A COMPLETE BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO MEDITATION.
So what is the goal of meditation, really? There are so many ways to answer this age old question that it will likely cause your mind to spin in circles.
Some think that the goal of meditation is to help you empty your mind. While others presume that it helps you stay in a zen-like state all the time. With all the information that available on meditation, simply trying to start a practice can be confusing.
In this article, we'll get to the bottom of what meditation is, the common misconceptions surrounding meditation, who meditation is for, how it can benefit you, the different ways to learn how to meditate, and what the goal of meditation really is.
WHAT IS MEDITATION?
“When meditation is mastered, the mind is unwavering like the flame of a candle in a windless place.” Bhagavad Gita
Is meditation a means for relaxation or to reduce stress? Or is it for achieving a heightened level of awareness? Before we learn about what the goal of meditation is, let’s first dive into what it means to meditate.
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of meditation is: to engage in mental exercise (such as concentration on one's breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness.
Meditation is not partial to any group, religion, belief, or type of person. It’s also not restricted to the sitting position that seems to be its default representation. You can be in a meditative state if you are focused on something, or can come back to your center, despite what is going on around you or in your mind.
When I first heard about meditation, I was a teenager and it was not as mainstream as it is today. I thought that only Buddhist monks practiced meditation because those were usually the pictures that I saw in magazines, newspapers, and academia.
I had no idea how big it was going to be 20 years later, and all the benefits that you could reap if you did it regularly.
There are many different types of meditation. Regardless of the type, meditation takes time, patience, and commitment if you want to reap the benefits.
THE CATEGORIES OF MEDITATION.
This type of meditation requires intention and focus during an allotted amount of time, in order to concentrate on the present moment, an object, an activity, or a mantra, and is done on a regular basis. Examples of formal meditations are:
Sitting meditation is sitting still, usually in an upright position, for a specific length of time.
Walking meditation is gently noticing how your feet are touching the ground as you are moving.
Raisin meditation is also known as eating meditation. It is basically placing your attention on the act of eating, along with what you are eating, while observing any thoughts, sensations, or emotions that might come up.
Body scan meditation is usually done in a lying position, while keeping your attention on your body, until the entire body is “scanned” within your mind.
Mindful yoga is a bit more complex than traditional meditation practices because it combines Buddhist mindfulness and yoga practices to connect the body, mind, and breath as a form of holistic meditation.
Informal meditations are a lot less structured and can occur while you are going about your day-to-day life. The following examples are fairly self-explanatory and you don’t have to set any time aside in order to practice them. Simply becoming aware of whatever it is that you are doing throughout your day can be categorized as an informal meditation. Here are just a few examples:
Brushing your teeth.
Taking a shower.
Doing a chore.
Driving your car.
WHO IS MEDITATION FOR?
Give the child a taste of meditation by creating a climate and atmosphere of love, acceptance and silence. - Swami Dhyan Giten
There are so many meditation apps and YouTube meditation videos that are readily available nowadays.
It’s obvious that you don’t have to be a monk or a nun these days to practice meditation.
You can even start your own meditation practice right now if you wish.
Although the act of meditating looks simple and peaceful from afar, it can be quite difficult to just sit with your thoughts & emotions and sustain them as a regular practice.
I remember feeling like a failure when I first started meditating. Everyone that I saw meditating made it look easy and zen-like, or at least, that was my perception. When I couldn’t feel the way others looked, I quit for a period of time.
My problem was my perception of meditation. I thought my mind was supposed to be empty, followed with a feeling of peace within my body.
Another problem was my criticism of my thoughts and what I thought the practice was supposed to be like. I was naive in thinking I could master it in just a few days without researching what the different types were and the reactions that could occur.
Over time, I learned that meditation was not like I had initially thought and that it could take years to not just master, but also to be comfortable with it.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU MEDITATE?
Meditation is like a gym in which you develop the powerful mental muscles of calm and insight. - Ajahn Brahm
Meditation can be more than just years of mind training. It can also be a powerful tool to rewire your brain, create new neural pathways, and subsequently help you live a calmer, more present, and happier existence.
A lot can happen when you meditate, especially when you’re first starting out.
Some studies have shown that regular practice meditation can change the topology of the brain, otherwise known as neuroplasticity.
This may help with reducing “age-related brain degeneration” and improve cognitive function. It is also correlated with “improvements in attention, working memory, spatial abilities, and long-term memory.”
In one study, findings revealed that during a Vipassana meditation, the right hippocampus in the brain, which is responsible for long-term memories and spatial processing, had more grey matter in the long-term meditators than in the non-meditators.
HOW MEDITATION CAN BENEFIT YOU.
Meditation is a process of lightening up, of trusting the basic goodness of what we have and who we are, and of realizing that any wisdom that exists, exists in what we already have. We can lead our life so as to become more awake to who we are and what we’re doing rather than trying to improve or change or get rid of who we are or what we’re doing. The key is to wake up, to become more alert, more inquisitive and curious about ourselves. - Pema Chodron
The following is a list of physiological processes and health benefits that occur in the body and the brain during meditation if practiced regularly.
In Vedic science and tradition:
- Accumulated stresses are removed
- Energy is increased and health is positively affected overall.
Scientific research findings reveal:
- Stress reduction
- Decreased anxiety
- Decreased depression
- Reduction in pain (both physical and psychological)
- Improved memory
- Increased efficiency
- Reduced blood pressure, heart rate, lactate, cortisol, and epinephrine
- Decreased metabolism, breathing pattern, oxygen utilization, and carbon dioxide elimination
- Increased melatonin, dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEA-S), skin resistance, and relative blood flow to the brain.
- Increases regional cerebral blood flow in the frontal and anterior cingulate regions of the brain
- Increases efficiency in the brain's executive attentional network,
- Increases electroencephalogram (EEG) coherence.
- Faster on all tasks.
- Increased grey matter in the brain in regards to aging
- Decreases sympathetic overstimulation
- Reduces cholesterol and smoking.
HOW TO MEDITATE.
Quiet the mind and the soul will speak. - Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati
If you’re just starting out, the very idea of meditating every day can feel a bit intimidating. It doesn’t have to be, however. In fact, if you start with small goals, you can achieve enormous results long term.
After my first failed attempt at trying to meditate like a Zen master, I decided that meditating just a minute or two each day was better than nothing at all. I was determined to give it another shot because I knew that it was beneficial for my health and, most importantly, it helps reduce stress.
Each day of my “micro-meditation” sessions felt like a win because they were so short.
I was able to practice meditating in very short increments until I was able to increase it to at least five minutes a day.
I also set aside a time of day when I could have some peace and quiet, which was early in the morning before anyone was up.
Over time, I was able to increase to almost daily, formal meditations for 10 (sometimes 20 if I had extra time) minutes a day, which I continue to this day.
You can set aside a little time each day for a formal meditation practice if you wish to go the route that I took. Or, do an informal meditation by becoming aware of whatever you are doing in the moment, as you go about your day.
It’s also helpful to keep a journal, for even a short period of time, to keep track of your progress and observe any changes in your mood, emotions, thoughts, habits or behaviors.
The following is a basic meditation to help you get started. You can read it, print it out, or make a recording of yourself until you get the hang of it.
BASIC SITTING MEDITATION.
You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you're too busy; then you should sit for an hour. - Unknown
You can set a timer aside so you don’t have to worry about keeping time. Find a quiet place, get in a comfortable sitting position, and relax your whole body.
Close your eyes, or keep them open but relaxed. Then take a few deep breaths and continue to breathe normally.
While you are sitting, become aware of your reactions, your body, thoughts, sensations, or emotions if they come up, and let them go gently like a balloon on a string.
If your thoughts resurface, you can quietly say thinking, or repeat a mantra, or just notice the thought and let it go. You may have to repeat this step many, many times, and that’s okay.
This is just one of many types of meditations, and is a great place to start. Meditation is is a simple practice but can be difficult to master. Remember to experiment with the different types of meditations until you find one that works for you.
COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS OF MEDITATION.
Meditation is not to escape from society, but to come back to ourselves and see what is going on. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. - Thic Nhat Hanh
Now that you have an idea of what meditation is, who it’s for, and how you can benefit from it, let’s learn about the common misconceptions about meditation and what to do instead.
You have to sit completely upright.
The ideal position for meditation is sitting upright, but this is not always possible. A more feasible position would be to sit comfortably. You can sit up with your back straight but with some support, but not so comfortable that it would induce sleep.
Remember that some meditations require you to lie down or even walk as you meditate. So sitting upright is just one position to be in while meditating.
The mind has to be empty and clear.
People who meditate look like they have clear and empty minds. This is a common misconception. What really happens is the opposite, especially for a beginner.
The phenomenon is called “monkey mind”, when thoughts run around the mind uncontrollably.
During meditation, the mind can generate so many thoughts that it may cause anxiety in a novice. This is quite common and takes some getting used to. Over time, you may notice yourself letting go of thoughts easier or even lessen, because they’re not being anchored by judgment or emotions.
The space has to be completely quiet.
Having a quiet space helps one to focus better on the meditation, but it doesn’t have to be completely silent for you to meditate.
Sometimes the noise in your head is louder than the ambient noise. So the goal is to find your center while accepting what is right in front of you instead of trying to find a quiet place so you can meditate.
You can train yourself to have peace and stillness from within, even if there is if constant noise or distraction. Remember to give yourself plenty of time and patience to develop this skill.
The goal is to feel calm.
Some people who meditate may experience anxiety, fear, heart racing, and a host of other emotions, feelings, & sensations during meditation.
This is normal. One of the goals of meditation is not to judge whatever comes up during your practice. Just be present and accept what is there. Calmness can be a byproduct of meditation, but it is not the aim.
Meditation interferes with religion.
The act of meditation may look pious and many religions engage in meditative-like practices, but it is not affiliated with any religion and does not interfere with any particular religion.
THE GOAL OF MEDITATION.
Meditation means the recognition or the discovery of one's own true self. - Sri Chinmoy
The reasons for meditation are multifold. Some of them are to obtain inner peace & calm, enlightenment, awakening, wisdom, self-realization, spiritual enlightenment, be in the present moment, gain insight, improve health & wellbeing, and foster compassion, kindness & goodwill.
While all of these goals are great, they should not be the primary reason why you meditate.
Instead, the ultimate goal of meditation is about becoming familiar with the practice and its relation with your physical body & emotions.
It is simple in theory but can be difficult to practice partly because of preconceived notions or unrealistic expectations around meditation. The most important thing to remember when you make meditation your goal, is to accept whatever comes up during your practice regardless of what is going on in your mind, body, or surroundings.
I wish you well with your meditation practice and please let me know what you think!