The concept of meditation can be somewhat polarising – when you mention it in conversation, people usually have one of three reactions. They either nod, smile and tell you all about their own practice and how’s changed their life, nervously mention that they’d like to try it but don’t know where to start or they roll their eyes, make a joke about the wellness movement and claim that it’s a load of rubbish.
If you fall into one of the latter two categories, it’s probably because mediation has got itself a bit of reputation for being difficult and even a little elitist. The truth is, though, it doesn’t need to be either of these things.
No longer reserved for the yogis in the ashrams of India, it’s now believed that as many as 500 million people worldwide meditate – a number that’s tripled since 2012. According to statistics, 76% of people believe it improves their general wellness, whilst 60% feel that it gives them an energy boost and 29% believe it relieves their anxiety.
So what exactly is meditation?
Though you may think you’ve got a firm grasp on what a meditative practice is, some people find the real answer to that question surprising. Contrary to popular belief, meditation is not the practice of emptying your head of all thoughts – though this is something that may eventually be achieved after a long and dedicated practice – it’s actually the practice of observing rather than being your thoughts.
According to Headspace, “meditation is about training in awareness and getting a healthy sense of perspective. You’re not trying to turn off your thoughts or feelings. You’re learning to observe them without judgement.”
Many of us are regularly consumed by our thoughts. We dive into them and completely become them, succumbing to whatever feeling arises from thinking them, whether that be happy, sad or fearful. Meditation teaches us how to step back and gain a little more objectivity, giving us the tools to watch the thoughts and let them pass by; the embodiment of them becoming a choice rather than a default. It’s this control that makes it such a popular practice, particularly for those who find themselves living in their heads most of the time.
Is meditation right for me?
As mentioned before, meditation is not the elitist, pious practice some people believe it to be. Meditation is a tool that anyone can use to gain more clarity and mental relief. If you often find it difficult to switch off at the end of a working day, if you feel like you’re enslaved to your emotions or that you have a tendency to overthink, it might be time to incorporate a meditative practice into your daily life.
The benefits of meditation
There’s a reason such a large portion of the planet meditates. It’s been shown to improve health – both mental and physical – in myriad ways. Researchers from John Hopkins University in Baltimore conducted a study into its mental health benefits and found that it can help ease stress, anxiety and depression, which is a conclusion that has been drawn by several other studies as well. One conducted with meditators over the course of 8 weeks found that it can also reduce symptoms associated with phobias, social anxiety, paranoia and panic attacks.
There’s evidence to show that it can help improve your attention span, with those participating in a regular meditative practice more likely to stay focused for longer. It can also reduce age-related memory loss and decrease blood pressure as well as help you get a better night’s sleep.
Considering all the health benefits mentioned, it’s unsurprising that in this increasingly busy, interconnected world, more and more people are turning to meditation as a means to cope with the stresses of modern life.
Types of meditation
There are several types of meditation you can use to tap into mental stillness and they don’t all have to involve sitting cross legged on the floor. Here’s a break down of the most popular:
This is probably the most well known and originates from Buddhist teachings. This is where you pay attention to the thoughts that pass through your mind, as if they were clouds passing through the sky. Rather than diving into them or judging them, this practice encourages you to simply observe the thoughts and notice the patterns that emerge.
This involves using the five senses as a means of focus. You can choose to focus on something like your breath or the sounds around you, the feel of the air on your skin. Many people who do this type of meditation choose to use something such as a candle flame as a point of focus.
If you find the prospect of sitting still for half an hour rather unappealing or don’t have somewhere you can do this without being interrupted, a movement based meditation might be the one for you. Whether it’s going for a walk in nature, doing tai chi or heading out for a run, this form of meditation anchors you through the movement, allowing your mind to wander where it likes whilst also giving it an action to focus on.
You may have heard people using the sacred sound of ‘om’ as a way to ease themselves into meditation. Using a vibrational repetitive sound can be a helpful way to slip into a meditative practice, as it allows your mind to focus on the word rather than on the breath.
Use a guide
If you’re new to the practice, using guided meditations – such as those that are found on apps like Headspace, the Mindfulness app and Calm – might help to ease you into the process and equip you with tools for the future.
One of the most important things to remember about meditation is that your mind isn’t a fixed entity. Some days, the stillness and focus will come easily whilst on others it will seem impossible. Learning to be patient with yourself and not judge the thoughts that cross your mind or your ability to slip into the practice will really help you to keep at it.
Make it a habit
Many people find it helpful to practice meditation at the same time each day, whether that be first thing in the morning or last thing at night. Finding this time slot will help you turn your new intention into a habit and you’ll begin to look forward to these moments of stillness each day. It doesn’t have to be long - even a few minutes can be beneficial.
Don’t worry about the ‘how’
Find it difficult to sit still? Do a movement meditation. Don’t like closing your eyes? Keep them open. The goal isn’t to look like you’re doing a good meditation, it’s to achieve mental stillness, so whatever you need to do to get yourself there is totally fine. Choose the method that’s right for you rather the one that’s seen as the ‘right’ one by others.
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