A quick guide to meditation
First things first – clearly meditation as a practice has been around a very long time, and I’m certainly not going to try and distil a few thousand years’ worth of the teachings of some of the world’s greatest thinkers down into a 700 word blog post. There are many different kinds of meditation, most of which have their own ancient traditions behind them, and each aim to do a variety of different things.
So, instead think of this as a quick primer – not so much on the pros and cons or the subtleties of the various techniques, but more about how you might start thinking about whether to make meditation a part of your life. Here are just a few of the questions I get asked most often.
How do I start?
For those who are interested in trying out meditation, it couldn’t really be easier. There are huge variety of meditation apps available (I’m a big fan of Insight Timer, which has loads of free guided meditations, 10% Happier and Headspace) as well as plenty of podcasts and books to get you going. Once again, my advice really is just to experiment.
Try different techniques (although not in the same session), read and listen to as much as you can, and even join a class if you think you’ll benefit from a real life teacher and the support of your fellow students. The key, as with any kind of exercise, is twofold – find a technique you enjoy and find one that you know you can commit to and do regularly.
Because that, really, is the best piece of advice I can give you – whatever kind of meditation you choose to do, try and do it regularly if you can. I generally go for two sessions of 20 minutes a day if I can, but start small and build it up.
Is it all about clearing the mind?
Not really – that is (in my experience at least) something that is almost impossible to do. Instead, it can often take the form of maintaining a focus on a specific thing – like the breath, with the intention of making you more aware of the way that the component parts of all that daily mental noise (thoughts, feelings, worries and emotions) come and go.
Most meditators will find that in the first few minutes of their session they’ll be very aware of what is known as the ‘monkey mind’ – that ongoing internal chatter that can be quite difficult for many beginner meditators (and a few experienced ones too) to deal with. Many meditation techniques will encourage you to develop the art of ‘watching’ this chatter without engaging in it, and to try gradually train your attention onto the object of meditation instead.
What can it do for me?
This the million dollar question. There has been quite a bit of scientific research on meditation over the years, on many different techniques and the extent to which it can change the way your brain actually functions, for the better. But the science aside, like so many things, any assessment of the benefits of meditation will depend on who you ask (and what they want you to believe).
Buddhists see it as a route to enlightenment, while others suggest that meditating makes you a calmer, kinder and more compassionate person, with no need for bigger spiritual goal. Someone selling an expensive Transcendental Meditation course may make a whole different set of claims.
My experience of meditation is this – that as with anything, it isn’t always easy, and it isn’t a fool proof way of improving your life (I know plenty of meditators who still lose their temper and get stressed!). But, that said, I’d also say that it has certainly given me a more proactive, and engaged relationship with my feelings, emotions and other people.
Ultimately I find that, on most occasions, thanks to meditation I’m now a bit more aware of the way that I respond to situations and to people – but again, it is something that needs to be maintained.
Like any form of exercise, mental or otherwise, my advice is to try it for yourself, see if it works for you and, if it does, make it a daily practice.