There is a massive amount of scientific evidence about meditation – how good it is for us, and how it can change our brains… In a good way!
But it can be hard to start … and to stick with it. But you don’t have to join a monastery to get the benefits. Here’s a quick guide to getting started.
Firstly – why bother? Meditation is hugely beneficial to building our resilience. With even just a short amount of practice, meditation strengthens the part of the brain that helps us to keep calm under pressure and stay focused in the midst of distractions.
It’s essentially a workout for the brain. Research from Harvard tells us the mind wanders 50 percent of the time. The basic move in the ‘meditation workout’ is to bring your attention back from those wandering thoughts, to focus on your breath. Think of it like doing bicep curls – the mind wanders, you bring your attention back, the mind wanders, you bring your attention back. The more we practice bringing our attention back, the stronger the circuitry for focus and attention gets. Just like we get bigger muscles by doing repetitions of bicep curls with weights.
We try to let those wandering thoughts go, and quieten or empty the mind when we meditate. It’s actually pretty difficult to ‘empty your mind’, but the practising part is what really matters. The repetition.
So how do we meditate? The easiest way is to get a teacher – just like going to the gym, it’s usually more effective if we have a personal trainer or instructor to guide us.
But this is partly because it’s hard to get into a routine or discipline, so it helps to go to a class regularly. But, because the benefits of meditation are immediate, and the more you do it, the longer-lasting the effects are, don’t wait to find a class. Just get started!
You can get going with these three simple steps:
One: Sit comfortably with your back straight and either close your eyes or set up a candle or object (flowers or something that has significance to you) to look at with half open eyes. Having something to look at with half open eyes helps you to focus – and not fall asleep!
Two: Notice what it feels like when your breath comes in and when your breath goes out, try to bring your full attention to the feeling of your breath coming in and going out.
Three: The third step is the biggie. Every time you try to do this, you’ll notice a million thoughts racing through your mind no matter how much you try to stop them. You’ll be thinking about all sorts of things like if you need a haircut, what you’re going to do next, when you last called your mum, etc. Every time you notice that your mind is wandering, bring your attention back to your breath and begin again. This is going to happen over and over and over again – and that is meditation.
It’s not easy. You will “fail” a million times but the “failing” and starting over is succeeding. Just like most things in life, like riding a bike, driving a car or learning to read, it takes lots of practice. Here the trying and starting again, trying and starting again, that’s the whole game.
Start with 10 minutes. Or even just one minute! Either set an alarm or play some meditative music for the period of time you aim to meditate for. YouTube has plenty of music composed and played by one of the ‘gurus’ of meditation, Sri Chinmoy.
If you meditate first thing in the morning, it ‘colours your day’ and sets you up well for what comes next. Tick off each day that you meditate so you can see your progress.
If you can’t make time for anything more than one minute, just do one minute.
Establishing a habit will be very beneficial. And any time you are feeling stressed or any negative emotions, take yourself aside and meditate – again, even if it’s just for one minute outside, sitting in your car, on the bus… it will help you to feel calm and focused.
There are huge amounts of research, information, ‘how to‘ guides and apps for meditation if you want to explore more.
I like how Dan Harris explains the benefits of meditation; the Sri Chinmoy website has free courses, and the Insight Timer app has plenty of free guided meditations.
If you want to be more successful at starting with and sticking to a habit of meditating, check out my guide on the Science of Habits.