself or get frustrated, but instead feel grateful that you remembered to come back to your breath.
- When thoughts come, just observe and let go. We can do this, not by fighting against the mind and getting frustrated, but by stepping back and observing. Trying to suppress thoughts just makes the mind resist more and perpetuates the mind’s ceaseless pattern of creating problems and then trying to solve them.
Instead, feel grateful that you have noticed your thinking and step back as a witness to your thoughts. Watch them pass by like clouds in the sky without judgement; just let go.
Something I do, which I find very effective, is to see and feel my thoughts as swirling energy or vibrations that arise spontaneously and are non-different from the vibrations that come from the five senses. These all mingle together as in a whirlpool, which then often simply vanishes into nothingness.
Watch your thoughts and sensations in a detached way as an interesting phenomenon, rather than following and responding to them. Remember, you are not your thoughts; you are the thinker of your thoughts.
- Whatever happens, just accept it. Even if you were lost in thought the whole time, the very intention and practise of sitting to meditate has hidden benefits and it will get easier as you continue to do daily practise. Having a mindset that it is hard, makes it hard. The desire to achieve fast results is also a barrier to success in meditation.
Even if you only experience a few moments of peace or bliss during your meditation, celebrate that and over time those moments will increase in frequency and duration. The more that you can be in the present moment and simply enjoy and appreciate your time sitting, the faster you will progress.
‘Nowhere to go, nothing to do’; just be here now and meditate for its own sake.
This simple practise is the best place to start, and it may be all you need. In fact, many, more advanced techniques employ breath awareness. Later, I will discuss some other meditation techniques and schools including:
- Vipassana (insight) meditation
- Kriya yoga
- Self-inquiry meditation
- Zen (zazen) meditation
- Mantra meditation
- Transcendental meditation
- Sri Chinmoy Centre meditation
- Guided meditations
In the meantime, set a goal of five minutes of meditation each day at around the same time and just savour the time to sit quietly and go within. Then build up to 15–20 minutes each day or more if you have the time and inclination.
If you meditate for 30 minutes or more then you will reap greater benefits to healing and well-being by going deeper in meditation and staying in that state for longer. However, if you find it difficult to meditate for long and you get bored or restless, it is better to stick with shorter sessions until you feel like you are making progress and reaping benefits. This will inspire and motivate you to meditate for longer.