The holiday season is officially here. While it’s generally a time of joy and celebration, it can be one of the most stressful times of the year. It can also be one of the best times to start a meditation practice, if you don’t have one yet. It may come in handy!
At one time, the word meditation would conjure up the image of a seasoned yogi, seated in lotus position, and engaged in hours of contemplative silence. These days, meditation has hit the mainstream. There’s a lot of scientific research on the benefits, and a multitude of different tools and techniques have surfaced to help guide people interested in getting started. But how many people actually meditate on a daily basis?
Meditation is a way to train the mind, and to help calm and focus. It can be daunting to sit for long periods of time, overwhelmed by an onslaught of thoughts. But to take just a few minutes a day can have cumulative effects, both physically and emotionally. Some of the benefits of meditation include: lowering blood pressure, releasing of happy chemicals (serotonin, dopamine and endorphins), calming the nervous system, aiding in digestion, strengthening focus and concentration, and improving sleep.
With so many ways to meditate and lots of different techniques and practices, it may be a matter of finding what works best way for you. They all incorporate some kind of mindfulness and use a point of focus, either internally or externally. The following descriptions are some of the basic forms of meditation:
Focusing on breathing: To me, this is the most simple. When we’re stressed, our breathing becomes shallow and we may notice that we’re not really exhaling…in fact, we may not be aware of our breath at all. Just taking some slow, deep breaths, like when you are sleeping, will instantly start to communicate to your body that it’s okay to relax. We get stuck in the fight or flight reaction, so breathing really helps.
In a daily practice, sit quietly. It helps if you can close your eyes. Take about three or four deep breaths, following the breath as your chest and belly expand on inhale and then release on exhale. Then resume your natural breathing. It’s not necessary to control the breath, just become aware of it. Place your attention on the area that feels most prominent, whether it’s your nostrils, your chest or your abdomen. Keep your attention on that area and sink into the feeling.
In your day to day activities, this can literally be done anywhere. With practice, it will become an automatic habit to check in with your breathing.
Focusing on the sensations in the body: This is a great way to connect with your body. Sit quietly and close your eyes. It’s easiest to start by focusing on your breath in and out. Don’t try to control it, just notice how it flows naturally. As you relax into it, let your attention go to where your body calls. You may feel a heaviness in your shoulders, or a tightness in your neck. You may feel a pain in your knee, or feel the pulsation of your heart. Notice the sensations. Just allow your focus to casually go to whatever calls next. Take caution if lying down…this particular exercise has helped me tremendously when I’ve had trouble falling asleep!
Another practice is a body scan. Starting at either your head or your feet, work your way up and down each body part, becoming aware of the subtle sensations and feelings. Acknowledge what you feel but don’t dwell on a particular area…name it and move on. It may be a feeling of warmth, throbbing, pins and needles, tightness, itching, tingling.
In your day to day activities, it’s great to take a moment and check in with your body. It’s also a great tool to use when your eating, at the computer or watching TV…some things that we tend to do mindlessly. Taking a moment to check in with your body can help you to stop eating when you’re full, and to become aware of the stimulus that you are taking in when you’re on your devices. How does your body feel?
Focusing on your surroundings: Pay attention to any sights, sounds and smells. In your daily practice, sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Listen to the sounds in your environment. Silently name what you hear. Really tune into the nuances…the hum of traffic, a passing car, a plane overhead, birds chirping, subtle creaks in the house.
You can incorporate this into your day to day activities, such as taking a break for a hot cup of tea or coffee. Hold the cup in your hands and feel the warmth. Feel the shape of the cup…is it smooth or is it textured, like pottery. What does it look like? Is it a big mug or a dainty tea cup? As you bring the cup up to your lips, feel the steam. Smell the aroma of the beverage. Take a sip. Really taste it. Feel the warmth as it flows down your throat.
You can do this anywhere when you’re out and about…when you are on the train, waiting in line, sitting at your desk. Take a few minutes to pause and take in your surroundings. Slowly looking around you, really take notice. What do you see? What do you hear? Are there any particular smells? Just to take a moment to check in with your environment brings you into the present moment.
Focusing on an object: This is also known as gazing, and can be used with a candle, a crystal or a flower, any object really. Or you can use an image or a symbol. Some spiritual or religious traditions may use an image of their deity, guru, or sage. Some may use a symbol, such as a cross, a star or a mandala. They can help one to contemplate the mysteries of the universe and nature.
In your daily practice, it helps to have the object below eye level, so that you can gently gaze down, with eyes softened and relaxed eyelids. Sitting quietly, with slow, quiet breathing, gently gaze down at your object. Really focus your attention on it. In yoga, it’s called drishti, a focused gaze. Where your vision goes, your attention follows. That helps to quiet out distractions.
You can bring this into day to day activities if you are feeling stressed out. Find a quiet place to go and look for a focal point. It could be anything simple from a design in the carpet or a tile on the floor, to a spot on the wall. Find that one point and gaze at it while taking some slow, deep breaths.
Focusing on a mantra: A mantra is a word or sound that is repeated, either silently in the mind or chanted. A lot of Eastern techniques use a mantra, such as the Universal “Om”. Yogic traditions and philosophies have Sanskrit mantras, such as So Hum (meaning “I am that”) that are incorporated into their breathing meditations. There is a Buddhist practice called Metta meditation, or loving-kindness, where phrases of love and benevolence are repeated for oneself and others. Start with “May I be well, may I be happy, may I be safe”. You can then set an intention for someone in need or dedicate your practice to a cause, and send out the love, “May you be well, may you be happy, may you be safe”.
It really can be any word or phrase that feels right to you. It can be a daily affirmation that is silently repeated, such as “I am healthy” or “I am abundant”. It can be something with global intent, such as “Peace on earth”.
In your daily practice, sit quietly and close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. With the “So Hum” meditation, for instance, you can think of the word So on the inhale and Hum on the exhale. Keep repeating, and if you find your mind wanders, you can just bring it back to the So Hum.
This can be done with any word or phrase. You can choose a word or phrase for the day, or you can establish any mantra that works for you. Throughout the day, think of your mantra. (I’m thinking of that Seinfeld episode…“Serenity Now!!!”)
These are just some of the foundational methods used. To go deeper into it, there are many techniques and philosophies to explore. They usually have some variation of the above, but can incorporate other specific teachings and disciplines, whether it’s regarding the frequency and duration of the practice, or any other restrictions, dietary or otherwise.
To establish a daily practice, it helps to create an environment that’s conducive to meditating. If you can find a room or spot in your home that is dedicated to your practice, that can help. Having a seat or cushion helps as well. There should be very limited distractions to create an atmosphere of calm. There are lots of guided meditations, as well as soundtracks of the sounds of nature or waves of the ocean, if that helps with relaxation. Using aromatherapy oils, incense or candles with stress-relieving scents, such as lavender, lemon, chamomile or jasmine, can also add to the ambience.
One of the hardest things about meditating is the constant barrage of inner chattering, the thoughts pulling away at your attention. Whether it’s your to do list, stressing about an upcoming event, over-analyzing a past conversation or interaction, the random thoughts or memories keep flowing. There’s no way to stop them, but we can learn to let them go. And it may help to keep a pen and notepad nearby. Some thoughts or ideas may come up that we want to remember…it helps to quickly jot them down so that we can let them go and move on.
When your mind is still, you clear the way for answers. It brings you into the “now” and connects you with your environment, helping to bring clarity and right action.
Challenge for the week: Take a moment!
Dedicate some time every day to practice meditating. It could be first thing in the morning, a break during the day or right before bed…even if it’s only a few minutes. Commit to a practice. Commit to a certain duration and set a timer. We tend to try it a few times and feel frustrated or defeated when our mind wanders too much, then we give up. But there’s no way to fail, it’s all part of the process.
Try any or all of the meditations listed above. And you can get creative and mix them up. One of my favorites is a walking meditation. Sometimes, when I’m very stressed or in emotional turmoil, it’s hard to sit and quiet the mind for too long. That’s where a walking meditation comes in handy. You may need to start off with a quick pace to expend some energy, but eventually, you want to slow it down. Way down. Really feel your feet on the ground…heel to toe, heel to toe, heel to toe…slow, deliberate steps. Put your concentration on your feet, feel the muscles in your legs working. Look around at your environment. If something catches your eye, like a pretty flower, a garden gnome, a butterfly or a bird, stop to take it in for a moment. And of course…breathe!
Wishing you a wonderful week! Please feel free to leave any comments below.