Look, I know it has a reputation as being a bit airy-fairy, but bear with me. I don’t go into a trance or reach transcendence or any of that sorta stuff, so you can stop picturing Tibetan monks sitting atop mountains with their legs in the lotus position. Instead, consider this a (former) skeptic’s guide to mindfulness meditation, where I cut the crap and just tell you how and why I sit in silence for a few minutes a day.
For a long time, I was of the firm belief that meditation was nothing more than mumbo-jumbo. But it became impossible to ignore once it had been scientifically proven to reduce stress, decrease blood pressure, improve concentration… along with a whole host of other benefits. And hey, anything that helps me lead the calmer life I’ve been looking for is worth a shot in my book.
So I sucked up my skepticism and sat cross-legged.
That was a few years ago. I won’t say I’ve been a dedicated or consistent practitioner in all that time but, recently, I’ve been trying to do it twice a day (morning and evening) and at times when I feel particularly stressed or upset. And y’know what? It bloody works.
- Remember, it’s not all “ommms” and sacred omens — meditation can be as simple as you make it.
And my practice of it is about as basic as it gets.
Here’s how I practice mindfulness meditation:
1. I sit in silence.
Or as much silence as can be mustered in a busy suburban area.
Always alone, because there’s no way I could concentrate with my three-year-old by my side, so I try do it first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Sometimes I sit cross-legged but not always ‘cause I’ve dodgy knees and, most recently, have damaged both my hamstrings. (I don’t think there’s a single part of me that isn’t wrecked in some way.)
As for my hands, I just clasp them in my lap, fingers interlocked and palms up. Despite what the header image would have you believe. 😉
2. Once I'm comfortable, I close my eyes.
This is optional but, for me, I'm very easily distracted by visual stimuli. You can keep yours open if that's what works best for you.
3. I try focus on just one thing.
It’s very common for your mind to be flooded with thoughts, so trying to completely empty it can be a futile task. The best thing to do is to try focus it on one particular thing and, for a lot of meditators, that’s their breathing.
I mean, surely you can spare a few minutes to breathe, right? 😉
If it helps, you could even count the seconds — 4 to inhale, 4 to hold, and 8 to exhale. Or whatever other sequence floats your breathing boat.
And look, it doesn’t even have to be your breath; you could focus on the sounds you hear, the things you see, the feeling in your body (any tension?)… You could repeat a phrase, mantra or affirmation over and over again, or you could picture yourself in your “happy place”.
If I’m really having difficulty shutting out all other thoughts, I repeat the same word to myself over and over again. For some, it’s the “ommm” you’ve probably heard so much about. For me, I slowly repeat the word “blank” in my mind, to remind myself that that’s what I want my brain to be in those few minutes.
Go easy on yourself if your mind wanders. It happens. Don't be hard on yourself or think you're doing a bad job -- just acknowledge that it happened, and try to re-focus. Trust me when I say that it's only natural for random thoughts to start popping into your head. With practice, you'll be able to go for longer periods without it happening. But, in the beginning, expect it a lot.
4. Once I feel ready, I go about my normal day.
It's usually after about 10-15 minutes. But I've been practising mindfulness meditation for a while so don't be at all discouraged if you can only manage a minute to begin with. Start small and work your way up. You'll soon be able to sit for longer, but even a minute can be hugely beneficial if that's all the time you have.
Why should you practice mindfulness meditation?
Here are some thoughts you may be having right now:
- What's the point?
- Why would I bother?
- Are you kidding me?! Ain't nobody got time for that.
- Can't I just watch Netflix?
I hear ya! But consider the following…
- Do you sometimes have trouble sleeping because your brain is racing at a mile a minute?
- Do you often feel overwhelmed by all the things you have to do?
- Do you worry or stress about things that have happened, are currently happening, or may happen in the future?
- Do you have kids?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above, I recommend you give meditation a go.
The aim of mindfulness meditation is to get your brain to slow down a little so you can just focus on the here and now. It’s to take yourself out of the rat race for just a few moments, and to give yourself a bit of stillness and calm in an otherwise chaotic world.
It’s to focus on just one thing without judgement. You’re not freaking out about your financial situation, and you’re not worried about the weather forecast. You’re just sitting there, without stress. Your brain should be noticing, not nagging.
After a short while, you’ll feel your breath deepen and your heart rate slow down. It’s one of those built-in biological things where your brain thinks, “Well if I’ve time to be doing all this deep breathing, I’m not being chased by a man-eating monster, so it must be cool to just chill out for a bit.”
Basically, it’s to give your brain a bit of a break so you can stop the madness and just switch off for a few minutes. Instead of always blindly rushing through life, you’re taking time to re-group and re-focus.
Why do I personally practice mindfulness meditation?
I find that, usually, starting my day with some peace and quiet and space for my own thoughts helps the day run a lot more smoothly. The focus helps me feel less frazzled. And practising the same at night helps my brain slow down before bed, and gives me time to reflect on and appreciate the day that’s just passed.
I also meditate if I’m feeling particularly angry, upset, or otherwise emotional. It calms me down and helps me think rationally, rather than acting out in the heat of the moment and later regretting it. It’s the buffer I need between whatever’s riled me up, and acting rashly or allowing negative thoughts to ruin my day. (It’s why, when we’re angry, we’re told to count to 10.)
Just a few minutes of sitting in silence and focusing on one thing can make all the difference to your wellbeing, both physical and mental. Taking time to breathe deeply and slow your heart rate is so important for reducing stress and blood pressure, and quieting your mind for a few minutes helps you feel more “centered”, less overwhelmed.
We live in a world of constant stimulation. Our senses are being assaulted on a regular basis, always being bombarded with new sights and sounds. Mindfulness meditation helps you remove yourself from all of that, hit the “refresh” button, and regain some control over your own thoughts. When you step back from outside influences — from advertising and editorials and impossibly perfect pictures — you can take stock and realise that, hey, life is pretty fecking great.
All you have to do is take the time to notice.
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