Meditation is one of those things a lot of us suspect we either should do or should at least give a try. I’ve been meditating for a few years now and I love it but I’m certainly no expert; I don’t mean to be presumptuous but what follows are simply a few observations I thought may be helpful, either to get you started meditating or to help you stick to it.
Meditation is not about emptying your mind
For a start, meditating is not about emptying your mind and trying to make it go blank, in fact it’s almost the opposite, it’s about focusing on one particular thing. That thing can be anything from a mantra (like in transcendental meditation), to the sensation of your breath on your lip or in your belly as it goes in and out, or the sounds you can hear around you, or casting your mind back to a place and a time where you felt at peace, like next to an empty beach or standing in the middle of a forest watching snow flakes drift silently down to settle on the trees (one of my favorites). The possibilities are almost endless, it just needs to be relaxing and kind of repetitive.
One premise of mindfulness is to focus on the here and now: the past can’t be changed and future is yet to come, just take some time to focus entirely on the present.
But I can’t stay focused – my mind keeps wandering
This is the usual reason I hear for why people give up trying to meditate. The thing is, it’s natural for your mind to wander, that’s what our minds do. The key is to keep bringing it back to what you were focusing on: if it wanders off a hundred times in five minutes, bring it back a hundred times and you’ll be doing what you’re supposed to do. Over time you’ll improve bit by bit.
This interview by Tim Ferris of “world-renowned meditation teacher” Sharon Salzberg includes a great discussion about this.
The benefits of meditating
There have been plenty of studies that have established the benefits of meditation. From reducing stress levels (some studies have found it reduces the effects of the stress hormone, cortisol), to helping you negotiate day-to-day hassles, to helping you sleep, or concentrate, or deal with pain. This article from Authority Nutrition discusses some of the benefits of meditation as well as the research backing them up.
The ABC radio show All In The Mind is excellent and has at least five shows in its library about meditation. The latest was just last week, talking about using mindfulness to treat cravings. One study found it was five times more effective to help give up smoking in the longer-term than other methods. (If you’re not familiar with podcasts you can check out my earlier blog article about them.)
Mind you, for the sake of balance, you can read this article from The Conversation, which is critical of much of the research that’s been done about meditation and questions its benefits.
How do you start?
There are plenty of places that will teach you meditation, particularly mindfulness. There’s also a wealth of online material – a search on google or YouTube will have you inundated.
There are also apps you can download to your smartphone or tablet. I’ve only tried a few (Calm, Headspace, Imagine Clarity) but will happily recommend Insight Timer, here’s why:
- It’s free (some apps will charge between $40-80 per year)
- You can choose from more than 8,000 guided meditations from literally thousands of different teachers (rather than just be stuck listening to the same one every day, which after I while I find a little tedious)
- You can filter your choices by time, experience or objective (relaxation, sleep, stress, etc)
- Something I really like is that you can preset times and include intermittent bells (which can help bring you back to focus) if you’d rather meditate in silence
- You can choose different background sounds
- If you want to you can join their community and sign in to specific groups, kind of a Facebook for meditators
How long do you need to meditate for?
There’s no set rule. Mindfulness practitioners will tell you to seize what opportunities you can, be it three minutes or twenty. Of course, serious meditators will go on month-long retreats and do nothing but. My own view is do what you can and try to build a little over time.
How often? If you can manage it, do it every day. Many of the apps keep a score of how many consecutive days you’ve meditated for – whatever motivates you.
Meditation has gathered a serious and growing following, including among respected business titans, which of itself is no reason to do it and it isn’t for everybody, but it may come with a variety of benefits, and if nothing else you can relish the time spent quietly relaxing, something a lot of us don’t do enough of.