Lately meditation has been all over the news and popular culture. Celebrities from Russell Brandt to Ellen DeGeneres and Hugh Jackman are doing it, science is documenting its benefits and yogis live by it. But what is meditation, really? And where do you start?
There are as many ideas about meditation as there are people doing it. Many traditions have their own version of meditation, all with the goal of quieting the mind to achieve less stress and more happiness. Studies have documented benefits including lower blood pressure, less anxiety, and long-term positive effects on the immune system and brain function. Although the outcome seems worth the effort, often the hardest part of meditating is just getting started.
Think of meditation as training for your brain, the way exercise is training for the body. The first time you go for a run, it’s never a marathon, so the first step in meditating is to take it easy for your first go. And just as you may gravitate towards Pilates or Yoga over treadmills and weights, give yourself the opportunity to try out different methods before settling into what works for you.
Wondering the difference between concentration, mindfulness and mantras? There are many words to describe the techniques, so let’s break it down. Concentration involves focusing your attention on one thing. Your attention rests on the breath, a mantra or phrase, counting beads or a candle flame. The intention of concentration is to let everything else fade away so the mind starts to settle down. Mindfulness on the other hand, aims to observe the thoughts as they pass through your mind. There are many analogies, but my favourite is thinking of thoughts as passing clouds on a windy day. The aim of mindfulness meditation is to become an observer and not attach to your thoughts.
To get started, you can use a guided meditation. There are great apps, online videos and recordings you can find free of charge. Guided meditation is exactly as it sounds: a meditation coach will talk you through the steps to calm your mind and help you relax before allowing a few minutes of silence. Some guided meditations have a theme like loving-kindness or gratitude, so pick one that resonates with you.
The very most important thing about meditation is just to do it. Sit comfortably and just breathe. Do it first thing after you brush your teeth, schedule a timer on your phone, or find a friend to meditate with on your lunch break. One minute a day is better than no minutes a day, so start now. And remember to take it easy; don’t add meditation as another item on your long to-do list and cause more stress. Think of it as something kind you can do for yourself to re-centre and relax.