A beginner's guide to meditation
I get a lot of clients and friends asking me to help them in relation to meditation, with the most common concern being: I know meditation is good for me but I just can’t stop my mind from wandering when I try it. I tell them that meditation isn’t about keeping your thoughts still; it’s about being present.
In this article I am going to give you some tips and techniques that can be used in order to start practising meditation consistently, with the view of reaping the long list of benefits it has to offer.
When I first came across meditation as a mental process that could be used to reduce stress and enhance mental performance, I was a young litigation lawyer who was sceptical to say the least. I had labelled it as an alternative eastern practice that had no substance or relevance in my life.
I decided to look into it after noticing a colleague who would shut his office door each lunch hour to meditate for half an hour. We had the same caseload but he was always extremely calm and collective, whereas I was borderline neurotic!
After borrowing a couple of books on meditation and enrolling in a guided meditation class, I soon found that there was a great deal of substance to it and that meditation is indeed relevant to everyone’s life, as it facilitates a healthy mind and enables resilience in the face of adversity.
I also found a number of myths surrounding meditation that were soon dispelled once I started practising it consistently. The biggest one was that meditation is all about keeping your thoughts still. A lot of people get discouraged when first learning how to meditate because their mind begins to race and after experiencing difficulty controlling it, throw meditation in the ‘too hard basket’.
Just like practicing mindfulness, meditation isn’t necessarily about keeping your thoughts still but rather, it’s about bringing your complete and undivided attention to your internal and external experiences as they’re occurring in the present moment.
Our mind has a natural inclination to wander. Our thoughts are influenced by our physical environment, which in turn, triggers memories and our value/belief system in so that we can form judgements and make choices as we go about our daily lives.
When we meditate consistently however, we access a birds-eye perspective that allows us to recognise this mind wandering process. We soon learn to accept our thoughts as they arise and are able to let them dissolve with minimal judgement. This allows us to be more present and to focus on our breath – which for the most part of our lives is an involuntary process. When focusing our attention on it however, it makes it a voluntary/conscious process and it becomes the gateway to meditating successfully.
Another common myth about meditation is that you have to be a zen-like professional who is highly flexible and able to physically remain in the lotus position for hours on end. This too couldn’t be further form the truth. I recently completed a meditation course at the Chung Tian Buddhist temple and discovered that you can meditate in a multitude of different ways. From walking, writing, having a cup of tea, lying down or in the traditional crossed legged pose, there is a meditation method that suits everyone.
So with these common myths dispelled, I’m going to share some simple techniques you can use to start meditating consistently:
1. Get comfortable and breathe with consciousness
When meditating you should be in a comfortable place, with your spine in a straight position. Then shift your focus to your breath, being completely aware of the airflow entering your body (causing your diaphragm and stomach to expand as you inhale, and contract as you exhale). Anchor your consciousness to the present moment by focusing on your mind’s eye (area between your eyes) whilst simultaneously focusing on your breath, which should after a while get into a drawn out, calm and sustained rhythm.
Find a breathing pattern that works for you. One example is the ‘box method’ (taught to Navy Seals). This entails exhaling and emptying your lungs as much as possible, then commencing by: (1) inhaling through your nose for four seconds, (2) then holding your breath at that point for four seconds, (3) exhaling for four seconds and finally, (4) holding your breath again for four seconds, before starting the process again. Try and sustain this for a few minutes and increase those minutes a little each day.
2. Get visual
A great way to circumvent your mind wandering is by creating a visual process that is unique to you. The process I use each morning combines a set of visuals with my goals. For instance, I start by closing my eyes and bring complete awareness to my breath – I visualise it entering my body and leaving it. I then acknowledge that I’m a conscious, living being connected to this beautiful planet and visualise panning out of my body, room, house, Queensland, Australia and see the Earth rotating around the sun, which in turn is rotating around another giant sun.
Having created visual scenarios of where I’m going to be when having achieved my goals, I then visualise them sequentially and intensify this by building vivid images in my mind of my immediate environment and feel the emotions I’ll be experiencing in that moment. After I complete this process I bring my attention back to my breath and visualise the sun above, our planet revolving around it and panning down to Australia, Queensland, my house, room and finish up by bringing complete attention again to my inner body and breath.
I then find that my heart rate is completely measured and that I am feeling extremely calm, focused and ready to start my day. You can also visualise yourself executing the tasks you have to complete in your day ahead. This process takes me 10-15 minutes every morning and I have reached the point where I can’t start my day any other way. It brings immense clarity, calmness, focus and perspective to my life.
3. On the upkeep
Willpower and self-discipline become stronger when confronted with necessity. If you’re told by a doctor, if you don’t stop smoking or over-eating you’re going to die within the year, you suddenly have the incentive and willpower to stop the negative habits in your life and start implementing new positive ones. When it comes to meditation however, you don’t begin to experience the positive affects until after three weeks or so. This makes it difficult for a lot of people to upkeep the practice
We know from a scientific perspective that practising meditation enhances the brain’s neuroplasticity and activates the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for attention control, decision-making and concentration. We know from a wellbeing perspective that this translates to a greater sense of appreciation, calmness, happiness and focus. In short, meditation works!
Carl Jung said: Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes. Once you experience the positive affects that meditation has to offer, you won’t look back, you consider it a necessary part of your life.
You can upkeep the practice for the first three weeks by trying different techniques and positions. For example, you can listen to a guided meditation, try meditating inside, outside, lying down or sitting up straight. After finding what works best for you, incrementally increase your efforts a little each morning until you reach the 10-15 minute mark.
That’s all it takes! 10-15 minutes each day to awaken a part of you lying dormant until now – a part of you that is going to give you ongoing clarity, tolerance, gratitude, resilience, objectivity and love. Isn’t that worth the effort?
With a background in behavioural science, Paul was a former litigation lawyer specialising in criminal law before founding The Open Mind Institute (TOMI) in 2015 to share his insights on personal development and mental health to a larger audience. Today Paul is a sought-after keynote speaker, executive coach and presenter on mental enhancement topics such as resilience, mindfulness practice, critical thinking, attention control and metacognition.