Meditation is the simple practice of coming to a stop and exploring your experience with the intention of cultivating presence, awareness and kindness. Think of it as navigating from doing mode to being mode.
Meditation often feels very ordinary – so don’t expect too much at the beginning and remember – there is a practice of stillness in every wisdom tradition – so you know how to do this – it is as instinctive as eating, drinking, or keeping warm.
Is it just something that is done ‘in the mind’?
Meditation might seem at first to be a mental exercise because often the body is static – however meditation teaches the skill of welcoming awareness into both body and mind, and links us to the deeper ways in which we might experience ourselves as human beings. In many traditions meditation also offers a path to spiritual development although this does not need to be the focus of your practice.
How do I meditate? Do I need to be sat cross-legged and hum like the stereotypes?
Yes of course. (No – just kidding!)
Meditation is best approached in a comfortable seated position. This could be on a normal chair or with your hips raised on a cushion and feet resting on a wider cushioned mat (traditionally known as zafu and zabuton). It is a good idea to begin with a form of guidance or tuition such as an audio meditation, an app, or a piece of inspiring music – something that you find calming and instructive.
What are three benefits of meditation?
- Meditation builds stress resilience. The reason we associate the stereotypical meditation image with a calm serene landscape and stones balanced one on top of the other is because meditation teaches you how to align, come back to centre and find stillness when you are stressed or anxious. By returning consciously to the breath and the sensations of the body, you learn how to direct your attention towards peaceful stimuli and away from alarming ones. As many of the daily catalysts of stress are perceived rather than actual dangers – this skill is hugely valuable to anyone seeking calm in an uncertain world.
- Meditation builds self-awareness and empathy. Meditation offers a map that allows you to know your interior self a little more intimately. As you become more adept at navigating your thoughts, emotions, and sensations a space opens up for intentionality and heartfulness which develops empathy, generosity and connection.
- Meditation as a commitment to your self-care enhances your overall sense of happiness and wellbeing. The skill of being able to attend to the present moment, enrich it with presence, and practice appreciation becomes its own reward.
How long should I do it for?
There are always lots of questions about frequency and duration but it is important to remember that there is no set target here. If you were to build up to 20 minutes once or twice a day, that would be fantastic – but my usual suggestion is to simply meditate more than you currently are now.
So, if you’re not meditating at all – just try it once. If you meditate once a month – how about trying once a week – if it’s twice a week – build up to a weekday practice and so on.
Start small with just a 5-minute practice and gradually build up, not worrying that sometimes it feels easy and some days it feels really hard. Just keep showing up! Perseverance and a little discipline is key to get throught the first weeks and build a habit.
Is it ever possible to truly clear the mind?
Yes it is, but trying actively to clear the mind tends to have completely the opposite effect. In fact, if you ask someone to seek out a thought in their mind right now – this actually is much more likely to give them the experience of thought-free awareness. Try it now if you like: Go find a thought…what happens?
How can I get started?
There are many ways to begin so it is more about finding the one that suits you best. I wrote my first book: 100 Mindfulness Meditations – The Ultimate Collection of Inspiring Daily Practices to offer beginners a simple and structured way to build their skills and confidence day-by-day.
If you prefer an app, the most popular ones like Headspace, Calm, and Buddhify are very sophisticated and well-designed. Insight Timer is another wonderful resource that links you to a huge array of recorded meditations and courses from the world’s best teachers. So, my advice is to experiment, find a teacher, writer, or guide that resonates. Instead of being overwhelmed by choice – pick one app and go deep into it, or choose one book and read it slowly – twice! You can bring your mindfulness to how you learn too!
Should I incorporate breathing techniques?
Up to you. Mindfulness meditation includes a lot of breath awareness in the guidance because the breath is the doorway – we follow the breath into the body from where we continue the exploration of interior self. If you enjoy the breathing practices in a yoga class you may wish to explore a pranayama class or try breathwork. All of these practices have many benefits and it is up to you to find the ones that feel right for your particular likes and needs.
Got 1 Minute – Try a STOP
If you are feeling stressed or anxious I recommend practicing STOP, a pocket-practice taught on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) courses to help regain clarity and calm:
- Stop and pause. Feel gravity pushing the weight of the body down – feel your feet on the floor.
- Take a conscious breath. Feel the warmth and energy of your body.
- Open – gently observe what is happening internally and externally. Is there an opportunity here to redirect?
Got 5 Minutes – This practice is called: Slow Down
- You have arrived. Take five slow breaths here.
- Acknowledge the whirl of activity that the mind is still chewing over as you begin your practice. Observe it neutrally and welcome it by allowing it to be just as it is. Know that it will settle in its own time.
- Offer your breath an invitation to Slow Down and take five easeful breaths here.
- Now, bring the same invitation to the body: Slow Down.
- Take five breaths as the Energy of Slow circulates gradually through every bone, every muscle, every artery, every cell.
- Next, take the focus of your awareness to mind and offer it the invitation: Slow Down.
- Take five breaths here and before bringing your practice to a close, contemplate how the Energy of Slow can be welcomed into daily life.
- Return to wakefulness in your own way.
Got 20 Minutes – Try the Body Scan
- Breathe and notice the body. Remember it. Discover yourself in this moment as a physical being with weight, temperature, texture, colour and energy. Take five breaths here.
- Are certain parts of your body calling for attention? An itch, a scratch? A shift of body weight? Attend to the body’s needs until it is quietly resting at peace.
- Now bring awareness to the feet and toes. What do you sense? What is present? And what do your feet want you to know about how they are feeling in this moment? Take at least five breaths here and gather information.
- On the next breath, allow your awareness to move up into the legs. How do they feel? Are they comfortable? Go slowly. Check in with the calves, shins, knees and thighs. Feel for temperature, movement and weight. Notice where you are holding on. Take at least five breaths here until ready to move on.
- Bring your awareness now to the central core of the body: the abdomen and chest. Check in. Listen. Feel. Be in your body. Notice all sensations, images, feelings and words that arise and take five breaths here.
- Next, bring your attention to the arms and hands. Let your awareness travel down through the upper limbs and into the fingers. Take your time and feel all of the sensations present. Simply notice. Whatever is there, whether it feels pleasant or challenging, take an inventory. Do not add any judgment or commentary to the sensation. Follow and breathe. Listen for five more breaths.
- Finally awareness moves up through the neck and into the head. Breathe. Listen. Gather. Observe. Witness. Take at least five breaths here.
- On the next breath set an intention to inhabit the body fully. Imagine the mind and body are one. Take five breaths here.
- Return to wakefulness in your own way.
By Neil Seligman
Here are some extra thoughts on how to use meditation to tackle your daily niggles and concerns: Mindfulness and Meditation Tips to Defuse Day to Day Worries