My first foray into meditation was about 15 years ago and I have to say it was not a resounding success. A friend and I took ourselves off to studio in Dominion Road in Auckland and sat, rather awkwardly and uncomfortably, for about an hour trying to keep a straight face while we desperately tried and failed to think about nothing.
Mercifully the session eventually ended and we headed out for lunch thinking that was an hour we’d never get back and an experience we’d be unlikely to repeat, at least not willingly! Fast forward to present day and not only do I repeat the experience willingly and on a daily basis but I have become a total convert, advocating meditation as one of the best ways to manage stress, cope with change, improve mood and improve overall health and wellbeing in the long term.
And it seems I’m not alone. From the NHS endorsing mindfulness training as part of treatment for depression to the almost daily lists showcasing the growing number of business leaders making adopting a practice as part of their daily life, the meditation movement is global and growing.
Why is meditation becoming so popular?
This is hard to say but I think it’s a combination of things coming together at the right time. Just as more and more people are struggling to find ways to manage anxiety, depression and the physiological damage caused by stress, the scientific community is starting to provide evidence that meditation actually works, scanning the brains of Buddhist monks to show that regular meditation actually changes the make-up of the brain.
Such studies are then widely publicised and of course, the internet has made it possible to take up a daily practice in the comfort of your own home, often for free. And, as more and more ‘respected figures’ come out and talk about how meditation helps them, it becomes normalised and much more a part of the mainstream.
So what exactly is meditation?
As with everything there are different schools, style and approaches to meditation. In my experience though, they all seem to include the following core elements:
- Sitting or lying quietly somewhere, usually with your eyes closed to reduce distractions. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to sit crossed-legged or on the floor, sitting upright in a chair fine as is lying on your bed or the couch if that’s most comfortable.
- Breathing. Most meditation practices will start with asking you to spend a few moments focusing on, and observing your breath. This is both a way of helping you focus on the present moment and noticing anything interesting about your breath that might reflect your broader state of mental or physical health e.g. is it shallow and fast, ragged or even and what might that tell you about your current state
- A focus on the present. One of the reasons that meditation is so effective as a stress management technique is that it allows us to shut off the endless chatter in the mind and just be. By focusing on the here and now, we stop our minds wasting precious energy reliving past events which we can actually do nothing about or worrying ourselves into an anxious state thinking about the future. Different approaches use different techniques to help with this focus on the present including:
- The use of a centering thought or mantra such as ‘Om’ or even the very simple ‘just for today I will not worry’
- An affirmation such as ‘everything is absolutely OK right now’
- Guided visualisations that might walk you through a beautiful garden or park
- Or even getting really focused by eating a piece of chocolate in slow, mindful way
- Paying attention. All approaches acknowledge that sitting and thinking about nothing is actually impossible. Thoughts, bodily sensations and feelings come up for even the most experienced meditators. The point of paying attention is not to do anything about these thoughts, feelings and sensations, rather we simply observe, label and let them go.
- Non-judgement. Relatedly, not criticising or trying to change anything about what you’re thinking, feeling or experiencing is a core element of meditation. This combination of awareness and non-judgement helps us cultivate the ability to be mindfully detached – really present, aware of what is going on around you and in your own mind but staying emotionally detached.
This is both liberating in a personal sense, removing the expectation that you should think or feel in a particular and incredibly useful in a practical sense, especially in high pressure situations. Over time, this skill of mindful detachment gives you the ability to see that there is always a space between observation or experience and reaction and that you can always make a choice about how you want to respond or behave. In doing so we take much more control of our thoughts and actions, are less reactive and more considered in what we say which can be especially useful to stop the escalation of tense situations into harmful conflict.
Mindfulness, Meditation what’s the difference?
Although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, I have noticed a couple of important differences in more contemporary mindfulness approaches compared to more traditional meditation. In very simple terms, while mindfulness is a core element in all mediation traditions, those programmes labelling themselves as Mindfulness Training or Mindfulness Meditation have usually stripped out the spiritual elements or teachings that characterise more traditional approaches (see below). But they still retain the core meditative elements of deep breathing, focus on the present, and detached observation and, in this way deliver the same mind and body benefits as the full-fat version.
Mind, body, spirit: connecting to your true self and the universe in traditional meditation
Ponder this for a moment and then read on…
Are you a human being having a spiritual experience or a spiritual being having a human experience?
More traditional meditations usually have a link to eastern spiritual traditions, especially Buddhism and Brahmin teachings and will often use Sanskrit mantras such as ‘Om’ in some way. Additionally, many guided meditations in this category will also include some teachings based on that tradition’s beliefs.
To err is human, to forgive divine
Commonly this will include the belief that we are all, in essence, perfect divine beings and that the ‘imperfections’ we observe in ourselves and others and the challenges these create in our day to day lives are simply manifestations of our human part which in no way touch or damage our essential, spiritual core or ‘true self’. If this notion is embraced, the ability to observe yourself without judgement becomes much easier as does the ability to forgive the actions of yourself and others, even when this behaviour is decidedly not divine!
I am you, you are me, we are one, we are free…
Another common theme in more spiritually based approaches is the belief that everything in the universe is actually the same thing – the notion of oneness, connectedness or universal consciousness as it is sometimes called. Here the idea is that the difficulties we often experience, especially with other people come because of the artificial distinction we have created between ourselves i.e. the idea that I am ‘the one’ and others i.e. you are ‘the other’ and the belief that as distinct beings we have competing agendas which implicitly give rise to conflict.
If we instead, set that belief aside and instead embrace the idea that we are all part of the same, these distinctions disappear and along with them go competitive thoughts and we free ourselves from the destructive emotions like jealousy, anger and self-loathing which we think drive us on to achieve bigger and better things but mainly just serve to make us unhappy.
‘When we reach a state of pure awareness, we realise there are no problems and therefore no need for solutions. As clarity dawns, we become light-hearted and stop taking ourselves so seriously. We let go of the struggle and live in the flow of life’ (Deepak Chopra)
An attitude of gratitude
Being grateful is becoming widely acknowledged as one of the easiest and most practical tools you can employ to create a mind-shift that will help you on the path to happiness. The ability to focus on and be grateful for what you have, rather than constantly being annoyed about what you don’t have, has long been credited as the reason people in the materially less developed but spiritually richer countries like India and Bhutan are consistently reported as happier than people in the materially richer but, often spiritually impoverished developed world.
Developing this habit is key to creating a happier life and a greater sense of fulfilment in your every day existence. If you would like to learn more, I cover this in depth in both of my books ‘The Way or the Wellbeing’ and the ‘Guide to Mastering Stress’. To try for yourself, take five minutes every morning for the next month to write down all the things you are grateful for in your life and see how starting the day with a grateful frame of mind shifts your experience of whatever follows.
So, what’s the right approach for you?
On this I would definitely defer to the Buddha and say ‘go find this out for yourself’ but to get to started here is a short review of a few of the online courses I have done over the past couple of years. All offer a regular free trial before you sign up for a paid subscription or pay to download the course. If anyone reading this has other suggestions they’d like to share, please feel free to do so in the comments below.
Headspace www.getsomeheadspace.com. Definitely in the mindfulness camp, a great introduction to the core elements of meditation for those who want to try but are put off by the spiritual association of the more traditional methods. They have a permanent free trial of 10 minutes for 10 days and you can download an app for mediation on the move.
Also in the mindfulness space, is the programme that goes with the book ‘Mindfulness: finding peace in a frantic world’. This is based on MBCT which has been successfully used to treat depression and is probably the best option for those of you who want to understand the science, rather than explore the spirituality, of meditation practice. This programme includes the famous chocolate meditation and mindful television watching. To access the guided meditations visit www.audible.co.uk/mindfulness
Deepak Chopra & Oprah Winfrey 21 Day Meditation Challenges. Initially offered as free courses, these are also available to purchase from the Chopra Centre https://chopracentermeditation.com/purchase. I have done several of these programmes and have found that the guided format works really well for me.
I’ve also done a few programmes from the Mentors Channel including the 15 Day Healing Rhythms programme which brings together a team of meditation masters who guide you through different styles of meditation from physical body scans, to breath based work and more spiritual practices. I’ve also done the 21 Day Mantra Meditations programme which was a lot of fun and really different to what I’ve done before.
My advice if you want to try but you don’t know where to start, is to sign up to the mailing list of each of these organisations so you get notified about the next free course. Try a few and see what you like!
Good luck and enjoy!
I’m a reflexologist, lifestyle coach and work & wellbeing specialist who helps busy people relax, rebalance and revitalise their lives. Visit www.flowmindandbody.com or follow me @tricialach or on facebook for tips on how to live happier, healthier and more holistically in each and every day.