Meditation is becoming more popular than ever, and most of us have at least a few people around recommending it. When I was just starting out, I presumed it to be some sort of esoteric practice, involving some special rituals, performed by a coterie of disciples. I expected to get enlightened, and I am not sure if I fully understood what that meant. Like every beginner, I expected miracles of some sort. Now after years into meditation, I have realized how superficial my beliefs and expectations were. This is a comprehensive guide about various aspects of meditation for beginners and people unsure about giving meditation a chance. Let’s dig in, and I hope you are in a better place and have greater clarity about Meditation after reading this.
What is Meditation?
To put it plainly, meditation is a state of non-thinking and quietude. Imagine yourself looking, for the very first time, at a real spaceship in the sky or a beautiful, surreal landscape or even the person you are crushing on at the moment. For that singular moment, you will be completely present, and your mind will be in a state of thoughtlessness. You will feel emotions depending on how you perceive that object, but they will not be a result of past experiences or future anticipations. That one moment of purity is what meditative state is all about.
Meditation is this state of complete awareness of the moment. There’s a myth that it is an act of performance. It is a state of being. You can be in a meditative state while working in your office or while talking to a friend. Meditation is definitely not chanting mantras sitting on a mountain. Being in a meditative state is as smooth as breathing. It is a natural state of the human mind. What is effortful is thinking about an on-going checklist of things your desire from life, the unchangeable past or a yet-to-arrive future.
Why do Meditation?
The scientific studies(a lot of them also being state-funded) conducted in recent times point out countless benefits of meditation and how it transforms our brains. A clear contrast is visible in the comparative studies conducted between the brains of people who practice meditation and those who don’t.
Advantages to the mental health: Meditation reduces stress, anxiety; increases grey matter, EQ, concentration, the capacity to multi-task; enhances memory and the overall quality of life. One becomes a positive and calm person.
Advantages to the physical body: It is said to lower BP, heart rate; regulate respiratory rate. Additionally, meditation stimulates the nervous system and strengthens our immunity. Overall, our physical stamina increases, and we get tired less easily.
Why is Meditation effective?
Scientifically it has been proven that meditation helps reduce the release of stress hormones. Adrenal glands produce cortisal, a stress and anxiety hormone, when we are stressed out. Researches have shown that meditation reduces the production of this hormone. In addition to that, production of “happiness hrmones” Serotonin and Melatonin (produced by Pineal gland) and Prolactin(produced by Pituitary gland) increases. These hormones result in feelings well being and give us sound sleep.
There is a decrease in the grey matter in the amygdala, which is the main region for inducing fear, stress, and other negative emotions. At the same time, the pre-frontal cortex region, associated with concentration, focus and rational thinking, becomes thick. Parasympathetic activity (activities of the nervous system which are beyond our control) is increased. Grey matter in the brain increases which makes us sharper and more alert, and boosts our memory.
Meditation creates lasting changes in our brain as a result of Neuroplasticity of the brain(the tendency of the brain to be able to change and rewired throughout our existence).
There are countless videos and research material posted by respected journals and institutions, with scientific backing, easily accessible(like this article or this TEDx video).
What can you expect as a beginner?
In case you have just started out, be prepared for lack of noticeable results at the very beginning. Think of yourself taking a guitar lesson or learning a language. It takes times to get accustomed to the new learning process. Consistency in efforts and belief id required in learning any of these new skills.
When it was my first day of meditation, I sat for 20 minutes, and most of the time my mind was processing millions of ideas without any respite, and I ended up disappointed. For at least the next fifteen days, I had to push myself hard to sit, be mindful of my thoughts and not drown into them. However, gradually, I could feel the difference, and things started working out for me.
So, as a beginner, be persistent and don’t give up. It took me about two weeks to get to that stage, it could be sooner for you. But once you reach the point, it will all be worth it.
How to do Meditation?
You can always go for guided meditation, but doing it on your own is simple as well. Here are the steps that I usually follow while meditating:
1. Choose a quiet, spacious and comfortable place. It’s better if you find a place in the open air.
2. Sit in a comfortable position such that your legs don’t feel strained.
3. Choose an environment where you aren’t disturbed for the next half hour.
4. Set an alarm for 20 mins from now and put your phone on silent.
5. Close your eyes, sit up straight and put on a smile.
6. Focus your attention on the now. Observe your thoughts and let them flow freely.
7. You may get involved with the thoughts time and again, but that’s okay. Keep bringing your focus to the present moment and to your state of mind.
8. Don’t try to control your thoughts or force yourself into anything. Meditation is not a forced state. It’s a natural state of calm.
What are the types of Meditation?
There are different techniques for achieving a meditative state. Most of these originated in the east, and there’s a high probability that you associate meditation with Buddhism, Hinduism or Taoism. Let’s take a glimpse of popular techniques:
The one that was described above is mindful meditation. As the name suggests, this technique involves being mindful and fully aware of yourself and your thoughts. Sit in a comfortable position with back straight and eyes closed. Be fully aware of all the thoughts flowing through your mind. The only requirement is to be fully present in the moment.
2. Chanting (Mantra Based)
Chant based and rhythmic meditations are mostly guided. This involves repeating a chant (in a specific rhythm) while sitting comfortably with eyes closed and back straight. There’s no limitation on the posture, and it all depends on what makes you comfortable. Most often the chants used are part of the scriptures of one of these eastern cultures.
Moreover, meditation by chant is certainly not a religious practice or based on any belief system. These mantras may not mean anything. They are rhythmic in nature and have distinct affects on our physical and mental body. Let’s take an example “Om” a popular mantra constitutes three sounds “a” (as in uh), “oo” as in “you” and “m” as in “muh”. If you say “a” for a long time you’ll feel vibration (or energy) in stomach, say “oo” to feel energy beneath your chest and “m” creates sensations in head.
This approach is all about focusing on your body. You can focus on your breathing or a part of your body like stomach or forehead. It mandates undivided attention to the body part, closed eyes and a straight posture. A variant of this is picturing a scenery and imagining yourself of being a part of it. You have to become completely involved in the process of creation of the scene.
This process of meditation involves completely focusing on the activity you are performing. You may be taking a walk in the park, eating your food, gardening, playing with your pet or driving. Scattered thoughts may drive away your attention, you need to return your focus each time.
To conclude, here’s a quote by Jim Carrey:
“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”
I would like to interpret the quote as -It is the mind that creates needs as well as fulfillment.
Not every beautiful thing can be seen, some are experienced. Meditation is one of them.
All of us have too many things going on. We get bothered and involved in these intricacies a lot more than is needed, sometimes unknowingly. Meditation calms us down and gives us balanced thinking.
Disclaimer: In case you have any medical condition(s), please consult a doctor before practicing meditation. If you’re not sure about the process, take a guided course.