Joseph Maley Foundation Communications Associate, Lauren Maley, is a dedicated meditator. She has found solace from a number of ailments, both physical and mental, from the practice of meditation, and she is excited to share what she knows with our community. If you are experiencing increased anxiety or stress during these difficult times, or if you’re simply interested in what meditation is and what it may offer, we hope you find some valuable information within this week’s blog.
Hello, there. I’m Lauren, and I am here to tell you about the basic information, my personal journey, and the little known ideas and secrets behind meditation.
Now, I cannot make any real promises, but if you are already here and reading this, congratulations. You are on your first step towards achieving, what I believe to be, a real-life superpower. One you have already had inside you this entire time.
So, sit up tall with your back straightened, take a deep breath in and out, close your eyes (wait, no, don’t close your eyes if you’re reading this!), and let’s begin.
Let’s start with the basics. What is mindfulness and meditation?
You probably picture mediation to be sitting with your legs crossed on a cushion humming “Ommmm,” or some variation on that theme. You aren’t totally wrong, but there’s more to it than that. There are many definitions for meditation, but we are going to focus on Mindfulness Meditation.
Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be aware of our present moment, everything happening around us, the sensations, feelings, and thoughts within us, and our ability to control our reactions and not be overwhelmed by them.
At first, this idea seemed utterly impossible to me. Think about the world we live in right now. We are all under extraordinary circumstances brought on by COVID-19. Suddenly, we have found ourselves worrying much more, confronting the unknown. You may feel like you’re living in a state of fear, overwhelmed by sadness, loneliness, or the increased responsibilities and hurdles that we now must navigate.
Whether it is a never-ending to-do list, a fight with a friend, a bad headache, the wifi going out, or something more permanent like chronic pain, anxiety, or depression, mindfulness and practicing meditation may help you navigate these experiences and sensations, and in turn find them to be much more manageable.
“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally,” says Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Meditation is the practice of taking a moment to withhold judgement, explore the curiosities of our own mind with a loving, gentle approach.
Through various tactics and approaches, we can turn our attention inwards and learn how to better manage these unwanted feelings and stressors in our lives. Not every tactic works for every person, but there is such a range of ways to meditate, and so much to explore, that with practice and curiosity, you will likely find a way of meditation that works for you. Let’s explore some of the most popular and basic ways to meditate.
The most basic form of meditation focuses on the breath. Breathing is something that is always there, it is steady, and something very easy to anchor yourself to. The physical sensation of breathing can help you stay focused on the present moment.
Throughout your meditation practice, you may find yourself drifting away. Thoughts will arise, sounds will distract you, a sensation inside may irritate you, an emotion may overcome you…this is okay. As soon as you notice it, take that moment and return to the practice of focusing on the breath and the moment. This is important. We will come back to this.
Here is a step-by-step example on how to begin meditating from Mindful.Org:
A Simple Meditation Practice
- Sit comfortably. Find a spot that gives you a stable, solid, comfortable seat.
- Notice what your legs are doing. If on a cushion, cross your legs comfortably in front of you. If on a chair, rest the bottoms of your feet on the floor.
- Straighten your upper body—but don’t stiffen. Your spine has natural curvature. Let it be there.
- Notice what your arms are doing. Situate your upper arms parallel to your upper body. Rest the palms of your hands on your legs wherever it feels most natural.
- Soften your gaze. Drop your chin a little and let your gaze fall gently downward. It’s not necessary to close your eyes. You can simply let what appears before your eyes be there without focusing on it.
- Feel your breath. Bring your attention to the physical sensation of breathing: the air moving through your nose or mouth, the rising and falling of your belly, or your chest.
- Notice when your mind wanders from your breath. Inevitably, your attention will leave the breath and wander to other places. Don’t worry. There’s no need to block or eliminate thinking. When you notice your mind wandering gently return your attention to the breath.
- Be kind about your wandering mind. You may find your mind wandering constantly—that’s normal, too. Instead of wrestling with your thoughts, practice observing them without reacting. Just sit and pay attention. As hard as it is to maintain, that’s all there is. Come back to your breath over and over again, without judgment or expectation.
- When you’re ready, gently lift your gaze (if your eyes are closed, open them). Take a moment and notice any sounds in the environment. Notice how your body feels right now. Notice your thoughts and emotions.
Seems simple enough, right? Not so much. The ability to meditate freely like this takes a lot of practice. This is why I thought I would never be able to meditate or it could never work for me. I hate focusing on my breath, because I have anxiety. The irregularity of it made me so much more uncomfortable when I tried to focus on it. It was not until I discovered that there are alternative ways to achieve a meditative state that I began to fully appreciate the practice of meditation.
By now, I have explored meditation thoroughly, and I’ve learned a few things along the way that I believe could be helpful to beginners. I am a former meditation skeptic, but I now credit the practice as the most impactful tool I have found to help me function with a chronic autoimmune disease, cognitive impairment, anxiety, ADHD, and impulsive tendencies. Meditation has also allowed me to develop a passionate attitude towards life.
Below are some of the things I wish I’d known as a meditation beginner:
- Meditation is not the sensationalized moment of clarity, but the process of acknowledging your wandering mind, and the active intent and pursuit to bring yourself back to attention. Meditation is a practice, a difficult one. Meditating is achieved in the moment when you realize you have drifted into your thoughts or sensations and you bring yourself back to your focal point that is anchoring you to the moment. The more you get distracted, and the more you have to bring yourself back, the better you become. It is this awareness and active choice to refocus that is what meditation is all about.
- Meditations that take you on a guided imaginative story are a great place to begin. Listening along to someone telling you to imagine doing, feeling, sensing, and exploring different things is a very easy way to learn how to focus the mind. This is the key to most mediations for children, as well.
- Your focal point does not have to be the breath. It can be a sound, the feeling of air on your skin, a sensation inside of you, and even – this one is cool – the lack of sensation either somewhere around or inside of you.
- Meditation is not just a useful tool to use when you are stressed out, it actually fundamentally changes your brain and behaviors.Taking 20 minutes to meditate, no matter how inconvenient or overwhelmed you are, can be an extraordinarily beneficial habit. However, the real benefit to meditation comes from daily practice. The more you practice meditation, you may get frustrated and think that you aren’t getting any better. How do you even tell if you are getting any better? Well, my friends, it isn’t in your meditation practices that you can tell if you are getting better. It is in your everyday life. Mind Blowing, right? The skills you practice in meditation can make your every day life easier. That is the purpose of it. You think before reacting, you are more aware of sensations and can notice them. Meditation allows you to practice the skill of reeling your attention back in, so that you do not get caught up in negative thinking. This can make stress less of a burden, and moving through the world may feel easier and kinder.
Be comforted in the fact that there are endless resources available to you as you begin your journey into meditation.
Guided meditation is a great first step for beginners. There are guided meditation that focus on anxiety, sleep, pain, focus, self-love – you name it! It is out there. Below are links to several videos, apps, and websites that can help you get started.
Personally, I highly recommend to anyone, beginners, or even practiced meditators: “How To Meditate” by Jeff Warren. This is a simple 30-day program available for free on the Calm app, which can be accessed via computer as well. Here is the desktop-friendly link.
Calm also has countless guided meditations for beginners and specific topics like the ones mentioned above (and much more). They also have excellent meditation programming for kids. Calm has inspiring guest meditations led by stars like Lebron James, meditative music from Diplo, Kygo, Disney, Sam Smith, and Moby, and my personal favorite, a sleep story narrated by Harry Styles.
Another app that is quite popular is Headspace.
And of course, Youtube has a virtual cornucopia of meditation content.
I wish you the best of luck in your meditation journey!