Neuroscientists and psychologists keep discovering more health benefits from mindfulness meditation. And luckily, it's a simple practice, that virtually anyone can do. But how do you get started, and how do you get the most rewards from the practice? Here's our quick and easy guide to meditating.
Mindfulness meditation, or focused attention, turns out to bring a surprising number of health benefits, including stress reduction, better attention and memory, and even increased creativity and feelings of compassion. It can alleviate disturbed sleep, restructure our brains for the better, and help you lose weight. It's also incredibly relaxing and reinvigorating.
There are many different ways to meditate, but for the purposes of this article, and because it's the most studied form, we're only going to consider mindfulness meditation. That's not to suggest other forms of meditation aren't likewise valid or beneficial.
An Ancient Practice, A Modern Need
Mindfulness meditation can trace its roots all the way back to the Theravada tradition of Buddhism. And in fact, it's often considered the first real attempt to study mental processes in a systematic way.
Developed over 2500 years ago in what is now India, its basic purpose was to help practitioners perceive things as "they really are" and for them to gain enhanced control over their (often scattered) thought processes. Today, mindfulness is practiced both within and outside of the Buddhist context. You don't need to be spiritual or a Buddhist to reap the many benefits of focused attention.
The University of Massachusett's Colleen Camenisch discusses mindfulness at TEDxReno
Indeed, mindfulness has been shown to strengthen contextual awareness and our ability to stay "fixed" in the present moment. As a result, meditation can have a profound influence on the way we approach the minituae of our daily lives; studies have shown that meditators have an easier time sustaining voluntary attention.
"Mindfulness meditation is unique in that it is not directed toward getting us to be different from how we already are," says Dr. Karen Kissel Wegela of Naropa University. "Instead, it helps us become aware of what is already true moment by moment. We could say that it teaches us how to be unconditionally present; that is, it helps us be present with whatever is happening, no matter what it is."
It's never been more difficult to stay focused on the moment, or on a fixed concept or task. Modern technologies in particular have created an intensely distracting environment, and our attention spans have suffered accordingly. We dart from activity to activity, in an often futile effort to multitask. Mindfulness offers practitioners the opportunity to to stop this cycle and focus on one concrete thought.
You can meditate at virtually any point during the day, and you can do it as many times as you want, and for however long you want (but just like anything else, don't overdo it). Some people prefer mornings, others like to do it just before bed. Some folks meditate for five minutes, others for 20 minutes, and some for an hour or more. Personally, meditating for 20 to 30 minutes works best for me. And in fact, during the course of a 2011 study conducted by the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness, beginners spent an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness meditation. That's a good benchmark time to be aware of. Eventually, with much practice, and as you get more comfortable with the sitting position, you should be able to extend that to an hour or more (if you want).
Feel free to use a clock to time your sessions. I set a timer to avoid peeking, and to minimise agitation. You can challenge yourself to go on for longer, and you shouldn't give up too easily — but remember, this isn't a duty or obligation.
When setting up to meditate, you'll want to make sure that you're doing it in an appropriate environment. Ideally, you'll want to do it in the same spot each time. Make sure all mobile devices have been switched off, along with anything else that has the potential to distract you. The quieter the better. Also, minimise the lighting in the room. Sometimes, a single candle is all you need.
How to sit during meditation
In terms of positioning yourself, there are many possibilities. Just be sure to pick a position that provides a stable feeling in the body so that you can center your concentration on the object of meditation.
Lotus position (sitting cross-legged with your feet on top) is the most traditional posture — but it's not for everybody. Personally, I like to sit cross legged, i.e. the Burmese position, while sitting on a pillow, cushion, or folded blanket. Some folks like to sit directly on the floor, and that's fine, too. Other options include the Seiza posture, i.e. kneeling, sitting on a chair (no dangling feet), or lying down on the floor (just make sure you don't fall asleep!).
Here are some general rules for what you should do with your body, as described by the Vipassana Fellowship:
The most essential thing is to sit with your back straight. The spine should be erect with the spinal vertebrae held like a stack of coins, one on top of the other. Your head should be held in line with the rest of the spine. All of this is done in a relaxed manner. No Stiffness. You are not a wooden soldier, and there is no drill sergeant. There should be no muscular tension involved in keeping the back straight. Sit light and easy. The spine should be like a firm young tree growing out of soft ground. The rest of the body just hangs from it in a loose, relaxed manner. This is going to require a bit of experimentation on your part. We generally sit in tight, guarded postures when we are walking or talking and in sprawling postures when we are relaxing. Neither of those will do. But they are cultural habits and they can be re-learned. Your objective is to achieve a posture in which you can sit for the entire session without moving at all. In the beginning, you will probably feel a bit odd to sit with the straight back. But you will get used to it. It takes practice, and an erect posture is very important. This is what is known in physiology as a position of arousal, and with it goes mental alertness. If you slouch, you are inviting drowsiness. What you sit on is equally important. You are going to need a chair or a cushion, depending on the posture you choose, and the firmness of the seat must be chosen with some care. Too soft a seat can put you right to sleep. Too hard can promote pain.
Another option is walking meditation, or Kinhin of the Zen Buddhist tradition. This technique is a bit more challenging given the potential for distractions, but it can be done with enough focus and practice.
It's also a good idea to stretch prior to starting your meditation. I suffer from lower back pain (more on dealing with pain later), so I prepare by doing a number of back stretching exercises, including cat's pose, cow pose, upward facing dog, and various spinal twists.
As for clothing, wear something loose and soft.
Once I'm ready to go I start by taking 10 very deep and long breaths. Once that's done I enter into meditation mode, focusing on inhalation and exhalation while calming myself down with each passing exhalation.
Fixing Yourself to the Present Moment
A common misconception about mindfulness meditation is that practitioners put themselves into a profound state of relaxation while clearing their mind of all thoughts. Not exactly. Rather, practitioners are hyper-aware of a single, consistent thought — and it takes a bit of effort to stay focused. Practitioners are like ducks on an pond. At the surface, they look calm and serene, but at a deeper level they're busily working away.
The point of mindfulness is to focus on what is happening in the present moment to the greatest and longest extent possible. Typically, this means concentrating on the breath. There are a number of reasons for this, including the fact that it's readily available to anyone at any time, it's a passive activity, and it has symbolic power as a life-giving, cyclical force.
Each inhalation and exhalation is tracked with focused attention. When meditating, it's important to identify the in-breath as the in-breath, and the out-breath as out-breath. Should a stray thought arise — which they often do — the practitioner should do their best to (1) recognise that their mind has wandered from the breath and (2) quickly and calmly return to the breath.
Mindful Magazine describes the breathing process in more detail:
Very simple, very easy. In order to recognise your in-breath as in-breath, you have to bring your mind home to yourself. What is recognising your in-breath is your mind, and the object of your mind — the object of your mindfulness — is the in-breath. Mindfulness is always mindful of something. When you drink your tea mindfully, it's called mindfulness of drinking. When you walk mindfully, it's called mindfulness of walking. And when you breathe mindfully, that is mindfulness of breathing. So the object of your mindfulness is your breath, and you just focus your attention on it. Breathing in, this is my in-breath. Breathing out, this is my out-breath. When you do that, the mental discourse will stop. You don't think anymore. You don't have to make an effort to stop your thinking; you bring your attention to your in-breath and the mental discourse just stops. That is the miracle of the practice. You don't think of the past anymore. You don't think of the future. You don't think of your projects, because you are focusing your attention, your mindfulness, on your breath.
How slowly you actually breathe is up to the individual. An in-breath can take anywhere from three to five seconds. Just make sure that it's at a comfortable and natural rate. And be sure to perceive the in-breath/out-breath cycle as a continuous loop with no discernible start or end points.
It's important to note that the breath does not have to be the only focused point of attention. It can be virtually anything — a stationary object in the room, your heartbeat, a metronome, or the practice of counting breaths (see video above). You can also focus on a word or a concept, like a mantra. The most common mantra is "Aum" or "Om," the sacred sound of Hinduism — but you can choose any mantra you want.
Taming the Monkey Mind
Inevitably, the first several minutes are among the most difficult and distressing. It's during this initial "warm up" phase that your mind is still abuzz with activity. It's what practitioners call your "monkey mind," or "racing mind."
During meditation, and often without even realising it, we find that we've drifted away from the breath. We start to think about what we should make for dinner. Or we start obsessing about a stressful incident at work. We're suddenly hit with the feeling that we left the light on in the bathroom. The face of a person who we haven't thought about in years suddenly pops up in our head. It's actually quite remarkable how random and inexplicable these ideations often are.
Meditation is often practiced in conjunction with yoga. (Image: Stefano Tinti/Shutterstock)
There are several important things to remember when this happens.
First, don't get upset. It's completely normal. Bhante Gunaratana, an expert in Vipassana meditation, puts it this way:
What a bother. But this is what it is all about. These distractions are actually the whole point. The key is to learn to deal with these things. Learning to notice them without being trapped in them. That's what we are here for. The mental wandering is unpleasant, to be sure. But it is the normal mode of operation of your mind. Don't think of it as the enemy. It is just the simple reality. And if you want to change something, the first thing you have to do is see it the way it is. When you first sit down to concentrate on the breath, you will be struck by how incredibly busy the mind actually is. It jumps and jibbers. It veers and bucks. It chases itself around in constant circles. It chatters. It thinks. It fantasizes and daydreams. Don't be upset about that. it's natural. When your mind wanders from the subject of meditation, just observe the distraction mindfully.
In fact, that's you make progress in meditation — by lengthening the time we go from thoughtful awareness to experiencing wandering thoughts. Over the course of a single session, and most certainly over the course of multiple sessions, your ability to stay focused should improve. Very few people can actually sit for protracted periods of time and focus exclusively on a breath. I find that I'm at my most focused between minutes 10 and 15 during a 20 minute session. My goal is to extend that even further.
It's also important to point out that your "monkey mind" doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you. Many people, upon experiencing these racing thoughts for the first time, are suddenly concerned that they're losing their minds, or that the meditation has caused them to experience these scattered thoughts. Rather, it's the power of meditation — and engaging in thoughtful and deliberate periods of focused concentration — that we notice our monkey minds. This is how we live pretty much all of the time. But it's only during meditation that we recognise it and work to reign in the spasmodic nature of our minds.
Lastly — and this bears repeating — once you've discovered that you've drifted away from the breath, just stay calm, set the idea aside, and return to the breath. Inhalation, exhalation.
Dealing with Problems
Needless to say, not all meditation sessions go as planned. As mentioned, I struggle with back pain, which can be incredibly distracting. Sometimes, I get an itch.
When this happens, I shift my attention away from my breath, and onto the pain. In a technique borrowed from yoga, I exhale in and out of the pain. I heighten my awareness and acceptance of the pain, avoiding negative emotional feelings in response to it. Regrettably, this doesn't always work, so I sometimes take a break and stretch, or change positions (like sit in a chair).
Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm offers his advice on dealing with distractions, like pain.
Noise can also disrupt a session. Perhaps someone in the house turned on the TV, or the neighbours are busy chatting away. Again, it's important not to give up when this happens or get frustrated. Consider it an added challenge to the session. Like physical pain, focus your attention on the source of the distraction and learn to cope with it rather than trying to avoid it.
Needless to say, this meditation explainer was short and straight to the point; there's a lot more detail and nuance about mindfulness that I had to leave out. To get started, you may want to consider joining a meditation class. But if you're set to go it alone, be sure to read this excellent and comprehensive 18-part guide written by Henepola Gunaratana.
Lastly, in the midst of today's hustle-and-bustle, it's important to remember this Zen proverb: "You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day — unless you're too busy. Then you should sit for an hour."