People come to meditation for a number of reasons but usually because they are seeking better productivity and focus in their work, stress reduction techniques, or to help with their mental health (typically depression and/or anxiety).
Starting a meditation practice can seem daunting and this is why I always encourage finding a teacher to help you along. Just like we seek out a doctor for what ails us physically, or a therapist to assist in our mental health, a meditation teacher can play the same role.
Here are some basic foundations for starting a meditation practice that can help you get started, with or without a teacher.
#1: Why do we meditate?
First, a bit of history. All meditation as we know it today has its roots in India. The first records of people meditating have been found to go back to 1500 BCE with the writing of the Vedas, an ancient Hindu text. Meditation started as a religious and spiritual practice, not unlike how we view prayer today. As a present-day meditator, I also align it with prayer. Even if I practice a secular form of meditation (meaning no links to a religion) it still feels like prayer as we pay attention and tap into something that is bigger than us.
By the 6th century BCE, meditation and Buddhism had spread to other parts of India and into China. (Learning about the passage of Buddhism is a fascinating deep dive if you are looking for one.) Meditation was formally introduced as a way to increase focus and attention.
So why do most people meditate today? To relieve stress. Our lives have changed exponentially since 1500 BCE and yet this practice has not really changed that much. I like to think that centuries ago, people also sat to give themselves some respite. We can feel like meditation takes us out of reality but it actually brings us closer to the truth. So we sit and pay attention to how we are feeling in order to help relieve stress and improve focus and concentration
#2: How do we meditate?
Meditation comes in many forms. In its purest form, it developed as an attention and concentration practice. It has roots in various religions and the practice of Buddhism and as such, the concentration is sometimes focused on a being or source that is larger than we as people. This can be witnessed in practices that ask you to turn inward and bring forth your inner wisdom. It can also look like projecting outward to the source, be that energy or a God. This is where meditation can cross over into prayer. Within the realm of secular meditation, we distill these ancient practices from their religious ties and the result is a focused attention and concentration practice, usually on the body, sensation, visualization, or a mantra (repetitive phrase). So although most “Western” secular meditation practices start here, many end up traveling towards some form of a spiritual practice. Again, this is where a meditation teacher becomes important as it can be helpful to have someone to reflect with as feelings or thoughts arise from meditation.
Meditation can be taken in 4 different postures: lying down, sitting, standing, or walking. Some people feel like running or the practice of yoga asana (physical postures) is meditation. I believe that these activities can be mindful, but not truly meditation as your mind is focused on what the body is doing and therefore not fully focused on an anchor point. Movement does play an important role in a meditation practice as it unlocks the potential to be still. Stillness develops an appreciation for movement. The two are linked and by practicing the opposite of what you think you need, the result is a more holistic practice. Some practices are better suited for a certain posture and knowing which comes with time and experience. Most often, we sit during meditation. It allows the body to find stillness for longer periods of time while maintaining an energetic posture throughout.
Once you have chosen your practice and posture, then you bring your focus to a chosen anchor. This anchor is what keeps you in the present moment. The most practiced anchor is on the breath. One can start meditating by sitting still and paying attention to the pathway of the breath. It can be as simple as that (or as complex, as one will discover the more they meditate.) By practicing with a group or a teacher you will have the opportunity to learn about many different forms of meditation. You can also start by using an app, but I usually suggest this as a way to maintain a practice instead of starting one. It can be difficult to stay accountable and motivated with an app and when difficult thoughts or emotions arise during a meditation, an app cannot help you process the arising.
#3: How often should I meditate?
As often as you like! The research is still out on this one. Some studies have shown that as little as 7 minutes a day can show changes in the structure and neuronal firing in the brain. (Here is a study by Richie Davidson that shows some of the research in this area.)
Meditation is a practice. As with any skill, your ability to complete it with competency comes with time and repetition. The more often you meditate, the more it will become a part of your daily routine. Your mind will want you to meditate due to the reduction of stress hormones as a result of meditation. (in short, it starts to feel good.) I usually suggest starting with 5 minutes a day and see how that goes.
#4: Can meditation help my mental health?
Meditation as a part of a mental health practice can be helpful as it brings us into the present moment. Depression exists in the past as our mind is focused on what happened. Anxiety lives in the future and our mind goes into planning or worrying mode about what might happen. When we are truly in a meditative state, it is impossible for the mind to time travel to the future or the past. The practice of meditation is to remain focused on an anchor that exists in the present moment, like the breath. By repeating the return to this anchor over and over, we develop the ability to stay here instead of traveling with thoughts. Meditation is not the absence of thought, it is the awareness that you have thoughts.
As some mental health challenges can be a hyper-focus or awareness on thoughts and how they make us feel, meditation can be a helpful tool to bring attention to the fact that you are not your thoughts and you can gain control over how you respond to these thoughts.
In my work as a coach, I only prescribe meditation to a client who is ready to do the work. This is usually signalled by a feeling of being “sick of” whatever is going on that is causing them suffering. We as humans will never escape suffering. Meditation can help us reframe our relationship with what ails us. It can be helpful by bringing attention to the moments when we don’t feel a certain emotion or pain. But due to the nature of turning inward and becoming a student of our thoughts, this can become dangerous territory if it feels threatening to be in the mind too much. This is when I ask that someone works with me and a therapist. Meditation ceases to be helpful and safe when all it does is dredges up a past or a future that the present self can’t handle. This doesn’t mean you’ll never be ready to meditate, it just means you might need some extra help to get started.
If you feel ready to take on a meditation practice, simply start by finding a quiet place to sit. Grab a cup of coffee or tea, and just find stillness where you are. Sip your cup until it is gone. No phone, no TV, no computer, no conversation – just you and your cup. Focus on how the drink tastes and feels in your mouth. Feel it travel down your throat as you swallow. Express gratitude to all the hands that made it possible for you to enjoy your cup. Take deep breaths between each sip. Just sit, find stillness, and sip. This can be the beginning of a formal meditation practice.
If you would like further guidance with mediation, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
April Prescott, B. Ed., 200-HR RYTMindfulness Coach & Consultantinfo@aprilprescott.com780-668-6371
“Let go of your mind and then be mindful.
Close your ears and listen!”