Meditation for Beginners: Learning to Relax Your Mind for Self Care
Research seems to be unanimous: mediation has numerous health benefits. Clinical studies have demonstrated that meditation eases pain conditions, reduces blood pressure, relieves symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, helps control anxiety and depression, and alleviates insomnia.
For example, with respect to pain conditions, a study from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) discovered that meditation can control pain without activating the brain’s naturally occurring opiates. Researchers think that patients who combine meditation with medication may find their pain diminished.
The NCCIH funded a trial that showed how Transcendental Meditation had promise in lowering the high blood pressure of people who had a particularly high risk of developing high blood pressure. The study also showed that meditation helped a person’s coping skills, which also impacted blood pressure.
Research into irritable bowel syndrome showed modest improvements in the severity of the symptoms and pain. Several studies show how meditation improves anxiety and depression conditions. An NCCIH study also shows that mindfulness training for insomnia helped people sleep better.
These are just a small sampling of the science of meditation. Now that we know meditation is powerful, what can we do about it? It seems easy to advise people to mediate, but what does that really mean to a novice?
Where Did Meditation Come From?
Thousands of years before science confirmed the health benefits of mediation, it was a central part of several religions. It originated with Vedic Hinduism, where it is described in the Rig Veda. The Rig Veda is a religious text that is one of the four sacred texts of Hinduism. The Vedas were widely adopted throughout India by the 4th century BCE. Yoga is one of the six disciplines of Hinduism. Mediation, which involves focusing the mind, is part of the training associated with yoga. Meditation later became a core practice of Buddhists and is also used in Jainism.
As a spiritual practice, meditation is used to train human consciousness. Although it is most closely associated with Buddhism and Hinduism, meditation techniques are also present in Christianity and Islam, in particular through focused chanting and prayer.
What’s the Goal of Non-Religious Meditation?
Meditation does not need to be part of your spiritual belief system in order for you to benefit. The focus of meditation is to stop the mind from running through the activities and worries of the day. It aims to direct your thoughts away from daily thoughts about your finances, your work, your relationships, and other items that may be on your to-do list. To do this, mediation trains your consciousness to focus only on the present moment, by wiping your mind clean and focusing only on the breath.
There are three kinds of meditation. The first is concentrative, which usually involves sitting still. The second is expressive, which involves developing an outlet for self-expression, such as painting, drawing, or journaling. The third type of meditation involves movement, like tai-chi or yoga.
The common factor in all meditative experiences is staying in the present moment. You may have experienced this without even knowing it. If you have ever done an activity and simply lost track of time, you have experienced a form of meditation. Or imagine hitting a tennis ball against a wall. Ideally, you do not think of your work or your problems, nor do you think back on the past. Only thinking of hitting the ball, hitting the ball, hitting the ball… you have achieved a meditative state.
What Does it Mean to “Focus on the Breath”?
Meditators will frequently refer to focusing on the breath as the optimal state of being during a meditation session. But what does this mean? Focusing on the breath is simply a technique for putting your attention on something simple. Rather than using a focal point, like a candle or another object, your attention is focused on your breath as it comes. Breathing in through your nose, and out through the mouth is a popular way to train your mind to be aware of the breath. When you put your mind toward breathing, you can stop intrusive thoughts from taking control of your mind.
How will breathing make you feel? First, it will keep you centered in the moment. Second, it will relax your body. Third, it will calm your emotions and feelings. Fourth, it will give you a feeling of control.
Remember, the ultimate feeling you will experience will be relaxation. With that in mind, when you breathe in and out, think of how the tension is flowing out of your body. Think of relaxing deeper and deeper with each breath. This will feel unnatural in the beginning, but with daily practice of just five minutes, it will seem easier. You will love the feeling of peace you experience from taking time to follow the breath.
How Should a Beginner Meditate?
The first thing a beginning meditator should do is schedule a time for daily meditation. It should not be a long session. You can start with setting aside 5-10 minutes at the same time every day where you will practice meditation. Choose a place where you have silence, privacy and no distractions.
The best way to start meditating is to learn concentrative meditation first, since it has the ability to vastly improve your health. Sit in a comfortable position, usually on the floor. Stare straight ahead and focus with all your consciousness on something concrete. Many people light a candle and stare into the flame.
As you focus, you will inevitably feel your mind being drawn to other issues and thoughts. This is where it can be helpful to follow only your breath, thinking of breathing in and out, and pushing away all other thoughts. As thoughts arise, dismiss them. This is always tough for a beginner, but with practice you can train your consciousness just like any other muscle.
You may find yourself focusing on a problem and feeling upset about it. If this happens, you should note how you are feeling. Are you breathing heavier? Are you getting flushed? Is your pulse racing? Simply being able to notice what is happening to you can help you push away the thoughts. Eventually you will be able to control your thoughts and your body’s physical response to them.
Do You Have to Sit Still?
We rarely take the time to experience true stillness, so the idea of sitting or standing quietly for several minutes can take some getting used to. Obviously if you have trouble sitting in position on the floor, you can choose another position which is comfortable. You can also try moving to get your mind in the contemplative state. Dance, jump, sway, walk – do what feels natural to you. I tend to sit on the bed and lay back, closing my eyes. I may shift occasionally, but I put the focus on stilling my mind more than my body. An app I use, Relax Melodies, walks me through various meditation options, instructing to relax certain parts of your body: your arms, your legs, etc.
It is best to do this alone, so your brain doesn’t start to focus on what someone else thinks of you. Move for five minutes, breathing and focusing on staying in the present moment. Sometimes this activity will bring up emotions. If it does, write down the way it made you feel. Examining your feelings and thoughts later – either alone or with a professional therapist – will help you understand where you are in life. May people say that meditating in this way helps them get “unstuck” when they are struggling with their place in the world.
What If You Can’t Stop Your Thoughts?
Although the goal of meditation may be considered a “quiet mind” this does not mean that you will be able to have a totally blank mind with no thoughts. You don’t want to mediate by thinking you are going to get into a fight with your mind. Instead, you are making friends with your thoughts so you can understand them better.
Over time you will notice that the same thoughts and cycles of thoughts appear. Identifying these patterns will teach you a lot about your feelings, dreams, and ideas. What beliefs do you hold? What fears are holding you back? What feelings can you not let go over? Learning from these thoughts, even from the negative ones, is one of the most important benefits of meditation. This is all about getting to know you deepest thoughts and emotions.
Getting to know your deepest self will benefit you in many ways. Are you holding yourself back because of stories and narratives that you believe about yourself? If those stories are judgmental or they do not serve you, meditation will help you let them go.
What About Expressive Meditation?
Expressive meditation is a way of channeling your inner creativity. There are many ways to do this, including writing, drawing, crafting, knitting, and any other activity that encourages you to stay in the present moment.
Journaling is a very popular form of expressive meditation. If this appeals to you, get a journal and find a quite, private place to simply write whatever comes to mind. You can start by chronicling the most important things that happened to you that day and what you are grateful for. Other people prefer to center themselves by writing about a specific topic, like how they feel about a relationship or an issue in their life.
The point of expressive journalism is to free your mind to write whatever comes up, rather than trying to structure your thoughts, police your grammar, or make sense of your thoughts as they arise. Later you may find that the process of journaling helped you gain personal insights.
What About Movement Meditation?
Many people enjoy learning meditation through movement. The two most common ways to do this are through yoga and Tai Chi, which are both disciplines that are inspired and based on meditation.
Tai Chi is a coordinated exercise that integrates breath with movement. The exercises are meant to generate energy, control, mindfulness and serenity. In many respects, Tai Chi resembles martial arts. However, the movements are slow and deliberate, and they become more complex over time.
Yoga is related to Tai Chi. It is believed to be about 5,000 years old. Yoga involves holding body poses, stretching, and breathing. The first yogis developed the yoga postures and breathing patterns to help the body get ready for periods of fasting and mediation. For this reason, yoga improves your strength and endurance.
Both of these practices can help people experience less pain, sleep better, improve coordination, build muscle, and ease chronic pain problems.
There are other movement types you can try, like running, mindful walking, playing a musical instrument, and dancing.
What’s the Key Takeaway?
Experiment in different ways to be alone with your thoughts and practice pushing them away. Meditation can include sitting still and practicing breathing, but other activities can be meditative as well. Chanting or singing, painting, walking, gardening, doing yoga, and even running can incorporate similar techniques.
This is just a starting point. If one of these techniques interests you, begin to delve deeper into the spiritual benefits of meditation. Although this may seem like a self-centered activity, it really isn’t. Meditation will help you let go of the concept of Ego and Self. It will teach you to recognize your common humanity with other people.