Currently we are going through a huge, unprecedented change. A change that is nothing like any of us have experienced in our lifetimes. The world around us, the reality we have come to know and shape our lives around, has come to a halt in many ways. There is collective fear - people are uncertain about what will happen in the future. People are worried for their health and the health of their loved ones. People have financial fears - many have lost their jobs. Many have had to change their entire lives either temporarily or permanently. And those working on the frontline now have the additional stress of this placed on them.
In addition to this, for many of us, all of our distractions that we normally turn to when we are bored, anxious, depressed or dissatisfied are no longer there or are harder to access - whether we distract ourselves through work, going out partying and socialising, or ‘retail therapy’. Now we have nowhere to run. Nowhere to turn. We need to face ourselves.
All of this is a lot to deal with. So what is the remedy?
I strongly believe the remedy is meditation. Meditation has changed my life for the better. Meditation is a tool that has helped reduce and manage my anxiety, see my thoughts with clarity, reduce my stress, reduce overthinking, help with insomnia, and also helped me connect to my ‘higher self’. It’s helped me reconnect to my spirituality.
Fear increases stress and stress comprises the immune system, so to make sure our immune system is working as effectively as possible to fight off any viruses, reducing stress is important. Plus, reducing stress is of course beneficial for our mental health.
This is also a great time to meditate, because the circumstances of the world are literally inviting us to turn inwards. To not be distracted. Meditation can be a powerful tool to overcome blockages in our lives.
The thing is, a lot of people talk about meditation and how great it is, but equally, so many people find meditation intimidating. They want to try it but don’t know where to start, or they claim that meditation ‘just doesn’t work for them’. They struggle to sit still and to still their thoughts. They do it a couple of times then sack it off.
I think this is a real shame, because meditation is so beneficial for everyone. I genuinely believe that if every person on earth meditated for 15 minutes every day, the world would be a much kinder, peaceful place. There would be a significant drop in crime. There would be no wars. No intimidation tactics. No bullying. I don’t know this for certain of course, but I strongly suspect it’s true.
If you’re reading this, you are probably at the least intrigued about meditation. My aim in this guide is to help break down meditation for you, to make it more accessible, and to explore the different meditation techniques that you can try. A lot of people try one tactic and don’t get on with it, without realising there are many other avenues to take. Or on the flip side, people look through apps or youtube and there are SO MANY different types of meditation that they don’t know where to start.
So, what exactly is meditation?
According to the dictionary definition, meditating is defined as follows:
“To focus one's mind for a period of time, in silence or with the aid of chanting, for religious or spiritual purposes or as a method of relaxation.”
The first part of this definition is really important - to focus ones mind.
There are many preconceived notions to meditation and to understand what meditation is, it’s also helpful to understand what mediation is NOT.
Meditation is not about forgetting your thoughts, or not thinking thoughts. It's not about becoming an empty vessel. We are humans. Thinking thoughts is what our human brain does. Rather, with meditation, we can find a place of stillness where we can OBSERVE our thoughts without judgement, and where we can recognise our thoughts as just that, rather than identifying with them and assuming they define us, which is what we tend to do in our normal life.
This might sound bonkers if you’ve not experienced this, but i promise you, once you get in to a good meditation practice, this will completely make sense.
Many meditation practices therefore, will make use of an ‘object’ of which we can focus the mind on, whichI will get on to shortly.
Another notion that people may have about meditation is that we can expect change overnight. We live in a culture that prioritises living quickly, achieving results quickly, turning things around quickly. We need to remove this notion of meditation. We may of course notice positive changes straight away, feeling a sense of calm after one meditation session. Then again, we may not.
One of the reasons meditation has been so beneficial for my life is not because of the first time I meditated. Or the meditation I did this morning. It is from consistent practice. We always want the one magical thing that will change our lives, make us happy and complete - that magic pill. That lottery ticket. But these things don’t exist. For true growth and contentment, anything worth having is something we grow into. Something we implement on a consistent basis. You will have some meditations which are amazing, and which feel as though the earth moved beneath you. You will have others which do nothing for you. The transformation is in doing it consistently. As many days as you possibly can. This is where you will see the benefits. And you will see the benefits quickly, but you must practice consistently to keep these benefits and to keep reaping more benefits.
And what are the benefits of meditation?
As noted above, benefits of meditation can include: a reduction in anxiety symptoms, more clarity, a sense of calm, reduction in stress, better sleep, better mood.
Meditation does have very direct and proven physiological benefits. However, one of the biggest benefits for me has been the opportunity to learn more about myself, my inner world, and how I can continue to grow. We are often so busy doing, that we rarely take the time to check in with ourselves. Ask ourselves how we are doing. What we want. And even to inquire into who we really are, once you take away all that external stuff.
Now on to the hows… how do we meditate? How do we find the best techniques that work for us?
Below I have listed some of the main meditation techniques. These won’t be an exhaustive list but they are the ones i feel are most popular and accessible.
Focusing on the breath is one of the most simple, yet effective, meditation tools. There are several ways you can bring breath into meditation. One is to simply focus on the breath and bring your awareness to how you’re breathing, and how your breath feels in the body. Another is to start to count your breaths, inhaling and then exhaling for a count of four. As you get used to this you can start to make your exhale longer, counting to 6, then to 8. Exhaling longer than your inhale can help engage your Parasympathetic Nervous System- your rest and digest response. This is a wonderful tool to help combat stress and anxiety symptoms.
You can also start to explore different breathing techniques (pranayama) and use this either in a meditative way, or as a way to relax before meditation. I will go into Pranayama in a separate blog post.
Another very popular meditation technique is a body scan - mentally scanning through the body and noticing, without judgement, how the body feels. This is also a great way to start to become more connected to the body. Being connected to our bodies, as opposed to living solely in the mind, is so beneficial for so many reasons. It means we get better at reading our bodies signs and signals and therefore better at developing our interosception - our ability to perceive the body inwardly.
There are several visualisation meditations and techniques, from guided meditations which take you through visualisations of mountains, rivers or forests, to holding a sacred symbol or icon in your mind and meditating on this. Some people really struggle with visualisations, whereas others find it easier to use visualisation tools over tools such as the breath. I find that you are more likely to get on with this technique if you already have quite a vivid imagination.
Mantra or Affirmation.
Repeating a mantra, either silently or aloud, has been practiced by many spiritual schools for thousands of years. Repeating a mantra is also the foundation of the very popular Transcendental Meditation. You can simply repeat a sacred mantra which resonates with you or which represents the energy you want to call forward a set number of times or for a set number of minutes.
If you would like to use a Sanskrit mantra then have a look online for popular mantras or ‘seed sounds’. If you are familiar with the Chakra System, you can use the seed sound for the chakra you would like to work with, and meditate on this.
If a traditional mantra does not sit right or resonate with you, you can repeat an affirmation instead (such as, I Am Loving Awareness), or even simply a word. This is a really powerful meditation tool.
Loving Kindness Meditation.
Loving kindness meditation is a meditation practice which encourages us to direct love and compassion to ourselves, to those around us, and out to the world. This is a powerful meditation technique and is really needed in times like these.
yoga nidra is not technically a meditation but is a form of yoga - in sanskrit it means ‘yogic sleep’. However I’ve included yoga nidra in here because I think there is a lot to be gained from yoga nidra - much of which we are looking for in meditation. Yoga nidra provides a chance for our nervous system to relax and soothe. In fact, yoga nidra can provide really deep, restorative rest. Something I think all of us need more than we realise or would care to admit. You can find some really great yoga nidra recordings on Insight Timer. I would recommend lying on your bed in warm clothes and getting all cosy before listening to one.
Mindfulness had a real en vogue moment over the last couple of years and you will no doubt have heard the word. But what does it mean? Mindfulness is all about doing things mindfully, consciously, with awareness and being totally present. There are many practices which can help us be more mindful - things like gardening or painting are especially popular. However we can also bring mindfulness into our everyday lives. Cooking can be practiced mindfully. Eating can be practiced mindfully. Even doing the washing up can be practiced mindfully. Mindfulness I think has been so popular because it is so accessible. It’s like a gateway into other forms of meditation because we can bring it into our everyday lives and maybe even do something ‘productive’ at the same time. If you’ve never meditated before then mindfulness paired with breathwork can be a great way to go before practicing techniques which require more stillness.
Guided, or non guided?
If you are new to meditation, i would really recommend following guided meditations instead of trying to go it alone. Our minds have a tendency to bounce all over the place - especially in modern times. Guided meditations provide a sense of direction from people who are experts in this field.
Even if you have meditated frequently, in the current climate i would still recommend guided meditations. Because our minds have enough to deal with as it is. In addition to this, when we meditate we are really diving into what for many of us is an un-chartered territory - the quiet mind. Doing this with a guide, at least at first, is extremely helpful.
For some of the above meditations, i would say you need to do a guided meditation - such as yoga nidra, some visualisations, and loving kindness. As you become more adept at meditating you can start to breath focused meditations, affirmations/mantras, and body scans without a guide.
Below are some popular meditation resources and other resources which may help on your journey. There is a lot out there - find what works for you. Try to not get overwhelmed. If you don’t like one tool move on to something else, and if you are enjoying something then stick with it.
Insight Timer App (my personal favourite - and it’s free!)
Wim Hof App
My favourite meditations:
These are my favourite meditations on Insight Timer, which I come back to again and again. I personally love Insight Timer because there is so much variety. They also have music available for you to meditate or practice yoga to, and a timer if you wish to do your own unguided meditation.
I hope the above guide has helped you gain a greater understanding of the different meditation tools available. Let me know how you’re getting on with your own meditation journey in the comments!