Meditation: is it only for those "New Age Hippies"? (plus a 5 minute meditation to find out)
Meditation. Although millennia-old practice, meditation is one of those "trendy" words that everyone wants to do, but not quite sure where to start.
We might think that meditation is only reserved for those "New Age Hippies" as my partner affectionately likes to call me nowadays.
Meditation doesn't mean sitting in silence at a retreat in Bali for hours in a row, hoping for enlightenment.
I want to bust the myth that meditation is difficult, reserved only for a special category of people, or that you can only do it in a very specific setup.
What is meditation?
In Latin, meditatio simply means "to think, contemplate, devise, ponder".
In practical terms, meditating means bringing awareness to your current state and, through this awareness, achieve a new state of calm, focus and stability.
How difficult is it to meditate?
I have only recently started meditating, so while I can't say I am an expert, what it does mean is that what I will share with you is simple, no BS, practical ways that you can incorporate meditation in your everyday life, without requiring any special setup.
Not sure you believe in this New Age/meditation hype?
I have seen meditation being received with some reluctance, particularly in the Western world. It's often seen as some religious/spiritual practice or some "law of attraction" BS that people feed their minds to "stay positive". I admit, I have been guilty of thinking that as well in the past.
I was grateful to be proven wrong, and instead discover the true beauty of meditation, one where instead of pushing through emotions or dismissing them, I allow myself to co-exist with them, in all their glory. This has enabled me to integrate emotions I've always considered to be bad, such as: shame, fear, jealousy, anger, guilt. Your mind is how it is. By allowing these parts of yourself to exist, you're giving yourself permission to be a complex human being, who is able and allowed to experience a range of emotions - in a healthy way.
Everything exists in balance. You cannot truly feel love, unless you have experienced hate. You cannot know happiness, unless you're familiar with sadness.
However, meditation doesn't have to be for everyone. I've lived perfectly fine for 35 (ahem) years without meditating. Sure, for me it's enriching and powerful, but doesn't mean it has to be for you. And that's okay.
But if you feel drawn towards meditation and want to integrate it in your life, read on.
How does one meditate?
Meditation is about bringing your focus towards the present moment. An easy way to do that, is by focusing on your breath.
Think of your breath as a constant cycle of replenishment. With every in breath, you replenish your body with fresh energy. With every out breath, you let go of the old energy that you no longer require.
Under stress, our breathing contracts and slows down this essential process of energetic replenishment.
Therefore, simply being present and aware of your body, will enable you to notice these small contractions and release them.
As energy starts to flow naturally within your body again, you enable your mental and emotional processes to flow again, along with your breath.
How do we banish stress through meditation?
We contract when we don't want to feel something. By contracting, what we are in fact doing is holding that blockage trapped in our body.
We tend to think of certain emotions as negative (stress, fear etc) and want to banish them from our body because "they don't feel good".
But in fact what happens when we feel a negative emotion, is our limbic system reacting. When we fear stress or fear, this primordial part of the brain puts us into instinctual survival mode. This is where the fight/flight or freeze response comes from. This is where contraction comes from.
Meditation invites us to access a new layer of awareness. A more profound awareness, where emotions aren't given a binary value (good or bad), but one where emotions are just allowed to be.
What do you mean "emotions are just allowed to be"?
Think about the last time when you felt stressed, anxious or stuck. What was your instinctual reaction?
To push it away.
To try and calm yourself in the moment by dismissing the emotion - only for it to resurface later, either manifested in your behaviour (anger, outbursts, desperation) or in your body (migraine, stomach cramps etc).
Stress is a good emotion, according to health psychologist Kelly McGonigal. In her TED talk "How to make stress your friend", this Stanford psychologist explains how stress is in fact beneficial.
Imagine stress as a big ball of energy that your body releases to help you overcome whatever obstacle you're facing.
It's just our contraction and the negative stories we assign to stress, which prevents us from utilising it as we're meant to.
So instead of automatically giving it a negative meaning and denying ourselves of this useful resource, allow yourself to feel it in your body, and notice the effect it has on you physically.
Can you notice the contraction in your breathing?
Let it go and breathe normally again.
It's often helpful to take a few deep "belly breaths".
What is belly breathing and why is it good?
When we breathe, we usually expand our chest with every breath. However, most of us only use a small portion of our lung capacity. Chest breathing is shallow, and when we are contracted, it keeps us blocked in a negative state.
Breathing into your belly (diaphragm breathing) means keeping your chest relatively still, while allowing the air to go into your belly, expanding it. This will use much more lung capacity than breathing into your chest.
Belly breathing will also slow down your breathing because it takes longer to fill all your belly with air, compared to the shallow chest breathing.
Try it now.
Sitting up straight or laying down, take a few deep breaths, filling up your belly with air.
Then exhale slowly.
Belly breathing - Level 2
You can also practice a visualisation with your belly breathing: with every in breath, visualise yourself taking in calm energy, and with every out breath, visualise yourself releasing the energy that's blocking you.
It can also help to breathe in through the nose, and out through the mouth, to create a more visible separation between the energy you take in, and the energy you release.
When, where and how can I meditate?
Meditation is a highly flexible and versatile practice, that isn't demanding in terms of time or setup.
I'll give you an example: a few nights ago, I was out drinking with some friends, and had one too many. The next day at the office, I was feeling quite delicate. I was tired, hungover and had lots of work to get through that day. Meditation helped me find my inner balance and focus and get everything done - on a busy day when even "max potential me" might have normally struggled.
I am happy to share with you this simple, 5 minute "anytime-anywhere meditation".
5 minute anytime-anywhere meditation
Find a (relatively) quiet space with minimal distractions: your sofa, a meeting room at the office, a park bench or even sitting at your desk.
Close your eyes, and take a few deep belly breaths.
1. Minute 1
Bring your awareness to how you're currently feeling in your mind and body. Let go of the story, the "why" you're feeling this way. Just be aware of the feeling.
At the end of the first minute, summarise how you're feeling in one word if you can.
2. Minute 2
Think about how you would like to feel instead. Take a few deep breaths and settle on one word that describes how you want to feel instead.
3. Minute 3
Remind yourself of a time when you have felt this way in the past. Allow yourself to breathe into this feeling, remembering how it feels in your body and in your mind. How is your breath in this state? How does your body feel in this state? What emotions do you associate with this state?
4. Minute 4
Ask yourself: What do I need to do in order to feel this way?
Take this minute to allow some ideas to come up.
By the end of the minute, choose one or two actions that resonate with you the most, to help you get back in that state.
Minute 5: write down your desired state, and the one or two actions you will do to achieve this state.
I have saved mine as my background screen on my iPhone so I see it whenever I reach for my phone.
Below is mine. What is yours?