Beginning meditation and integrating a practice in your life is a personal journey with many different paths to choose from, but all leading you to the same eventual goal of reaching the ultimate state of resting in union with the present moment; the state described as ‘Samadhi’ in Sanskrit. There is no one size fits all approach, like every practice it evolves once you begin and make the space for it in your life. Below, I describe techniques I have used on my journey and share a few pointers.
Overcoming resistance: Quite often, I hear clients claiming to be unable to meditate due to an overactive mind. This is to be expected, your mind will invariably wander, the key is to be accepting of this fact and at the point where you recognise this has occurred, simply note you were distracted by thought and come back to the practice itself without judgment. In fact, the goal of meditation is not to silence thoughts but to shift our attention from them; very often they will continue to play out in the background.
You might feel a busy schedule doesn’t permit time for meditation, but even one minute can be enough to bring yourself into present moment awareness and bring about a notable shift in mood. Anyone can make space for a 1 minute practice. More important than how long you sit for, is to what extent you are able to become present. Just focusing on a singular point for a few moments can quieten your mind sufficiently to bring about tangible benefits.
Others might feel that meditation conflicts with their personal beliefs, e.g. thinking it’s necessary to have spiritual beliefs or even feel that it’s not compatible with their religious beliefs. You don’t have to be remotely spiritual to practice meditation and equally no religion opposes you coming into present moment awareness.
How long to sit for: Let your intuition guide you, if 30, 20 or 15 minutes feels like too long, then sit for 10, or 5. And if that still feels challenging – go for one minute, or just whatever works for you. If you’re in the mindset of feeling that you’re forcing yourself to do something, then you’re going to create resistance which is counterproductive. Start small and build up as you feel guided.
Where to sit: Don’t be misled into thinking you have to be sitting on the floor crosslegged on a cushion or even seated at all. Posture is secondary, the main goal is to cultivate a state of present awareness. That said, generally I prefer to sit on the floor with a straight spine as I find I’m more focussed, but it’s more a case of whatever facilitates you best being able to practice and not be distracted. There’s nothing to stop you from trying out meditation sitting in a chair, in bed or even standing, at home, at work, or even on public transport. Evidently, the quieter the place the less distractions. Personally speaking, I embrace noise and distractions around me since they are all part of the present moment.
When to meditate: Sit whenever you feel guided and there is likely to be less resistance. Personally speaking, I prefer meditating first thing in the morning, when I’m fresh out of sleep and before any thought narrative has really had the chance to set in, but this can vary. Practice should be fluid – once you impose routine and rigidity you’ve lost the essence of what you’re seeking to make space for. You might prefer to find time to sit during the day or at night before you go to sleep; it’s just about finding whatever works for you.
Meditation Practice: Although there are so many different ways to meditate, they all have the end goal of helping you to reach a place of stillness and attain a more peaceful state of mind. Some techniques are outlined below, but for whichever technique you choose it’s helpful to start by checking in with yourself and just observing what’s going for you. In fact, the following pointers form a short practice by themselves and ultimately point to a state of mindfulness (simply being very present) that we can look to cultivate throughout the day as we go about our daily lives.
- Physical sensations: First, take a moment to check in with your body and take note of any tight muscles, pain or tension you might be holding.
- Emotions: Pause to acknowledge any emotions you might be experiencing in the present moment – just feeling the feeling is helpful as opposed to labelling it.
- Thoughts: What thoughts are present? Again, this is likely to feel obvious, but simply taking mental note of whatever is occupying your mind at the time is a really effective way of bringing yourself back into a state of awareness.
- Visual: Look around and take note of your surroundings – it’s amazing what we don’t notice when we’re caught up in our heads. Instead of labelling what’s around you, take note of shapes, colours and textures.
- Sounds: Next, notice the sounds around you, those further away from you and those nearest to you.
Meditation Techniques: Once you’ve become present and acknowledged your present state you can begin your meditation. Whichever technique you choose, when thoughts arise in the mind, shift your attention from then and return to the focus of the meditation. Resist getting caught up in any mental dialogue about your observations or feeling that you need to change anything; even where tension or pain is present. The act of meditation is about accepting fully where you’re at. Choose only one technique for the duration of your practice. The techniques I have personally found most effective are Anapana, Vipassana and Self Enquiry.
Anapana Meditation (Focusing on breath) – Notice the sensation of breath entering and leaving the body. Are you breathing through your nose or your mouth? How long are your breaths? Feel the warmth of the breath as you draw it in. How far does it reach? How does your body expand as you draw your breath in? Observe your breath as it is, without feeling you need to change it. Feel yourself being breathed.
Mantra meditation – A mantra is a sacred word or phrase that is repeated during meditation. It can be chanted, whispered or repeated mentally. The purpose of mantra meditation is to clean the mind and is particularly effective when you are experiencing anxiety or any form of negative thought dialogue. Popular mantras include the Hindu chant, ‘Om Namah Shivayah’ which loosely translates as, ‘I bow to (Shiva) the divine,’ and the Buddhist mantra, ‘Om Mani Padre Hum,’ which translates as, ‘the jewel is in the lotus.’. You can take time to research their deeper meaning more fully or other popular mantras. Alternatively, you can choose a favourite word or phrase, or a fragment from a prayer, song or poem that resonates with you. Mala beads can be used to help you focus by counting each bead as you repeat your mantra.
Self Enquiry – This is essentially the practice of asking, ‘Who am I?’ To carry out this practice, it’s essential to first drop any pre-conceived notions of identity related to the body before focusing on the feeling of ‘being’ associated with ‘I’. Then, move on to really exploring the environment of this ‘I’ feeling while focusing on the ‘who’ aspect of this practice. Self enquiry meditation is a form or intellectual enquiry where the mind is engaged in observing itself. It is a powerful practice which can bring about a profound shift in perception. This is the form of meditation which Sri Ramana Maharshi bought to the west and is taught today by Mooji and other non dualist teachers.
Focusing on an object – For this technique, simply choose an object to gaze directly at. All focus should be on observing the object itself. Notice its contours, colours and its texture. Try looking a the object as though seeing it for the first time, in the way an infant might see it before the attachment of mental constructs. Avoid commenting on the object, it is almost as though you are feeling it.
Vipassana – This is believed to be the form of meditation taught by Buddha himself and is the basis of all traditions of buddhist meditation. The word translates as ‘insight’ meaning ‘seeing things as they are’. It can vary but typically, Vipassana practice involves awareness of bodily sensations. During practice, you pass your awareness from head to toe and back again scanning the body for whatever sensations arise: pressure, temperature, throbbing, pain, itching, tingling or even numbness. Not only does the practice cultivate an awareness of the impermanency of all things phenomenal but also develops equanimity; neutral observation with a steadfast mind.
Focusing on sound – This is generally an organised group meditation, typically where gongs, Tibetan singing bowls or crystal singing bowls are used. If you get an opportunity to attend a sound bath I highly recommend it as in addition to the beautiful sounds you can also feel the physical vibration in your body, in particular where the giant gongs are used making it a powerful way to lose yourself in practice. Alternatively, you can use sound at home, by selecting one particular continuous sound which is present in your environment to focus on – this might be the birds singing or even the sound of an air conditioning system humming. An altogether different experience to a sound bath meditation but no less effective all the same.
Movement meditation – Another form of mindfulness meditation, this meditation is good when you feel restless or unable to sit or even when exercising or completing an activity. Traditional yoga practices, Tai chi and other martial arts all cultivate mindfulness of body movement. During this type of meditation, the focus is of awareness is on the movement itself using the breath to guide the movement.
Third eye meditation – This practice involves simply bringing your focus, with your eyes closed, to the sixth chakra, the centre point of your forehead where your eyebrows come together. It might help to visualise the indigo colour associated with this chakra point. This chakra is associated with intuition, wisdom and insight. To intensify your focus send the breath here and imagine the inhale and exhale coming from this energy centre.
Heart meditation – This practice involves bringing your attention to the heart centre and is about focusing on feeling. As you breathe imagine the breath flowing into the heart. If memories, fears, dreams or emotions are evoked concentrate on just observing the feeling instead of engaging with any narrative.