It’s important to say - right from the start - that I am in no way qualified to teach, or even speak with authority, about meditation. Nor do I claim to be any kind of expert. This is very much written from a personal perspective and reflects more of my own journey in-and-out of using meditation, not a specific scientific standpoint. I am somebody who has used the tool, and reaped the benefits from it. However I have spent many hours researching the area, from reading key texts and blogs to speaking with well-respected key figures in the field.
I first tried meditation back in 2007 whilst in Kuala Lumpur. I’d picked up a book on the subject in a hostel I was staying in and had a flick through. The physical health benefits sounded amazing and caught my interest instantly, but what appealed to me more at the time were the mind-set improvements such as clearer thinking, calmness, feeling more connected, improved attention span and better sleep. I personally connected with these areas, and I’m the type of person who’s always keen to improve – especially on sleep! So I set out to learn more, starting with the book I’d picked up.
At this point, I was going through quite a significant time in my life. I was working through some important personal realisations, and look back on the time as something of a ‘growing up phase’. I felt I’d turned a corner in terms of consciousness and mindfulness, it was a point I really began to challenge my own thoughts, preconceptions and morals, which started me on a path of understanding and investing in myself more.
Initially when I began meditating, like most people, my brain wouldn’t slow down, or I’d sometimes even fall to sleep. I really struggled with calming the brain and not attaching to the thoughts I was having. I was told that this was natural, as the brain’s job is to never really stop, but with practice you become better at letting your thoughts just pass on by. This is where the power of meditation comes in, as you become more able to introduce this way of thinking into your everyday life – helping with considered decision making, being more mindful and coping better with stress.
I’d learned the key steps of meditation early on, which included:
· Finding somewhere comfortable to sit, and to sit tall
· Breathing in through the nose, and out through the mouth
· Relaxing the body
· Closing your eyes once breathing is under control
· Being still and silent
· Calming your mind (without real explanation this was the hardest part)
· How to end the practice with breathing, and acknowledging the presence around you
Despite going through all of these steps, reading about why they were important and expert views on them, I still had many a time at the beginning where I just didn’t feel it had ‘worked’, and this left me frustrated. But this is normal, and as you become more consistent, you find it easier to reach a point of meditation where you can feel the benefits on a daily basis.
Despite feeling these very real benefits, I still - at times - have dropped off and completely stopped, sometimes for months on end. When this happens I do notice it, I lose an edge to deal with things, stress is harder to cope with, controlling my mind is difficult and I start to feel as though I’m never fully rested. Only when I take a step back, and assess what’s going on in my life, am I able to actually realise these issues, and my ‘go-to’ resolution is always meditation as a starting point. It’s become my fail-safe strategy for making me feel better. Better at dealing with work, better at dealing with friends, better at dealing with people, better at pushing myself to succeed - even better at dealing with heartbreak and relationship issues. For me, it just works, I have my own mantra, my own routine and I can meditate pretty much anywhere, but it has taken time and effort to really commit, and see the benefits.
I’ve found that 20 minutes twice per day is what works for me, usually in the morning and then at some point in the afternoon. I feel energised, focused and calm after each session. Any longer and my concern is always that I’m taking too much time away from work. I have tried for longer periods, but personally, for me it’s a case of consistency, and quality over quantity. Longer does not mean better for me, but instead ensuring that I’m able to practice regularly - consistently is key. But again, this is very much personal to me and my experiences. I’ve been dipping in-and-out for 9 years now and still don’t feel ‘experienced’ as such, I’ve just found what works for me, and I keep coming back to it because I see the benefits.
So what does the science say about the benefits?
As I stated at the beginning, I’m no expert, but I am a scientist, so the science side of things is what I’m always drawn to. Any new studies hook me in, and there’s evidence to show many physical benefits from preventing colds, burnout and fatigue to delaying ageing, protecting against cancer, improving testosterone and growth hormone levels. Plus, there are also the benefits related to the mind, such as relieving stress, helping you feel more connected and improving the functioning of the brain. It can also assist with improving sleep and increasing your attention span - just to name a few!
So why aren’t we all meditating?
Well, one day I am hopeful that we’ll live in a society where we’re all meditating! There’s been research which has shown significant improvements in children's behaviour through meditation, and many people are hopeful that child meditation could be something we implement in all schools in the future. Who wouldn’t want their children to be more mindful, better connected and more appreciative of life?!
The real problem is accessibility and awareness, as I mentioned about my own journey, I had to invest a lot of my own time to learn the key principles, and receive the benefits. As with any public health movement it requires buy-in from the public and the government, maybe one day we’ll have a forward thinking government who will invest in this area. For now, it’s down to the guru’s, yoga teachers, internet boards and people like myself to encourage people to try it, and stick with it. Some form of standardised start point for beginners would be beneficial too. Nobody likes to commit their time to something they don’t know will work.
How do you get started?
It’s actually quite easy to get started; the internet has many free resources which can be used to learn about meditation. However, I personally recommend two apps to start with:
Headspace run a free 10 day course of 10 minutes each day, this is a great way to start and is guided, so you’re eased in gently with explanations and a calming voice explaining what you should feel, and whether you’re doing it right or not. www.headspace.com
Calm has a ‘7 days to calm’ programme that’s also free, and a good way to start with meditating, as again, it’s guided, so you know you’re doing it right just from listening. www.calm.com
Both apps offer guided meditation which I found really useful when I was starting out. I used to listen to YouTube videos and even bought a few CD’s, even now I’ll look for specific guided meditation to help with positivity or dealing with stress, whether it be a course, or just a short piece to help me with a specific area of meditation that I want to improve.
Other ways are finding a meditation teacher and going along to a group or class, or even taking a 1-2-1 session - sort of like a PT session for the mind. These are helpful as you’re able to ask questions and discuss how you felt, as well as finding a method that works for you.
Another way is to find a course which is run locally, they can typically be taken over a number of weeks, or sometimes a weekend, and are more intense. They’ll usually cost you more too. Initially, I would try the free tools, go for the free guided meditation courses online, and then you can look at investing in a subscription service on an app like Headspace, or step it up further by going on a course. I’ve tried all of these, and can say that I learnt many things from each one and found them all worth my time and investment. But, overall, it’s about finding what works for you. Paying for a course is not essential, nor is attending classes, but some guidance is definitely needed. The most important thing you need to do is approach meditation with an open mind, accept it might not ‘work’ straight away, but much like a diet or training programme, you see the results from the time and consistency you commit overall, not just short term. Meditation is a great piece of training for the mind; I’d probably compare it to the power clean, my favourite exercise which requires developing good technique and working around flaws, but delivers more than the sum of its parts once it’s mastered.
It’s important to know that without some form of guidance, or input from a teacher or a course, it’s difficult to get the benefits from it. That’s not to say that it’s impossible, but having a helping hand to assist with grasping the basics is an important part of the journey. Meditation is like Olympic weight lifting for the mind, its complex and requires training and consistency before you can really reap the benefits from it. But it’s really worth the investment.