From the outside, meditation can look passive. You’re sitting still with your eyes closed, taking deep breaths. But anyone who has spent time meditating knows how active, and how intentional, it can be.
In the stillness, your heart rate slows and your levels of cortisol – the hormone associated with stress – drop. A regular practice can help with depression, chronic pain, anxiety and sleep issues. It’s sort of like stretching, but for your mind.
How to get started can be unclear: Should you sit on the floor? Use an app? Chant or even come up with a mantra? And how long is long enough?
If you don’t read any further than this, the main takeaway from meditation teachers and psychologists is, if it works for you, it works.
THERE IS NO RIGHT WAY TO MEDITATE
When you think of what meditating looks like, what comes to mind? A lotus position, a yoga mat, a beautiful wood-lined room? If that’s how you feel most comfortable practising, that’s great.
But some people prefer to lie flat on their backs, while others choose to sit on a chair. The key is to find a position where your body can feel strong yet neutral.
Toni Blackman, an artist who puts together hip-hop mixes to shift her mind and energy, was initially hesitant to consider her music-based practice meditation. “There’s that stigma,” she said. “To use the word ‘meditation’ without using the word ‘prayer’ can feel airy-fairy.”
After long conversations with friends, Blackman, who is based in Brooklyn, decided to record her own music and lead meditation classes with it.
“In hip-hop, it’s called ‘getting open’,” she said. “To get open means that you are in a trance, you are in a zone, you are in the zone. Your body starts to take over, and you surrender to whatever is going through you.” Now, she sees any activity as an opportunity for meditation, from running to cooking.
MEDITATION IS A PRACTICE, NOT A SPRINT
“It’s tough for everyone when they begin a practice,” Ellie Burrows Gluck, the chief executive of MNDFL, a New York City meditation studio, wrote in an email. “Like going to the gym or learning to play an instrument, you can’t lose 10 pounds or play Mozart after a single session.”
Set up a framework for yourself by first picking a time of day and a place to meditate. You should also start off slowly: If you were training for a marathon, you wouldn’t begin with a 10km run.
“Ten minutes is great; five minutes is great,” said Sara Lazar, director of the Lazar Lab for Meditation Research at Massachusetts General Hospital. “There’s no ‘should’.”
If you have a history of mental illness, or if you’re going through a difficult time right now, be cautious. People with post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder should work with a meditation guide or teacher, Lazar said.
CREATE YOUR SPACE
In a corner of your home, set up an area dedicated to meditation. Some people call this an altar and add plants, rocks or candles. If that’s your thing, full steam ahead. But if not, just pick a place in your home that is quiet and makes you feel calm.
“I don’t think that people have to do anything fancy,” said Diana Winston, director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center and the author of The Little Book Of Being.
But a separate space is important, said Tony Lupinacci, a 35-year-old yoga and meditation teacher who leads retreats and training around the world. “This is not your bed, maybe not even your couch,” he said.
TRY AN APP
This might seem counterintuitive – phones are often enemies of calm. But working through your first few meditation sessions with some guidance will help you find your groove. (This same article written a few decades ago would have suggested that you get some good meditation cassette tapes.)
That’s because meditation is not just sitting still for a few minutes. It’s part of a broader philosophy, with thousands of years of history and training.
Lupinacci was against apps for a long time, and still prefers to work directly with his students (and his own teacher). But he really enjoys Calm, which has a seven-day free trial and then a yearly subscription fee of US$69.99 (S$97.60).
There’s also Insight Timer, which is free and also popular. Or consult Wirecutter, a product recommendation site that’s owned by The New York Times, which recently updated its guide to meditation apps. Headspace (which costs US$69.99 a year, after a free two-week trial) is ranked first.
AND JUST LET GO
You’re doing this for you, so that you feel more settled in yourself and in the world. So, just let yourself sink into whatever your practice is for that day.
If you don’t want to use an app, you could try visualisation, like picturing yourself somewhere calming and beautiful. Or, just breathe in for six counts and out for six counts. Pay attention to your body – where your legs touch the floor, how your spine feels – and listen to yourself.
Chris Toulson, a 35-year-old meditation specialist who runs the Meditation & Mindfulness Instagram account, cautioned not to expect too much from any one session. “Every day is just going to be different, because you’ve gone through different things in that day,” he said.
“It’s not so much emptying the mind, because that is impossible,” he continued. “Our brain is not wired to be empty. We can’t control what comes into our heads. What we can control is how we deal with them.”
Toulson, who lives outside London, suggests treating your thoughts and emotions as clouds: When you’re meditating, imagine you’re looking up at the sky. Sometimes, clouds are bright, fluffy. Sometimes, they’re dark. Either way, you’re below, observing them, feeling the grass beneath your fingers and watching the world go by.
By Amelia Nierenberg © The New York Times