Part 1: How To Start Meditation

Welcome to part 1 of 3, of our guide on how to start meditation with help from our Stop Smoking Advisor, Arjun.

The ideas and philosophies of meditation (and mindfulness) are demanding lots of attention here in the West. You may have seen the terms in magazines, the news or perhaps your favourite celebrity practice or social media.

This 3-part series will cover some of the basics to help you get started with a meditation practice, exploring what meditation actually is and what the benefits are. We’ll also de-bunk some of the common misconceptions which may act as a barrier to getting started, how it is different to mindfulness, how to maintain a practice and how we can weave practices into our daily lives.

What is meditation?

Quite simply, meditation is sitting (or standing) and intentionally following the breath – easy right!? Not really when we’ve become used to thinking or doing things all the time! Paying attention to the breath, the natural rhythm of in and out is nothing special, but it is happening and always will whilst we are alive. It can act as an anchor that we can keep coming back to – a point of focus during the meditation practice.

Meditation is likened to an exploration of the inner landscape – ‘how does my mind actually work?’. The removal of distractions helps, closing our eyes not knowing what may arise: thoughts (“I wonder what’s for dinner”), sensations (tightness in the neck, clothing brushing against the skin), or emotions (sadness, love this, hate that) – they all come up and sitting there not doing anything about them can be difficult – imagine trying to stop a wave in the ocean! Meditation is not trying to stop our thoughts and have an empty mind free of any distractions or devoid of emotions, it is learning to be with them with kindness and curiosity. And the wave soon merges back into the ocean where it began…

Meditation typically refers to a formal seated practice at a set time, with the intention of focusing on the breath, without trying to control how the breath comes in and out, just being aware of the process occurring, knowing that distractions of a wandering mind are inevitable, you can always bring the focus back to breathing – even if this happens once, this is okay – there is no ‘wrong meditation’.

Here is a framework to help you get started:

1) Take a seat: Find a place to sit that feels calm and quiet to you.

2) Set a time limit: If you’re just beginning, it can help to choose a short time, such as 3, 5 or 10 minutes.

3) Notice your body: You can sit in a chair with your feet on the floor, you can sit loosely cross-legged, you can kneel—all are fine. Just make sure you are in a stable position you can stay in for a while.

4) Feel your breath: Follow and feel the physical sensations of your breath as it goes in and as it goes out.

5) Notice when your mind has wandered: Inevitably, your attention will leave the breath and wander to other places. When you get around to noticing that your mind has wandered—in a few seconds, a minute, five minutes—simply return your attention to the breath.

6) Be kind to your wandering mind: Don’t judge yourself or obsess over the content of the thoughts you find yourself lost in. Just come back.

7) Close with kindness: 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.

That’s the practice in a nutshell! We go away and come back and continue to practice with the same kindness to ourselves and a sense of curiosity.

Have you been considering meditating but faced with some barriers? Here are a few common misconceptions:

“I can’t do meditation because my thoughts keep getting in the way” / “My mind is too busy to meditate”:

Firstly, this is a natural response! Our minds are hardwired to be thinking, so when we want to sit still and be quiet it’s going to go into over-drive. If we set out with the intention to focus on our breath or body and we ‘lose the meditation’ – waking up in a stream of thoughts about the shopping list or planning our next holiday – it can feel like we’ve failed or not doing right. Actually, the opposite is true. Our thoughts and distractions provide the basis for the meditation, once we realise we’re thinking about something we can gently bring focus back to our breathing. So really, when we notice we have been thinking about that email, or what we’ve got for dinner, it’s a success, not failure!

In a ‘Monk’s Guide to Happiness’ Gelong Thubeten simplifies and frames meditation into 3 phases:

1. Breathing (focusing) | Being with the breath

2. Noticing | Moment we realise we’re on a train of thought (waking up)

3. Returning | Coming back to the breath

So, breathing, noticing, remembering – all meditations will follow the same patterns.

Meditation is a way to relax or a way to be happy, get rid of negative thoughts…

Yes, these are natural by products of meditation, but we meditate in order to cultivate awareness and acceptance of anything and everything that may arise when we sit, so we can learn to do the same in our daily lives.

When we decide to still in silence, our fears, anxieties and worries come to the surface because we haven’t the usual distractions – mobile phone, socialising, entertainment – this can be a real barrier to continued practice. Our job is not to get rid of, or control, these thoughts in the hope that we’ll be happy, but rather to meeting them with compassion and kindness – it is impossible to stop thoughts but we can change our relationship to them.

“I won’t be able to meditate because I find it difficult to sit cross-legged / sit still”

This another common misconception. Any comfortable but alert position is totally fine – whether sitting on an armchair or lying on a yoga mat.  It’s not necessary to sit full lotus position without moving so much as a muscle, contrary to popular belief. Some like to use a bench or cushion, or some like to sit upright on a chair or on a bed with pillows under the arm – you can rest your knees or in your lap. Over time you will find your favored position. When we’re not used to sitting still for periods of time, the body will get uncomfortable. Instead of labeling this an issue, use it as a vehicle for returning, being present with the area of the body that needs attention – simply re-adjust with the intention to get comfortable again.

Give it a try and see what happens…

*It is important to consult a health practitioner before trying breathing or stretching exercises, especially with underlying health conditions.

Meditation can be a useful tool in helping you achieve changes in your life. Find out some of the ways that meditation can support your journey to becoming quit here. If you are looking to quit smoking, we can offer FREE support with specialist Stop Smoking Practitioners.