If you’re anything like I once was, you don’t quite get meditation. Sure, the thought of wistfully zoning out into some trance-like state where the weight of the world is lifted from your shoulders sounds absolutely awesome; and yet, it also sounds daunting and thoroughly unrealistic!
However, over the last year of so, I’ve dug a little deeper into the subject and have come to realize that meditation is somewhat of a loaded term, and one that I suspect is stopping many people from reaping the benefits of this simple practice.
Like you, I’ve read about the benefits of meditation on more than one occasion. Just pick-up your favorite lifestyle magazine and there it is, another article on how meditation can change your life. And you know what, perhaps it can. But first you have to try!
Before I go on, let’s clear-up a few misconceptions:
- Meditation is not self-hypnosis; you don’t close-off to the world in a literal sense, nor “wake-up” unable to account for some expanse of lost time.
- You don’t need to chant, verbalize a mantra, pray, hum, whistle, or otherwise do anything that would draw attention to yourself.
- Absolutely no preparation is needed; no plans, no props, no special “circumstance”.
Maybe you knew meditation was nothing like that; maybe you knew it was easy. I certainly didn’t, and I suspect that many others don’t too.
My latest run-in with meditation came on a flight to Zurich. I was reading an excellent article in Men’s Journal about Dan Harris, award winning news correspondent for ABC. As an aside, this guy has seen some stuff reporting from the Middle East and found himself in need of meditation more than most; I suspect he has some real stories to tell. If he ever writes a biography, I think I’ll read it.
Anyway, in this article, like many others I’ve read, Dan went on to expound the benefits of meditation; how it had calmed his mind, restored his soul and generally made him feel good. And, as is usual, it piqued my interest and got me thinking. However, Dave also explained that he had a really simple process for his meditation practice, and you know what, it was as simple as breathing.
So just how does one meditate?
Before even start, you need to eliminate the pressure on yourself and set a realistic expectation. Chances are that you will not “technically” meditate on your very first attempt, just as you didn’t necessarily succeed on your first attempt at anything else (other than getting drunk?).
And start small. Don’t try and meditate for an hour, or even thirty minutes. Three to fine minutes is all you really need to start feeling the benefits, and once you get the hang of it you can steadily increase your goals.
Here’s how it works:
- The most basic preparation you need is to try and ensure that you won’t be interrupted. That means turning your cell to silent (gasp!), silencing or unplugging the wall phone (if you get regular calls) and otherwise not starting the session two minutes before someone arrives! (like before a meeting or an appointment)
- Get comfortable and close your eyes. Relax. You are falling into a deep… sorry, kidding! But seriously, do try and get comfortable and do close your eyes.
- Breathe. Literally, just breathe. If you are breathing faster than you think you should be, that’s absolutely fine; just take a deep breath or two, and keep breathing. Eventually, your breathing will slow, and even if it doesn’t, that’s perfectly ok.
- Now we are into the magic, the sauce, the cherry on top. Through the entirety of the meditation, the whole point is not to control your breathing, it’s to follow it. Simply focus your mind on your breaths. Hear it; breathe in. Feel it; breathe out. Breathe in; breath out.
- When you find yourself drifting–and you will drift–don’t despair. The first few times you try to meditate, you’ll find your mind wandering… to work, to family, to life. Don’t panic. As soon as you notice, just bring yourself back to your breathing; focus… breathe in; breath out.
Did I meditate?
Almost certainly! And how do I know? Because if you focused on your breathing for at least a few minutes, you meditated. Sure, it was a little shady. You almost certainly thought about work at least once, or that thing you have to do with the whatsaname. And yes, you heard the conversation of the person next to you and that got you thinking about something or other. But you pulled it back; you followed the way back to your breath and slowly but surely, the noise and distractions faded… even if just for a few moments.
From my own personal experience, it really can make a pretty noticeable impact on both your physical and mental state. The last couple of times I’ve meditated, it’s been on flights. Now I’m a pretty seasoned traveler, and while I’ve been up-close and personal with anxiety and claustrophobia in the past, I don’t now have any trouble with flying. And yet, flights can get bumpy, and no matter how much you try to rely on the logic that everything is fine, you do find yourself a little more anxious than when you are out walking in the countryside!
Inspired by the recent article in Men’s Journal (remember Dan?), while sitting on the runway this week and waiting for take-off, I decided I would meditate. I mean, why not… there’s nothing else to do. My personal strategy is to count backwards from a number; decrementing one number with each exhale. The higher the starting number, the longer I hope to meditate. On this occasion, I decided that two hundred would be a good number.
Now remember, I am on a plane. There is noise. People chatting, intercoms sounding, buzzers buzzing, engine roar, tire noise … if you can think of a distraction, it’s there. I first lost my focus around one hundred eighty five, just fifteen breaths in. I can’t recall exactly what it was I thought of; I might have been pulled toward a conversation, with synaptic pathways rapidly connecting me to work, weekend… hobbies. One eighty four, one eighty three, one eighty two…
And so the pattern repeated. I reached zero, and fired off another couple of rounds… one of fifty, and one of forty-four, my age. So maybe a total of three hundred breaths of meditation. Now bear in mind, by the end, my breathing was relaxed, VERY relaxed. It had certainly slowed to less than one full breath every couple of seconds. My guess is that I meditated for about fifteen minutes or so. Not too shabby.
The biggest indicator for me that it’s working is when I drift, but in an “abstract” way. The focus slips away almost unnoticed and you’ve had a string of random thoughts before you even realize you are no longer tracking your breathing. You’re in that space between awake and asleep, with the unconscious mind running freely. Call it daydreaming, call it whatever you want. It’s meditating. You quieted your conscious mind for long enough to take a break from structured thought, from the “burden” of actually thinking.
And you know what, I felt great! By the time I had finished, I opened my eyes and we were in the air. I was relaxed, breathing slowly, freely. I felt good. I had meditated and reaped the benefits… and you can too.
Focus on your breath? Really?
Are you still wondering what “focus on your breath” means? Well, it doesn’t really “mean” anything. The whole goal here is to distract your conscious mind and break the continuous process of “thought”. Focusing your mind on your breath is just a distraction tactic. And despite being the most powerful and amazing creation on the planet, your brain is pretty stupid and VERY easily distracted!
Remember when you couldn’t sleep as a kid and your mum or dad told you to count sheep? That was basically meditating! A simple “trick” to distract and quiet your conscious mind. And while I haven’t yet counted sheep yet as part of my meditation practice, I have done something very similar.
For example, in my recent practice, when the distractions where heaviest and I found myself drifting too easily, I started visualizing each number as I counted. A big, one hundred sixty four coming in from the right and fading to the left; in with my breath, and out with my exhale. And slowly but surely, that turned into the number sitting on a swing, a tree swing to be more specific. As I breathed in, the swing would rise to the right, and as I breathed out, the new number would swing down and out of sight to my left… and this pattern continued until I drifted or daydreamed. Sometimes, when I finally realized I was no longer “swinging”, I’d have no idea what number I was on… perfect! I’d grab a random number and start off again.
Another technique I’ve tried using is a series of simple mantras. The definition of a mantra is literally “a (usually positive) word, phrase or sound repeated to aid meditation”. And just as with sheep and numbers on swings, reciting a mantra is doing little more than occupying your conscious mind.
On this particular occasion, my mantra was “I am healthy. I am happy. I am lean. I am muscular.” And with each of the statements, I would try to visualize that state. Now of course, I don’t know what healthy looks like, but I tried to “feel” healthy when I said it, I also smiled when I said I was happy. And just as with counting, this process continued until I realized I’d stopped saying my mantras, upon which I’d just start over and go about my meditation.
Closing thoughts: Meditation can have a really positive effect on your physical and mental well being. Don’t be put-off by the seemingly daunting task of entering a meditative state, it really is just as simple as following your breathing. Have a go, and persevere; as with anything else, it get’s easier with practice. Let me know how you get on!