Increased drive, higher energy, becoming successful, a better body – they all start with being mentally, emotionally, and spiritually focused
Here at Optimised Personal Wellness we love meditation, and practice it ourselves regularly. For those who think it’s a ‘bit soft’ or ‘a bit too out there’, think again.
The effects of stress in our lives are not only felt mentally. Insomnia, adrenal issues and HPA axis dysfunction, weight gain (especially around the middle), not to mention our personal and professional relationships, are just a few things which are affected by stress.
To function optimally, get the most out of life mentally and physically, and to find our own very individual path to a happier life, we sometimes need to take a step back and take some regular time out to become aware of ourselves and of the world around us. The crazy pace of life today hardly, if ever, offers the opportunity for this kind of reflection: remember the freedom of being a child, seeing the world through simple, fresh eyes? Most of us as adults can only dream of such simplicity.
There’s also nothing soft about meditation. It’s practiced seriously by many of the worlds premier martial artists and athletes as well as those seeking to prepare themselves mentally for every day life, which let’s face it can be pretty challenging even at the best of times. Many of the worlds top CEO’s also practice meditation and enter retreats whenever they have the opportunity. Meditation is for winners, whether that’s in business, sport, or in relationships.
So what is meditation?
When you take away the word ‘meditation’, a word which we know can be a turn off for some people, it’s really just a way of sorting through your life and simplifying the jumble in our heads, and letting some of the deeper, subconscious thoughts and feelings rise to the surface for some well deserved consideration. It allows you to realise certain thoughts and resolve them, clearing your mind of things that build up over time – a bit like removing unwanted programs from your computer to free up the memory ready for new stuff, and to make it run faster and more efficiently.
Sometimes files (your subconscious memories and thought), need to be tidied up and filed in the right place instead of laying around making the place look untidy. Others need to be decompressed so that you can see what they contain and then deal with them appropriately.
Then there are viruses. These run riot right through the whole of your filing system making a mess of everything, leaving you confused and unable to make sense of anything. Sometimes major life events or things that happened in the distant past act like viruses, and until they’re dealt with they just keep on trashing the system.
Meditation just gives you the time and the structure through which you can let go, make sense, and become aware. We could probably all do with a bit of that.
How should I meditate?
Firstly, the practice of your meditation is never going to be perfect, and you’ll help yourself out from the start if you get your head around that point. There will always likely be at least some noise or external distraction, so don’t worry that in order to meditate perfectly you should have a very particular, not to mention restrictive, set of circumstances in place. As a basic idea, it’s good to create an environment that’s supportive of becoming aware of your mental state (your ‘mental state’ consists of your body, feelings, thoughts and the external, material world, which includes people and material objects).
Think about a regular time that can be for meditation, which will help you actually do it, rather than just think about doing it!
Where and when should I meditate?
Ideally, you’d make a space or just have a regular place in your home that is specifically for your ‘me’ time. Again it doesn’t have to be perfect, but it can be useful to sit somewhere that you feel comfortable and peaceful, not just physically but also mentally. It’ll also help if it’s not too hot, or too cold, and that your clothing doesn’t feel restrictive or dig in when you sit. If it’s not practical to meditate at home, pretty much anywhere will do. You could sit on a bench at a park, make use of time on the train or bus home, or on a flight.
Some people find it helpful to give themselves ‘permission’ to take the time out. This applies especially when life is hectic, and you feel as though you’re taking the time away from something important. Trust us though, you’ll be better, smarter and more effective for doing so. Never be too busy to meditate. 10 minutes can make a big difference to your day, and days can make a big difference to your life.
Many people find that establishing a specific routine beforehand can be helpful too, just to separate ‘your’ time from what you’ve just been doing. That might be as simple as closing the door to the room, stretching for a couple minutes, jotting a list of things that are buzzing around your head down on paper, or if for instance you fly regularly, using the first 10 or 20 minutes after takeoff as your time. You might choose to do nothing, it’s totally up to you. Just try not to eat a big meal before meditation – you’ll fall asleep!
Sitting and posture
The golden rule here is that you should be comfortable and stable. As the ancient proverb says: ‘sit like a mountain’. It’s important that your spine follows its natural curve (try not to slouch, it’s not comfortable), and is lengthened, with your shoulders back, chin slightly tucked towards your chest. Imagine that a string is attached to the crown of your head, and someone is pulling it, and that should be about right. It’s also important that your arms are supported, for instance on your lap or cushions to either side of you. Of course, comfortable posture is highly individual and injuries or postural problems might mean that sitting like this is uncomfortable. Just remember that being comfortable is paramount and that your mind will not settle if your muscles are screaming in pain!
As for sitting specifically, it’s not mandatory to sit in a perfect full lotus position; you’re not necessarily better at meditating because you do everything in textbook style. You could sit in a chair, on cushions, or lie flat on the ground – the most important thing is that you’re comfortable and supported. Your body is the foundation for meditation, and ensuring your body is still and settled allows your mind to settle also.
Should you have your eyes open or closed? We recommend closed because we find it more effective, although some meditation traditions go for eyes open.
How long should I meditate and how often?
There are no set rules but we think that about 20 minutes is a great length of time. If you’ve only got 10, it’s still better to do it than not to. If you’ve got 30 or 40 minutes, great.
The first few times, 10 minutes might well be enough just to get the feel for it. As for how often, you have to decide what works for you – some people feel they want to meditate every day, others three times a week. We recommend 10 minutes three times a week as a minimum though.
If you can’t do that, finding some quiet time for yourself and your thoughts – maybe just going for a walk alone – is still very important.
Ok, so now you’re physically comfortable and supported. There might noise or distractions, there might not. It’s good to be aware of yourself and of the world around you, to pay attention to it, but not to get caught up in it.
Here are a couple of simple techniques that will help you settle your mind and become aware of how you feel physically, mentally and emotionally in the present moment:
Body scan: this is a technique that you can use either as a full practice, or just to settle your mind in becoming aware of your body at the start of your meditation. You might want to start your scan by noticing your physical contact with whatever you’re sitting on, and then move on to noticing the physical sensations in your feet, to notice any tingling or soreness, warmth, tightness, sensations of clothes or air on your skin, and so on, then move on to your ankles and legs, back, shoulders, arms, then your front, your throat, chest and belly.
Mindfulness of breathing: breath right down to your belly, in a natural way. When you’re belly breathing, you might feel your belly rising and falling with each breath. As well as enjoying becoming tuned in to the natural rhythm of your breath, there are many physical benefits of breathing this way – oxygenating muscle tissue to mention one.
If your mind wanders off or becomes overloaded, bring yourself back to the simple physical sensations of your breath, centre your focus on that, and let your mind become still again. Some people have more feelings than thoughts when meditating, others get more focused on thoughts than feelings: meditation can never be prescriptive, everyone’s different – just let it flow.
The aim is not to train your mind or to impose restrictions on it, to suppress any thoughts or to only consider certain subjects. It might take a while for your mind to settle, and at first it might seem as though there are a thousand thoughts, feelings, or both, competing for your attention. That’s normal and it’s ok (a lot of those guys have been waiting a while to be heard), even though it can feel a little overwhelming the first few times you try it. Things will settle down.
While meditating you’ll find that certain thoughts naturally gain prominence and you might choose to stick with one thought and explore it from a range of angles for a while, or put it aside and see what else comes to the fore, in the end choosing a thought or feeling that you feel comfortable spending some time considering.
Every thought needs to be what it is, to reach its natural conclusion, and to fade away. Just like a flower needs to grow, to open, to become what it is in all of its glory to fulfil its potential. Then it wilts, dies, returns to the earth. Everything has its life cycle, and our thoughts and feelings are no different.
Coming out of your meditation, gently and slowly take a minute after opening your eyes to become aware of your surroundings, and say thank you to yourself for taking the time out.
Meditation can be a stony path…
There are reasons many of us don’t like to spend time alone. It’s easier and more comfortable not to look at what’s inside even when you know you need to. Meditation can be uncomfortable, because there are things none of us like about ourselves, and meditation has a habit of bringing them to the surface. Some of those things involve self doubt, some involve insecurities. We all have them whether we talk about it at parties or not.
That’s ok though. We can’t change something unless we choose to become aware of it first, and none of us are perfect, even if we try to show the outside world that we are most of the time!
Avoiding premature aging and degenerative disease
Meditation isn’t just great for mental clarity. Because it provides much needed time for reflection, meditation reduces negative stress levels. Stress isn’t an abstract concept. It creates physical, chemical reactions at the deepest levels within your body, stimulating cortisol production (a stress hormone), which activates fat storage around your waist.
It also stimulates your sympathetic nervous system, too much of which will bring about adrenal issues, high blood pressure, insomnia, poor digestion and nutrient deficiencies throughout your body. And that’s on a good day. A lifetime of stress brings about premature aging, degenerative disease, and early death.
And it’s not just us saying it. A five year study reported significantly lower rates of heart disease, tumours, metabolic disorders, bone and muscle disorders, plus a range of other health issues, in those practicing transcendental meditation than those who did not.(1) Because of this, the Netherlands largest insurance company, Silver Cross, offers 30% reductions on health insurance to those who regularly practice transcendental meditation.
It seems meditation might just save your life and make you a more successful, happier human being. And happier human beings make a happier world.
At Optimised Personal Wellness, we like the sound of that.
To your lean, healthy, optimised future,
Matt & Dee
We’d like to give our thanks to our very good friend Vibhatika for her advice, guidance and support in writing this article. Vibhatika is an ordained member of the Western Buddhist Order, and has been involved with the Manchester Buddhist Centre for over 14 years, having led numerous meditation classes and study groups in that time as well as both leading and attending a vast number of meditation retreats.
1. Psychosomatic Medicine 49: 493-507 (1987) (http://www.psychosomaticmedicine.org/cgi/reprint/49/5/493.pdf)