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What is meditation?
Many people think that meditation is about thinking about nothing, but it is not this at all. We cannot block thought and emotion. In-fact we need thought and emotion. Instead, meditation is simply the act of diverting your attention inward, in order to become more aware of, and familiarise yourself with the present moment.
Why is meditation important?
Today, we live in an incredibly busy world, where the pace of life is often frantic. It seems that we are always doing something, to the point where most of us are over-worked, over-loaded, and over-stimulated. The sad fact is that we have become so distracted in the world in which we live, that we miss out on the things that are the most important to us. In-fact, research shows that almost 50% of our life is lost in mindless thought – which directly contributes to unhappiness. What’s even crazier is that we assume that this is the way life is, and that we just have to get on with it.
In essence we have forgotten to be still, and the absence of stillness has led to increased stress and anxiety. In-fact, around 17 million Australians admit that stress is affecting both their physical and mental health.
But rather than distracting ourselves from stress, what we need most is to bring the very essence of who we are back into our lives – stillness. Just as the body needs rest, so too does the mind – especially when you consider that we have about 60,000 thoughts each day – 80% of which are negative and 95% are not original. Your mind becomes like a washing machine, whizzing around lots of difficult, confusing emotions, which we often don’t know how to deal with it.
Meditation enables you to slow down your mind enough to help you return to that place of stillness that exists between your thoughts. A place which is available to all of us in the present moment.
You cannot have happiness until you have inner peace. You cannot have inner peace until you live in the present. You cannot live in the present until you remember who you are. You cannot remember who you are until you go within and mediate. Robert Greco
Every time you connect to this place of stillness within, you become more conscious and aware of what is real and what is not in each moment. In this way, meditation acts as a doorway to who you really are. This is essential, because knowing yourself affects everything you think, say and do in life. Knowing yourself is the not only the key to both preventing and managing stress and anxiety, but is also the secret to lasting peace and happiness.
What are the different types of Meditation?
There are 3 main types/categories of meditation:
1.Focused Attention or concentration techniques (e.g. Zen, Qi gong, Vipassana) is where you focus on a single word, thought or object, excluding all others. It may be your breath, a word, a mantra, sound, a movement, pattern or an inner or external image. The purpose is simply to better develop your sense of concentration. That way, when thoughts or emotions arise, you are able to direct your mind back to the original object of concentration. This type of meditation requires effort to sustain controlled attention on an object, and is characterised by high frequency activity in the front and core of the brain.
2.Open Monitoring includes mindfulness-based techniques, in which all experiences are allowed to pass through awareness without manipulation or control, otherwise known as non-judgemental moment-to-moment awareness. The mind is generally being trained to return to the present moment by using an object, breath, or body as an anchor. This allows us to become aware of negative thought patterns, enabling us to make conscious choices rather than being mindlessly controlled by them, and preventing us from being led into habitual negative behaviours. These techniques also help us to embrace whatever our current experience is (including emotional or physical pain) rather than trying to escape or get into a struggle and thereby amplify it. This type of meditation is characterised by theta activity primarily in the front of the brain.
3.Automatic Self-Transcending (AST) involves neither concentration nor training the mind. ‘Automatic’ means innocence is the key here. Evaluation, control or manipulation will leave you caught up in thinking and prevent transcending. ‘AST’ includes Transcendental Meditation (TM), and the occasional expert in other techniques. It describes any technique which transcends (goes beyond) the steps of the meditation practice itself. Typically this includes resting your attention on a mellow, meaning-free one or two syllable mantra or sound in an effortless way that allows the mantra to gradually melt like a cough drop, leaving a state of inner silence. Whilst this may seem much like a focused attention practice, the method is actually more subtle and easy going than that.
Alpha brain waves (characteristic of reduced mental activity and relaxation) permeate the whole brain, which receives more oxygen. Increased blood flow occurs at the front of the brain (which is coordinating activity) while the core is more quiet, indicating alertness in the midst of deep rest, the state of transcendental or pure consciousness/silence.
Which type of Meditation is best?
Which type of meditation is best depends upon what you want to achieve and more importantly how ‘aware’ you are. As a recommendation, if you are a beginner to meditation, then I would suggest that you start with some basic concentration and mindfulness techniques. Then once you have been meditating for some time and made some progress in becoming more mindful, then I would encourage you to try TM.
Regardless of what type of meditation you choose, I would encourage you to complement your practice with yoga. This is important because many of the emotional and behavioural responses we experience occur because of previous stress which has become trapped inside of our body’s cells as distorted memories. And so no matter how much we mediate, we can only often get so far. However, by including the regular practice of yoga – both physical postures (asanas) and breathing techniques (pranayama), we can better respond to the actual demand being placed upon us in the present moment, rather than being forced into reactions pre-fabricated by our stress. In other words, full present moment awareness is actually the gift of a stress free nervous system, not just a present mind.
How do we meditate?
As suggested above, there are many different types of meditation, however one of the most simple and best places to start is to simply become aware of your breathe. Here’s how:
Sit comfortably on a chair with your back straight and unstrained in any way. Have your feet uncrossed and anchored on the floor. Place your hands on your lap in a palms up position, or whatever way you find comfortable. You can close your eyes or not – however you feel most at ease, but if your beginning with meditation, closing your eyes will help you to remain more focused.
Now just focus your attention on the feeling of your breathe coming in and going out.
Observe your breath as it goes in and out through your nostrils. Don’t try to change your breathe in any way, just observe it. As you do this you will find that it begins to slow down.
See if you can just feel one breathe, without concern for it has already gone by, without leaning forward for the very next breathe – just this one.
Now just tell yourself, let my mind become one with my breath, and continue to focus on one breathe at a time. Do this for a few minutes.
As you do this, you may have images, sounds, or emotions which arise as your mind begins to wander all over the place – what am I going to cook for dinner, did I pay the bills, etc. And that is fine – just try to stay connected to the feeling of the breath, as much as you can by just letting any thoughts flow on by. And if something comes along that is really strong and pulls you away from your breath, you might get lost in thought or even fall asleep, then don’t worry about it – just let it go.
The most important moment in the whole process is the next moment – after you have been distracted. That is the place that we practice letting go. It’s often referred to as exercising the letting go muscle. We practice letting go gently, of whatever has taken us away. And we bring our attention back to the breath to begin again.
The whole training is letting go and beginning again. You don’t have to feel like you have failed or done something wrong. It’s the conditioned habit of our attention to get distracted. So each time we discover that, we have this amazing opportunity to let go and to start over. It’s just one breathe.
Once you have done this for a few minutes, or when you feel ready, you can open your eyes or lift your gaze.
Once you get good at being aware of 1 breath, then begin to notice 2 and 3 and 4 breathes. If you can do this then you can meditate everywhere, anytime.
How long and how often should I meditate?
There are no rules on how often you should meditate, however 5-10 minutes per day is a good starting point. On top of having a structured practice, I would also suggest that you practice mindfulness as part of your everyday life, including things like mindful eating.
Remember that each time you meditate, you become more and more connected to the present and to who you really are. And so if you do this enough, then eventually, you will reach a point where you achieve full self-actualization/transcendence which is really the ultimate goal of all meditation. If and when this occurs, peace, clarity and stillness become your natural state of being, meaning that there is no longer any reason to meditate unless you want to of course.
Whilst bringing meditation into our daily life is not always easy to begin with, the rewards that follow far outweigh the sacrifice. By simply taking a few minutes out of your day to familiarising yourself with the present moment, you will become more in tune with who you are and with it, experience a greater sense of clarity, peace and wellbeing in your life.
So I’m curious to know, what are your experiences with meditation? Leave a comment below.
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