Week 1What is meditation?
Defining & Understanding Meditation
Meditation comes in many flavours. There are hundreds of techniques, traditions and technologies you can choose from, and you can meditate for many different reasons.
Despite this diversity, nearly all meditation techniques help you to:
- Relax your body.
- Calm your mind.
Meditation suffers from a big PR problem. Even today, many people think that meditation involves sitting still and trying to empty your mind. Consequently, nearly everyone walks into their first meditation class with a number of unhelpful assumptions, perhaps thinking:
- I’m too busy (to meditate)
- I don’t have the discipline
- I can’t sit still
- I can’t stop thinking
- I can’t focus
- I always get distracted
- I’ll probably just fall asleep
It’s normal to have such concerns. And it’s not a problem. The fact is:
- You can integrate meditation and mindfulness practices into the busiest of lifestyles (using ‘spot-meditations’ and ‘background’ practices).
- Once you find a technique that is both enjoyable, and effective, you’ll probably find that you look forward to practising.
- You can meditate in any posture you like, and you can move at any time you like.
- There is no need to keep your mind perfectly focused. In fact, it’s normal for the mind to drift every few seconds.
- Once you learn how to work with ‘distractions’ you’ll find they actually help you to meditate.
- It’s fine to fall asleep during meditation. Furthermore, when you think you’re asleep, you are usually just deeply relaxed.
You can meditate:
- in any posture, including while sitting, lying, walking etc.
- at any time, including whilst exercising, at meals, when waiting, in bed, in the toilet or shower, during meetings etc.
It’s useful to distinguish between three broad categories or ‘ways’ of meditating:
On the spot
- Short meditations lasting from 10 seconds to 10 minutes.
- Done ‘on-the-go’ by utilising ‘waste’ or ‘down’ time.
- Useful for maintaining balance all day long.
- Dedicated periods of meditation, usually requiring 10+ minutes.
- Usually done in a conducive environment.
- Allows for deeper rest and self-exploration.
In the Background
You can also practice whilst engaged in other activities, such as walking, exercising, eating or reading. You can do this by paying attention to what you are
2 Key Principles of Meditation
1. While meditation is often thought of as a mental discipline, it’s important not to ignore your body. Too much discomfort will make it difficult — if not impossible — to calm the mind. That’s why it’s useful to start with some form of physical relaxation.
2. You may have noticed that the mind seems to have a mind of its own! It’s not easy to control. In fact, when we’re stressed or tired, our ability to think clearly diminishes markedly. It can be virtually impossible to think your way out of a stressful situation.
Counter-intuitively, the best strategy for clear thinking does not require thinking at all. It’s far more effective to do something that relaxes your body.
Why? Because if you relax your body, your mind will tend to calm down of its own accord. In other words, clear thinking is only possible when the nervous system is not in fight-or-flight mode.
Relaxing the Body
We all relax at times:
- When we fall asleep
- When we’re too exhausted to move
- When we’re forced to through illness
We adopt many strategies:
- Take a walk
- Go to movies
- Down a glass of red (or two)
Meditation is not necessarily a ‘better’ strategy, but it can be just as much fun. It can also provide effective, immediate relief, without the risk of a hangover or unexpectedly large bill.
In other words, meditation allows you to take conscious control of the relaxation process. You learn how to relax deliberately, quickly, wherever or whenever you want or need to.
At the high end of the stress scale, our ‘reptilian’ brain is activated. The fight-or-flight response kicks in, our thinking becomes distorted (and often unhelpful), our emotions are on high alert, and we burn energy fast.
At the low end of the stress scale, the relaxation (aka rest-and-digest) response is activated. Our thinking becomes slower and clearer, our emotions more even-tempered and our metabolic rate lower. Under such conditions, the body has an opportunity to rest and repair, and the mind can review our thoughts, emotions and actions in a more objective and insightful manner.
You don’t have to go all the way to sleep to experience some sense of peace or relief from stress or anxiety. Even shifting just a notch or two down the “stress-scale” can be helpful. This shift towards relaxation can be done quickly and easily.
Calming the Mind
Contrary to popular opinion, the most effective way to calm your mind is not by trying to block out or stop your thoughts. In fact, the effort to empty your mind will almost guarantee that you end up feeling agitated and discouraged.
Remember, your mind is designed to think, in the same way that your eyes are designed to see and your ears to hear. And just as it would be futile to try and stop yourself from seeing or hearing, it is futile to try and make yourself stop thinking.
Peace of mind doesn’t come by trying to extinguish all thought. It comes by establishing harmonious relationships with the ‘voices’ in your head. If you cease trying to push thoughts away, you’ll usually find that they become far less bothersome. Eventually, you may find that relaxation is not dependent upon the absence of thought at all.
Because this is such an important topic, I recommend that you explore it further by reading the article 12 Good Reasons to Let Yourself Think in Meditation.