Meditation is an ancient practice, that can take many different forms. It can be overwhelming to know where to begin, but this guide is here to help! I cover some meditation essentials and common questions, as well as a step-by-step guide that will get you started with your own practice.
What is meditation? Is it the same as mindfulness? And why should we meditate?
A word that has become synonymous with contemporary meditation, is mindfulness. But how are these two ideas related?
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines mindfulness as:
‘a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment’
This definition tells us that mindfulness is a quality, or a way of being. Although we can be mindful at any time, in any place, a meditation practice is a way to actively cultivate mindfulness. These practices formally train our ability to be present, aware, and non-judgmental.
There is vast scientific evidence for the myriad of physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual benefits to mindfulness-based meditation practices. In short, a meditation practice helps us to establish greater, more holistic, wellbeing.
So how do we cultivate awareness, without judgment? And, why does this lead to greater wellbeing?
First, we need to understand how the mind and thought formation works.
The Monkey Mind and Mindfulness
‘Monkey mind’ is one of my favorite meditation terms! It’s used to describe how most of the time our minds are restless and uncontrollable, swinging from thought-to-thought.
This isn’t always a bad thing, but if we aren’t careful we can get so lost in spiraling thoughts, which can lead to uncomfortable feelings, which triggers unhelpful behaviors. Our thoughts, feelings, and actions are intimately connected to one another.
If we can learn to become aware, or mindful, of our thoughts and feelings we have the power to choose not to act on those feelings, challenge difficult thoughts, and ultimately have more calmness and clarity. Not judging our experience or thoughts, but instead allowing ourselves to accept thoughts, experiences, and situations, as they are, is key to this. Once we start judging or wishing things to be different, we end up trapped in that spiraling thought pattern. Mindfulness leads us to this greater awareness and self-regulation, which means we are better able to manage difficult emotions, thought patterns, and impulses.
A meditation practice helps us develop this quality in a quiet and safe space first, so it’s easier to apply in daily life and more stressful environments.
Step-by-Step Guide to Meditation
The most common style of meditation practiced today is mindfulness of the breath, which involves becoming aware of, and training your focus to stay on, the breath. Thoughts and feelings are inevitable, but our aim is to tame the monkey mind by keeping a singular focus on the breath. We do not push thoughts or feelings away, but instead notice them non-judgmentally, and then guide our awareness back to the breath.
Sounds simple, right? Well, yes and no. I know from experience, both in myself and with my patients and students, that it is easy to hit some stumbling blocks with this practice. So here is a step-by-step guide to set yourself up for meditation success.
1. Choose your meditation spot. Ideally, this is somewhere where you won’t be disturbed, and feel comfortable and at ease. It can be nice to create a little ritual around your practice –– perhaps you have a special meditation cushion, light a candle, or burn some incense.
2. Set up your seat. By far the easiest and most comfortable meditation seat to take is sitting on a chair, spine long and feet flat on the floor.The most challenging position is sitting cross-legged on the floor, as it requires a lot of flexibility in the hips, and it’s very easy for the spine to round. To prevent this sit on as many cushions, blankets, or yoga blocks as you need until the hips are higher than the knees.Kneeling is an excellent alternative to sitting cross-legged, as the hips will naturally be higher than the knees, and the spine in alignment.
Consciously rest your hands either palms up or down on the lap, fingers clasping, or in your favorite mudra. Your eyes can be open or closed, choose which is most comfortable for you. If your eyes are open let the gaze be soft.
3. Check your posture. Your spine should be lengthened, shoulders soft, and face relaxed. Please don’t worry if you have physical issues or a medical condition that prevents this traditional postural alignment, adapt your posture or position so it works for you!
4. Set a timer. I recommend 5-7 minutes to begin with, and slowly building from there.
5. Tune-in. Start your practice by taking a few deeper and longer breaths. From here, do an initial check-in, inviting yourself into your practice and the present moment. I like to do a body scan for this check-in, starting at the top of my head and scanning my awareness through my body to the tip of my toes.
6. Find the breath. Guide your awareness to the breath. Where do you notice it most? In the movement of the torso, or perhaps the sensation of air at the nostrils? Pick one of these places to focus on.Let yourself become aware of the sensation of breathing. Thoughts will continue to come and go, but let your awareness focus on the breath. The aim is to keep your focus primarily on the breath. If thoughts take over, when you notice them, guide your awareness back to the sensations of the breath.
7. Label or count the breath. Counting, or labeling ‘inhale’ as you breathe in and ‘exhale’ as you breathe out, can help to quieten your mental chatter.If you count, I recommend counting ten breath cycles, and then beginning again. Each time you get lost in thought, start labeling or counting again.
8. Closing your practice. When your timer goes off try not to jump up straight away. Instead, release your awareness from the breath. Connect back to your surroundings by becoming aware of the physical presence of the body, feet on the ground, hands in the lap. Wiggle your fingers and toes. Gently blink the eyes open if they are closed, notice the space you are in.
How to Make your Meditation Practice Sustainable
It’s important to make your practice work for you, and that means adapting it as needed!
It’s better to practice for one minute a day, than for twenty-minutes one day per week. Mindfulness is a quality, one that we want to cultivate more of in our lives, which means we can become mindful no matter where we are.
When I’m too busy to sit and do a formal practice, I still try and make sure I grab small moments of mindfulness. I might become aware of my breath, or notice the sounds around me, when I have a quiet minute at work, or even when sitting in traffic, or standing in line at the coffee shop.
Quality, not quantity, is key to gaining the benefits of meditation!
Sylvie Le, DPT