How to be Aware: Tips for Your First Meditation
If you're anything like I was before I began practicing, the concept of meditation probably sounds difficult or even a little intimidating. In actuality it's one of the easiest things to begin and can have a profound influence on your mindset. There are a number of benefits to silencing the mind. Studies have shown that meditation can help reduce stress, alleviate symptoms of anxiety, improve sleep quality, enhance relationships, and even improve cognition. They're benefits the Eastern world has understood for thousands of years but are just beginning to be realized in the West. The best part is that it's simple to begin and costs nothing. So how do you start?
It can be helpful to think of mediation as training the mind. Like fitness or any other kind of training, we can start simple and work our way up to more advanced techniques. The cornerstone of any mediation exercise is breathing. By regulating the breath we can naturally calm the mind and slow thought. Think about it--a lot of people might employ breathing techniques when angry or nervous as a way of calming themselves down. It's something we've been taught to do to control our reactions, but you don't need to be upset or on edge to use the same principles. In fact, mediation is a way of proactively controlling thought. The ultimate goal of mindfulness is to disassociate oneself from thought, thereby liberating oneself from it. It's important to note, however, that we aren't trying to stop thought. We're simply aiming to become outside observers who can no longer be controlled by it.
There are two main types of mediation: guided and what I would call self-guided. A guided mediation is lead by someone experienced who can hold your hand in a sense, while self-guided takes place entirely in the mind. As a beginner, and even now, I find guided mediation to be much easier. It keeps me focused and accountable, helping me stay on track rather than getting lost in thought. You can find guided meditation classes in most cities and I would highly recommend doing so, but for those who can't or aren't ready to, technology has yet again made life easier. Over the last few years a whole group of mediation apps have come about that make it easy to begin meditating anywhere and anytime you like. I'm an emphatic supporter of Headspace, and if you give it a try you'll see why. If that's not your style though, all you need is your mind to begin mediating.
So to start, it's important to create an environment in which you can find inner calm. For you this might mean finding a quiet room in your house, or a peaceful spot at the beach. I try to find a place in nature as often as possible because I find it does a lot of the hard work for me, instantly putting my mind at ease. If you're not following a guided mediation, you may want to play relaxing music or nature sounds. It's really about creating a comfortable space for yourself, so play around with different ways of doing it and find what works for you.
Find a comfortable position. Don't worry too much about what this might look like for now as long as you're upright. Some people cross their legs and sit on the ground, while others sit in a chair. People tend to think they need to sit a particular way, but at the beginning all that matters is that you're comfortable. Start with your eyes open and a soft gaze. Don't focus on anything in particular, but be aware of your surroundings.
Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. This is something you should maintain for the duration of the exercise. It helps slow and regulate thought while keeping the body calm. For the first few breaths, it should be audible. If I were sitting next to you I should be able to hear you breathing.
There are several segments you can go through during the exercise: shifting awareness from the environment around you to the physical senses, then bringing your focus inward. You can check in with the body starting at the head and moving down, count your breaths, and remind yourself of your intentions and motivations for meditation. The gist of it, however, is that you should be clearing the mind of all thought. It's natural to lose focus occasionally, particularly at first, but just bring your attention back once you realize. Don't shut yourself off from thought entirely, just observe them when they do come. It can be tricky at first, but it does get easier in time.
So give it a try and let us know how it goes. Try to do it for 10 minutes. How did you feel afterwards? I've found that I'm generally much less tense and stressed after each session. Overall, I'm beginning to see my thoughts as just that--thoughts. The goal isn't to control thought so much as it is to observe them as if they are clouds passing through your mind, not getting drawn into each one. Remember to check in with yourself and reflect after each session. It can be helpful to note how you feel before and after and compare the two. It may sound simple, but taking time out of your day to be aware is the first step to becoming a more centered, balanced you.