The practice of meditation, or dhyana, has been around for centuries and is the 7th limb of the eight-fold path of yoga. Meditation is the state in which all the senses are withdrawn and full concentration of the mind occurs, and although we often describe it as a practice, it isn't something that can be done. Meditation isn't an action that can be willed or achieved through hard work; it is a state of being, a force that arises from within. However, there are many practices and techniques that prepare us for meditation by relaxing the body and mind so that it may extend and open towards meditative states. This is what is meant when we say we are "practicing meditation". Really, we are practicing concentration and relaxation techniques, as well as physical practices that prepare us for the experience of dhyana.
We have all experienced meditation at some point in our lives. It's the tiny in-between moments, those time-stopping feelings of absorption, amazement, pure joy, falling in love, etc. It's the infinitesimal space between breaths and between thoughts. What do all of these have in common? They open the door that allows us to directly experience our very essence, what we refer to as our souls. These experiences allow us to slip into the gap between thoughts. We have all had these moments. Therefore, you have already experienced meditation! When it is approached as a consistent practice however, we learn how to access this state of mind/being intentionally and for longer periods of time. Think of it as a muscle that we must train and strengthen. The "muscle" in this case is your mind.
You do not need to have a still mind in order to practice meditation. I often hear students tell me that they cannot meditate or aren't "good" at it because they have too many thoughts and cannot quiet their minds. We all have busy minds! The practice is what allows us to work towards stillness, but getting to the point where all thoughts vanish is actually a very advanced state. Be gentle with yourself and work with where you are now. Over time you will be able to quiet the mind more easily and for longer periods of time.
Meditation is safe and beneficial for everyone, and while it is not tied to any specific religion, the practitioner make choose to connect it his or her religious faith. So whether you approach meditation scientifically and methodically or as a part of your religious and spiritual practice you will still enjoy the benefits. It all leads to the same experience.
Why practice meditation?
Meditative practices have been well studied and shown to have numerous benefits physically, as well as mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Recent studies from Harvard have shown that consistent meditation actually changes the brain by increasing gray matter, resulting in decreased anxiety, enhanced mental clarity and focus, and a greater capacity for empathy and compassion.
On a physical level, meditation increases serotonin, which improves mood and behavior, boosts energy levels and immune function, lowers blood pressure, reduces inflammation and pain, and improves the body's ability to manage stress. Consistency practice cultivates an overall sense of well-being and calm.
I first began practicing meditation during my last year in college when I was first introduced to yoga. As I became more consistent and more committed to the practice, I started noticing a shift in how I perceived my life and what was going on around me. Whereas before I used to always have a negative attitude, I was starting to see the bigger picture and to accept challenges as they came. I saw the good the every situation, and my lifelong struggle with anxiety started to become much more manageable. Most importantly, I came to realize and understand first-hand that beauty and joy were always there if I slowed down and cleared my mind enough to notice it all. I go through periods where I fall out of practice, but whenever that happens I appreciate it even more. It's a tool that stays with you always and wherever you go.
You have time for this, trust me! We can begin laying the foundation for meditation in our everyday lives simply by shifting our focus and awareness. This is, in my opinion, the best way to begin your practice because it can fit into anyone's schedule and will allow you to experience some of the benefits of the practice. It will also help to deepen your meditation practice once time is made to sit quietly.
Begin by watching your daily activities. Notice the tone of your voice and thoughts throughout the day, and observe what you are saying and thinking. Become aware of negative feelings like hatred, jealousy, and judgment when they arise so that you can separate yourself from them. Evaluate the food you are eating, as well as your daily sleep and exercise habits. Dedicate time each day for stillness and quiet, where you aren't caught up in thinking or doing. Allow yourself to experience just being.
As you bring more awareness to your thoughts, actions, and other various aspects of your life you will automatically start to feel more present and make more conscious choices. You'll develop a greater understanding of yourself and your needs.
There are many different techniques and methods out there, and it can be overwhelming if you are new to meditation. Explore different practices until you find one that resonates with you. What works for someone else may not work for you, and the "right" practice is the one that allows you to focus the mind, relax the body, and cultivate a deeper sense of inner awareness.
Your time is something else to consider. If you feel busy and are wondering how you are going to set aside time to practice, it is best to approach a technique that meets you where you are now. Consistency is the key when starting out, so commit to a practice that fits into your current routine so that you can stick with it long-term. As you settle into a daily practice and begin experiencing and enjoying these times of stillness, you will naturally start making more time for meditation. You'll also be able to slip into the gap between thoughts more easily, allowing meditation to become a part of your everyday life.
Below are some of my favorite techniques that I've listed from beginner to more advanced practices. Remember, if you are just beginning it is best to start small and be consistent. Choose what feels right for you. This is by no means a complete list. I've chosen to only list the techniques that I am familiar with myself so that I can speak from experience. There are numerous books, talks, and articles out there; it's a whole new world to explore! I encourage you to research different techniques for yourself to determine what comes most naturally to you.
This can be done anywhere, anytime. While walking, I like to leave my phone at home or on airplane mode. I find a forest preserve or a park to walk in, and as I'm moving I begin to focus my attention on one specific sound. It could be a bird, the sound of my shoes on the ground, a plane, the wind, anything. I narrow my focus down to that one particular sound, and I stay with it for a few minutes. Then, I move on to another unique sound. Doing this crowds out all other thoughts and allows you to start to develop single-pointed focus. Also, you'll begin to realize how much noise surrounds you all the time! When you break it down one by one, you appreciate each sound for what it is. You can do this for 5 minutes or for an hour, it's all up to you! Try it next time you of for a walk, and see how you feel afterwards.
Driving in the car is another great opportunity to practice, especially because many of us drive every single day! When you're at a stop light, resist the urge to look at your phone and instead just gaze at the stoplight. Notice your breath, relax into your seat and just sit quietly. It may be challenging at first, but the more you do it the more natural it will become. This is especially useful if you feel you have road rage or are always in a rush. You can't rush a stop light, so you might as well enjoy it!
We practiced contemplation every morning at my yoga teacher training in Thailand. While there are many ways to do it, I'll explain the method we used. Ideally this is done in a comfortable seated position, but you could just as well do it lying down, walking, or in the car. First, you focus your attention on Gratitude, choosing something specific that you are grateful for and allowing yourself to become immersed in it. Sit with gratitude for a few minutes, and then allow your attention to shift to Forgiveness. This part of the practice can bring up some emotions, so if this happens, give yourself space to sit with them and let them move through you. Choose one person (and it could even be yourself!) to offer Forgiveness to. Feel the lightness and freedom that accompanies Forgiveness. Stay there for a few minutes. Finally, you'll shift your focus towards Guidance. Ask for Guidance in whatever way feels right for you. Is there a decision you are struggling with? Is there conflict in your life? Whatever it is, give yourself a few moments to ask for and receive Guidance.
Movement & Yoga Asana (Postures)
Movement and the postures of yoga are also effective ways to drop into meditative states. You can approach your daily workout or yoga practice just like the walking meditation above. As you move your body, direct all of your attention to what you are doing. Make deliberate movements with awareness and notice how your time spent exercising transforms. Yoga asana (postures) connect the breath to the movements, which naturally focuses the mind and moves the practitioner into a deeper state of awareness.
1:2 Breath Technique
Like the two practices above, this technique can be done just about anywhere! Breath control, or pranayama, directly affects the nervous system. When you focus on diaphragmatic breathing and the lengthening of your exhales, your body responds by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is needed for rest and proper digestion.
In a comfortable seated position, begin by breathing deeply into the belly. If you have trouble feeling the movement in the belly try laying flat on your back. Once you are able to breathe with the belly moving freely, draw your attention to the length of each breath. As you inhale through the nose, slowly count to 4, and then control the exhale so that you can stretch it out to a count of 8. Repeat for at least 3 rounds, working up to longer periods of time as you become more comfortable with the practice.
It is important to note that you should not be holding your breath during this practice, and both the inhales and exhales should come through the nose. If you feel out of breath at any point, stop and take a few natural breaths. You may need to adjust the count so that you can do this practice easily. The focus here is on slow, complete exhales to relax both the body and mind.
Audio guided meditations are a great way to get started with your practice. Rather than sitting with your thoughts in silence, a teacher calmly instructs you where to put your focus. I like the Insight Timer App. It is free, and has thousands of audio meditations from many different teachers. You can search for meditations based on time, style, teacher, and ratings and even connect with other users! It is also a great tool to help keep you accountable as your work towards consistency.
One of the most popular meditation techniques is mindfulness meditation. Begin by finding a comfortable, supported seated position. You can practice laying down as well, but traditionally meditation is practiced seated so that the mind can stay alert (you're less likely to fall asleep sitting up!).
Bring awareness to your body and notice any sensations that may be present. Then, bring your attention to your breath without trying to control it. Follow each breath as it moves in it out of the lungs. As you start to relax, you may notice that the breath naturally slows down. Next, observe any thoughts that arise. The goal is not to have a still, empty mind. Rather, the goal is to detach yourself from the thoughts be placing yourself into the role of the observer. To do this, you can envision your thoughts as pictures or words on a TV screen that you are watching. I had a student who said she liked to envision her thoughts as clouds that she watched float by and another who envisioned thoughts as bubbles that she could pop if they got too big. Whatever analogy or image you like will work. You are allowing yourself to sit in a space where you can be separate from your thoughts rather than getting caught up in them. If you find that you do get swept away by your thoughts, gently bring your attention back to your breath. Start with a practice as short as 5 minutes, gradually working your way up to 20 minutes or more at a time.
Japa (Repetition) Meditation
Japa means "to repeat" in Sanskrit. The practice of japa meditation involves the repetition of a mantra or prayer. Repeating the sound OM on the exhale (either out loud or silently in your head) is one way to practice japa meditation, but you could use any phrase or prayer that you like. The repetition allows the mind to settle into single-minded focus. As you continue the repetition, other thoughts are crowded out.
As mentioned above, these are only handful of the practices that are out there. As you explore different methods and develop a consistent practice you will start to truly enjoy the quiet time spent concentration. As Months of Mindfulness continues, I encourage to keep a meditation practice going. Remember, start small and stay consistent.
Meditation has transformed my entire life, and I'm a happier, healthy person as a result. My relationship with my husband blossomed after we both dedicated ourselves the practice. The whole world shines brighter. Thank you for you reading and for being here.