A lot of people want to start meditating but aren’t sure how or where to begin, or what meditating really is. This confusion is because it’s a difficult question. Lots of people mean lots of different things by meditation. What I mean is sitting very still and emptying my mind. I do this because it makes me feel better – calmer, clearer, less prone to anger and anxiety, able to think and react faster. It feels like turning a computer off and on again – a lot of niggles fall away and it’s easier to get stuff done. Meditation has changed a lot of people’s lives, helping them find peace and stability in a world that was chaotic and frightening. Many people do meditation as a deep spiritual practice – to find out who they are, or even the meaning of life. I use it as a tool, to help me be more productive and less beset with anxieties. It’s such an ephemeral and personal thing, my advice would be to not worry too much about why you’re doing it – just give it a bash and see what happens.
Before you begin, you need something to sit on and a timer. The thing to sit on could be a chair, a couple of cushions or a pillow. As a timer I use my phone with its least annoying alarm sound. At work we have a silent alarm that flashes when you’re done, and a singing bowl we ding to signify the start and end of meditation. We also have an alter that we light incense on. None of this is necessary at all, but if you think it would be nice to light a candle or some incense go ahead.
Basically, meditation is making your mind and body be still. That’s it. Obviously it’s way harder than it sounds. Let’s start with the body.
- Sit up straight. This could be in a chair, or on a pile of cushions on the floor. DO NOT attempt lotus position, it is ridiculous. I like to sit cross legged with a pillow folded under my bum. It just needs to be very comfortable but very very upright.
- Tuck your chin in slightly – this makes your spine nice and straight at the top.
- Put your hands in your lap. I put one on top of the other and then touch the thumbs together. If you like you can do the thumb-touched-to-forefinger “meditating hands” you’ll have seen around, but I don’t do this because it feels silly.
- Let your eyes look at something a couple of feet ahead of you. A lot of people meditate with their eyes shut – you can too if you like (I don’t because it’s easier to zone out/fall asleep). Zen meditators stare at a wall to eliminate distractions – I do this on retreat, but it is very hardcore and not really necessary I believe.
And then the mind –
- Start to notice your breathing. For a few breaths just be aware of it – how does it feel? Get used to it.
- When you’re ready, start counting every time you breathe out. Go up to ten, then start again from one.
Okay, you’re ready. Set your timer to 5 minutes and do keep doing this, just sitting stock still and counting your breaths. If anything occurs to you, or you feel yourself wandering off, just gently but firmly bring your attention back to counting the breaths. Don’t be cross with your mind for fizzing about – that’s what minds do. But you’re trying to just make it still. Also, if you want to move, or things start to ache, try to sit through it and hold yourself still. Don’t keep sitting if you’re in agony, obviously, but it’s only five minutes – see if you can just take your mind away from whatever it is that’s bothering you, and back to the breath.
Inevitably, you will realise after a couple of minutes that you’re daydreaming, or worrying about something, or that you forgot to start again at 10 and you’ve counted up to 56. That’s okay. The practice of meditating is not keeping yourself in a perfect, serene, empty bliss state. Occasionally that will happen – awesome! – but that’s not what it is. The practice of meditation is just the act of bringing yourself back to the breath, again and again. Every time you do, your concentration and capacity for calm becomes a tiny bit stronger, in the same way that your arm becomes a tiny bit stronger every time you lift a weight.
When your nice alarm rings, it is over and you have meditated! I do a little bow here, because it’s nice to have a gesture that shows it’s over. If I was meditating at the end of a yoga class I might say “Namaste” (the goodness in me bows down to the goodness in you). If you lit a candle earlier, blow it out. And you’re done.
Most people say that it is best to meditate every single day, in the early morning, for at least 25 minutes. I am sure this is true, but I have never managed to stick to this – it does not fit in with my life and I do it as an ad hoc, when I’m feeling rubbish kind of thing. But if you feel lost and like your life is stalling or maybe you are having issues with concentration or addiction, give a proper daily practice a crack – try to find a time every day when you can do this – start with 5 mins and see if you can up it to 10, then 15. And if you really really don’t have time, just ten deep breaths before you brush your teeth is better than nothing.
And remember – there’s no such thing as “doing it wrong”. That’s not possible. Any amount of conscious breathing and silence is helpful.