In a world of constant external stimulation and perfectionism, meditation truly offers an inner sanctuary that is sought after by more and more people worldwide. Science confirms its benefits, and traditions prevail. From a wide range of physical health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure, to stress management, to proven positive changes in the brain, or even growing new grey matter, there seem to be very few reasons not to take up the thousands of years-old practice.
Many of us know, understand, and have the desire to meditate regularly, but something always seems to get in the way. Or perhaps we get in the way of ourselves. We find ourselves mentally saying, I don’t have time, tomorrow, next week when things settle down. Or, I can’t meditate, my mind is too busy. There may be a myriad of other reasons to not just get to it. Perhaps it seems too religious or new-age, or you feel silly. Or maybe you think you don’t know how. But still, the notion of meditation practice pulls you towards it nonetheless.
In the words of Sri Pattabhi Jois, one of the great yoga teachers of the past century; ‘Yoga is 99 percent practice and 1 percent theory. ’For meditation, it is no different. Like any practice, it’s all about doing the thing and doing it again, and again. Something we often forget is that it is a practice, not perfection. And meditation is truly an inner sanctuary and one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself.
Meditation does not have to be a religious practice
Although it is part of some religious traditions, meditation is not in itself a religious practice. The term ‘mindfulness’ is often used to remove the connotation of spiritual practice in meditation. Very simply, through settling our attention on the breath, we can teach ourselves to experience life in the present moment. (Actually, does life really exist anywhere else?) Attention control, emotion regulation, and self-awareness are both the practice and the result. It is a means of ‘calming the waves of the mind’. It is as elegant and straightforward as that.
Thoughts, sensations, and emotions
These three experiences are what we often see as obstacles our meditation practice. We can see these as usual and part and parcel of the process. These are experiences we have of ourselves when we sit and listen. Suddenly, we understand what a flurry our mind is in. We have the chance to watch it slowly unwind. We feel so many sensations in the body. These were probably always present, and are likely to be the places we hold stress and tension in the body. Being present makes us aware of them; by sitting with them, we have the opportunity to let this tension go. Emotions, too, become something we have the chance to witness within ourselves. All these thoughts, sensations and feelings can be seen as very much part of the practice, visitors on the experiential path.
The main prerequisite for meditation is, fortunately not full lotus position seated on the floor. What is most needed is that we are sitting comfortably with a naturally straight spine. This position allows the body to sit relaxed and for the mind to be alert. Being upright is essential, or we end up snoozing. Sit as you feel comfortable on a cushion, kneeling with the feet tucked behind, cross-legged, or on a stool. As long as you are reasonably comfortable and upright, that’s all you need. A little yoga or stretching in your life is an excellent support for your practice.
What’s actually happening?
Meditation can be described simply as coming back to yourself. It is a means of ‘checking in’ and paying attention to our inner world in a way that we would not usually otherwise not do. It is literally a way to change our brain function to a less fearful, calmer, and more attentive state. Through the breath, which is both a conscious and an unconscious function, we have the power to regulate our nervous system in a particular way. Studies have shown meditation reduces the activation of the amygdala - the part of the brain that is responsible for fear and worries. And the meditation also helps the nervous system shift more readily into parasympathetic mode which is a very calm, balancing, and regulating state. In this state, breathing deepens, heart rate slows, and stress hormones are down-regulated. The opportunity for healing arises. In this state, we can be deeply present, and we can deeply let go.
All we need do is be present, and focus on the sensation of breathing. Understand when your mind wanders, and come back to your breath. Gently, lovingly, with deep acceptance of yourself. It really is as simple as that. Many mobile applications can be used to support when you start. We encourage you to pick up what you can from them and then let them go. They too can be an outside stimulation, whereas the real work is the inner work. Just you and, well, you. One of the best practical guides to meditation is the book ‘How to Meditate’ by Kathleen McDonald.
Making it real
When we reach a stage of understanding and readiness to practice, the impetus to continue regularly may hinge upon finding the reasons that mean something to you. Whether it’s to improve your mood, attention and focus, self-awareness, promote healing and balance in the body, or any other reason, making that reason clear to yourself can be all you need. I simply like myself more when I meditate regularly, and my energy improves noticeably. Small things like this can indeed have a tremendous positive impact on your life.
If nothing else, meditation and mindfulness help us to live life to a greater extent in the present moment. If you think about it, the present moment is the only place we experience joy and happiness. It’s the only place we can ever truly exist, so we may as well be there in mind as well as body and enjoy it!