Simple introduction to mindfulness meditationFirst published: December 08, 2019Categories: meditation, spirituality
I am by no means an expert at meditation. I have, however, meditated using a few different techniques over the past 7 years, and would like to share what has worked for me.
A brief introduction
Meditation is a very broad label and can be applied to many different practices. These practices include mindfulness meditation, compassion meditation (metta), various forms of mantra meditation, tai chi, yoga, pranayama, contemplative religious practices and many more. There are also many ways to practice each of these forms of meditation. For example, with mindfulness, you can perform a sitting meditation or a walking meditation. The meditation can be guided, where someone or a recording guides you through it, or you can meditate without listening to anyone. I don't think there is any right way to meditate, it's something that can become very personal, but there are a few frameworks we can start off with depending on what we want or our spiritual journey.
What is it?
With mindfulness meditation you pick something to place your attention on. Whenever you notice your mind has wandered you bring it back to the object of your meditation. This is the key part, this noticing that your mind has wandered. There's a popular misconception that meditation is about "clearing your mind". Whilst I wouldn't be surprised if there was a meditation like that, it's not something I've come across yet. In fact, with mindfulness you are not doing anything wrong if your mind wanders. Mindfulness meditation is about practicing being present in the moment, so every time you notice your mind wandering and gently bring it back, you are doing the practice. There is a quote I really like about this:
The only bad meditation is the one you didn't do
As long as you sit down and try, you are meditating! That's not to say that it's easy. Just sitting down to do it can be challenging sometimes, it's very easy to procrastinate, put it off, or be afraid of being alone with your thoughts. And we all know building a new habit can be very tough. But the method itself can be very simple: get comfortable, place your attention on something (e.g. your breath), when your attention wanders gently bring it back and start again.
Why do it?
Personally, meditation has been the best thing I've done for my long term mental well-being. Antidepressants have helped me deal with my roughest patches. Weed has helps me deal with many of the symptoms I have. MDMA and LSD have given me useful insights and taught me valuable things. But out of all the things I've tried, meditation has had biggest positive effects. I'm so much more aware of my mind. I'm more in touch with myself and emotions. I'm able to connect more deeply with people. I feel like the way I think has changed in a positive way. Of course, like everyone, I have my ups and downs, but meditation has made me happier, has helped me be more appreciative of my life, and more present in the moment. I think it has made me a better person. It's also a great way to give your mind a mini-vacation from the hecticness of life.
Meditation in general, and mindfulness in particular, have had a lot of studies done on their benefits. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) has been found to reduce the chance of relapse into depression for those that have been depressed before. Mindfulness-based stress reduction is used to treat pain, anxiety and depression. Various studies suggest that mindfulness helps with anxiety, pain, depression, concentration, stress reduction and emotional regulation. If you're interested in delving more into the research and science, there's a whole wikipedia article on it.
For many people there is also a spiritual aspect to it, although that's not a requirement. Many modern texts on meditation talk about it in a very secular or even scientific way. However meditation is great for connecting more deeply with yourself, the people around you, and the world around you. I have also found it great for exploring my own mind. What is going on in my head? What does my mind do when left alone? How do my experiences change when I bring my full attention to them? How does my mind react to various stimuli? What is thinking? Where do thoughts come from? What is the self? All of these, and more, are questions I enjoy exploring through meditation.
For me one of the great things about meditation is the experiential aspect of it. Sure there's a lot of studies, and that's great for convincing people to try it, but at the end of the day only one thing matters: does it work for you? Whatever your reason is for meditating, you don't have to take anyone's word for it. It's free, you can do it anywhere, you can start with 5 minutes or less a day. And after a few weeks of trying it you can see for yourself what differences it makes for you, if any.
What to put your attention on?
Most people will pay attention to their breath, and their are reasons behind that. A big part of it is that the breath is always there. However some people find paying attention to their breath gives them anxiety, your meditation object can be almost anything, but here are a few other ideas
- A mantra or affirmation
- The sounds around you
- Sensations in your body, you can choose your whole body and do body scans or choose specific things to focus on like the contact you have with the ground or your heartbeat
- Your thoughts: try to be aware of your thoughts as they arise and leave without engaging with them
- A candle, or other fire
- Incense smoke
How to do it?
(I will be talking about paying attention to the breath in these steps, but this will apply to anything you've chosen to pay attention to)
- Find a comfortable, preferably quiet, place to sit or lie down: you don't have to sit in a particular way. You can sit on the floor, or on a chair, or on a meditation bench. You can have your legs straight or bent. You can even lie down! Some people find it harder to keep their attention on something when lying down. If you are one of those people, I recommend sitting in a comfortable spot and keeping your back straight but without being overly tense. Personally I sit on the floor, with a cushion under my bum and my legs crossed.
- Set your timer: You don't have to do this, but most people will prefer to, especially at the start. I've recommended a couple meditations apps in the resources section of this article, or you can just set a timer on your phone. Start with however long you want, even if it's just 1 or 2 minutes. After trying it a few times though I would recommend trying to transition to the 5-10 minute range. You can increase the time little by little as you get more comfortable.
- Take a moment to set your intention: I find doing this is very helpful for transitioning from whatever you're doing into meditation. We spend so much of our lives doing stuff or distracting ourselves, it can sometimes be a little jarring to transition from that state into a state of just being. I like to take a moment to make clear to myself why I'm meditating, and to set my intention for this meditation session. For example "I am meditating because it makes me happier. During this session I will focus on bringing my attention back to my breath. Whenever I notice my mind wandering I will gently bring my attention back to my breath". You can just think this, or say it out loud. Find what works best for you.
- Bring your attention to your breath: You don't have to close your eyes, but you can if you find it helps. Don't try to control your breath, just be aware of it. You can focus on the rise and fall of your belly, or the sensation of the air hitting the back of your throat, or the feeling of the air at the tip of your nostrils. You may decided to pay attention to all of it. Whatever works best for you. Most people will start by thinking something like "inhale" as they breathe in and "exhale" as they breath out. Thinking this, or noting how your breath feels, can really help your mind wander less. It will still wander though!
- When your mind wanders gently bring your attention back to your breath: Notice it's when, not if. Your mind will wander. Your mind will wander a lot. In fact you may spend most of your meditation with your mind wandering. That's ok. Whenever you notice your mind has wandered don't berate yourself, this just teaches your mind that noticing the wandering is bad and isn't very productive. Instead congratulate yourself for noticing, this is what you are meant to be doing, and you've done it! Gently bring your attention back to your breath and start again.
- Enjoy it! This time is all yours, you don't have to plan anything, or do anything. You are taking time for yourself, to take care of yourself, because you matter and you deserve it. Indulge in that sensation. You are choosing to do nothing, and that's something you're allowed to do. Feel free to be curious, explore how your mind feels, how your body feels, how your breath feels. There's a lot going on when you pay attention it.
Thanks for reading!
If you've made it this far, thanks for reading! I really appreciate it, and hope you found it useful in some way.
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Further resources and reading
Insight Timer App: I often use this free app when meditating. It has a great timer that allows you to set the length of your meditation, and uses pleasant singing bowl ringing to let you know when it has ended, which I find a lot more pleasant than my phone's alarm tones. You can set a bell for the start, set interval bells at custom intervals, and pick from a few different bell sounds. It also has a massive library of free guided meditations you can access from the app.
The Miracle Of Mindfulness Book: I love the way Thich Nhat Hanh writes. He has a very gentle, compassionate style and reading his books often puts a smile on my face. This beautiful book is a great introduction to mindfulness.
Sam Harris' Guided Meditation: A short, 9-minute, guided meditation by Sam Harris. I've not personally listened to it, I prefer unguided meditations, however I have often seen it recommended on the meditation subreddit, and it is an easily available, short, free, guided meditation. A great place to start if you don't want to do an unguided meditation.
Headspace App: A meditation app mostly centred around daily guided meditations that progressively teach you more about meditation, as well as some informational material. I didn't personally get much out of it, but quite a few friends and family have liked it. You get 10-day beginners course for free and after that it cost £10 a month to unlock the rest of their content
Mindfulness in Plain English Book: One of the most recommended meditation books, a great way to get started, and it's available for free! There is also an updated version, however the free version is already great!
The Mind Illuminated Book: One of my favourite meditation books, but definitely not for everyone. The author goes into a lot of detail about everything, including how to sit, what to focus on, and how to progress. I wouldn't say start here (you don't need any book to start) but if you wanna delve deeper into your mind this is a great way to get on that path
10% Happier Book: This is a wonderful book by Dan Harris about his personal journey to finding meditation, how it helped him with PTSD and made him "10% happier". He also has a podcast that goes by the same name where he interviews meditators from all walks of life.
Troy's Guided Meditation: A great guided meditation by Troy from the Modern Cannabists podcast
Full Catastrophe Living Book: Jon Kabat-Zinn is one of the people who's been very important in bring meditation to the western world. He had a big hand in initiating research in meditation and is the developer of the mindfulness-based stress reduction program. This book helps teach you how to use meditation in your own life to better cope with illness, anxiety and stress
Mindful Way Through Depression Book: As someone who's had depression for many years, this book has been very important for me. It covers the mindfulness-based cognitive therapy program in an accessible and easy to follow way, that you can apply for yourself at home. There is also a workbook version that is a bit less in depth on the theory, but easier and quicker to get into it.