Starting meditation can be a challenge, but it gets much better. I started three years ago, when my brain was mush from spending too much time at work and on social media. I could not focus on productive activities, and my working memory was worse than ever. Meditation now has become so important for me I always include it in my New Year’s resolutions. Although I am not certified to teach meditation, I’ve learned some things you may want to consider prior to starting meditation.
Everyone can benefit from meditation.
Starting meditation means that we are ready to go against the way evolution has designed our brain. Therefore, I am not surprised when people say “meditation is not for me” or “meditation does not work for me”. The moment we stop focusing on a task, our brain activates the Default Mode Network (DMN), which generates what we call day-dreaming. DMN is like a radar scanning the past and the future to find things that might be useful for our survival. It is so powerful that research shows we spend 47% of our waking time daydreaming.
This is because our brain thinks that we are still hunter-gatherers living in the wild, threatened by wild animals and other tribes. Our world now may be much less dangerous, yet it is very complex in unprecedented ways. Our brain has not evolved as fast as our world has, so it takes DMN only a fraction of a second to activate. DMN doesn’t care what we think or how we feel, it just wants us to stay alive.
Meditation aims to subdue DMN’s activity so we can process our thoughts and feelings in a more constructive way. It can be so effective that, in experienced meditators, not only it reduces the DMN activity, but it alters their brain’s physical structure. In simple terms, meditation can help us rewire our brain, and this is thanks to neuroplasticity.
Initially, I tried meditating in the evening before bedtime. I found it rather hard. By that time my brain was full of unprocessed information. Winding down and focusing on my breath was ridiculously difficult. If you are starting meditation for the first time, experienced meditators say that the best time may be first thing in the morning. From my personal experience, this is for two reasons:
- If you don’t do it in the morning, you may not do it at all. Once you engage in other activities, sitting down to observe your mind can seem like an enormous task.
- Your mind is anyway clear in the morning. It will still get distracted, but much less than it would later in the day.
Here’s a catch, though. If you haven’t slept well the night before, you may fall into a half-asleep state. You may think you are still meditating, but you are probably experiencing lucid dreams. There are techniques to fight it, but it is always better to get enough sleep. If you consider sleeping a waste of time, like I used to, definitely watch this TED talk and find out why sleep is your superpower.
There are four postures in meditation: sitting, standing, walking, and lying down. They serve different purposes, but there is no right or wrong. It is important to be comfortable, so you can try any of these as long as you remain alert. I meditate sitting on the sofa, my back upright and not supported.
I have also enjoyed walking meditation (it is amazing how many new things you see, hear, and feel), and also lying down, which I only recommend if you want to fall asleep; or if you physically cannot go into any other position.
When I started meditation, I thought that focusing on my breathing was kind of useless. What was there to observe anyway? Well, I was wrong. Just by focusing on my breath, I immediately calmed down, and, surprisingly, there were many things to observe: how the nostrils feel, how the air travels into the lungs, how the body moves with each breath, its depth, its duration, its rhythm.
When starting meditation, you begin with focused meditation, which requires a focal point. Breathing is the obvious choice. The purpose is to observe this natural repetition and feel comfortable. You don’t really control your breath, unless you want to. Paying attention to how you breathe can teach you a lot about your mind and body. More importantly, it will teach you to focus, and manage distractions.
Meditation is not about clearing your mind
Meditation is not about “not thinking”. It is about being curious about what happens in your mind. When starting meditation, it is better to start with focused meditation. You focus on your breathing, and when you get distract it, you notice it and calmly re-focus on your breathing.
With enough experience, you start meditating without a focal point. You are just there, showing curiosity about everything in your mind and without resisting it or being carried away. “Hmm, I feel stressed. Where is this feeling? Is it in my heart? Is it in my head? Where exactly can I find it?” During this process, you may realize that the feeling has now fled. Not because you chased it away, but because you showed you are ready for it.
Welcome your distractions
When starting meditation, your mind will get distracted many times in each and every session. This is an undisputable fact. It’s because of the Default Mode Network we saw above. It is what our brain does, and it’s perfectly normal. Do not feel frustrated.
There is one mistake you can do with distractions, and this is to resist them. Forget what you have learned about distractions in productivity courses. Resisting your distractions during meditation will only make them more persistent. Remember: the aim is not to be productive, but curious. When you experience a distraction, notice it and bring your attention back to your breath. Instead of “Oh, damn, I got distracted again”, go with “Oh, I’m thinking… No problem, I’m going back to my breath”. When distractions persevere, embrace them. Show some curiosity, like “hmm, this thought is persistent”.
Manage your expectations
In Buddhism, meditation is just one practice of the Eightfold Path, which leads to Nirvana (or Enlightenment). If you expect that by meditating a few times, you will achieve Nirvana like Buddha did, lower your expectations. Meditation can make a big difference to your life even just with ten minutes per day. It is a practice that helps you understand your thoughts and feelings. If you are expecting to experience something incredible, not only you may miss a lot of things along the way, you may also get disappointed because it didn’t happen. Keep an open mind and give it some time. Meditation will definitely help you, but it won’t solve all your problems.
Make it a habit
As with every healthy habit, it works best when you make it part of your life. Skip a session or two, and nothing will happen. Skip more, and it gets harder to go back to your routine, e.g., when you come back after a long break. It is the same as not working out for a while. Going back to the gym seems like an unsurmountable task, and you even wonder how you used to do it. Until you do it again a couple of times, then it is all good again.
Still thinking of starting meditation? Try the WOOP technique, the easiest science-backed technique to establish new habits and achieve your goals.