Mindfulness and meditation are two sides of the same coin, each a route into the other, and the words are often used interchangeably. The latter predates mindfulness, however, and is what we’ll be discussing in this second part of the wellbeing series. The focus here will be looking at certain types of meditation and the best way to start doing them. As meditation also exists in a spiritual context for many people of different faiths and the followings, I will address this aspect at the end.
Meditation has an incredibly long history, with some of the earliest known origins in the Taoist tradition of China and the Vedic period of India, best embodied in the Yogic concept of dhyana. Found in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, it means ‘unity’ or ‘absorption’, and is essentially a state of awareness, calmness, and mental clarity achieved through meditation.
Though it stems from deep historical and spiritual roots, meditation is a very accessible and relevant practice in the present day. On top of allowing a person to calm their mind and access a different, more focused mental space, it can reduce stress and anxiety in both the short and long term, improve emotional health, reduce inflammation, improve focus and attention and reduce distraction, and many other proven psychological and physiological benefits.
In the previous article of this series, we discussed mindfulness as a way to focus one’s attention on the present for greater emotional and mental wellbeing. Meditation is one of the ways to train this, but it also branches out into many other areas determined by your goals, your preferences, and your spirituality. For example, mindfulness meditation is probably the most secular and accessible form, as it essentially involves being fully in the present moment – through focused breathing, for example, or mentally scanning one’s body for tension – so as to not become lost in complex thoughts and worries. However, there are more kinds of meditation. You might need encouragement or a push towards an emotional revelation or resolution, which is where guided meditation can be helpful. Visualisation may be useful if you have trouble conjuring imagery or focus for yourself. Some people meditate and enter a trance state – that is, a state of elevated consciousness – through the repetition of a mantra, such as the well-known “om” from the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions. Yet others – like myself! – combine meditation with a practice like yoga to reap the added health benefits of physical activity.
So then the question rests on how you can get started.
I recommend that you start by sitting up. I prefer to sit in the lotus or half lotus pose, pictured above, but sitting on a chair with your feet flat on the ground is also a good idea. If you are not used to sitting still for long periods of time or intend to do more than say, fifteen minutes of meditation, having something behind you – a pillow, the wall, the chair back – is better. Ideally, you’ll be in a place that you will be undisturbed (like your room), and it can be a nice idea to put on a diffuser, or light incense or a candle. I also recommend not doing meditation on a full stomach – it’ll be easier to doze off!
Start with taking three very deep breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth. You can also do “square breathing” at this time, which is a kind of breathwork that is very calming and focusing on the mind. Simply inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, and again hold for a count of four. After some time, when you feel relaxed, you can return to your normal breathing cycle. Thoughts may enter your mind, but you need only observe that they’re there before letting them go, without dwelling on them. A good way to start meditating is to focus on something specific – it could be your breathing, it could be holding the image of a beautiful flower in your mind, it could be visualizing yourself somewhere. I find it always useful to enter meditation with an intention, that I recommend setting in the present or past tense, such as, I am calm and free of stress, or I give myself space to understand why I was so emotional today, or I am manifesting positive thoughts for the week ahead.
You will obtain the most benefits of meditation through regular and sustained practice. Even just ten or fifteen minutes a day is a great way to start – you could do it just before going to bed, and let it ease you into sleep; or when you wake up, so that you start the day refreshed and in a clear headspace. Eventually, entering a meditative state will become easier and you can do it at any time of day, and for longer periods of time.
You can meditate on your own, but you may also find it useful to tap into the many resources available on the internet at the beginning. You can search up “guided meditation” or “visualization” plus a key search term for what you’d like to achieve with this meditation, such as “stress relief” or “positivity boost”.
If you find an app that may be useful to you, I strongly suggest Insight Timer. It has a vast library of guided meditations. On top of that, it also has a setting where one can play a certain soundscape, or simply elect for silence, and select gentle bells that chime to indicate the end of a session. It’s therefore very suitable both for beginners and as you grow in confidence in meditation.
Finally, meditation has always had deep spiritual links and indeed rose out of them. The concept mentioned at the beginning of this article, dhyana, is the 7th of the 8 “limbs” identified in the ancient Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and one of those from the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism. It is a process to attain the state of samādhi, a kind of meditative, enlightened consciousness, and the development of what in Buddhism is termed a “luminous mind” – one that is composed, calm, and mindful. That might sound strange and complex, but it needn’t be. In the end, the goal is the same kind of attentive mental state that one can obtain through regular meditation practice and the calmness and unity of mind and body that have been proven to take effect.
It is not necessary to observe these spiritual links to gain the benefits of heightened consciousness, calmness, and introspection. We live in a far more secular context in the West now, and this practice is no longer so intrinsically linked with metaphysical concepts. To only take what you need from the experiences you have is a guiding principle of mine. However, if you are open to it, you can extend your meditation practice through techniques such as doing a chakra alignment, meditating on imagery from oracle cards, or using crystals. You can also tie it into your existing religious or spiritual practices. For example, if you are someone who prays, you are focusing your thoughts and intentions upon a person and an outcome whenever you say a prayer, bringing your mind into a state where this prayer is fulfilled. That can also be a form of meditation, and a gateway into it.
Where mindfulness helps us focus in and be aware of ourselves, meditation extends that understanding and calmness into many different areas and into deeper introspection. The last part of this series will focus on the physical practice of yoga, both as a way to maintain physical health and as one of the best ways to incorporate meditation into a full regimen of wellbeing.
Feature Image Source: Image by Felipe Borges