Meditation is the practice of disciplining the mind in order to quieten mental chatter and transcend worldly noise to find a feeling of tranquillity and peace. Practised for 20 minutes a day, meditation will energize you and improve your concentration, health and wellbeing.
There are many methods of meditating, but most practice falls into two categories: concentration or overall awareness. In the former you focus on one thing – a beautiful object, your breath, the flame of a candle or a mantra (a simple repeated sound) – to quieten your thoughts.
Although meditation comes into most major religions, including Christianity and Judaism, it is not in itself tied to any religious group or specific creed.
‘If you meditate twice a day to break up the high levels of energy the body produces under stress, the nervous system can rest more easily at the day’s end.’
Stuart Shipko MD, psychiatrist and medical director for the Panic Disorders Institute at the Good Samaritan Hospital, Los Angeles.
In the late 1960s and 70s meditation began to attract the attention of scientists, who found that meditation helped to lower the metabolism and decrease breathing rates. Today meditation is used in conjunction with conventional medicine. But you don’t have to be an expert to experience its benefits.
Methods of meditating
1 Repeating a mantra (phrase or word) over and over again.
Some schools believe that what you say is important, but many experts say you can choose any phrase as long as you say it aloud. The most popular mantra is the sound ‘Om’. You could also try using the sounds ‘Ah’ or ‘Hum’, or combine one of them with ‘Om’ – ‘Om Ah’. What’s more, your mantra can be recited anywhere – as you walk the dog or relax in the bath – not just when you are seated in the meditative position.
2 Counting the breath. This method involves counting your exhalations. Buddhist practitioners count to ten, other disciplines to four.
3 Mindfulness. Based on the ancient Buddhist practice of vipassana (insight), this technique helps you to cultivate a heightened state of awareness. First focus on the rims of your nostrils as your breath goes in and out. Next concentrate on ‘watching’ your thoughts as they rise like bubbles, and observing them without judgement.
The power of sound
This sound meditation can summon healing energy. The vibrational quality of the chanting relieves stress and induces a state of peacefulness and openness. For people shy about making noise, a sound meditation can help to dispel fear and doubt.
Working with the universal vowel ‘Ah’ is probably the easiest way to start. Sit comfortably on a chair with your hands resting on your thighs, or sit cross-legged on a pile of cushions which are slightly higher at the back than the front. Close your eyes. Relax your body, feel your weight sinking down towards the floor, and feel any tension melt away.
1 Sit quietly. Take several deep breaths. As you exhale, expel any stress or restlessness.
2 Once you feel relaxed, focus on breathing – not just with your lungs but with the whole of your body. Notice the energy going to your blood, organs, brain, spine, bones and skin, paying particular attention to any areas that need to be healed.
3 As you exhale say ‘Ah’. Chant in whatever way you feel is most soothing – in a tune that rises and falls or on a single note, quietly or loudly, high-pitched or low. Imagine the sound is invoking the healing forces of the world as a warm, bright light begins to radiate from it. The light gradually fills your mind and body with waves of healing energy. Continue for up to 15 minutes.
The mindfulness of breathing
This Buddhist practice is deeply relaxing. Sit comfortably on a chair with your hands resting on your thighs or sit cross-legged on a pile of cushions (slightly higher at the back than the front). Close your eyes. Relax your body, feel your weight sinking down towards the floor, and feel any tension melt away.
1 Become aware of your breath. At the end of your out-breath say ‘one’. Continue counting each breath up to ten. Repeat for five minutes.
2 Now mark each breath at the beginning. Count up to ten and repeat for five minutes.
3 Now focus on your breath without counting for five minutes. 4 Now focus on that part of your nose where you can feel the cold air of the in-breath meeting the warm air of the outbreath. Remain focused in this way for five minutes.
• Try to practise at the same time and in the same place every day. Your mind is easily addicted to habit, so establishing a routine will make the process easier.
• The ideal practice times are at the beginning and end of the day.
• Make sure the room is well ventilated and comfortable.
• Assume the correct posture. On no account try to meditate lying down – you’ll only fall asleep, whereas the intention is to stay alert. You can sit on a straightbacked chair, with your feet flat on the floor and your palms resting on your thighs. Alternatively, sit on the floor on a pile of cushions (slightly higher at the back than the front).
• The aim of your practice is to ‘empty’ your mind. But as you will quickly notice, the moment you free your mind, other thoughts flood in to fill the empty space you have created. These are called distractions. To deal with them, simply observe the thought and let it pass out of your mind. Gently bring yourself back to the focus of your meditation, be it a candle, a mantra or your breath. Repeat this process every time a new distraction tries to take up residence, then imagine it floating away.
• When you have finished, slowly open your eyes and become aware of your surroundings. Wait for a couple of minutes before standing up, to avoid dizziness.