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Guidance on How to Start and Sustain Meditation
As well as counselling at EnduringMind, I try to encourage self-awareness and independence through self-development. Meditation is the art of relaxed concentration. It allows us to create a quiet state of mind while being present in the moment. Meditation helps us focus our attention on a single point of awareness without distraction. It is practiced among all faiths and religions, but also accepted as a non-religious practice. Many scientific institutions from Oxford University to Massachusetts University have studied the health benefits of meditation; including increased concentration, relief from anxiety or depression and an improved sense of well being. Although many of you may have experiemented with meditation, only a few actually commit as it takes time and effort to integrate into your daily routine. Yet, you only need ‘practice breathing’ for 5-10 minutes a day to gain the most basic benefits. At first, beginners may struggle to quieten the mind, which is why they might not develop the right mindset to make the practice sustainable. The mind is easily distracted with the noise and commotion of modern life. Reaching out for a book, music, TV, food, drugs, alcohol to comfort ourselves only distracts us further from the task of quietening the mind. I am not arguing for austerity of experience, but simply a few quiet moments to ourselves to let the mind rest and observe itself without interruption. For this reason, I offer guidance to help you as beginners get past the initial hurdles and integrate meditation into your life.
Make meditation a routine practice by setting aside some uninterrupted time (preferably twice a day) to allow yourself to become momentarily still. This creates a more conducive mindset, as it is necessary to quiet the mind before you can being present in the moment. It also takes practice, until meditation becomes a conditioned response. If this sounds mechanical it can be at first, but then so are many of the routines we find ourselves in – breakfast, watching TV, commuting etc. Not only this but for most beginners quietening the mind is something that stirs up emotions, memories or a train of thought they are used to avoiding. We are also a society addicted to constant stimuli of the senses (TV, radio, mp3s, tablets, mobiles etc). Do not worry about this. The mind will make a noise for a while as it begins to settle down. It may scream and shout, but if you persevere and draw your attention to the sensations of the body it will eventually quieten down.
Start with the breath - breathing deeply slows the heart rate, relaxes the muscles, and relieves us from anxiety. It focuses the mind and allows us to concentrate on the physical sensations and sound of breathing rather than our racing thoughts. The breath should begin with a rhythm that feels comfortable and extends the diaphragm into the belly. Whenever intrusive thoughts interrupt the quietness or the mind wanders turn your attention back to the sound or sensation of breathing. You may also begin with stretching, which loosens the muscles and tendons allowing you to remove the build up of tension and expel the toxic stress hormones which cause anxiety. It also begins the process of the mind “going inward”, by bringing attention to the body.
Remain consciously aware – by staying aware of the process we are more likely to regulate our emotional response and remain in the present moment, rather than go into a trance. Beginners need to understand that meditation is an active process of observing experience without prejudice or judgement. Try to observe sensations without attaching any negative or positive thoughts to them. Simply let them be.
Observe the frustration as it begins to creep up on you - an all too common experience for beginners as you allow your mind to settle, is becoming distracted by a train of thought. Your worries and anxieties will try to hijack you. You may ask yourself: ‘What am I doing here?’ 'Why am I wasting my time?' or ‘Why can’t I just sit still without interruption’. Intrusive thoughts may appear to invade the mind and take over the sense of peace. When this happens, simply turn your attention back to the sensations of the breath and let the frustrated feelings and thoughts go. Do not grasp onto them or angrily dismiss them. This will only make things worse. Remember, meditation is frustrating for everyone at first.
Be willing to experiment - although many of us may imagine that effective meditation is like learning the discipline of a Buddhist monk, beginners can be more experimental by trying different types of meditation. Try sitting, lying, eyes wide-open, eyes closed, walking or even eating mindfully.
Cultivate awareness of your bodily sensations – this keeps you in the present moment by observing the continually changing process of your physical sensations - even pain or discomfort. A helpful practice for beginners is to scan the body for sensations, while a meditative state starts to take hold (usually in the short gap between the in-breath and out-breath). Once the mind quietens down, turn your attention to the toes and then slowly move your way up the body to the head, cultivating an awareness of textures, temperatures, sensations, tinglings, aches, tensions, muscles and internal organs. Awakening the mind to the body's sensations may be difficult at first. However, this struggle to observe and identify them is a good indicator that you are on the right path.
Set aside a special place where you can meditate - ensure it is not the same room where you do work, exercise or sleep. If it helps you can place pictures, candles, flowers, incense and other paraphernalia in the room to help you feel at ease.
Use a number of resources to help with meditation – perhaps a sound recording or an app that allows the benefits of deep meditative states. You can also listen to audio recordings to guide you on my ‘Self-Help’ page.
Commitment is essential – if meditation is to become a life-long practice you must have a daily routine. Something you enjoy, rather than fight. But remember meditation sometimes awakens worries, memories and other distraction which will cause the mind to wander. in time, you will overcome these and begin notice the benefits of practice, not by over-analysing the effects of your practice each day. Merely do the best you can and then let it go. Whatever happens refrain from judging yourself, or your anxieties will only be heightened.
Generate moments of awareness during the day - finding your breath even for a couple of seconds can help. Just “being present” while not in formal practice is a wonderful way to evolve your meditation habits and condition the desire for practice.
Ensure you will not be disturbed – one of the main problems beginners face is not creating the space for peaceful practice conditions. If you have it in the back of your mind that the phone might ring, your kids might interrupt, or you need to fix a problem then you will not be able to attain the concentration and relaxation required.
Notice small and subtle adjustments to practice – the slightest physical movements can transform a meditative practice from one of frustration to renewal. These subtle and acknowledged adjustments may be scarcely noticeable at first, but they can significantly alter your practice.
Use a ‘sacred’ object, candle or image – sometimes meditating with your eyes closed can be challenging. Lighting a candle or watching an object allows you to create a point of focus to strengthen your attention with a visual cue. This can often be a profound and meaningful experience.
Do not be tempted to recreate your stress - the most important tip for beginners is to . Your internal voice may be highly critical if you do not achieve the expected results. However, no matter what happens during your meditation practice, try not to allow frustration to sabotage you. This includes being nervous before meditating or angry afterwards. Meditation is what it is; merely do the best you can. Accept what you have achieved. Mistakes can help us learn. Be grateful for these learning experiences. Afterwards, spend 2-3 minutes appreciating the opportunity to find peace. This will increase your motivation.
Meditate early in the morning and before sleep - without doubt, early morning is an ideal time to practice as the mind is usally in a settled or freshly awakened state. The body’s state of arousal is more likely to provide optimal conditions for meditation. It is quieter, your mind is not filled with the usual build up of daily clutter and there is less chance you'll be disturbed. Make a habit of getting up earlier to meditate and greet the new day.
Observe as your interest in meditation begins to wax and wane - meditation is an evolving practice. It takes time, commitment and effort to develop your craft. And you may come to a point where it does not seem to fit into your schedule. This is when you need your practice most, but without persecuting yourself. If this happens return to the books, apps or mp3’s and re-invigorate your practice with experimentation. Chances are that losing the ability to focus on meditation runs parallel with increasing levels of stress, anxiety or inability to focus in other areas of your life. the fact is stress will mislead you. Hormones produced by stress can cause heightened sates of mental and physical defensivesness, distress or exhaustion. This is precisely why you need meditation. Meditation can be liberating, but it can also be a struggle to start with.