Friday Featuring … A Guide to Meditation

It is difficult to feel sure about your approach to meditation. Do I need to sit in lotus position? Must I close my eyes? What on earth is this hand gesture thing? And the biggie – I can’t possibly clear my mind, is it even possible for me to meditate?

This week I was asked to lead meditations for the teachers at a local school as part of their Wellness Week. As I was planning the sessions, I realised how tempted I was to teach them about meditation, explaining the options, pre-empting their questions and waxing lyrical about the virtues of regular practice. Instead, I decided to focus on allowing them to experience the process, and (to meet my need for people to be fully informed) make a handout for them as well. I’m sharing that with you as part of this week’s instalment of Friday Featuring…

Benefits of mindful practices

There are many studies around now which show that meditation and other mindfulness practices (such as yoga) can increase your compassion and empathy – for others, improving relationships;  for yourself, improving self-esteem and your sense of place in the world; and, I’m hoping, for the planet.

These practices can improve ability to concentrate and sleep quality and can also alleviate your experience of stress, pain and anxiety. They have been shown to affect how the brain works and its structure, improving the ability to regulate emotions. By becoming more aware of how you are feeling (your thoughts and physical sensations) in the present moment, you are less likely to be overwhelmed. You might have a sense that a small pause – time and space – is being created between thought and response, giving you insight into your emotions and perhaps allowing you to respond in a more considered way.

These are not small matters. The World Health Organisation says that depression is currently the leading cause of disability worldwide, with an estimated 4.4% (322 million) people globally affected (2015). An estimated 3.6% (264 million) people globally live with an anxiety disorder (2015). Wednesday was World Mental Health Day, which is a great incentive to speak, listen and learn from each other, and adopt practices and habits which we know will make a positive impact on our wellbeing. And with that …

To begin: posture + setting yourself up

The goal is to be comfortable, calm, and free to begin your meditation. Don’t stress too much about ticking all the boxes – just guide yourself into an easy position to start. Some tips are:

  • Sit comfortably on the ground on a cushion, or on a chair. You don’t have to sit with crossed legs, it’s more important to have your knees at roughly the same height or lower than your hips.
  • Sit up nice and tall, but not bolt upright. Soften your shoulders and your belly. Check that the back of your neck is long. You might tuck your chin in slightly.
  • Make sure you can breathe freely all the way down to your belly. Loose clothing helps.
  • Your eyes can be closed or open, looking ahead and down with a soft gaze.
  • Your hands can rest on your legs, palms up or down.

One method

  • Take a couple of big breaths, with long inhales and even longer exhales. This sends a message to your brain that things are safe, and it’s ok to be calm, switching you out of the ‘fight or flight’ mode.
  • Then bring your attention to your seat – where your body makes contact with the ground or chair. Run through a “body scan” by bringing your awareness to different body parts, beginning at your toes and working your way up to the crown of your head.
  • Tune into the sensation of your breath moving within your body. You aren’t telling yourself a story about your breath, or controlling or instructing it; you are simply attempting to watch yourself breathe: listening to your breath, feeling your body move with your breath and checking the quality of your breath.
  • It’s normal for your attention to wander, some days more so than others. Meditation is the practice of realising that you are no longer focused on your breath, and gently guiding yourself back to it. It helps us to remember to bring ourselves back to each present moment in our lives.
  • When you come to the end of your practice, allow yourself a few breaths with your eyes open and gaze lifted, kindly preparing yourself for your next activity, and giving yourself a moment of gratitude for taking time for yourself.

Establishing a routine

  • There are lots of different ways to mediate. Try some out and find one that works for you.
  • It doesn’t matter what time of day you meditate, but try and set aside the same time each day. Lots of people find first thing in the morning sets them up well for the day ahead, but I often find last thing at night easier and a useful transition to sleep.
  • Yoga is designed as a preparation for meditation. Even a few simple stretches will help prepare your body for sitting. If you already have a yoga practice, you can incorporate a mediation practice into it, wherever feels most appropriate.
  • You can meditate anywhere (as long as it is safe to do so) but, especially when you are beginning, it helps to find somewhere quiet where there are fewer distractions. That said, surrounding noise, if it is present, can also be taken as a natural reminder to lead you back to your breath. You can use it to practice not judging, not becoming irritated, and accepting that the noise is just there, neither good nor bad.
  • Start small – even five minutes a day or even three times a week makes a difference. Work up to 20 minutes over time (or whatever you can manage) and maybe experiment with a longer meditation occasionally.
  • Use a timer (ideally one with a gentle bell or a song) rather than your watch, so that you can give your full attention to the practice.

Let me know how you get on, and please share any of your own hints and tips below.

Breathe, make space, be compassionate.

Susie xx

___

Instruction and guidance can provide a lot of support in establishing a regular practice. Sitting and meditating in a group (with or without instruction) is also very helpful. There are many organisations that offer afternoon, one-day, weekend or week-long retreats. I can recommend places to learn if you are interested – just let me know.

Online, there are options such as the excellent Headspace app, the Insight app and podcasts such as Tara Brach’s.

In future episodes of Friday Featuring I’ll provide a script (or maybe even an audio file, technological expertise pending) of a guided mediation, and I’ll also tell the story about how I accidentally learned to meditate.

Picture credit: this is a small portion of a glorious, huge painting called “Reverse” (2002- 3) by Jenny Saville RA from the recent Tate Britain exhibition “All Too Human”. This is a confronting painting, but a masterpiece of close observation. The Tate said, ‘Saville’s large-scale nudes and self-portraits frequently depict the honest and often unflattering realities of the human form.’ It felt apt.


Categories: Friday Featuring ...

Post Your Thoughts