Recently I wrote a lengthy piece that touched on the topic of meditation. You can read it here. I wanted to accompany it with some more practical, brief tools and advice, on how to begin a meditation practice. Here are my top tips for getting started:
Meditation has a less “instant” effect than stretching out your hamstrings for 45 minutes. There is a quickly-achieved tangible change to our physical body following a vigorous yoga practice; the soft echo of a few minutes’ meditation is a little harder to put your finger on.
And so you might not always feel something, much, or anything at all. Instead of looking for that short-term hit, commit to meditating as regularly as you can for a few months, without daily expectation for change, and observe how you feel more generally, and over longer periods of time.
Has this week been a little easier than normal?
Has this month felt a little more even-keeled?
Were there moments when I reacted too quickly to things?
But were there also moments when I didn’t?
Meditation is hard, and that is okay. Sometimes one of the things I find the most difficult about it, is the sitting. Sitting upright in stillness can be tiring. Be kind to yourself. Especially if you are a mother and spend hours upon hours each day carrying your little one, lifting things, and generally being physical. It is okay to meditate lying down. Sometimes it helps clear the mind, if the mind is preoccupied with how tired your back feels or how tight your shoulders are. So lie down on the days when you know that will help.
As well as being kind though, be honest with yourself. Do you actually need to lie down today, or will you switch off? Resting is important, but meditation is an active practice of cultivating spaciousness and clarity, and sometimes the energy of an upright spine helps us to find that lifted freedom. It is a balance and one that you won’t always get right. Some days I sit upright on the ground. Some days on a bolster. Some days I sit with my back against the wall. And some days I lie on my back, or even my front. Learn to listen – really listen – to what your body needs, not what your mind wants it to need.
Meditation is not always pleasant, and so it takes discipline to stick at it. A personal meditation practice is not listening to a yoga nidra tape, or doing a guided meditation. That is not to say that these things aren’t wonderful practices in their own right, but it is much much harder to sit in silence with yourself, and that is because it is a completely different thing; one where the rewards are much greater, and the long-term effects much deeper.
Listening to a guided meditation is a great thing to do. It will help you learn to be okay with stillness, slowing down, coming into conscious relationship with your breath, and just being. It will help you relax; it may even prove more relaxing than a sticky ten-minute struggle in silence with yourself, but it is worth cultivating the discipline required to meditate alone and untethered too.
Silent solitary meditation is the internal metaphorical equivalent of being surrounded by all your shit for three months during coronavirus lockdown. When you can barely leave your flat and go outside, everything starts to annoy you: the space is cluttered and small; the kitchen cupboard that doesn’t close properly irritates you fifty-seven times a day instead of once or twice after work, and oh my god the constant cleaning and tidying. It’s just easier to leave and go to work, or to go out and see friends. And so it is sitting with yourself, without distraction.
Meditation isn’t about cleaning your mind for the final time; it’s about extending forgiveness and compassion to your mess. How brilliant and lucky are we, to be alive, to be living a life, with stresses and difficulties, things to worry about and be upset by, loved ones to meet and to lose and to grieve.
Please come in! Forgive the mess.
Be With Yourself
For most of our lives, we are with others or with our thoughts. Think of meditation as a time to be with yourself, to get to know how you feel about things, to have time simply in your own company. When viewed as the start of a lifelong relationship, I find the pressure on each practice lessens a little. As with any friendship or relationship, there is an ebb and flow; there are days when it is an easy joy and days when you aren’t in the mood. Think of your first few months of practice, as an exploration, the start of something complex, unfolding, interesting, changeable, and beautiful.
There is real power in checking in with yourself regularly, both when it feels good and when it doesn’t, because over time you are learning to be okay with the fact that things aren’t always perfect. I can still remember the last time I had the type of meditation practice that we often expect every practice to be – calm, still, clear, blissful, at peace – and it was in November 2017 while travelling around Cambodia. So why am I still sitting down every day if that experience finds me once every few years? Because it’s the work in between that is the reason those magical moments happen. And of course it is in the many days in between that the real growth occurs.