Meditation – how do I know if I’m doing it right?
Two true facts:
· Meditation is good for us
· Anyone and everyone can successfully practise meditation
It is scientifically proven that meditation provides benefits for our physical and mental health. There is a library’s worth of evidence to show meditation and mindfulness can help to:
· reduce anxiety, stress and emotional and physical pain,
· improve concentration
· lead us to function on a higher level by developing cognitive function and unleashing creativity
And I’m not even going to list all the famous high-achieving meditators (hello, Oprah Winfrey, Russell Brand, Arianna Huffington, Katy Perry, Ruby Wax), who attribute their success in part to the practice.
Given the fact that there is no downside to meditation, it is hard to understand why we’re not all devoting a few minutes each day to practise.
But let’s not pretend: it isn’t easy. The popular image of the serene, androgynous Buddha sitting in lotus position belies the process. For most us it just isn’t like this. It’s a massive struggle. In our goal-orientated culture, it feels as though we’re going against our very nature to stop doing to just be. Our senses seem to crave stimulation: our hands twitch for our devices, our eyes look for something to gaze upon, sounds distract and annoy, and thoughts come rushing in and stubbornly demand our attention.
This is inevitable. But don’t be disheartened – it’s all part of the process.
So why do we find it so difficult to practise? And how do we know if we’re doing it right?
The great news is that, if you have taken the decision to commit to doing some meditation practice every day, and you’re making time to do it, you’re doing it right.
A good proportion of ‘doing’ meditation is intention: committing to not doing anything else for your meditation period and giving yourself wholeheartedly to the practice for the allotted time. Very often the biggest obstacle to overcome is just getting started. Once you have that intention, you are in a good place.
Having made that commitment to set aside the time (preferably 25 minutes, but even 10 minutes a day will bring some benefits), give yourself the opportunity to get the most out of your meditation period. Think of it as an act of self-love – the meditation time/space is a sanctuary in your day.
In Zen Buddhism, there are four postures of meditation: sitting, standing, lying down and walking. I usually do my practice on the Tube on the way to work, so I’ll either be sitting or standing. I used to think of my morning commute as a bit of a waste of time, so I’d spend the time working or reading. Now, I really look forward to the half-hour of meditation. There’s nothing to do, or see, nowhere to go. I can just surrender to the process.
Find a place and a posture that works for you. Getting up a bit earlier and spending the time sitting can be a good way to start the day. Other people prefer to end the day with a practice, as it helps to them to settle and prepare for sleep. My friend and fellow meditation teacher Gareth recommends going to sit in a church at lunchtime, if you don’t have a quiet space at work.
So once you’ve got started, what exactly is meant to happen?
There is a popular misconception that meditation is the absence of thought or controlling the mind so that we completely ‘zone out’. In fact, it’s the opposite. We allow thoughts, feelings, ideas, memories to pop up – but instead of engaging with them or acting them out, we just notice they’re there and allow them to pass.
It’s the same with physical stimuli. On the Tube, for instance, there are all sorts of things going on – people are talking and listening to music, my back feels achy, the person next to me has very strong aftershave and/or bad breath and/or is drinking Red Bull, the driver announces that we’re being held at a red signal … Doing the practice means we are aware of all these things but we don’t need to do anything. We don’t attach any value to them or allow them to annoy us – we just notice and go back to the practice.
Which brings us to the fundamental principles of meditation: awareness and acceptance (or ‘AA’ as my teacher Zen master Daizan Roshi calls them). When we’re meditating, we’re not suppressing anything – instead we're creating a safe space for anything at all to come up, without judging. One of the reasons it’s so hard is that we’re not used to just letting things be.
When I first started practising meditation, it was with the practice of counting the breath (known as susokukan in Japanese). It’s the very simple process of counting the breath up to 10 and then starting again at one. Who would have thought it could be so difficult? I would regularly start thinking about breakfast, the pins and needles in my legs, wondering how much longer there was to go … and find myself at 27 or 43 before starting again at one. Even if I managed to maintain my focus on the breath, I would start to congratulate myself and think, ‘Yayyy'! Look at me! I’m doing meditation!’ Which, of course, is thinking about doing meditation, rather than just doing it. Then I would think: ‘You idiot! You can’t even count your breath without having to congratulate yourself on counting the breath,’ which again is getting caught up with thoughts, as well as being judgey.
But it happens. Thoughts crowd in. Stuff we need to deal with. Questions need answering. Conversations replay themselves. Emotions arise. Our only job during our meditation period is to observe these things and let them pass. It really is that simple.
But that’s not to say it’s easy. We’re training the mind here. My teacher, Daizan Roshi, likens it to going to the gym: you begin with lighter weights and build up your fitness from there. So, it is with meditation: set yourself up for success by starting with a short, daily practice that you know you can achieve. The most important thing is just to do it.
As hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons said in a Huffington Post blog: ‘You don't have to believe in meditation for it to work. You just have to take the time to do it. The old truth is still true today, “God helps those who help themselves.” My advice? Meditate.’
Samantha Warrington is a qualified yoga, meditation and mindfulness teacher.