Meditation 101

23rd January 2021

By Estelle Curiel

(Image courtesy of Unsplash)

With the popularity of mindfulness broadening, meditations are now more readily available than ever before, with a plethora of free ones on platforms like YouTube. However, many people get discouraged after their first few meditations, as they feel they are doing it ‘wrong’ and can’t quite get the hang of it; while others are too intimidated to even start.

Maybe meditation was one of your New Year’s Resolutions and your struggles with it stopped you from continuing? We’re here to help.

Calm, a popular meditation app, launched a programme narrated by Jeff Warren, mindfulness expert, explaining how to meditate. It is a series for beginners and advanced meditators alike. However, the app costs £42.99 a year, which most students cannot afford.

I have outlined the main lessons from the program so you can take this knowledge with you for your own practice and, perhaps, give that New Year Resolution another try.

Mindfulness is a process of regulating attention inspired by Buddhist traditions. Mindfulness practice allows us to bring awareness to our continually changing experience with openness, acceptance, and curiosity in a non-judgemental manner.

As Kabat-Zinn, one of the pioneers of mindfulness, writes: mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, non-judgmentally, to the present moment”.

One of the key components of mindfulness meditation is the homebase, that is, what we chose to pay attention to while we meditate. Many meditations use the breath as homebase, but you can choose another sensation, like the tingling in your hands or a sound like a ticking clock. What is important is to choose a homebase that works for you. It’s good to experiment with different homebases in order to find your preferred one that you can comfortably sit with. You only need to find one that works for you, as Jeff Warren says, finding a meditation technique is rather like finding a form of exercise you like: it doesn’t matter which you choose, if it works for you, it will benefit your mental health.

Mindfulness meditation is about continuously bringing our attention to our homebase and noticing whenever our attention wanders. This usually happens when we get distracted by thoughts, sounds, or visual day-dreams. Mindful meditation is not about ridding ourselves of thoughts, but rather choosing to pay attention to something else whilst they play in the background – doing so builds our ‘muscle’ of concentration. Meditation is about getting distracted and noticing it so we can come back to the present moment. It isn’t about not thinking or fighting our thoughts. The more we get distracted and come back to our homebase, the more we build the ‘muscles’ of clarity and concentration. What we pay attention to becomes our life, so building concentration during meditation helps us choose what we pay attention to outside of it.

Clarity is about our awareness of the present moment. It is about realising when we get distracted and popping out of our thoughts, while also noticing what has distracted us from our practice. Over time, building the ‘muscle’ of clarity through meditation leads to great insight as to the nature of our mind. As Jeff Warren writes in his blog, clarity is “the part of us capable both of panning out to a broader perspective, and of zooming in to notice previously unconscious habits of thinking and responding”. So, when meditating, get curious about your distraction. To help you notice them, you can label them as ‘hearing’, ‘seeing’ ‘feeling’, ‘thinking’ etc.

Another ‘muscle’ we train through mindfulness meditation is equanimity, a state of mental calmness where we feel serene while under trying circumstances. An example could be not wincing as a car alarm goes off, but rather going with the flow and accepting it as part of our current experience. Jeff describes it as ‘inner smoothness’. It is not tensing up against or resisting an experience, but relaxing into the moment. Equanimity is giving in to the experience.

Mindfulness gives us an insight into impermanence. Our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations are all transient. Even the most painful feeling has a start, a middle, and an end. Mindfulness teaches us the meaning of ‘this too shall pass’.

What does that mean practically for your mindfulness practice?

- Experiment with different homebases to find which you like better. Take it as a learning experience and try not to get frustrated when you try one you don’t get on with. If you find you like the breath best, experiment with where you focus to feel it: your nostrils, the back of your throat, your chest, your belly …

- Use labels. Noting with labels like ‘in’, ‘out’, ‘hear’, ‘think’ can help us stay concentrated on our homebase and not get wrapped up in our thoughts, feelings, sensations etc.

- When you get distracted, don’t fight it. Distractions are normal, you aren’t ‘failing’ or doing it wrong. Mindfulness meditation is about being distracted and bringing your attention back to the present moment through your homebase. Approach distraction with a curious and non-judgmental manner. When you realise you’ve been distracted gently bring your attention back to your homebase.

- There is no right way to meditate, and that applies to your meditation position. You can meditate with eyes open with a soft focus, or eyes closed, you can sit, lie down, or stand up. It’s all up to you and what feels more comfortable. The key is to be relaxed yet alert – if you’re sleeping you’re not meditating!

- Meditation is really about being okay not doing anything and accepting the present moment just how it is – that’s where equanimity comes in.

- Don’t get discouraged if you can’t stop your thoughts, the point isn’t to stop them completely but to let them happen in the background. Thoughts are the clouds in the sky of our mind.

- Have fun! Enjoy the process of practicing mindfulness and experimenting to find what works and doesn’t work for you.

‘Whenever you realize that you were distracted, and you redirect your attention back to your homebase, this is a win, not a failure’ – Jeff Warren

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