What is meditation?
Meditation is a mental exercise which aims to improve one’s ability to shut out both internal and external distractions, focus the attention and achieve a higher state of awareness as a result.
As people in the western world have gradually recognized the incredible psychological, emotional and even physical benefits associated with meditation, it has enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years. However, it’s important to note that meditation has been practiced by people from all walks of life for millennia and its longevity and ubiquity is testament to its effectiveness as a tool of improving self-awareness.
A brief history of meditation
The precise origins of meditation are uncertain, but we do know that it has been practiced by people all over the globe for many thousands of years. The earliest written record we have of meditation dates back to 1,500BC, when Vedanta Hindus wrote that it had been first developed by their ancestors centuries prior.
Approximately one millennium later, Buddhism took root in India around the same time that Taoism began to be practiced widely in China, with meditation a key aspect of both religions. By the fifth century BC, the Yoga Sutras texts were written by Patanjali, a Hindu scholar, while the ensuing centuries saw thinkers, spiritualists and monks transcribe various other books about the practice in a variety of countries, including Japan and India. In 1227, Zen Buddhism was formally conceived in instructive texts.
During the course of the Middle Ages, Kabbalistic meditation was incorporated into prayer and study by Jewish rabbis, while it was variously assimilated into Christianity and Islamic mysticism in the Byzantine period and the 12th century, respectively. As you can see, it has featured in all of the world’s major religions, but it has also been practiced by secular and non-spiritual people of all cultures and countries, as well.
It first gained a foothold in mainstream western consciousness with the publication of Siddhartha by German author Hermann Hesse in 1922, while the translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead into various different languages made the practice more widespread. In the 1970s, American academics and physicians began to recognize its physical and mental health benefits. As the decades progressed, so too did meditation’s popularity and today it is a widely accepted practice for cultivating self-care and self-awareness.
What meditation is – and what it’s not
While meditation might have been regarded as a fringe activity as recently as a decade or two ago in the West, these days most people have a basic perception of what it comprises. However, that perception is all too often influenced by what they have seen on TV or in films, thus skewing their ideas about what and who it is for.
Contrary to popular belief, meditation doesn’t necessarily entail sitting cross-legged on the floor and humming to yourself to achieve a higher state of consciousness. There are a wide variety of different ways in which meditation can be practiced, not all of which involve sitting in a stationary position or centering the mind in on itself. Walking meditation, guided meditation and loving-kindness meditation practices are every bit as beneficial as others when practiced appropriately.
As mentioned above, meditation has had religious ties throughout its history. However, that’s perhaps more to do with its effectiveness for all members of the human race than any dogmatic associations; indeed, there is nothing inherently religious about meditation at all. You do not need to be remotely spiritual in order to experience the incredible benefits that practicing meditation for even a few minutes each day can bring.
Finally, meditation is not, as many people suppose, simply about clearing one’s mind of all thoughts and emotions, but gently accepting that such phenomena will inevitably arise, accepting them and moving on, thus eventually training the mind to command better focus. In this sense, it can help bring us inner peace as we become more comfortable within the confines of our own mind.
How to practice meditation (a beginner’s guide)
For those just dipping their toes into the concept of meditation, it might be best to begin with concentrative meditation. However, it’s important to remember that this is just one type of meditation available to you; there are many ways in which you can pursue the practice if you find do not enjoy this method.
To begin, find a quiet and calm location that is free from distractions. Turn off your phone and close the door to any outside interference. Take up a comfortable position in a chair or on the floor; avoid lying down if you can, since this has not been found to be conducive to effective practice. The most important thing, however, is that you are physically comfortable.
Close your eyes and divert your attention towards the rhythmic nature of your breathing. Try not to allow your mind to wander to any subject other than the in-out of your breath as it enters and leaves your body. You may find it helpful to (silently) count each inhalation and exhalation, or else mentally repeat a mantra to yourself in order to better concentrate your mind.
You will inevitably notice that your attention drifts to other thoughts, concerns and external stimulus. As you do, try not to judge yourself for not staying focused on your respiration, or judge the thoughts themselves. Simply observe and acknowledge them, then redirect your attention to your breathwork. You may find this happens several times throughout the practice.
When starting out on your meditation journey, it’s important to set realistic expectations. This may mean beginning with short sessions of five to ten minutes in length, before gradually working your way up to longer periods each time. If you notice an inability to stay focused, do not lose patience. It is natural to develop your abilities in meditation, just as you would with any other new skill.
Tips on how to meditate more effectively
Many people struggle when initially trying meditation. We are so used to planning out our next steps or dwelling on those we have just taken that it can be difficult to ground ourselves in the here and now. If that sounds familiar, these tips and hints could help to make your practice more rewarding:
- Stick to a schedule. Meditation is most helpful when it is practiced consistently. Try to incorporate it into your daily routine; for example, setting aside just a few minutes each morning before your first cup of coffee can go a long way in establishing a solid habit.
- Go at your own pace. Not everyone can find the time or the patience to still their mind for an extended period. If you need to start out slowly, that’s absolutely fine. The difference between doing no meditation and limited meditation is quite staggering in its effects.
- Notice external stimuli. As you try to meditate, external stimuli (such as sounds, smells or physical sensations) are beyond your control. Instead of trying to shut them out, experience them as they arise. Note where they come from and how they dissipate almost immediately.
- Do not try to suppress your emotions. It’s part of human nature to feel things on a constant basis. As your thoughts wander and your emotions surface, examine them and embrace them, before allowing them to leave you as you move back to your breath.
- Try different types of meditation. Did you know that there are a variety of different meditation methods, even for those who believe they don’t like meditation at all? Experiment with different types to find the one that works for you.
Of course, many people find that the most effective way to begin practicing meditation is with the help of a trained professional. We have a variety of courses and programs aimed at improving your ability to meditate in a remarkably short period of time. With our guidance and expertise, you can join the hundreds of thousands of others who have enriched their lives via meditation.
Best of all, our courses are available on a sliding scale of fees, with our most popular option, Breath Is Life, operating on a pay-what-you-can system. We believe meditation, breathwork and pranayama have benefits that should be accessible to all. Join us today!