I truly believe that meditation is one of the most important things we can do for our mental health. We all look after ourselves physically by exercising, eating well and drinking water, but many of us neglect our mental health. For years I was burnt out, working long hours and consumed by stress. Little things annoyed me, and I was very quick to snap at people. My default setting was anger. Work friends used to joke that I had two emotions, happy and angry. There was no in between.
Meditation and mindfulness provided me with the tools I needed to strengthen my mind and live a more fulfilled life. Non-reactivity is honestly a super power and one that not many of us possess. Just think about all those angry drivers on the road or the chaos on public transport during peak hour.
So, what is meditation? And is it only for people who need help? Absolutely not. I don't care who you are, everyone can benefit from training the mind. Think of your mind as muscle, the more you work it, the stronger it gets.
Personally, starting out in Meditation for me was extremely difficult. I would close my eyes, try to shut off and end up agitated, over-thinking and quitting after a minute or so. I was never one to sit still.
My first mistake was thinking that in order to meditate I had to completely clear my mind. This isn't the case. In time I learnt that it wasn't about "not-thinking" but being OK with thoughts and letting them come and go. Not going down the rabbit hole with a thought and getting taken away by it. This is called rumination. I am almost certain that every single one of us ruminates often, if not daily. Have you ever had a problem and noticed yourself going over the "possible" outcomes in your mind 100 times? It's almost like a form of control. Going through all the "what-ifs" in your mind because really, in the end we can't control the outcome.
This is where Meditation and Mindfulness is extremely useful. You may not be able to control the situation, but with the right tools, you can learn to control how you react to it. And, really, our reaction is what prolongs our pain, in my opinion. Now, I am not saying we should all turn into Buddhist Monks, light candles and never speak. Nor should we all be pushovers. There is absolutely a time and place for anger and strong emotions, I just think that in society today we are so quick to react with anger and annoyance over stupid things. We should have the ability to choose what we give our attention to and let go of the things that won't impact us positively.
I could go on forever about why everyone should meditate, but for those wanting to learn and have no idea where to start, here are my top tips.
1. Start off slowly - don't go in with the intention of being able to sit still for hours right away. You will send yourself nuts. Set a goal of sitting still for 3 minutes to begin and ensure that no matter what happens (emergencies aside) that you see the entire 3 minutes through.
2. Make time - Ensure you have nowhere to be for that 3 minutes. You don't want to be thinking about the things you are supposed to be doing whilst trying to settle your mind. "Who can't spare 3 minutes?" you might ask. Well, try having a 6-month-old who climbs the TV cabinet every time you look away.
3. Position - Find yourself a little quiet corner of your home, or outside on the grass. Anywhere you feel relaxed and won't be disturbed. I don't recommend lying down as you might fall asleep. You want to be relaxed yet alert. I recommend sitting on a chair with your feet planted on the floor and a straight back.
4. Choose a word (different from a mantra) - Choose a word that has no meaning to you. Literally anything that means nothing. This will be your anchor. Some people use the breath which is also great but try using a word. It's important that you have no attachment to the word, because you don't want it to evoke thought. Say your word is "sky" you will find yourself thinking of the clouds and birds rather than anchoring your attention.
5. Breath work- begin taking deep breaths. You can have music on at this point if you wish, but you don't have to. Try my breath work if you like. Inhale for 8 seconds, hold for 4 seconds and exhale for 8 seconds. Simple. Do this three times before returning your breath to its natural rhythm.
6. Anchor & sit - begin to repeat the word you have chosen as your anchor and simply sit. Thoughts will come and go. You will more than likely notice every itch, every sound and most things will annoy you, but remain sitting still.
7. Thoughts - Whilst sitting still you will more than likely have many thoughts pop up. That's OK. If you catch yourself thinking, then you are on the right track. Noticing that thoughts have taken over is a major step forward as a lot of the time we are swept away by thought and have not even noticed. When you catch yourself, repeat your anchor word and bring yourself back. You will more than likely have to do this 1000 times but the more you practice the quicker your mind will start noticing when you are swept away in thought.
As I mentioned earlier, the aim is not to completely clear your mind. It's to let thoughts come and be able to accept them and let them go rather than getting caught up in the story.
Here's a tip - to really start practicing getting into the present moment, use every day sounds as a signal to stop and breathe for a minute. If you work in an office, you could use the elevator door as a signal. Every time it opens, notice this as a sign to begin your breath work. This will strengthen your mind and teach it to come back to the now rather than living in the future or the past.