Where to Start and How to Stick to It
Meditating has become somewhat trendy in recent years, yet it doesn’t enjoy the same hype as postural yoga. Perhaps because it’s harder to make it cool enough for the ‘gram?
THE BENEFITS OF MEDITATION
Meditation might not be the most photogenic thing to do, but even science has finally confirmed what the ancient sages new for ages. Meditation is a valuable tool of self-discovery and self-connection as well as of prevention from and complimentary treatment to anxiety, burnout, depression, chronic diseases and much more.
Meditation, when practiced regularly, can literally re-wire your brain. In the language of neuroplasticity, meditation helps us change neural pathways by building and repeatedly using new ones. New connections in brain lead to change of behavioral programs and patterns that we may carry since childhood, resulting in greater awareness, clarity and peace of mind.
HOW TO MEDITATE
To meditate is simple. You sit or even lie down (provided you can stay awake) somewhere comfortable, breathe easefully and become aware of your thoughts, allowing them to come and go without any judgement. Simple indeed, but…daunting.
I still vividly remember, when I started my yoga journey with regular asana class, I always dreaded those 4-7 minutes of silent concentration at the end of a class. 7 short minutes and I hated every second of it.
I hated every second of it.
It was there where I decided that I have to learn to meditate, because there’s clearly something in there for me. It wasn’t acceptable for me not being able to sit with myself in silence for a few minutes without my head exploding with chaos of thoughts.
That summer, I embarked on a month-long trip to India with my sister and we enjoyed a week-long stopover in Rishikesh to experience authentic ashram life. It was my moment to learn to meditate.
Having struggled through a few minutes of meditation until then, imagine my shock when we sat down for our first meditation on the day of our arrival and after 15 min of guided pranayama the teacher got quiet and we were left with our malas, mantra and silence for the remaining 45 minutes. FORTY. FIVE. MINUTES.
I went through hell, but it worked. I didn’t reach enlightenment. I didn’t even manage to shut my mind up, but I got hooked. Over the week, I became lot more aware and selective about my thoughts and I even enjoyed short momentary glimpses of quiet thoughtless bliss. The calm I experienced for hours after was enough for me to understand the immense value of regular meditation practice.
WHAT IS THE AIM OF MEDITATION
The ultimate aim of yoga to which meditation leads is indeed thoughtlessness. It’s the “chitta vritti nirodha” (sutra 1.2.), complete cessation of the mental fluctuations of the mind.
It's a long journey. Perhaps several lives long. Having an interim goal is therefore handy.
"ORGANIZE THE TRAFFIC"
Imagine your thoughts being vehicles in a chaotic busy street. There’s cars and motos, humans and animals and it’s crowded and noisy. There’s more and more vehicles arriving and there’s about to be an accident.
The traffic is your mind busy with thoughts. You are the traffic master, who will organize the traffic, but it’s hard to do when you’re in the middle of it all. Take a step back by sitting quietly and observing who’s on the street and whether their presence brings any value. Do you really have to occupy yourself with each an every thought right in this moment?
Now organize that traffic. Let go of the thoughts that aren’t necessary and continue observing those that persist or keep coming back. Your aim isn’t to clear your mind completely, your aim is to become aware and observe your thoughts, then let go of those that do not serve you at that moment. If you come across a thought that is persistent, or seems like it carries a message, sit with it for a moment. Allow it to be.
Your aim isn’t to clear your mind completely, your aim is to become aware and observe your thoughts.
You want a fluid traffic of thoughts on the road of your mind. Thoughts come and go, it’s up to you whether and how you react to them.
This skill in meditation works magic in life. Imagine being able to pause whenever you get triggered, take a deep breath, recognize where your trigger is coming from and deal with the situation calmly and gracefully. This will have such a positive impact on your wellbeing and on your relationships with your loved ones and in community.
SO WHERE TO REALLY START?
Although sitting for 45 min straight in silence worked for me to break the resistance, such cold turkey approach is not for everyone. Yoga is kind and loving, it wants us to experience peace and happiness, so it offers different ways for different personalities and learners.
If sitting in silence feels too intimidating, try guided meditation. Guided meditation is easier than self-guided silent meditation, because it gives you something to focus on – your teacher's voice. The teacher then has the power to help you quieten your mind with the colour and energy of their voice.
There’s plenty of free guided meditations on YouTube and SoundCloud, you just need to do a bit of research and trials to find what works for you. The criteria to consider are
Length: start shorter, even 5 minutes is enough, if you find them daily
Voice: the voice of the meditation teacher should be pleasant for you
Background music vs silence: be aware that music influences our mood. You can check for various brain waves to intentionally tweak how you’re feeling or your ability to concentrate or you can opt for no music at all. It’s fine to use music as long as you know your intention.
Theme: is there something you’re pondering in life and want deeper insight or you just want to get a break from your mind and try to quieten it down? Pick your theme accordingly.
From my own experience, it’s valuable to start introducing moments of silence even if you use guided meditation. Stay sitting in silence, in your meditative state, for a few moments after the meditation recording stopped, and observe what arises in your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations.
Remember that your meditation journey is not a competition. For how long you will stick to guided meditations, or whether you discover other ways to meditate beyond sitting in silence, is very personal. There’s no right or wrong. You have a whole lifetime to practice and probably more. ;)
To help you on your meditation journey, here’s a 10 minute guided Loving Kindness (mettā) meditation that I recorded for you. There’s a few minutes of breathing preparation followed by metta meditation based on book by Thích Nhất Hạnh, well known Buddhist monk and teacher.
Loving kindness meditation is a beautiful way to experience and spread love and kindness towards you and your loved ones. Our relationship with ourselves and with our families can, however, be challenging. The modern yoga world sells yoga as a feel-good pill, but it’s not always so. Be aware of what arises for you during this and any other meditation and know that uncomfortable emotions, thoughts and sensations are normal. It’s where the inner work starts.
WHAT ELSE IS OUT THERE IF GUIDED MEDITATION DOESN'T WORK FOR ME?
Introduction to Japa meditation
The way I learnt in the ashram and that remains my favorite way to meditate is Japa meditation. Japa means meditative repetition of a mantra and this meditation can be facilitated by use of mala, a special necklace of 108 beads dedicated to your meditation.
Japa is an excellent way to leave guided meditation recordings behind and turn to silence, while still giving the mind something to focus on. Mantra repetition will keep the mind one-pointed (or so is the intention).
Mantra is given to disciples by their gurus, but don’t despair. There are many powerful universal mantras used effectively by practitioners. You can use the sound of Ohm or Soham, where you repeat the sound “so” on inhalation and “ham” on exhalation. This is also the mantra I’ve been using consistently for years, since my first meditation in the ashram in Rishikesh.
WHAT IS MALA GOOD FOR
Mala consists of 108 beads plus the guru bead and can be made from precious and semi precious stones, seeds such as rudraksha, wooden beads etc.
Very practically, mala helps you keep track of how many times you’ve repeated your mantra and therefore serves as a timer. With a mala, you don’t need to set an alarm or be distracted by watching the clock, if your time is limited. After couple of meditations, you will have a good idea of how long one round on mala lasts. For me it is about 10 minutes with so-ham mantra and it creates lovely undisturbed window for meditation.
Moving the beads between your fingers is very grounding and keeps your body busy even though you’re otherwise completely still. There’s almost too much to “do” between running the beads through your fingers, repeating your mantra AND being aware of the thoughts that sneak into your present moment.
If you have or plan to acquire a mala, know that it’s meant to be treated as a personal, intimate item treated with same reverence that you treat your practice with. It’s ok to use mala as a fashion jewelry and show it off, but your meditation mala is something to keep to yourself and take a good care of.
How is your meditation journey going for you? Do you have a regular practice? Is it something you want to get into or you think it’s definitely not for you? I’d love to connect with you in the comments section, ping me a message, share your thoughts or just say hi.