Over the past few years, MEDITATION has been quickly growing in popularity in the western world – with various celebrity endorsements helping to raise its profile.
It’s appeal to an individual can sometimes come from a sense of wanted something more in life or it can be related to trying to take control over a particularly stressful time – but in other cases, people can just be genuinely intrigued by the whole thing!
So in this article, I’m going to break down the very basics of what meditation is, whilst speaking to various meditation practitioners and experts about some of the biggest myths and misconceptions behind it.
Meditation – along with Yoga – was first introduced to the United States early in the 20th century by Swami Vivekananda – an Indian Hindu monk. In the 1960s there was an explosion of interest in meditation, which was fueled by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s teaching of Transcendental Meditation – a type of meditation which has never been more popular.
Like Transcendental Meditation, there are many different forms of the practice that exist, all with slightly different purposes and aims. But ultimately, the very basics of any kind of meditation consist of breathing exercises in a calm environment. Some people close their eyes, others don’t. Some people listen to relaxing music in the background, others don’t. Some people meditate for hours at a time, others just take some time out for five minutes.
I spoke to DR. NIKKI STARR Noce MD, DR. CATHY CONNORS, MARCEL CLEMENTI – a Yoga Trainer, TORI ANDERSON – Yoga & Meditation Instructor, SUDHA SUTHANTHIRAM – Yoga Teacher & Life Coach & DEBBIE CAIRNS of The StillPoint.
ADAM CROOKES: What do you think are the big myths and misconceptions about meditation?
DR. C CONNORS: I think one of the big myths of meditation is that people think that they can’t do it because their mind is too active. We all have active minds and that is what the mind does – it thinks. Over time, the mind will calm down, but in the beginning it can seem like the mind is more active. This is because we aren’t used to spending time in stillness and focusing inward. Often when there is free space we distract ourselves with various activities with like the TV or the Internet. So when we sit in silence it can seem overwhelming. But if we are consistent, the mind will calm down and peace will increase. Sitting in Meditation is an act of self-devotion and self-love. And no matter what happens during the time that you sit in meditation (even if the mind is active), you are creating more silence within. So never judge your meditation practice as good or bad – just be proud that you created space for you!
DR. N STARR: A misconception is that people think they have to clear their thoughts during meditation. What actually happens is by choosing to concentrate and focus on one thing with your attention the thoughts automatically stop. Yes they come back and then when you realize you’re lost in your thoughts you choose to come back to your one point of focus. This trains the mind and over time you can hold you concentration and focus much better.
MARCEL: One of the biggest myths about meditation is probably that people imagine an old monk sitting on the top of the mountain without any private life. Or when you meditate you try to be in something like a nirvana or a white place.
But the truth is that meditation means to be at the present moment. To not worry about the future or thinking about the past. It’s all about awareness. About appreciating what you have and of accepting the circumstances. Not always trying to judge if it’s good or bad. Just let it be and be aware of it.
SUDHA: Just as many people think you have to be flexible to practice Yoga, many feel that they need to be able to sit down and not have any thoughts in order to meditate. They get frustrated that the thoughts keep coming and they soon discontinue practice. While this is the aim, it is a very long term one. The benefits come in the process. Therefore, stay positive and keep the frustration at bay knowing that you are progressing as long as you are consistently sitting in silence watching your inner world.
DEBBIE: Meditation is about emptying your mind. The most common complaint I hear from new students is that they can’t meditate because their mind is too busy. So when they’re not able to completely empty their minds of thoughts they think they’re doing something wrong and give up. Not true! Whilst meditation will certainly start to calm the chatter of the mind, your thoughts will never stop entirely. The difference is with practice we learn to observe the noise of the mind, rather than becoming lost in it.
ADAM CROOKES: What benefits have you seen in your daily life through meditation?
DR. N STARR: Meditation benefits every aspect of our lives from relationships, to work, to hormone levels. When you meditate you become more aware of your emotions and you become less reactive. When you meditate you enhance your efficiency, creativity and productivity. With meditation you need less sleep, feel more calm and centered too. Meditation is great for every aspect of our health because it decreases stress levels, regulates our hormone levels and promotes happiness.
MARCEL: Since I started to meditate I haven’t been sick one single day. Because I am so aware of my body, I always feel if I am exhausted or tired and if I need to rest, have any tea or medicine. When you are used to meditate once a day it reduces your stress level a lot. You only need five minutes per day to calm your mind and get new energy for your daily life. I can remember names and phone numbers so much easier and have such a better concentration. In the combination with Yoga I sleep so much better and I fall asleep at night right away. There are so many good days and I appreciate life every single day. You just have to live in the present. You just have to enjoy the life you have.
SUDHA: When the noise in my mind quietened, it became easier to listen to myself. This has helped me to make radical decisions in my life again and again with ease. It takes courage to live according to your own values, to go against the norms of society and follow your heart. I realised I’ve done this consistently over the years because meditation has allowed me to be in touch with my inner voice. Without it, all the other noises we’re bombarded with, that of family, society and culture, become a conscious effort to fight against. With it, our inner journey takes precedence over the outer journey and, consequently, life slowly becomes a graceful dance.
ADAM CROOKES: How can a person begin meditation?
MARCEL: You don’t need to climb a mountain and sit in a cross-legged position. You can meditate wherever you are, whatever you do. Because meditation means to be aware of the present moment, you can just focus on drinking a glass of water or having a wonderful walk in a park. But for beginners it is always better to look for a calm place. Switch of your phone, come into a comfortable seated position and try to focus on your breath. Calm down your mind, take your time and just be present – that’s the key to a happier and healthier life.
SUDHA: Deep involvement in any activity requires heightened concentration and can be likened to meditation, however it is when we move that concentration to the breath that we turn the attention inwards. That’s where meditation begins. Therefore, I would suggest to start with a short daily practice of stillness with awareness on the breath. The amount of time will vary based on the person’s current comfort with silence and stillness, but a ten-minute practice is generally a good start. There are many other things that certainly help, such as practicing at the same time in the same place, but is not essential.
DEBBIE: You’re not going to find the time (or motivation) to meditate, you have to make it. You have to make your meditation practice as ingrained a part of your day to day routine as brushing your teeth – You don’t even think about it, you just do it I think first thing in the morning before you can find a reason not to is the best time to do your practice. But if that doesn’t suit you then you can also try lunchtime, or on the bus/ferry/train to or from work. Start with ten minutes a day. Do that for a few months then maybe increase to fifteen minutes. Remember that there isn’t one way to meditate. There are a myriad of techniques, apps and resources available to help make it easier for you, so utilise them!
DR. N STARR: Nature is a perfect place to meditate because the environment is peaceful. If you can find a place with water such as the ocean or stream, the sounds make it easier to meditate. Even if you’re in a city you can find a park with some trees and sit on a bench or even next to a fountain.
ADAM CROOKES: People practice meditation in so many different ways, but what are the fundamentals of it for you?
TORI: For me the fundamentals of meditation are simply to reconnect with my body and dive inward. Our lives are always moving so fast in so many directions, with so many gears turning in our heads. It’s so important not just on a scientific level, because the research is there, but on an emotional and spiritual level. We need that reset button to flow through life more gracefully, emotionally sound, and mentally well to make choices from day to day and devout ourselves to our highest path.
ADAM CROOKES: Why do you think there has been this boom in popularity with meditation in recent years?
SUDHA: Meditation is quickly becoming popular because we as a society have been suffering with stress for a long time now and are looking for answers. Those that have meditated and felt the benefits are sharing their experiences. It is working and the word has spread. Science is also backing up the claims through various studies. Yoga has also become popular and a booming business. All of this has paved the way for the acceptance of meditation as a way to deal with the stresses of our daily life and not just a practice for yogis in the Himalayan caves.
TORI: I think the boom in population of people meditating over the past few years has been going on for more than a few years, but now it’s being spread in social media, which I think is so wonderful! I use this platform myself to spread meditation techniques and the like because some people either haven’t heard of it, or are just beginning to be curious about it, and they aren’t as used to seeing all of the things I’m used to because all I follow are basically yoga teachers and like minded individuals so I have to remind myself that I can have students out there that aren’t just showing up to class in person. And it works. It’s spreading because it works. Instantly! Some people that I would have never thought would be interested are messaging me asking for more tips, techniques, or advice on how to deepen their practice. It’s so beautiful to watch unfold. People can’t help but notice benefits when they reconnect to their Source. It’s plugging in to a part of themselves they have been looking for.
ADAM CROOKES: From what you’ve seen, how long can meditation take to ‘work’?
TORI: For me, one minute can be enough. Thirty minutes can be generous. You work with what you can give yourself that day. Ten minutes before I start my day, talk to anyone or get on my phone is giving more to everyone. I can give more of myself in helpful and creative ways when I’m fully recharged. The best way I use to describe it is “filling up your cup”.. because you can’t pour from an empty one.
ADAM CROOKES: When you first started meditation, what was the most difficult thing about it?
DR. C CONNORS: I first started meditating 23 years ago. My biggest challenge has been in consistency and making it a priority. I have been a very active, achievement-oriented person (especially when I was younger). Sitting and ‘doing nothing’ felt like a waste of time. Yet, I was first introduced to it as a spiritual practice and that is what kept me sticking with it. I was very sporadic until four years ago when I had a conversation with my main teacher. He asked me if I had a meditation practice. I told him “on and off” and he said “well then you don’t have a meditation practice”. That woke me up. Since that day I have meditated daily. Most days it is it my full meditation practice, but if there isn’t time for my full practice I still create space to sit with myself and silence. It is been one of the greatest gifts in my life and I now look forward to it and without it I would feel like something is missing.
ADAM CROOKES: Can people get by without a meditation teacher?
DR. C CONNORS: Yes, people can get by without a teacher but I find that in the beginning it is helpful for people to have support and encouragement. It is easy to give up or to get frustrated and having encouragement can be so wonderful. What I have found is that once people have experienced the positive impact of a consistent practice they are more likely to continue on their own.
ADAM CROOKES: Can you explain what a mantra is to people?
DR. C CONNORS: A mantra can be very helpful. It gives the mind something to focus on and can help someone drop into silence. A mantra can be a sound or group of words – I use Sanskrit mantras. I believe we are telling ourselves ‘mantras’ every day through thoughts going on in our mind. Mantras can be helpful, even when someone isn’t meditating. For example, if I have negative thoughts that keep arising in my mind and I try to combat them with a positive thought – my mind is in a battle. But if I chant a Sanskrit mantra it brings my mind to neutral and when I’m done there’s peace and stillness. One of the reasons I’m so inspired to teach is because of the benefits of witnessing it myself and if we can find peace with ourselves then I believe that we will have peace in this world.
ADAM CROOKES: Does meditation have to be a spiritual thing?
DEBBIE: Whilst it’s true that meditation forms a part of most spiritual traditions, the practice itself does not have to be spiritual. Meditation, particularly the mindfulness based awareness practices have proven to have practical, real world applications such as reducing stress, anxiety & incidence of depression, helping veterans cope with PTSD, managing chronic pain/illness and improving performance in athletes. Having said that though, with any kind of sustained practice i think it is inevitable that as you sit quietly with yourself and your thoughts that you will begin to ask the bigger questions in life
INTERVIEW & STORY: ADAM CROOKES
MORE LIFE HACKS: