Why (and How) You Should Practice Mindfulness Meditation
I spent the past Saturday at a secular ‘Meditation for Beginners’ class held at Chenrezig Institute – a Buddhist centre in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland not to far from my home. It was a great refresher, and was part of my current effort to increase my personal meditation practice.
Now, I’ve been meditating on and off (mostly off until this year) since I learnt about the practice waaaay back in 1999, when I did a subject at uni called ‘Meditation in Eastern Religions’. (I majored in English and Studies of Religion – with a contemporary and esoteric focus in my Arts degree, while I was also studying Genetics and Microbiology for my Science degree… it often confused people! My response – ‘I’m interested in the why and how – how the world works and why people do and believe what they do’.)
Back then, meditation was still pretty much on the fringe – something only done by hippies, weirdos and Buddhists – and I’m so glad to see that in the last few years, it’s really started to become mainstream – accepted as a secular practice thanks to the good work of a number of Buddhists, secular meditators, and neuroscientists who have devoted time to the study of how meditation affects our brains. The evidence is becoming pretty compelling (see the infographic at the end of this post if you don’t believe me!).
Now, straight up – I am the least woo-woo yoga and meditation practitioner you will EVER meet – so if you’re like me and not religious or in any way mystically-inclined, OR you do have a religion that you are concerned wouldn’t gel with meditation, let me assuage your fears – there doesn’t need to be any religious or mystical aspect to meditation (or yoga, for that matter) and it is also perfectly suitable for religious people of all creeds.
“The aim of meditation is to transform the mind. It does not have to be associated with any particular religion.
Every one of us has a mind and every one of us can work on it.”
~ Matthieu Ricard
So – what can meditation do for you and me – busy, creative entrepreneurs?
It is a powerful tool that we can add to our lives in order to make us happier, less stressed, physically healthier, more balanced, more creative, and generally results in us enjoying our lives and work more.
How does it do this? Well, in a number of ways – but the key ones are by helping you to concentrate, relax, and be mindful.
Learning to be mindful is simply the process of realising that you are not your thoughts – that you can watch thoughts as they arise and fall away – and therefore learn how to focus on the thoughts you want while allowing those you don’t want to dissipate. Or, as the infographic below says “The ability to be aware of your thoughts and emotions, without judging them… to see what’s going on in your head without getting carried away by it”.
It’s not a quick fix or a miracle cure – but it is pretty powerful when practiced regularly. That really is the key – you’re not going to see any benefit if you try to sit down and do a half-hour meditation once a month! (And if you try to do half an hour of non-guided meditation from the get-go, you’ll probably find it really, really hard.)
You need to make it a regular practice – and you don’t need to start with anything more than 5 minutes a day. That’s it.
Honestly, you can’t really ‘get’ the benefits until you try it for yourself. You have to be willing to experiment with it. As Matthieu Ricard says:
“We must discover for ourselves the value of the methods these wise people taught and confirm for ourselves the conclusions they reached.”
I’m all about experimentation in business and life – and there’s no real way to know if something is going to work for you until you try it. But – if you struggle with things like time management, bad habits, stress, overwhelm, scatter-brain syndrome, or a lack of focus (constantly flitting from task to task or idea to idea) then becoming calmer and more mindful of what your brain is actually doing is essential in changing these unskillful habits and tendencies.
Want to give it a try? Excellent!
Meditations to Get You Started
There are oodles of different meditation styles, techniques, and practices out there. It can be a bit overwhelming when you’re a meditation newbie – where should you start?
I’ve given you a lot more info below (further reading online, books I recommend, and apps for you to try) but I wanted to start by suggesting 3 simple meditations you can try that are pretty straightforward.
Now – I’m certainly no meditation expert – these are just my suggestions based upon my own research and personal experience. What works for me might not be your cup of tea – but I hope even if that is the case, you’ll be intrigued enough to do your own exploration and find a practice that works for you.
Concentration on the Breath
This is simply the practice of sitting quietly and focussing your attention on your breath. That’s it. If you like, you can count your breaths up to 10, to help you focus on them. If you lose track of what number you’re up to, just go back to 1 and begin again. Don’t alter your breath, just pay attention to it. When (if) you actually get to 10, just start from 1 again.
Sounds easy, right? Well… you’ll realise pretty quickly that you’re focussing on everything BUT the breath! Our brains are really easily distracted… and you’ll find yourself playing ‘mind movies’ about the future or past before you know it.
The key here is to build your ‘concentration muscle’. Especially in this highly-strung, tech-heavy society, where we are constantly getting distracted by dings on our phone and the stuff on our to-do list, we are really, really bad at sustained concentration.
It’s very important not to berate yourself when you realise you’ve lost track of the breath – because that’s just another thought! Simply notice that you’ve lost track, and bring your awareness back to your breath.
Guided Meditation – Phillip Moffitt on Dharma Seed (about 15 minutes)
This is kind of the next step on from concentrating on the breath.
Once you’ve calmed your body and mind by concentrating on the breath for a little bit, you release that concentration somewhat. You can still use your breath as an anchor to come back to, but you let your concentration widen.
Then, you just sit and let yourself be open and aware of whatever you are experiencing. If you hear a sound outside – be aware that you are hearing. If you feel a sensation in your body – be aware that you are feeling it. If you discover you’ve gotten lost in thought – be aware of it… then come back to open awareness.
There is quite a profound difference between experiencing something and being aware that you are experiencing something. In the former, there is no distinction between the experience and the experiencer – that’s you – whereas in the latter, you are aware that you are having an experience. You begin to realise that the experience and the experiencer actually have a space between them.
You might find it a bit tricky to understand what I’m getting at until you try it for yourself, but it will become obvious pretty quickly (I hope). It’s about being aware of how experiences flow – they arise, they pass, and a new experience arises.
It’s the sort of awareness that you experience any time someone does something you find upsetting, and instead of reacting immediately, you ‘take a breath’ or take a moment to consider how you are going to react. You are aware you’ve experienced a feeling of anger or irritation towards that person, and so you can act from a place of self-awareness rather than blind instinct or habit.
Mindful Presence – Wise Brain
Mindfulness: A Beginner’s Guide – The Guardian
Mindfulness Exercise – Living Well
This has a weird name, but it’s basically just a form of deep guided relaxation. If you google it you’ll find a lot more ‘mystical’ stuff out there, but I use it from a purely secular/non-religious/non-mystical perspective to relax my body and mind.
I’ve experienced guided yoga nidra in a number of yoga classes, and loved it so much that I went searching for one online. My current favourite to listen to is this one by Swami Muktibodhananda – you can listen to it for free on Spotify right here.
I always feel like a puddle of goo after doing yoga nidra – and, I’ll be honest… I’ve fallen asleep more than once! This is an awesome choice if you just need to let go and relax. If you’re feeling tense in your body, stressed, or have trouble falling asleep – give this one a go and see what happens.
If you have experience with meditation, I’d love to hear how it’s affected your life – and any advice you have for meditation newbies!
More Resources Online
Meditation Your Way to a Creative Mind – Fast Company
How Mindfulness Meditation Boosts Creativity and Innovation – Huffington Post
Being Mindful of Your Thoughts – Total Balance
Apps to Try
I’ve used/do use these apps myself, and so can personally recommend them (I’m on Android).
Stop, Breathe and Think – I LOVE this one – it’s a creation of Tools for Peace, a non-profit, and it includes a huge range of short guided meditations on all sorts of subjects – from a mindful breathing meditation to meditations on joy, kindness, compassion, change, equanimity, engaging your senses and much more. If you’ve never meditated before, I HIGHLY recommend you give this a go. This is both on Android and iOS.
Bodhi Timer – I use this to time my meditation so I’m not distracted and wondering ‘if my time is up yet’ It has a few nice bells to choose from
Dharma Meditation – if you want to slowly build up your meditation muscles, this one might be for you. I also love using the zen bell feature – there are a few different gong/bells you can choose from to have playing if you prefer to focus on something other than the breath when you meditate. The more you use it, the longer it makes you meditate for.
Headspace – You may have heard of this one – it’s a meditation ‘trainer’ – free to start, but you then have to pay a fee. Great basic meditations for 10 minutes.
Books I Recommend
Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill – Matthieu Ricard
Thrive – Arianna Huffington
And, finally, a great infographic for skeptics by Dan Harris + Happify