Meditation has long been proven to have enormous benefits for the mind, body and spirit and to have a powerful healing capacity for all issues physical, emotional and spiritual. Whether we're looking for a deep inner connection with ourself, wanting relief from physical or mental pain or we just want to find a way to calm our mind and gain more peace in our day-to-day life-- meditation is a wonderful place to start. And if the word "meditation" is a bit off-putting for you for any reason, just think of it as sitting quietly with yourself. Whatever terminology you use, being quiet with ourself is a critical element to our evolution and healing.
To get you started with your own meditation practice, I've put together some of the most common questions people tend to have about meditation along with some practical answers.
I would like to start meditating, but I have no idea where to start?
A common concern I hear from most people who would like to start a meditation practice is that they have no idea how to start or where to begin. With so many different types of meditation available today, it’s hard to know which one to choose and understandable that it can be a bit overwhelming at first. In addition, for many people, meditation seems like this mystical thing you do somewhere on a mountaintop or under a tree like the Buddha for hours and hours until you become “enlightened,” and it all seems completely unattainable and very abstract. And still for many others, you may even be thinking that you don’t have the time to do it between managing your day-to-day life of work, kids, family, paying the bills, health issues, etc. So what do you do?
As I said, there are many different types of meditation with many different philosophies and beliefs about how it should be done. My belief and personal recommendation as a yoga instructor and therapist is always, just start. Start simply and go for consistency rather than some grandiose goal of meditating for an hour each day and trying to empty your mind completely. If this is your first time ever meditating or maybe your returning to meditation after a long period of time, just go slowly and focus on getting into a habit of meditating on a regular basis. Daily is always the best of course, even if it’s only for 5 minutes. It’s the consistency and the “training” of the mind that will have the greatest impact.
So let’s say I decide to start meditating for 5-15 minutes a day. How do I do it?
Decide the best time for you to meditate
It’s best to have a regular time of day that you do your meditation in order to build a routine and strengthen the habit. It’s not obligatory by any means, but as we know, habits are best built by doing something over and over in the same way. So, if you can you find a regular time each day, this would be ideal. If not, don’t worry about it, and just do it as regularly as you can. Most types of meditation recommend either first thing in the morning or before bed. This helps to put you in a good frame of mind for the day or to relax you before bed. Another benefit of meditating within 30 minutes of waking up or 30 minutes before going to bed is that these are the times of day when you are most suggestible to your environment since we are either just coming out of our sleep cycle or about to go into one. Consequently, our brains are in a slightly “sleepy” or “semi-altered” state of consciousness whereby our minds are more open to accepting new information. So if you are able to quiet your mind and maybe even focus on something positive or calming during these periods of time, you have the added benefit of strengthening a calmer and more positive state of being.
Choose the location
Designating a regular place for your meditation is helpful. Whether it’s in your home, office or some other space, try to keep it consistent. It’s best if you can make it “your meditation space” without any distractions or excessive noise. If it’s in your home, you will likely want to tell your family members that when you’re meditating to leave you alone to avoid unnecessary interruptions. Remember that this time is for you. It’s good to treat it as a protected time that is to take of you. Your family and friends will undoubtedly benefit from you meditating, but the more importance and reverence you give to your meditation, the more benefits you will likely see from it since you will feel more invested in it. Think of it as a little gift you’re giving to yourself and those you love each day. A bank account, if you will, where you are putting away a little bit of peace and calm each day. Over time, this bank account will be quite big, and the investment will “pay off.”
Create a calm environment
Now I know you may be thinking, "If I could create a calm environment, I wouldn't need meditation." But regardless of this, I would encourage you to make the most out of whatever quiet space you can find. For example, you may want to light some candles, use soothing music that you like, burn incense, have a special meditation pillow or a blanket to put around yourself. You might at some point even decide to create an altar with a picture of a religious or spiritual figure that you respect, statues, crystals, flowers, written positive affirmations, etc. It’s really up to you how you want to create your “space.” Just follow your instinct with what feels right for you.
Now let’s get to the logistics of meditating:
1) Sit with legs crossed or feet flat on the floor and back straight. A chair with a firm back is usually best, but find what works for you. If you have a meditation pillow, use this of course. What's important here, is to keep your back straight and your knees slightly lower than your hips. Any small pillow or folded blanket can be placed under your butt, if sitting on the ground, to help with this alignment.
2) Head should be straight with the chin slightly tilted down. Keep your neck and body as relaxed as possible. If you are sitting with legs crossed and find that it hurts too much, simply sit in a chair with your feet on the floor instead.
3) Place your hands comfortably on your thighs with either the palms facing up or down, or you can gently touch the index finger and the thumb with the palms facing up. Again, find what feels right for you. Palms up tends to be more of a “receiving” energy, while palms down is more of a “grounding” energy, and fingers touching is a more spiritual intention. You might change this depending on the day and how you’re feeling.
4) Close your eyes and take three slow, deep breaths to relax and center the mind and body. For these first breaths, you may find it very relaxing and cleansing to breathe in through your nose and to let the breath out through your mouth. You can imagine that you are “letting go” of the stressors of the day while you do this. If you find you need a few more breaths before starting, go ahead.
5) After your initial cleansing and grounding breaths, breathe only through your nose. Allow your breath to gradually slow down to a nice peaceful rhythm.
6) As your breath begins to slow down, do a mental scan of your body from your head to your toes. Notice how your body is feeling. Is it tense, relaxed, is there pain anywhere? Notice how you are feeling. Are you feeling stressed, worried, angry, calm? Make a mental note and then let it go. This is just a quick exercise to reconnect with yourself and your body and to begin to notice what’s going on in your body more.
7) At the beginning you will most likely want something to focus on to help calm your mind. A few simple options to choose from are:
a. Focus on your breath inhaling and exhaling.
b. Count from 1 to 10 and then repeating.
c. Choose a word, phrase or mantra that is calming and centering for you. It could be a religious verse, a spiritual quote, a positive affirmation or a word like “I am relaxed,” “I am connecting to myself,” “I release any stress,” “love,” “peace,” “calm.” The possibilities are endless so experiment and find what is right for you.
d. Listen to a guided meditation CD or Mp3. You can find lots on Youtube or you can listen to some that I have created.
15- Minute Daily Guided Meditation
Guided Mindfulness Meditation
8) Start the process of meditation for at least 5 minutes per day and increase it gradually as you become more comfortable with it.
9) After your meditation, you may want to write down or journal what you noticed before, during or after. Whether you had any physical sensations, positive or negative, emotions, or any particular thoughts that came up. A very common experience at the beginning is a feeling of anxiety or stress because we aren’t able to calm our minds and our bodies. You will likely have a running commentary in your head of all sorts of things. Just notice this and then try to let it go. If you tend to be an “overachiever” or goal-oriented person, it will be a bit more challenging at the beginning as your mind will automatically want to turn this into another challenge. Much like in yoga, there is absolutely no competition in meditation. It is just about you. There is no need to put pressure on yourself or to create some goal you need to accomplish in a certain time frame. Don’t try to force anything or judge it. Just let yourself be. Each meditation will likely be different and you will have more challenging days and easier days. This is the nature of life and of meditation. Over time, you will definitely notice that your thoughts begin to slow down and your body relaxes faster. You may even begin to notice moments when the mind is empty. Remember, whatever your experience is, is the right experience for you. If you decide at some point to study or join a specific type of meditation group, this can be helpful as well.
What if I do it wrong? Don’t I need a special teacher or guru?
These questions generally come up with Westerners since we are raised to achieve and to be competitive, even with ourselves. In my belief, the beauty of meditation is that you can’t do it wrong. If you follow these general guidelines, you will always “succeed.” It’s this very concern about doing it right or wrong, that makes meditation so powerful. Retraining the brain to accept the idea that things don’t have to be “good or bad,” “right or wrong”, can be profound and effective for our healing and personal development. If you study Buddhist meditation, this is one of their primary beliefs—that the difficulties we have in life are often out of a need to label and define our reality rather than just accepting it as it is. A teacher or some sort of guidance can be helpful if you decide to go further with your meditation practice or to learn about different principles of meditation, but it’s not necessary. Again, meditation is just about you. Whether you have a teacher, a mentor or a guru, in the end, to benefit from the practice, you need to sit with yourself quietly.
For me, meditation is one of the best recommendations I can offer to help us feel better. There are probably thousands of articles, books and research studies about the positive effects of meditation at this point. Clearly, meditation has a profound impact on one’s body and state of being. You cannot do it wrong, you cannot harm yourself in the process and there aren’t negative side effects. You can do it anywhere in the world and you always have the ability to use it at any moment. No prescription or special approval needed.
If you have any further questions about starting your own meditation practice, please feel free to comment or send me an e-mail.
Tania Manczarek is a holistic swiss army knife. A trained therapist, intuitive energy worker, certified yoga instructor, massage practitioner and hypnotist, she focuses on healing through the mind/body/spirit connection and is passionate about helping people live an authentic and balanced life. Originally, from Los Angeles, she left to travel the world over 5 years ago to find her own path of healing and to follow her dreams. Now living in France, she offers individual wellness services by phone/Skype, events and retreats in France and abroad. Her FB group is Feel Better Be Happy.