How to Make Meditation Part of Your Daily Life
Meditation may seem like the latest trend, but it’s been around for thousands of years. Wall art in the Indus Valley, dating from approximately 5,000 to 3,500 BCE, depicts people sitting with crossed legs, hands resting on their knees, and eyes narrowed. Meditation techniques are described in Indian scriptures from the same time period.
As meditation spread from Asia around the globe, many major religions adopted some form of meditation. You may have recited the Catholic rosary, reflected on the revelations of God in Christian meditation, engaged in the Jewish practices of contemplation or self-seclusion, or practiced the Islamic salat and dhikr.
In the 1960s and 70s, scientists carried out the first formal studies of meditation. They found that experienced practitioners could “meditate themselves into trances so deep that they didn’t react when hot test tubes were pressed against their arms.” Other early research found that meditators used 17% less oxygen, lowered their heart rates, and increased their theta brain waves—the type that occur right before we fall asleep.
At the same time, meditation gained cult status when the Beatles embraced Transcendental Meditation. And while it first became popular with the hippies among us, meditation is now totally mainstream. The number of US adults who meditate has more than tripled since 2012. Managers incorporate meditation into development retreats, pro athletes meditate to improve their game, and major airlines are partnering with meditation apps to help passengers relax during their flights.
Research on meditation has surged over the past two decades, and as we learned last week, there are never-ending health benefits to adopting a regular practice. If you want to meditate but you don’t, the questions holding you back are probably:
- What benefits can I expect?
- How will I know if I’m doing it right?
- How can I fit it into my schedule?
The experiential benefits of meditation
As international meditation teacher and stress management expert davidji says, “The magic happens when you open your eyes.” The benefits of meditation are experienced throughout the rest of your day, as you do your work, interact with others, and enjoy the simple things in life. And while meditation is not a goal-oriented practice, there are some common intentions and learnings that most meditation practices and instructors agree on.
One commonality is that meditation teaches you to observe rather than react. While you’re focusing on your meditation object (your breath, a sound, a mantra, etc.), thoughts will come up in your mind—this is completely normal and to be expected. When thoughts arise, simply notice and observe them, without judging yourself, worrying, or reacting in any way. Let the thoughts pass, and gently return your focus to your meditation object. Learning how to be a neutral observer to our internal experiences trains us to be reflective rather than reflexive in our daily life.
Another common intention of meditation is that you learn how to be happy no matter what situation you’re in. Buddhism teaches that we suffer because we rely on impermanent things—such as people, material objects, work or living situations—for our happiness. If we can accept that these things may change at any time, we can be happy regardless of our conditions. Start by becoming aware of everything that is constantly shifting in your life: your mood, energy level, and bodily sensations, the behavior of people in your life, the demands of your work, and world events. There is nothing that doesn’t change at some point, and that has always been the case; the only permanent thing in life is impermanence.
The same idea, worded in a different way, is that happiness results from freedom from suffering. We have the ability to experience a negative situation, like the loss of a job or our car breaking down, without becoming absorbed in the situation and suffering for it. To do this, we must see the situation as a neutral observer. True happiness is attained when your happiness is unaffected by your circumstances.
A third common intention of meditation practices is to improve the quality of your life. As mindfulness teacher and neuroscience research consultant Shinzen Young says, “You can dramatically extend life—not by multiplying the number of your years, but by expanding the fullness of your moments.” Your experience of life happens within you, so the quality of your life depends on your conscious experience of every waking moment. Meditation allows you to understand yourself better, be more present in your interactions with people, increase your personal fulfillment, live life with expanded awareness, experience greater clarity and less stress and anxiety, and feel deeper compassion and more frequent joy.
If you want to meditate in order to experience enlightenment, here’s the truth: mediation teachers agree that enlightenment is already within us—we just need to wake up to it. Shinzen Young says “You don’t have to get enlightenment; all you have to do is get rid of what’s keeping you from enlightenment.”
And as the swami Osho said, “Truth is within you; do not search for it elsewhere.”
If you’re concerned that meditation might make you feel “out of it” or disconnected from your normal life, not to worry. As somatic mediation teacher Reginald Ray so eloquently says, meditation brings us “into contact, communication, alignment, and, finally, union with the most ordinary, basic aspects of our human existence.” Instead of being a way to separate ourselves from life and rise above it, mediation actually gives us a greater, deeper, more meaningful connection to our reality.
Different types of meditation
There are many different ways to meditate, and the most important thing is to find a way that resonates with you.
Mindfulness meditation is well-known thanks to the large number of research studies that have examined its effects. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) was developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical center during the 1970s. MBSR trains attention by cultivating non-judgmental awareness of bodily sensations, mental states, thoughts, emotions, impulses, and memories. The result is a reduction of stress and anxiety, improved sense of well-being, increased awareness of self and behavior, and greater emotional regulation and conscious choice of our actions.
In somatic meditation, the focus is on your internal sensations. The meditation object can be your breath, the sensation of blood flowing rhythmically through your body, the energy tingling in your fingers and toes, or any of the vast sensory information being transmitted from your body to your brain. The more you tune in and focus your conscious attention on a sensation, the more you will become aware of it. Somatic meditation and Clinical Somatics exercises are wonderful complements to each other. The exercises increase awareness of internal sensations while you’re moving, while still somatic meditation allows you to deepen your internal awareness even further and become aware of tension you hold in your body while still.
If you’d rather start by focusing on something outside yourself, try sound meditation. Listening to a guided meditation or Tibetan singing bowls can be very effective for calming an active mind. Scientists are studying the ways in which sound waves affect brain waves, and how sound and music can be used to improve brain function and treat neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
And if you prefer to meditate with your eyes open, you might enjoy visual mediation. One type of visual meditation is drishti meditation, in which you focus your attention on a single point, such as a point in the distance, a candle, or a body part as you move through your yoga practice. Visual meditation can also be practiced by focusing on a Buddhist mandala or a Hindu yantra, both of which are visual representations of the journey of evolution.
If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you may have heard your teacher refer to certain “chakras” in the body. A chakra is an energy center in the body, and there are seven main chakras which each have their own color and vibrational mantra. A chakra meditation involves focusing on each chakra one at a time, seeing its color, and saying (out loud or silently) its vibrational mantra.
A mantra is a single letter, a syllable or string of syllables, a word, or a whole sentence. Some mantras are simply sound vibrations and do not have meaning. Mantras can be chanted out loud—spoken or whispered—or in silence, in your mind. Repeating a mantra allows you to detach from your thoughts, your bodily sensations, and any sounds in your environment.
How to start meditating
The first and most difficult step in starting to meditate is committing to a daily practice. If you attempt to meditate a few times per week or just once in a while, you’ll be much less likely to actually do it when the day and time comes. The best way to make meditation part of your life is to find a time every day when you can spend 10 minutes sitting or lying down and be undisturbed. It can be whenever works best for your schedule—immediately upon waking, anytime during the day, or at night before bed. The most important thing is that you commit to doing it every day. You’ll likely find that it’s the most enriching 10 minutes of your day, and you’ll be glad you created the time and space for it.
Second, set up your physical space and body position so that you can relax, focus, and be completely present in your meditation. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Make sure you’ll be undisturbed for the length of time you want to meditate.
Third, explore different types of meditation and find one that you enjoy and that resonates with you. An easy way to start is by using YouTube to find guided meditations or recorded chanting to follow along with, or recordings of singing bowls or relaxing music to listen to.
Fourth, let go. Let go of the need to accomplish something in particular. Let go of any expectations you have for yourself or your meditation practice that day. As davidji says, in our regular daily life:
Focus + Effort = Success
But in meditation:
Surrender + Innocence = Success
During your meditation, you will be focusing on something, whether it be your breath, a visual, a sound, a mantra, etc. Don’t be surprised when your mind wanders and other thoughts enter your consciousness, because they inevitably will. We have thousands of thoughts per day—estimates range from 6,000 up to 80,000. We can’t strong-arm our mind into a state of relaxation and calm focus. It just doesn’t work that way. We need to allow it to happen, by gradually and patiently training it to come back to the meditation object whenever it wanders.
Whenever thoughts enter your mind, or when you find that your mind has been wandering for several minutes, simply notice that it has happened. Don’t judge yourself or get frustrated, both of which are completely counterproductive. Notice the activity of your mind, and gently bring your focus back to your meditation object.
Remember, nothing special is necessarily going to happen during your meditation; the benefits are experienced during the rest of your day.
The best way to commit to daily meditation and benefit from it is to enjoy your practice! So, be sure to find a time, place, and type of meditation that you enjoy, and let it be something you look forward to every day.
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Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility and Health by Thomas Hanna