Cultivating calm: A beginner’s guide to meditation
Hugh Jackman, Katy Perry, Oprah Winfrey, Rep. Tim Ryan and many other celebrities swear by it.
We’re talking meditation – a practice that’s usually done daily and involves sitting quietly for 20 to 30 minutes to calm and observe the mind.
But for what purpose?
“To intentionally cultivate mindfulness – to approach life with non-judgment and compassion, to improve concentration, openheartedness and clarity,” says Tara Brach, author of Radical Acceptance and co-founder of Insight Meditation Community of Washington.
In other words, there is a whole lot to like.
Brach continues: “It’s the answer not just to stress and emotional issues but also helps improve self-esteem and address depression.”
But how and where do you get started? What are the different types of meditation? And how do you know what type will suit you best?
One popular way to get started is to use online resources for “guided meditation,” in which a meditation teacher will give the practitioner (you) cues on everything you need to know, whether it be observing your breath or visualising your ideal future, says Tris Thorp, a life coach and meditation teacher who trained under Deepak Chopra and teaches at the Chopra Center in Carlsbad, Calif.
But don’t expect improvement overnight, Thorp says.
“Give it time. I would say a minimum of 30 days and at least 20 minutes per meditation. It usually takes at least 10 minutes to get out of your day and get settled to where you can stop swearing at yourself for not being able to focus.”
Part of getting settled – and this can sound very basic but isn’t necessarily easy – is to find a comfortable seated position.
Danuta Otfinowski, a Washington photographer and daily meditator for the past eight years, says it took her a year to figure out how to sit.
“You want to find a position where you’re comfortable, where your legs don’t fall asleep and you’re not fidgeting,” says Otfinowski, who now has a dedicated meditation space in her rowhouse. The space, on her sleeping porch, consists of the cushions she comfortably sits on, Buddhist prayer flags and the ashes of her parents.
She usually sits in meditation, which she says helps reduce stress and increase self-compassion and inner confidence, for about 20 minutes every afternoon.
Which raises the question: Is there an ideal time of day for meditation?
Early morning, Thorp says.
“Do it right away. Get up, pee and then sit down to practice. You’re getting your day started with silence and peace.”
This silence and peace can help create a buffer against small and big irritations and challenges that face you later in the day, she says.
“It’s an awareness that allows you to choose how to respond and not fall into reactivity.”
Like letting other drivers into your lane rather than cutting them off? Yup, that kind of thing, she says.
What if just sitting there makes you feel restless, and all you can think of is a thousand reasons meditating is a waste of time?
Otfinowski says joining a meditation group in 2008 was key for her sticking to the practice.
“You have a community, and you feel more accountable,” she says.
It also made it feel more manageable: Other people with busy lives took time out of their day to practice, which encouraged her to do the same. “I didn’t have to put life on hold to figure it out,” she says.
Brach agrees that joining a group can be a good way to start. Sometimes having a peer meditation circle is enough. She compares it to having a running partner.
“Especially in the beginning, it can be very beneficial to put together a group, and then you can use a guided meditation [recording] by a trained teacher,” says Brach, whose website has dozens of audio recordings of meditations. Brach also hosts meditations through Insight Meditation Community in Bethesda, Md., and other locations.
Thorp says that meditation circles are trending right now. “I think people are joining meditation groups to be part of a like-minded community, for the accountability of it and for the hugs and fresh-pressed juices afterward,” she says.
Getting started, though, also means figuring out what type of meditation might suit you best. How to approach that one?
“I suggest experimenting with different classes online to see what resonates with you,” Brach says.
There are two basic categories of meditation – and to perhaps muddy the waters a bit, many meditation teachers use a combination of the two. One is mindfulness meditation, and the other is various forms of concentration (Thorp calls it “intention”) practices.
Mindfulness meditation focuses on being present and observing the mind and body without judgment, Brach says. It’s a shift from thinking to being in the body, she says.
Mindfulness meditations often revolve around breath awareness – in other words, paying attention to your breathing. This is simple and accessible, Thorp says, but sometimes not engaging enough.
“Some people will get bored with this one,” she says.
Concentration practices center on directing your attention toward something, maybe by visualising goals that you want to attain (visualisation), focusing on showing and feeling kindness to others and yourself (loving-kindness meditation) or repeating phrases (mantras).
Thorp says you have to try the various types to know what fits you best, but if you know yourself to be restless, then maybe a guided meditation is preferable to, say, a mantra meditation. (The repetition might get on your nerves.)
A loving-kindness meditation might fit someone who is religious, Thorp says, “since it’s kind of like a prayer.”
In the end, one of the main goals of meditation is learning how to pause and observe the mind to the point of controlling or channeling the fight-or-flight reaction into a more thoughtful, mindful and compassionate response toward others (read: those who cut you off in traffic) and ourselves (negative self-talk and disappointment in ourselves).
“Meditation helps me disengage from the story line of me – my defaults, like negative self-talk,” says Otfinowski, who has brought her practice to the Washington, D.C. jail, where she guides inmates in meditation.
“When you can disengage from the thoughts of the mind and instead observe the mind, there is an element of freedom.”
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