Meditation Basics

Why this Topic?

The topic of the disquieted mind comes up so often in my coaching that I decided to post this so I can periodically update it and refer clients to it. Feel free to share it if you know of someone who might benefit.

Why Meditate?

Why not? If you're as clear and calm as you wish to be, stop reading now and play Candy Crush (my favorite distraction). If not, a consistent, daily practice of meditation has a good chance, over time, of calming your inner voice and helping you gain the clarity you seek. Meditation has cumulative effects over days, weeks, months and years. It is scientifically proven to physiologically change the brain with the potential to bring lasting calm, clarity and peace. Like any new practice or habit, adoption requires consistency and patience. It must fit with your lifestyle and not be a burden to initiate and continuously practice. This is critical for the first 21 days of practice to develop the meditation habit.

Getting Started

One effective way to start is with a simple, 10-minute morning routine that you work into your schedule. If you don't have 10 minutes to spare in the morning, rise 10 minutes earlier. You'll be glad you did. I also suggest you begin to incorporate it into your evening ritual of winding down and going to sleep. More on that later.

How and Where

If you choose to make a study of meditation, you will quickly find that it is a rich, deep topic that can easily overwhelm. This completely defeats the goal for the new meditator. Just what you need - more stress to reduce your stress. So let's keep this simple. Find your quietest  space and sit in a comfortable position. Maintain a soft, downward gaze or close your eyes. Then remind yourself that trying to "empty your mind" is not only impossible, but pointless. The more you try to not think, the more you'll be thinking. So just don't think about that. When thoughts come to mind, allow them. Over time, they will change. That's the point. If you commit to this practice over days, weeks, and months, your meditation thoughts will shift from your grocery list, "bread," "eggs," "milk," "fruit loops," to ideas and insights you never thought possible. And if they don't, maybe you'll move from "fruit loops" to "oatmeal" and still be ahead. But the more likely outcome are feelings of peace, calm and even bliss. Seriously. And they will extend into your day. Not kidding.

Resources

There are countless meditation resources. The three I've used the most, in order of regularity, are: 1) apps from the iTunes Store (Google Play for Android); 2) YouTube; and 3) dedicated sites. A "meditation" search in Google yields over 170 million results and YouTube yields nearly 10 million. That's a lot of choice. And confusion. Consequently, I've learned a lot about the effect of meditation and aural input on the brain and consciousness, but that's another topic.

Complications in the App Space

Which leads me to how complicated this has become for the new meditator. I'll simplify it for you. As this industry grew, apps and sites went from simply facilitating the meditation experience one session at a time, to presenting themes for a purpose, like relaxation, sleep, focus, stress reduction, and on and on. Many have also promoted engagement by letting you keep track of your progress and joining a meditating community. Please, let's keep this simple so you don't give up before you even get started. These features aren't bad. They're just unnecessary for the beginner. And they're unnecessary for the masters. So yeah, maybe they are unnecessary. Let me meditate on that.

But before I do, I'm going to be fair to the well-intentioned people in this industry by mentioning one very popular app that has the extensive functionality described above - Headspace founded by Andy Puddicombe.

From the Headspace website:

Andy Puddicombe is a meditation and mindfulness expert. An accomplished presenter and writer, Andy is the voice of all things Headspace.
In his early twenties, midway through a university degree in Sports Science, Andy made the unexpected decision to travel to the Himalayas to study meditation instead. It was the beginning of a ten year journey which took him around the world, culminating with ordination as a Tibetan Buddhist monk in Northern India.

Andy transitioned back into lay life in 2004, founded Headspace, and now lives in Venice, California. He is a legitimate meditation expert with a solid app and platform. If you are more likely to stick with a program where you have feedback, social support and some outside guidance, Headspace may be for you. I did their 10-day free introductory program to check them out and I felt it was a solid introduction, requiring only 10 minutes a day. This type of program isn't for me personally, so I did not sign up for the paid option. If these elements are important to you and can make the difference between building your meditation muscle or not, by all means check it out.

Equipment

I feel a smartphone is best since it's portable and usually with you, but any computer that can run your apps of choice will do. If you want the benefit of binaural beats, explained below, headphones are required. If untimed silent meditation suits you, well then, you were born with all you need.

Styles of Meditation

Silent with a Timer

Silent is the "ideal" for meditation. It can also be the most challenging for the beginner.
The idea behind a timer should be, well, self-evident. But beyond the obvious, most meditation timer apps have a function that let you set a "delay" or "preparation time" and a "meditation time." Set the delay (perhaps 30 seconds), set the meditation time (say 10 minutes), and start the app. The delay gives you time to set the phone down and settle in before the "start" gong sounds. At the end of the meditation, the gong will go off again to bring you back.

  • Suggested search: "meditation timer"
  • Suggested app: Insight timer
    The Lite version is free, available on iPhone and Android, simple to use and very effective.

Sounds

Meditating while immersed in sound can block ambient noise and help scatter stray thoughts.
The sound options are many, including white noise, nature sounds, chimes, specific frequency tones, music, om chants and many others. Some apps let you choose a theme and others let you mix and match sounds to your liking. Some include binaural beats as an option (explained below).

  • Suggested search: "meditation sounds"
  • Suggested app for "set theme": Calm
    Can be used for sound only or with mesmerizing graphic scenes.
    I suggest sound only to start. But that's but me.
  • Suggested app for "mix-n-match sound": Relax Melodies
    I love this app and it includes binaural beats if you wish to use them.

Binaural Beats

Binaural beats are purported to induce vibrational brain states through neural entrainment.
OK, that's a mouthful and an explanation is way beyond the scope of this post. If you want to explore this further, Centerpointe Research, the authors of Holosync Technology for brainwave entrainment using binaural beats, explains the fundamentals very well here:
http://www.centerpointe.com/articles/articles-research

Suffice it to say, some of the sound apps incorporate them as an option and I think they are very effective. Be aware, my opinion is not universal. Binaural beats may not suit you. Within my own family the decision is split. I love them. My wife hates them and reports they give her a headache.

  • Suggested search: "binaural beats"
    Note: You will find skeptics. My suggestion? Ignore them. Binaural beats are effective.
  • Suggested app: Sacred Acoustics Om
    This requires you to sign up on the site using your email, but it is worth it. I love this meditation. At 20 minutes, it is the perfect length for daily use and it does a great job of quickly bringing me into a meditative state. Don't forget that headphones are required for entrainment of the binaural beats.

Guided 

Guided meditations have an agenda.
Unlike silent meditation, which opens your mind to whatever possibilities exist for you in that moment, guided meditations direct the focus of your attention. They can be a very powerful means for addressing specific issues, or simply help you pull your focus away from your daily concerns.

The Monroe Institute has a nice offering of free, downloadable audio resources, including several guided meditations, at this link:
https://www.monroeinstitute.org/free-audio-downloads
Search for "A Hemi-Sync® FREE Guided Meditation" for a very effective 30-minute mind-clearing guided meditation. It is also available here on YouTube.

Before I leave this topic, I'd like to mention one particularly important application of guided meditation. If forgiveness is something that's challenging you, the meditation from the Monroe Institute below is one of the best I've found. It's 20 minutes with long stretches of extraordinary music and just enough guidance to help calm, center, and focus your mind. I have listened to it fully awake and have also fallen asleep to it dozens of times. It is a powerful tool for the forgiveness of both yourself and others. I highly recommend it.
https://www.monroeinstitute.org/forgiveness-meditation

Breathe

Yes, I know. You already breathe. But you don't think about it, and you probably spend most of your day taking mindless shallow breaths. As you settle into your meditation, take a few deep, steady breaths to announce to your body that this is different. You are paying attention. This isn't another mindless daily activity. Then relax into your normal breath. Enough said. Breathe.

Start Empty or With Intent

When you enter a meditation, you can enter it for a specific purpose or with none at all, meaning you have no agenda except the meditation itself. You are open to whatever arises. This is the state I suggest for learning the practice. There is no pressure for a particular result because you aren't hoping for one. There will be times later when you do enter a meditation with an intent. It could be anything, from forgiveness to clarity about specific issue to peace about a concern.

To Journal or NOT To Journal

First a definition. Journaling: putting pen to paper and writing whatever comes to mind. Unfiltered. Unedited. Swear words and all. I include this section on journaling because meditation is one of its best and most effective enablers. Journaling is an amzing tool for self discovery, but many people initially find it difficult. The reason for this is the internal, incessant conscious dialog in our head that will not shut up. Meditation quiets this chatter and gives our subconscious a chance to speak. Truths hidden under this noise have a chance to emerge and be heard. So once you get comfortable with your meditation practice, I strongly urge you to incorporate journaling with it. My practice is to meditate silently in the morning for 20 minutes, followed by 20 minutes of journaling. Both are timed, and I can attest to the fact that the 20 minutes of journaling flies by. I always find I have far more to write than I have time.

If you choose not to journal, keep something handy to record, afterward, significant thoughts or impressions that come to you during your meditation. They won't come every time; but when they do, record them before they fade away. Reflecting on them over time can spark valuable insight.

Sleep

Sleep problems are epidemic. Many clients express that nighttime sleep does not come easily. Their minds race and it can take hours to settle down. Taking on sleep like a project will be, well, just another task to occupy your mind. The very topic and related stress of trying to “master” sleep… need I say more. So let’s not make sleep a project. Instead, if sleep is a challenge for you, simply add one practice and one learning activity in support of your gentle shift in your relationship to sleep.

The practice is the 10-minute meditation mentioned above. Do it somewhere, anywhere, toward the end of your day. Wherever and whenever is up to you, but remember that habits form around consistency, so I suggested experimenting for a while and then settling into something that feels good to you. You can even experiment with seated and lying down. You may find lying down can tend to put you to sleep. I wouldn’t burden the practice with that expectation, but I'd certainly welcome it if it does.

The learning activity is a podcast worth listening to a few times. It is an episode from “The Beautiful Writers Podcast” entitled “Arianna Huffington: Revolutionizing Sleep for Creativity (... and everything else).” The podcast's focus is writing, but this particular episode is phenomenal, as is Arianna Huffington (of “The Huffington Post”) on the topic of sleep. If you are struggling with your relationship with sleep, you are not alone. I recommend you download it to your phone to give you easy access, but you can easily listen to it from any browser. It's 27 minutes. The hosts discuss the topic in their lives for the first 12 minutes and then Arianna joins the conversation for the remaining 15:

Final Thoughts

  • Keep it super simple to form the habit
  • Use a timer to sit in silence for 10 minutes each morning and just breathe
  • If silence is difficult for you, try one of the short meditations found here: Meditation Links
  • Keep paper and pen handy to record insights at the end even if you don't journal
  • Do it
    • Do it - Day 1
    • Do it - Day 2
    • Do it - again and again until you've done it 21 mornings in a row
    • If you miss a morning, start over (sorry, no exceptions)
  • On Day 22, extend this to 20 minutes
  • Then, when you're ready, add 20 minutes of journaling following your meditation
    • Don't wait forever to begin journaling
    • Yes, I know it's another 20 minutes
    • But you've already carved out 20
    • You can carve out 20 more

Sit with openness during your meditation and journaling. You will be amazed at what shows up. The time will fly by. Do it every day. Make it a goal. Make it a habit. Your subconscious mind will work overtime for you when it knows this is coming each and every day.