Meditation is nothing new. It's been around for many thousands of years. However, the rise of the internet, smartphones and our very connected world makes the practice of "switching off" from distractions more important than ever before. It's no wonder meditation is experiencing a new resurgence.
It's not just new-age gurus and high-powered CEOs experiencing the benefits of meditation and mindfulness anymore. Thanks to information spread around the internet and on dedicated apps, the practice has been democratised, allowing everyone a chance to get involved.
This is a short guide on how to get started with meditation and mindfulness training. Below, you'll find some of the science on how meditation works, expert tips and some simple techniques on embarking on your meditation journey for the first time.
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Meditation: What is it?
According to the experts from meditation app Headspace, meditation is simply "training in awareness and getting a healthy sense of perspective". There's lots of different kinds of meditation, from transcendental meditation to mindfulness training, but most forms of meditation start by sitting or standing and following your breathing.
"Meditation is a practice, something that you 'do' to find calm in your mind," says London-based meditation expert Emma Mills, the author of Inhale, Exhale, Repeat. "Meditation is a state of being, a state of remaining completely as you are."
The age-old practice of meditation simply consists of finding a comfortable cushion, chair or floor-space and sitting quietly, performing one of many mental exercises depending on the discipline. However, walking or moving meditation is also quite common.
Meditation: What are the benefits of meditating?
It's tough to attribute an end goal to meditation – don't expect "enlightenment" anytime soon – but there are plenty of benefits to the practice. For example, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found the practice more than lives up to its reputation for stress reduction. The study found meditation can result in "moderate reductions of multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress" and recommended clinicians prescribe meditation to suffering patients.
Another study followed up with 18 volunteers three years after they had completed an eight-week meditation program. Most volunteers had continued practising regular meditation and maintained lower anxiety levels over the long term. Regular meditation, ideally once a day, can create significantly lower stress and anxiety levels. It should become a regular habit, just like brushing your teeth or showering becomes part of your routine to take care of your physical health.
Even a single mindfulness session can reduce anxiety and improve stress-related cardiovascular health. A study published in Experimental Biology found stress placed on the heart was reduced after a session of mindfulness.
The study's authors said: ""Our results show a clear reduction in anxiety in the first hour after the meditation session, and our preliminary results suggest that anxiety was significantly lower one week after the meditation session." You only have to meditate for 15 minutes to generate good feelings similar to those you experience when taking a holiday.
Meditation: How do I get started?
Meditation is one of the most easily accessible health practices around: unlike forms of physical exercises which you might need a gym or running shoes for, meditation requires only your mind and a comfortable place to sit.
As recommended by Mills, this is the best way to begin your mindfulness meditation practice. This is your first meditation session:
- Find somewhere to sit with a straight back, whether on a comfortable chair or cushion on the floor.
- Set a timer for two minutes.
- Put your attention on your breathing. Mills recommends picking a sensation, such as the air coming in and out of your nose, or the rise and fall of your chest, and focus on that sensation.
- If you get distracted, don't worry! That's normal. In fact, noticing you've been distracted is a good thing. Simply note that you've been distracted and return to following your breathing.
- Continue to do this until the timer goes off. Congratulations – you just meditated!
Meditation: Where to go next?
After you've completed those first two minutes, you can return to that sensation and practice being mindful at any point during the day.
"Meditation is just a precursor," says Mills. "At any point during the day, whether you’re on the train, or it’s after you’ve eaten your lunch, you can put your attention on your breathing for a minute or two and return to that present moment whenever you feel like you need to pause and be aware."
In future meditation sessions, you can try and meditate for longer, without the timer. Alternatively, you can opt for a guided meditation. These can be found for free on YouTube, or accessible on subscription service apps like Headspace and Calm, which are available to download on smart devices.
Mills says "Guided meditation works really well because it gives your mind something to focus on, as you have instructions to follow along.
"The brain doesn’t know the difference between what’s real and what’s being imagined, so if you follow the instructions and imagine yourself relaxing, the effects are felt in your body. It gives you a chance to practice imagining experiences in your mind, instead of watching them on a screen."
Meditation: What are some common stumbling blocks?
The first thing that can get in the way is, according to Mills, having high expectations. "It’s not like the books or films, where you sit down, close your eyes and achieve ultimate zen". If you've watched any of the old kung fu movies, you might expect this to be the case, but if you're actively looking for a sensation, you won't be able to simply notice what's happening, which is often the point of the exercise.
The second common stumbling block is focusing too much on time. Don’t feel like you have to sit there for twenty minutes or half an hour straight away, because as Mills says, "more isn’t necessarily better". When you feel as though you can concentrate properly for those two minutes, consider gradually extending the timer, or do away with one altogether.
Other inhibitors to your practice include alcohol, which affects your ability to pay attention and meditate, even the next day after drinking. Coffee can also make you very jittery.
Other factors include being sleep deprived, sick, or, specifically for women, where you are in your cycle. All these factors can affect your ability to pay attention and be mindful, so if you're having an off day, it's helpful to recognise it might be out of your control. Alongside mindfulness, self-love and forgiveness is also a very healthy mindset to get into.