“Distracted from distraction by distraction.”
– T.S. Elliot
I practice mindfulness meditation every day. It is the first thing I do after waking, and the last thing I do before sleep.
Meditation has changed my life.
I now have a calmer mental state, reduced anxiety levels, less extreme depressive episodes, a calmer disposition (in regular life and during emergencies), increased levels of focus and clarity, increases in mental and physical performance, better interpersonal relationships, as well as a deeper understanding of myself.
My experience with meditation is not unique. Millions of people around the world are taking up mindfulness meditation and achieving similar results, and science has taken notice.
Study after study is finding that there are many benefits to undertaking a regular meditation practice. Some of the stated benefits include reductions with anxiety, depression and stress (1), positive impacts on relationships, emotional state and attention levels (2), and the enhancement of psychological wellbeing (3).
Although I have read extensively on the topic and received some formal training, I am by no means an expert meditator. My hope is that this chapter will give you a taste of the benefits and practice of meditation. Along with diet, exercise, and therapy, meditation is a must for anyone who wants to ‘Get Their Sh!t Together’!
The overall impact of mindfulness meditation is that the meditator begins to see mental phenomena as distinct from their mind.
Meditation doesn’t stop thoughts, feelings, memories, emotions and moods from arising in the mind, rather it takes away their power.
It enables you to detach from the mental phenomena for long enough to see them for what they are – just another stimulus that can be attended to or ignored.
You are not your thoughts – you are something that has thoughts.
This is an important distinction to understand but more importantly to feel. Meditation shows you that while you may have many different mental phenomena throughout the day, these phenomena themselves are neither good or bad, strong or weak. They are simply there.
Unfortunately without meditation it is almost impossible to feel it. It is easy to get carried away down a train of thought that leads to mental affliction.
Not convinced that you are not your thoughts?
What if I was to ask you ‘Are you your big toe or do you have a big toe?’ Other than by laughing at me, how would you respond to the question? Likely that whatever ‘you’ are is more than a mere appendage all the way down there at the base of your feet.
Despite its connection to your body and your ability to move and feel from it, you intuitively know that you are not your toe. This is true, even when you stub it and are suffering in pain - your toe doesn’t feel the pain, you do.
So why then do most people believe that they are their thoughts? Likely because thoughts seem somehow ‘closer’, ‘more powerful’ or ‘more compelling’ than your toe. Their proximity to you may be closer, but they are still distinct from you. I want to propose that, just like the big toe, you are not your thoughts. You are the thing that is having them. Meditation will show you that distinction.
There are many ways to meditate, each with their own variations, nuances and psychological impacts. While I can’t speak for all of the benefits or practices, I can talk about how I meditate.
I primarily practice mindfulness meditation, also known as Vipassana’. This practice originated out of Theravada Buddhism, but as I will address below in the ‘Addressing Misconceptions’ section, it is a completely secular (non-religious) practice.
At its core, mindfulness mediation simply involves observing the breath.
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh
How To Meditate
1) Sit comfortably and set a timer.
- Any seated position will suffice: in a chair, cross legged, half or full lotus.
- Start with five minutes, and as you get into the habit of meditation, increase this time. I usually do 25 minutes each session, but sometimes I sit for as much as one hour.
2) Close your eyes and move your attention to the sensation of the breath entering and leaving the nose.
- Don’t attempt to change the depth or speed of your breath, just observe it.
3) When any mental phenomenon arises, gently acknowledge it and return your focus to the sensation of the breath entering and leaving the nose.
- Mental phenomena includes any thoughts, feelings, memories, sensations, moods, as well as any physical sensations that arise.
4) Continue this process of returning your focus to the sensation of the breath until the timer signals that your session has finished.
5) Repeat daily.
That’s it! Mindfulness is a seemingly simple yet deceivingly difficult process of continually returning your attention back onto the breath.
Almost as soon as you sit down to meditate, your mind will begin to wander. This is completely normal and to be expected. The act of meditation involves first noticing when your mind has wandered, acknowledging that it has wandered, and then gently returning the focus back onto the breath.
The goal is that the skills gained while meditating will transfer into regular life. If at any stage of the day a thought or memory arises that seems particularly powerful or distressing, a meditator can draw upon the skills they have gained while meditating. This will help them to acknowledge that they are having the thought, and to focus their attention on the breath (or whatever else they happen to be doing at the time). In this way, troubling mental phenomena will be less impactful.
Whenever a mental phenomenon arises, the meditator’s job is to acknowledge it and return the focus back to the sensation of the breath on the nose. This sounds easy, until you try it.
Your mind will seem like it is playing tricks on you all with the ‘goal’ of getting you to stop meditating. Regardless of what comes up, it should be noticed and acknowledged, then let go of. Then simply return focus onto the sensation of the breath entering and leaving the nose.
If you feel bored, don’t stop meditating. Instead notice the boredom, acknowledge it and return your focus back onto the breath. If you have thoughts of time wasting, or urgent tasks that need to be completed, acknowledge these feelings and return the focus back to the breath. You will experience mental phenomena of all varieties, from the pleasant to the negative and even mundane. These should all be treated the same.
Change won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. Think of meditation like working out at the gym. Just like you wouldn’t expect to become lean, strong and defined after one exercise session, meditation may not have an immediately noticeable impact. But if you ‘Keep Turning Up’ (chapter 6.6), you will start to see improvement.
Over time it will get easier to focus your mind onto the breath, and you will notice positive changes in your regular life. You will find that you are less quick to anger, able to say no to temptation, and able to stay calm under increasing levels of stress. You will not develop superpowers, or immunity to pain or illness, but you will notice a positive improvement in your mental state.
“If you meditate regularly, even when you don’t feel like it, you will make great gains, for it will allow you to see how your thoughts impose limits upon you. Your resistance to meditation are your mental prisons in miniature.”
- Ram Dass
Common Misconceptions About Meditation
1) Meditation is not religious
Although many religions have a form of meditation practice built into them, mindfulness meditation itself is completely secular.
Your belief or lack of belief in a deity or your level of devotion at a church, mosque, temple or shrine, has no impact on the effect of meditation. Mindfulness meditation is simply an observation of the breath.
There is no invocation of any deity, use of religious words, worship or idolatry. Just observation of breath.
At its core, this approach is actually similar to the approaches of many religious practices. Prayer repetition, prostrations, the use of rosary beads, fasting, rituals and chanting all involve focus on a particular stimulus to the exclusion of all else. Although not the same as mindfulness (breath focused) mediation, the practice is similar enough to provide some benefits to practitioners.
There is reason that these practices are so pervasive amongst disparate and competing religions – namely that mindfulness has positive benefits, regardless of the religious overtones.
2) Lifestyle changes are not necessary
All you have to do to start meditating is to find the time to start meditating and do it. You don’t need to give away your possessions, join a cult, quit your job or become vegan.
You just need to start meditating.
Just like how meditation is not religious, it is also not moral. That is not to say that it is ‘immoral’, rather that the act of meditation inherently has no moral status – you are just observing your breath. That being said, meditation will force you to look at the mental phenomenon that arises in your mind.
If your actions are immoral, inconsiderate or deceitful, you will be repeatedly confronted by such feelings. This has led to changes in some people, but not in all.
3) Joining a meditation group is not necessary
You can start meditating right now without the help or support from any formal teacher or group. However like all things, some people get a lot of benefit from having likeminded people around them all with the same goal, as well as with a teacher supporting them in the process.
Given that meditation is completely an internal affair, it can be hard to ‘know’ if you are doing it right, these kinds of questions can be best addressed by an experienced teacher.
Unfortunately meditation groups can be a mixed bag. Some are highly traditional or religious and combine the mindfulness mediation practice with chanting, rituals, incense, clothing and other ‘spiritual’ paraphernalia. This is appealing and helpful for some, but very off putting to others. If you want to find a teacher or a class, shop around until you find one that suits your needs. Until then, keep practicing on your own.
4) When to start?
Start today, start right now. A lot of people hear about the benefits of mediation and say that they can’t start now because they are ‘not in a good enough place to mediate’. This is like saying that you are not fit enough to start exercising or too unhealthy to begin dieting.
Meditation will help to address the problems in your life, if only by helping you to approach them in a calmer manner. It will never feel like the right time to make any change, you just have to begin. In time, the benefits will come.
Using the method described above, start meditating. Make sure that you find a place that is relatively quiet and one that you won’t be disturbed for the duration of the session. Set a timer and begin.
Remember to keep gently returning your attention back onto the breath, regardless of the mental phenomena that arises.
Repeat this process each day, increasing the time to a level that best works for you.
Continue The Conversation
What did your brain through up at you during meditation?
Tweet @zacpphillips #meditation, with your thoughts.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q) When meditating what position should I be in? Should I lie down, sit up, chair, no chair, eyes open or closed. Do I have to sit in a particular position and how do I hold my hands?
A) Provided that you keep returning your attention back to the sensation of the breath leaving the nose, don’t worry about the rest of the details, they don’t really matter
Ideally your meditation position will be comfortable, but not so comfortable that you fall asleep!
Q) How do you deal with pain or numbness that can occur when meditating?
A) The technical answer is that pain is another mental phenomena that is to be noticed, acknowledged, and let go of like all other mental phenomena. Of course this is easier said than done, particularly for beginners and particularly when the pain becomes intense.
The next time pain arises, just look at it. See it for what it is and watch to see if it passes. If it grows, or becomes too much, slowly shift your body to alleviate the pain and return your focus to the breath.
Q) I feel like I am wasting my time and that meditation is not working.
A) A common mistake for mediators is to be simply ‘thinking with their eyes closed’. Make sure you are not sitting down to meditate and actually spending all that time mulling over your problems or planning what you are going to do that day.
Remember that thinking in any form is a type of mental phenomenon to be acknowledged and then you are to return your focus to your breath.
If you are practicing mindfulness meditation properly it will take some time (perhaps months) to see any benefits, but rest assured that they will come.
Q) When is the best time and place to meditate?
A) I like to meditate as the first and last things that I do each day. I find that it is a great way to prepare me for my day as well as to decompress before sleeping. I don’t have particular dedicated meditation spot, but I prefer to be outdoors in nature whenever possible.
Some people find that dedicating a particular time and place to be very beneficial to their practice as this ritual nature aids the regularity and priming of the meditation. These people will often make a shrine of sorts complete with a candle, incense and other paraphernalia. While not necessary, this can definitely be helpful to some. Still others will prefer to practice their mediation haphazardly without the aid of ritual and routine.
I would suggest that you start by meditating at a consistent time each day that is convenient to your lifestyle, in a place that you won’t get disturbed. From there you can experiment with any of the above approaches and find what works best for you.
1) Khory, B, et al. 2013, ‘Mindfulness Based Therapy: A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis’ (2013), Clinical Psychological Review.
2) Sedmeier, P, et al 2012, ‘The Psychological Effects Of Meditation’, Psychological Bulletin.
3) Eberth, J. & Sedmeier, P. 2012, ‘The Effects Of Mindfulness: A Meta-Analysis’, Mindfulness.
By focusing on your breath, you are able to calm and focus your mind. When a mental phenomenon arises, acknowledge it and then return your focus back to the sensation of the breath leaving the nose.