Friday, 10 May 2013

The M Word

So, first of all let's get rid of the idea that meditation is always connected to east Asian religions. The word "meditation" in English dates back 800 years, and simply means deep contemplative thought. We still use it that way ("go meditate on that") as well as a word to translate concepts like dhyana etc. As there are many different forms of meditation around the world, using a catch-all word for them can be a bit misleading, and can lead to people getting strange ideas as to what exactly is involved. On the other hand, by grouping them all together like this it means there's something for everyone.

Let's begin with the purpose, which for most of us in the west has nothing to do with attaining Buddhahood. We've come to learn that good, regular meditative techniques improve our health and happiness. It costs nothing, requires no equipment, and can be done anywhere.

I find it rather amusing that a technique from antiquity comes into its own as stress-relief from modern society. But it's more than that. Yes, it will relax you, yes it will put things into perspective, but it will also "awaken" you.

Inside our heads, constantly, is a running monologue of mental chatter. We call it "thinking" but most of it is to real thinking what a tabloid newspaper is to great literature. Most of it is, in fact, rubbish. It is repetitive rubbish too. But it's very hard to quieten it, and for some, it can be such a nuisance that it causes sleep problems.

Many people think that meditation involves having no thoughts running through the head. There may some expert yogis that can do that, I really don't know, but for normal people at least, it's not possible.

The object is to change the thoughts into something else. This can be a deliberate "guided" meditation such as:

"I am standing on the beach, I can feel the sun on my skin, I can hear the waves crashing on the shore...."

Or it can be a chant or mantra.

Or it can be simply counting breaths in and out.

There are other options too, but I just want to make it very clear at this point that we are trying to CHANGE the inner monologue, not remove it.

The next myth is that you have to sit in a yoga position. You can if you like, but maybe you're not supple enough, or you're doing this where people would stare, etc, it isn't necessary. So long as you are comfortable, more or less, and preferably not standing up (although it can be done), you're good.

Finally, let's get rid of the idea that you need silence, or singing bowls, candles, incense, or any other "trappings". While these are all good, they are not necessary. If you meditate you can go elsewhere in your head, so your surroundings don't matter.

So. Find somewhere you can be comfortable. If the floor works for you, great, or a chair that can relax in, or you can lay down in bed, at this point it really doesn't matter.

Your first attempt at meditation will be a simple breathing meditation. You will breathe in slowly, wait and then breathe out slowly. You can use your mouth or nose. Breathe from your belly, not your chest, and be aware of the feelings of your ribcage rising and falling. You can put your hand on the centre of your abdomen if you like, just above your navel. This is your solar plexus, a real anatomical place and not something invented by the New Age. It will move up and down when you breathe, and that is your centre, so....

Breathe in slowly 1...2...3
Wait 1...2...3
Breathe out slowly 1...2...3

In your head as you do this, hear yourself saying:

In 1...2...3
Wait 1...2...3
Out 1...2...3...

Note I say "wait" and not "hold". If you tell somebody to hold their breath, they tend to gasp it in and clamp their mouth shut. This should be simply a pause between in and out so that it's all very smooth.

Now, you're going to need to do this a number of times. You can time it, by watching a clock (preferably with hands), but don't use any sort of alarm. Another way is to have a second count. This is why some people like to use a string of beads called a mala, as they do each repeat of the breathing they move their fingers along the string. I've heard of creative alternatives such as knots on a string, the teeth of a comb, and so on. This way you can close your eyes.

For the sake of ease for a beginner, I recommend using a soothing piece of music, of the desired length of time. You Tube has MILLIONS of choices, but most are quite long. So for absolute beginners/those whose attention span is going to make this a real challenge, I've found you a piece that lasts just one minute.

Your homework is to try this, and I don't want any excuses. Just one minute. You do have time for that.

I bet after just one minute you'll feel the benefit, and will be trying for longer.


  1. Excellent "how-to," Mel! And I love the little video--perfect!

    I've had people admit to me that they were fearful of doing meditation--even to try it. That says a lot about the largest hurdle there is to meditation--being brave enough to "look within." There seems to be a lot of discomfort with self to the point where doing simple, focused breathing (and nothing else!) for even a minute is "too scary."

    My response to them is to ask them if they really need peace in their life. Like anything, if someone needs something bad enough, they will overcome the fear long enough to at least try it for a minute or two--or five--or ten. Peaceful meditation kind of takes root and grows--if we let it. ;)

    Thanks so much for taking us past the starting point. ~ Blessings! :)

    1. I know. I hear it again and again. I would suggest that if the idea of fully relaxing is scary, then that's proof you need to do it.

      But the fear of looking within is real. Some people go through a real crisis if they set out on that journey. The honesty of it all is too much to bear. The benefit of getting through that is great, but it's a bit of a leap into the unknown.

  2. I'm convinced that meditation can be, in some instances, literally a lifesaver. For me, nothing beats finding a quiet place where I won't be disturbed and having a conversation with the universe. Particularly when things are quiet enough that I can hear (and sometimes experience) the universe answering back.

    1. It has saved many people in very real ways. There seems to be a hurdle in getting some people started. It's my life's work to help there, if at all possible.

  3. Check out the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a Professor Emeritus of Medicine, and former Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Excellent stuff.
    You can here him being interviewed about his ideas about meditation here:

  4. Back in the day, when I used to teach Neo-Pagan/Craft methods; one of the techniques that worked for beginners was to commence using visualization of thoughts, stressors, emotions inside balloons. The balloons were then visualized floating out of the window and away from the subject.

    1. Yes, anything like that. The visualization techniques work really well for some people.

    2. BLOOP!!

      Hey...that's a visualization meditation... ;)'