I remember the first time I was introduced to the concept of meditation. It was during year 9 sports class (I had chosen yoga of course!) and we were all in the library lying down after a very simple asana practice.
The teacher was relaying instructions to us which we were to follow, spending the next 20 minutes meditating to wind down after the class.
Like most students I took this precious time as a chance to have a rest from the stresses and pressure of being in high school.
I had no real understanding of meditation like I do now, and honestly I don’t think I was really that interested in finding out more.
At that age what I knew of meditation was that it was a process of trying to remove all thought from the mind (still a common misconception). It seemed like an impossible task so even though I tried a few times often I would just give up and spend the rest of the class having a nap.
The funny thing is this is often the approach that so many adults take in regards to meditation (the giving up part, not so much the napping!). They have a very rigid idea of what meditation is and isn’t, and as beings largely dominated by the thinking mind the idea of switching off all thought seems like an inconceivable feat.
SO WHAT IS MEDITATION EXACTLY...
According to the merriam-webster.com dictionary, to meditate is to spend time in quiet thought for religious purposes or relaxation.
I love this definition for two reasons. The emphasis is put on quiet thought (not complete silence as some may think) and relaxation.
To my knowledge for someone inexperienced in meditation (like pretty much every beginner ever) it is impossible to remove all thought from the mind. The whole idea of quieting the mind instead of silencing makes the whole process seem a lot more manageable (and enjoyable!).
Yes an experienced meditator can create a thought free, silent mind, however that doesn't mean you aren't meditating if you can't yet reach this state.
It is just one of the many different levels that exist during meditation. Like all new undertakings finding our zen inner monk is a gradual process that takes time, patience and persistence.
But my gosh is it worth it!
Other than the obvious benefits (reduced stress & anxiety, serenity, presence, clarity etc) my personal meditation practice has been the catalyst for profound healing and insights delivered straight from my higher self.
Quieting the mind in this way has created the certain stillness required to receive much needed inner guidance. Often this guidance shows up in the form of thoughts - which is why I personally don’t like the idea of silencing the mind completely otherwise you miss out on all those juicy insights!
Meditation doesn't have to be hard, it really is just about finding something that works for you.
In my opinion if your practice allows you to gain insight through stillness, calms your nerves and brings awareness back to the present moment, you're doing something very right!
MEDITATION DO'S & DON'TS
+ Do experiment: There is no one size fits all practice. Depending on what kind of person you are will depend on the type of practice that works best for you. I suggest trying out as many different techniques as you want until you find something that you really connect with and want to continue practicing.
+ Do find a quiet space: This is especially important starting out. Taking away all external distractions and noise can help you reach a meditative state much faster and more easily than if you are focusing on trying to block out your environment.
+ Do make yourself comfortable: The trick is to be comfortable enough that you can relax but not so comfortable that you fall asleep mid medi! I prefer lying down as it allows me to relax more deeply into my practice, however I always try to meditate either in the morning or during the day. If I lie down to meditate before bed, 9 times out of 10 I'll fall asleep (forget counting sheep, try meditating instead if you're having trouble sleeping!).
+ Do start off small: Another common mistake many people make is trying to meditate for long periods of time when they are first starting out. Consistency is key here, and you are far better off starting out with 5-10 minutes of daily meditation than trying to meditate for 30 minutes plus in one sitting. You want to try and turn this into a daily practice that eventually becomes so natural that you can draw upon this state even when you're not sitting in meditation. Once you are successfully meditating consistently for 5-10 minutes a day, you can begin to slowly increase the amount of time so that it is a gradual sustained process.
+ Do join a group: Joining a meditation group can be a brilliant way to not only learn tried and tested meditation techniques but also to practice in the calming collective energy of the group. Beginners often find it easier when meditating in a group for this reason as it can help you drop more easily into a peaceful state.
+ Don't have expectations: Going into your meditation with no prior expectations means the practice can be a completely organic process. Whatever needs to unfold can do so without resistance or pressure for a certain outcome, and you will undoubtedly gain the most benefit from having a flexible and willing attitude.
+ Don't judge or compare yourself: It can be so easy mid medi to allow thoughts to creep back in prompting frustration with yourself. Our inner critic goes wild with all the reasons we'll never be able to meditate and just like that all the hard work seems to come undone. However part of the process is allowing your thoughts to enter the mind without judgement and dissolve again as you surrender deeper into your practice. Become the observer of your thoughts, but don't allow their presence to sway you. Acknowledge their presence and allow them to be released without a second thought.
+ Don’t give up after trying and “failing”: In my eyes there is no such thing as failure, every set back is just inevitability a part of the learning process. You can't expect to become a master of something the first time you try, why would meditating be any different. So many give up before they have even given it a chance. Continue coming back to your practice and experimenting with new techniques until you find something that really works for you. With persistence anyone can become a successful meditator!
+ Don’t have a preconceived idea: The reason I feel so many people admit defeat before even trying is because they think they already have a good understanding of what meditation actually is. Forget everything you ever knew about the subject and just make your aim to breathe, relax and become still. Don't be rigid in your ideas and beliefs and remember to keep an open mind going into all new experiences (meditation or otherwise!).
5 ALTERNATIVE MEDITATION PRACTICES
1. Have a dance
Dance, movement and my embodiment practice has been the number one way that I can connect to a place of inner stillness. This might seem weird considering all the external activity, however moving in a free flow way allows your energy to carry you into every new move. The focus is solely on the body and the sensations and that arise from within. It takes you completely out of your head into a state of pure feeling and bliss.
2. Listen to music
Music really was my doorway into meditation. I struggled for a long time with meditation before I found a practice that worked for me. I truly believe this wouldn't have come about were it not for my love of and deep connection to music. As I wrote about it here, my experiences listening to music were some of the first instances that I started to deepen the connection to my higher self. It can be incredibly soothing to the mind and body, so pick a mellow track and allow yourself to get lost in the melody.
3. Star gazing or cloud watching
I may be a complete and utter dreamer, but to me there is something so incredibly calming and peaceful about gazing up at the sky. Whether it be day or night, clouds or stars, turning my attention upwards to the vast expansive nature of the sky is enough to stop my thoughts dead in their tracks. There is a distinct stillness in that space and by simply looking up we can tap into the peace of the infinite vastness that surrounds our planet.
4. Body scans
I've often found a simple body scan meditation or Yoga Nidra practice to be one of the most effective ways of dropping into meditation. Once again this works because it takes your awareness away from the thinking mind into a state of feeling and presence. Often our bodies experience stress, anxiety and tension due to our thought patterns and conditioning. Stopping the obsessive chatter of the mind through this kind of awareness allows your body to release into a relaxed and peaceful state.
The thing I love about the practice of Tantra is that more than anything it really is just a state of being and extends itself far beyond the scope of sexuality. My interpretation of Tantra is that it is the ability to see every moment as an invitation to deepen our human experience through ecstatic connection to life. Turn your attention to your senses and allow yourself to become hyper aware of your surroundings and experiences. You'll be absolutely amazed at how even the most mundane of tasks can become incredibly vibrant when experienced through the fullness of presence.
[Original image credit - adapted by Jessica Kali]