Our hectic schedules are crammed with crises, to-do lists, issues marked urgent and overflowing in trays… Far away from everyday events, at your core, lies a place of quiet, calm, serenity, and stillness… Feeling connected to life and your core can be an everyday and effortless activity. Mark Thornton
Should you meditate? The short answer is “Yes!” So if that’s all you wanted to find out, you can stop reading right now. But I hope you don’t because next I’m going to give you my take on the what?, why?, when?, where?, and how? of meditation.
First off I’ll warn you that I’m not a purist when it comes to meditation, so if you’re looking for a lecture on Buddhist spiritual principles on meditation, you’ve come to the wrong place. I’m a busy, working parent who uses meditation to calm myself, to bring peace and happiness into my heart, and to bring awareness and clarity into my life. If you’re looking for more of a Buddhist perspective, you might try reading the author Lama Surya Das. But if you’re looking for an approach less wrapped in spiritual language and more tailored to a modern, hectic life, then I hope this article helps you.
Quick meditation guide
What is meditation
There are more formal definitions for what meditation is, but really what it comes down to is just a basic focusing of attention and quieting of the superficial thoughts of the mind. It’s becoming conscious of what’s going on in your head rather than being on auto-pilot as usual. Meditation is a chance to:
* contact the inner stillness that exists beneath the level of your thoughts
* bring your calm attention to an issue or feeling you want to resolve
* stay calm at anytime under any situation
* relax your mind and body
* connect, on the spiritual side, with the creative energy of life.
And guess what – you already do a form of meditation all the time. You focus attention on replaying the argument you had with your spouse, on how fat you are, or on how little money you have. If none of those work, how about the ever popular, unconscious meditative refrain of “I look like crap today.” These are the types of negative things your mind turns to when you’re asleep at the switch, when you’re not consciously paying attention to what you’re thinking.
When you decide to meditate, you choose to be consciously aware of where your attention goes and you can choose to let go of thoughts that don’t support you in a positive way. When you decide to meditate, you can also choose to become quiet inside – something your thinking mind rarely lets you do.
Here’s a short list of some of the benefits of meditation:
1. Reduces stress levels in the mind and body
2. Can help with depression, fears and conflicted emotions
3. Improves self-confidence
4. Helps cultivate peace and happiness in your life – it can actually raise your innate ability to be happy
5. Slows aging and improves memory
6. Helps heal the body, strengthen the immune system, reduce PMS, and relieve headaches
7. Allows you to bring calm to any situation
8. Helps you to create a more purposeful life
9. On the spiritual side, many who promote meditation state that it’s a way to consciously connect to the creative force of the Universe or God
10. Allows you to focus your creative energy to attract the things you desire into your life.
When and Where meditation
Anytime! Anywhere! Yes, you can set aside a specific time for meditation and sit in quiet contemplation for an hour or more in your meditation room that you designed using feng shui, but you don’t have to. I know that method certainly isn’t an option in my life right now, but I still benefit greatly from meditation.
You can meditate in the shower in the morning, when you’re in line at the grocery store, for 20 minutes during your lunch hour, for a few minutes before bed, whenever – the options are endless.
Many meditation proponents suggest setting aside 10-20 minutes right when you wake up in the morning and right before bed. Those are good choices if they fit your schedule. Those times don’t fit my schedule so I take 15 minutes during my day at work to meditate and I slip in “mini-meditations” throughout my day when I’m standing in a line or waiting at a traffic light or anytime I feel tension building in my body.
Find the time of day that works for you for a longer meditation, or slip in a mini-meditation while you’re waiting for something or walking somewhere. Don’t deny yourself opportunities to meditate because you think you can’t find the perfect time or place.
How to meditate
There are as many ways to meditate as there are experts to tell you about them. If you are new to meditation, one of the most important things I want to tell you is that there are no rules except relax! Meditation is not a job or a competition. It is a path to calmness, gentleness, kindness, and relaxation.
Years ago when I first considered meditation, I thought I had to overcome the relentless voice chattering away in my head, the relentless thoughts. And guess what – I could rarely stop the voice, so I thought I was a failure at meditation most of the time. I remember going to a two-day silent meditation retreat where a teacher guided us in sitting meditations and walking meditations. By the end of the second day, I finally experienced a quieting of my mind. I went home feeling incredibly joyous and peaceful. But by the next day my doubts about meditation returned. If it took me two whole days in silent meditation to get to a point where my mind was quiet, how was I ever going to fit meditation into my life?
I have since learned that you don’t have to silence your thoughts to meditate. You can simply become aware of the fact that you are thinking and then let the thoughts float away. You don’t have to beat yourself up over the fact that you can’t stop the thoughts. In fact, it’s better if you accept the fact that your mind can be a busy place and just turn your attention to what you want to focus on over and over again when your mind starts to stray. Think of your mind as a playful puppy and gently lead it back to where you want it to be. In time with practice, you’ll find that it’s easier to let go of the inner distractions and bring your mind to where you want it to be whether that is to inner silence or to focus on a specific issue.
Also, unless you are on a specific spiritual path, there is no specific way you have to sit or stand to meditate. Sit, stand, walk, lay on your stomach at the beach and watch the waves – whatever works for you is fine. Don’t limit yourself because you think you have to be sitting a certain way – that’s just an excuse for not meditating.
How to meditate will probably depend on your purpose. I vary how I meditate depending on what I want to gain from the meditation. If I’m stressed, I choose to focus on my breathing or on consciously relaxing different parts of my body. If I have a goal I’m trying to achieve, I focus on sending energy to that goal. If I want to connect with the inner peace that I know is somewhere inside of me, I focus on the silence in my mind and try to let all thought float away.
Here are a few different meditation techniques that I use depending on the situation and what I hope will be the result:
My preferred breathing meditation is to put my attention on my breath as it comes in and out of my nose. I gently follow my breath there and notice how it moves naturally into and out of my body. This is the place (my nose) where I find it easiest to keep my attention. I find this technique instantly calming. Others suggest consciously noticing your breath as it passes from your chest down into your diaphragm or belly and then back up. When my attention drifts away from my breath, I gently bring it back. If I have some thoughts, I simply note that I’m “thinking” and I shift attention back to the breath while allowing the thoughts to drift away. I use breathing meditation to calm myself, relieve stress, feel happier and more at peace, to clear my mind, and to connect with the stillness of the Universe. This can be done in a longer meditation session or in mini-meditations at anytime during your day. If you find yourself getting extremely upset at something, focus for a second on your breath and you will find it gives you a little bit of space in your emotional turmoil.
If you have an issue that you feel needs your mental and emotional attention, a visualization meditation can often help. Breathe slowly and use your imagination. If you have a goal you want to accomplish, focus on the goal as if it were already complete – imagine how you will feel when your goal is complete and feel this positive feeling inside of you. If you have a person who you are feeling angry toward, imagine a positive energy inside of your body as a bright white light of kindness, and then surround an image of that person with the light while consciously saying “I forgive you for any pain you’ve caused me.” (When you forgive someone and release your anger, it allows you to release negative energy stored inside of you, it allows you to react more calmly to that person, and it allows you to find better solutions to any additional problems with that person. Forgiveness allows you to find peace within yourself.) I use visualization meditations for goals, for improving relationships, and for energizing myself. If I feel like I have low energy, I imagine that white light of positive energy flowing through my body.
This is simply the process of becoming consciously aware of your actions, your body, or your surroundings. This is an easy way to reduce stress, bring quiet or stillness to your mind, and bring calm understanding to almost any situation. It can also be done anywhere, anytime for a few seconds or for much longer periods. The technique is to simply notice what is happening. I like to use this when I need to relax or slow down, or when I start feeling worried or uptight about something. The point is to calm the mind and allow you to consciously decide where to put your attention rather than allowing your untamed thoughts to keep running the show.
1. If you choose action awareness, focus your attention on exactly what you’re doing and how you experience it. If you are walking, become aware of how the sidewalk looks and how it feels when you put your foot down to take a step. Become aware of the temperature of the air and the sounds in your environment. If you’re eating, become aware of how your food looks, tastes and smells. Try to become aware of how your body feels as you eat. If you are washing dishes, become aware of how you hold the sponge and what the water feels like running across your hands.
2. If you choose body awareness, try the process of feeling the energy flowing in your body. Can you feel the energy in your hands? There is life pulsing through your hands so there is definitely energy there! How about feeling energy in your legs or your shoulders? Can you locate any tension in your body and bring awareness to it? Notice how it feels.
3. If you choose awareness of your surroundings, notice where you are, what you see, what it sounds like, what the temperature is, and whether there is silence that you can find between the sounds.
* “I can’t stop thinking!” This is really common and as I discussed above, you don’t have to stop thinking. Allow the thoughts to be there, return your attention to where you want it, and let the thoughts float away.
* “When I quiet my mind, I get upset.” This means that you have something unresolved emotionally that you need to deal with. If it only arises when you quiet your mind, then you are using continuous unconscious thinking to cover it up. Try to allow yourself to accept the emotion and let it run through you. Cry, punch a pillow, or get professional help from a therapist to help you work it out if necessary.
* “My to-do list is running through my head and I’m coming up with things I don’t want to forget.” Keep a note pad next to you. Write down the item and then let it go from your mind. It will be on the pad when you’re done meditating.
* “I don’t have time for this.” Surely you have 2 minutes while waiting at the traffic light or in line at the store. In fact, if you do a mini breathing meditation while waiting in line at the store, you’re much less likely to get annoyed by the fact that the person in front of you is paying in pennies.
* “I keep falling asleep.” Try changing the time that you meditate, your position (sitting or standing rather than reclining), or accept that maybe you need more sleep and go ahead and take a nap.
* “I’m bored.” So what? Accept that your bored. That is just a thought trying to divert you from your purpose. It is brought about by the fact that you are consciously choosing to slow your mind down. Don’t let it derail you. Know that you can stand to be bored for 20 minutes and you will find that your thinking mind stops using this as an excuse.
Adding meditation to your life can be truly rewarding and there is always space for it. It can help you become more peaceful, healthy, self-confident, kind, relaxed and creative. It can help you come to know yourself better and become more powerfully connected to your life. The information I’ve provided in this article can get you started and may be enough for most people. But if you want to learn more about meditation and its benefits, please visit my website for additional recommended reading.