I’ll admit it straight up: I’ve had an on-and-off relationship with meditation. I’ve experienced its grounding, peace and presentness, and yet I’ve also found meditation difficult to prioritize and stick with.
But each time I return to a consistent practice, I’m struck by its retreat-like stillness and calm. Sounds like exactly what’s needed when the metaphorical tornado that is September hits. Right?
Okay, but are there other reasons to meditate?
Yes! Caroline Meyer, ND and reiki master, says, “Meditation relieves suffering. It can bring us to a place where we experience happiness and joy.” It does so by inviting us back to this breath—right here and now.
Meditation can help us let go of past and future, reactions and planning, fretting and ruminating. Meyer describes how, when fully present, we’re able to “enjoy the pleasurable events in our lives more intensely and able to weather the painful challenges that arise for all of us. In doing so, we become better parents, partners, workers and friends.”
I’ve heard there are health benefits. True?
John Miller, author of The Contemplative Practitioner: Meditation in Education and the Workplace, says that “meditation reduces stress, the cause of many illnesses,” and Meyer points to studies about the positive effects of mindfulness on “a range of medical concerns, including chronic pain, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia, anxiety, depression, respiratory conditions and even skin conditions.”
Recent research also indicates meditation may reduce high blood pressure, help with distress accompanying cancer diagnoses and treatments and alleviate menopausal discomforts.
Got it … but what is meditation?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine and originator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program taught worldwide to help ease pain, anxiety and stress, describes mindful meditation as moment by moment, or breath by breath awareness.
Donald Eckler, a meditation instructor in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition, depicts meditation as “the act of relating to life directly, as it is,” without overthinking, theorizing or judging. Meditation invites self-compassion and what Eckler calls “friendliness” toward ourselves.
Meyer says meditation can be practiced in myriad ways, including “traditional breathing practices, mindful walking, chanting and even through daily tasks like cleaning and cooking.” Most essential is to be “fully absorbed in what is happening in this very moment.”
Wait—there’s more than one kind of meditation?
There are many styles of meditation, including those that use mantras or visualization (see “Try it!”), each with its own history, techniques and mentors. Several characteristics are shared across meditation types.
Meditation usually involves a space with minimal distractions, a specific comfortable position, a particular focus of attention and an open attitude. Mindfulness—the awareness and acceptance of the present moment and the thoughts, feelings and sensations it contains—is at the heart of all types of meditation practices.
I’m convinced. How do I start?
Eckler, Meyer and Miller each suggest beginning with a teacher or group. While apps and online resources can be helpful, Eckler notes that someone new to meditating “is going to want to speak to a real person, someone they feel some trust in.”
Meyer advises clients to start small but consistently, even a few minutes a day, and then gradually extend the time (see “Stick with it!”).
And Miller suggests it’s ideal to “practice on a daily basis for at least six to eight weeks to start to experience the benefits.”
Basic mindfulness meditation
- Consider setting a timer to let you know when your meditation time is complete (start with 5 minutes if you’re a newbie!).
- Find a comfortable seated posture. You might use a cushion designed for meditation or sit in a chair.
- Focus your attention on your breath and on how your body moves with your inhalation and exhalation. Notice the movement of your body while you breathe. Try not to control your breath. Instead, focus your attention on the act of breathing.
- When your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to your breathing.
Focused attention medit ation
- Consider setting a timer to let you know when your meditation time is complete.
- Find a comfortable seated posture.
- Focus your attention on the act of breathing.
- Once you have taken a few quiet breaths, bring your gaze onto one steady object. Any focus works. You could gaze at a tree swaying gently or waves lapping the shore. Tratak, or candle gazing, involves watching the constant yet ever-changing flame of a candle.
Meditation with mantra
- Find a comfortable seated posture.
- Take a few quiet breaths to begin. Sometimes it can be helpful to repeat something in your head while you are focusing on your breathing to stay in the present moment.
- Repeat words with each inhalation and exhalation. Here are some examples:
- Inhale: I am … Exhale: present …
- Inhale: Feeling … Exhale: this moment …
- Inhale: Be … Exhale: compassion …
- Inhale: Practice … Exhale: stillness …
- Inhale: Invite … Exhale: softness …
- Inhale: Inhale … Exhale: exhale …
Stick with it!
- Try meditating at a few different times of day to see what works for you. Morning and early evening often work well, as our minds can be less busy during these times.
- Once you find a time that works, build it into your routine (basically, treat meditation like brushing your teeth or checking Instagram).
- Start with just five minutes a day for a week or month.
- Increase your session length by five minutes every week or month.
- You may miss a day here and there. It’s all good. Steady practice, not perfection, is your goal.