What Is Meditation and How to Do It Well?
Part One – Why Meditate, and How to Begin a Meditation Practice
Meditation is the practice of turning and pouring your attention to just one point of reference. It may involve concentrating on the breath, on the bodily sensations and on the phrase or word that is called mantra. Therefore, meditation means you are turning your mind and attention apart from thoughts and concentrating on the actual moment. Meditation is deceptively simple, but for many if not most, simple does not of course mean easy.
In this short guide I offer help on starting a meditation practice successfully, so that you can gain the innumerable benefits of a meditative practice for yourself so you can get started with your journey towards the path of bliss and enlightenment.
Some of you may be thinking, “but Cindy, you’re an expert in hypnosis. Why are you teaching meditation?” The truth is, meditation and hypnosis are kissing cousins. From a brainwave perspective, they are identical. The real difference is what you intend to do when you’re in the state, not the state itself. When we say hypnosis, there is an inherent understanding that we are using the state to deliver suggestions to the subconscious mind which are designed to create a specific, desired change in our behavior or health. In mediation, we are entering the state to experience it cleanly, to gain the many mental, emotional and physical benefits that are what I call the “gimme’s” of the state–no suggestions needed. Learning to move into a meditative state also gives you a greater sense of control over your own emotional state and thus, a greater sense of trust and appreciation of yourself.
I have studied meditation with a number of excellent instructors, and use meditation as often as I use self hypnosis (which is to say every day). I am happy to pass on what I have come to know and understand about developing a practice to help you!
Why Meditate – A Focused Mind is a Calm Mind
The objective of meditation is to focus yourself and calm your mind, finally reaching a much higher awareness level as well as inner calm. It might come as a big surprise to learn that you could meditate anywhere and anytime, permitting oneself to access a sense of peace and tranquility regardless of what is happen around you. As with any skill, and yes-meditation is definitely a skill, that you develop over time, you will get better and better with practice.
A regular meditation practice will slow down your intrusive thoughts. Meditation increases GABA, which is a calming neurotransmitter. GABA is like the “brakes” for your thoughts. If you struggle with recurring, unwelcome thoughts, meditation is likely to help. Sometimes even from the first experience, although I encourage you to stick with your practice for some weeks before you begin to evaluate it. Like the lotus flower that is so often associated with enlightenment, the benefits of meditation unfold one petal at a time, as those who practice for years will tell you. In other words, you simply cannot judge what meditation will do for you long-term, from the perspective of a beginner.
A regular meditation practice will make you less reactive. If you find yourself “hijacked” by your emotional reactions – your reactions come so quickly that even you are surprised by them – mediation again, is your friend. The regular practice of meditation reduces signals to the amygdala, which is the structures in the brain that trigger the fight or flight reaction. In some people the amygdala become over sensitive. Sometimes this happens because you’ve come through a period of intense stress and the signal rate gets “stuck” in high gear, or because of chronic low to mid-grade stress. Regardless of the reason, meditation reduces the activity of the amygdala and you will once again find that you have that moment between stimulus and your emotional reaction. This puts you in a greater position of control.[box]If you want some help to reach deep meditative states quickly, brainwave entrainment in alpha or theta frequencies will guide your brain into those states without the attentional struggles many experience in learning meditation.[/box]
A quick story. When I first started meditating and using self hypnosis (they are very similar, in fact the same from a brain-wave perspective), I had been though a period of mid to high-level stress for about seven years. I was very reactive, and found that especially loud, sharp noises brought me to a state of anger immediately. Almost before I consciously registered the sound, I would feel a rage pop into existence. I learned to bite my tongue a lot, I knew it was irrational, and I did my best not to actually act on that anger, but I felt it, and it was uncomfortable.
About three months after I started my practice, I was in a coffee shop with a friend. My back was turned to the registers. While we were talking I heard a large “CRACK” behind me. I can still remember it so distinctly. I heard the sound. I slowly turned around to see what caused it. I saw that someone’s travel bag, with the handle extended, had fallen over on the ceramic floor right behind me. The handle had hit the floor and made the crack sound. I slowly turned back to my friend and picked up the conversation just where we’d been. It wasn’t until a couple minutes later that I realized what had happened. I’d felt NO ANGER whatsoever. I felt so grateful not to have that uncomfortable angry response!
Now I know, if I start to feel negative responses to loud, sharp noises, I am under stress and I increase my meditation practice to calm my amygdala back down.
A regular meditation practice opens up your intuition. I could do a whole article on why this is and how it works, or a video, but I won’t do that here. It’s a brainwave thing. Meditating on a regular basis gives your brain practice in reaching the brainwaves where intuition is housed (or happens or however you want to think of that). It also creates a bridge, between those deeper, lower, slower brainwaves and your conscious brainwaves, so that those messages (which had been going on before you started meditating) actually bubble up to your conscious awareness. The longer you meditate and witness this process, the deeper your trust in yourself becomes. It is truly a lovely thing!
There are many other benefits of meditation. But this is an article, not a book, so let’s move on to how to begin your meditation practice.
The first thing that you should do is to look for a tranquil environment where you can go and meditate. Meditation, initially, should be done in a place that is peaceful and calming and where you feel certain you will not be disturbed. This will let you focus exclusively on your internal state, while not bombarding your brain with the external stimuli. You should attempt to find a place where you will not be interrupted throughout the session, whether it lasts for a few minutes to half an hour.
Where you meditate should be comfortable, both in terms of seating, temperature, lighting. No glaring lights, not too hot or too cold. Once you have established your practice, you will discover that these conditions are luxuries, and you can in fact practice any time, any where and your trained mind will filter out distractions. But, to begin a practice, it’s best to give yourself optimal conditions.
To give you an idea of what is possible as you deepen your meditation skills, here is another short story of my own.
Several years ago, when I’d been meditating and using self hypnosis about a year, we had friends come to town with their 10 year old daughter and we went to a theme park near us, Valley Fair. They have the Corkscrew roller coaster there and she wanted to go. No one wanted to go with her, so I said I would. Now, I like roller coasters, but I don’t like the Corkscrew. The ride is too short, and I don’t get any thrill out of being turned upside down. My experience was that the harness/frame that you sit in on that ride is at ear-height for me, and I would get bounced around in the frame and hit my ears and come out of the ride with sore ears. But, I’m not afraid of the ride, just don’t like it, so of course I wasn’t going to have her miss her chance.
On the way up the hill, seated in the coaster, I thought to myself, I wonder how this ride would be different if I drop into a deep meditate state? And why not? I won’t be missing anything!
And so I did. I dropped quickly into a deep state of meditation and discovered two things — because of the time distortion that happens in this mental state, the ride seemed even shorter. Before I knew it, we were pulling back into the station. Two-in the meditative state my body was so relaxed that I limply hung between the sides of the harness/frame, so my ears never touched the frame. All in all, for me, it made it a much more pleasant experience.
But the most important take-away was this: I was able to get into a pretty deep state in a roller coaster! With kids screaming around me, while my body was being hurled around literally in circles. How would you like to have that degree of control over your experience and your reactions to what’s going on around you? Can you imagine situations in your life where it would be great to be able to drop yourself into a meditative state and calmly choose your responses?
That is just the tip of the iceberg of the potentials of a meditation practice, in my experience.
If you are new to meditation, it is very important to prevent yourself from getting distracted. Just like learning any new skill, you want to give yourself the very best environment to learn in. Later, when your skill has developed you can try it out on roller coasters! For now, turn off the TV, your mobile phone and other appliances that produce sounds. When it comes to music, if you want music, choose one that is calming and soothing so you can meditate well. There are lots of good choices on YouTube. Just music, or just a nature sound, very repetitive and calming, are your best bets. I personally enjoy the website zenmix.io and usually just use the rain sound for my practice.
If you have any concerns about whether or not you will return to a waking state in time to meet your next obligation of the day, set a silent alarm on your phone or other device, that will go off after your practice, and in plenty of time for you to get to your next event in the day. If you go into your practice worried about whether you will fall asleep or be late for something, that worry will increase the speed of your brainwaves and prevent you from moving into the meditative state.
You also need to wear a comfortable outfit. Your clothes should not be tight and make sure that you put off your shoes before you sit down and meditate. You are then free to decide how long you would like to meditate. Before you start, you must decide how long you can spend in sitting down and meditating. It can actually be done in a few minutes, such as twenty minutes done twice every day. But for beginners, it can be for as good as 5 minutes once every day. I encourage my clients to start with 5 minutes and practice multiple times a day when possible. Work your way up by adding one or two minutes, until you reach 15, 20 minutes or even longer. Working in this way will give you flexibility in the future. Once you know what the state feels like to you, and how you best get into the state, then you will know that you can drop in for a few minutes (on a roller coaster) or for a longer period of time. The state is as flexible as you want and need it to be.
Stretch out. Meditating involves sitting in just one spot within a specific period of time. I once heard that yoga was actually invented so that the yogis who practiced long periods of meditation would have loose and comfortable muscles so that they could forget about their bodies for longer stretches of time. Doing a couple of minutes of light or mild stretching could help a lot in loosening up and in preparing your body as well as your mind for meditation. This is another good reason for starting with a few minutes and building your way up to longer times.
When it comes to a position for meditation, the traditional image is cross-legged on the floor. This is not comfortable for many people. When I studied at the Meditation Institute in Minneapolis, I was shown how to sit on a straight-backed chair to meditate. To do this, you sit forward on the chair, with your legs at a 90 degree angle. Again, shoeless is best. “Stack” your spine so that you are balanced. See the image. You should find that you can sit effortlessly in this position, with your head balanced, neither feeling that your body wants to pitch forward nor backward. This is my favorite position for meditation, and you will find, if you choose this position, that you will become “anchored” to the position very quickly. In other words, as soon as you sit in your meditating position your mind will take that as a signal or trigger that you are about to meditate, and begin to move into the state. This makes your practice easier and more productive, so I encourage you whenever possible to choose one meditating position and stick with it, especially as you develop your new skill. (The source for the sitting image is CalmingBreath.com. You can find more information on developing your meditation practice there, too.)
Lastly, be hydrated, use the bathroom, be neither overly full nor hungry. You want a nice, neutral state in your body so that you can mirror that with a nice, neutral state in your mind.
That having been said, the requirements for meditating are very few. Essentially you have all the equipment you need between your two ears!
To Be Continued!
Whew! This has gotten pretty long! Tomorrow we will continue with the actual practice of meditation. How to begin, how to remain in the meditative state, and what that state feels like so you can answer the question, “was I really meditating?”