Meditation–just like reading or exercising, it’s something we’ve all been told we should be doing regularly.
You will often hear people giving blanket prescriptions for daily meditation without providing any compelling reasons to do so, accompanied by some shoddy write-up about “focusing on the breath.”
While their advice isn’t wrong, it is repeated ad nauseam and doesn’t help beginners who are unsure of how to begin.
In this post, I will attempt to cover as many bases as I can in regards to the whats, the whys, and the hows of meditation.
1) Changes in neural composition
When we meditate consistently, we actually change the composition of our brains.
Over an 8 week period, participants in a study of mindfulness meditation showed:
Increased gray matter in the left hippocampus (information retention).
Increases in gray matter of the the posterior cingulate cortex (willpower and meta-cognition).
Increased gray matter in the temporo-parietal junction (empathy and compassion).
Decreased gray matter in the amygdala (stress, anxiety, fear, and anger).
These changes in brain composition pay huge dividends in increasing mental function in the mentioned areas while reducing our proclivity towards negative emotions.
2) Emotional detachment
Consistent meditation helps you develop the skill of detaching from your emotions.
No, this doesn’t mean becoming an emotionless robot. It means freedom.
Freedom not to be driven this way and that by pain, pleasure, desire, or loss.
As you begin to pay closer attention to the thoughts that go through your head, you start to realize when it’s your emotions that control you, rather than you controlling them.
Our minds override our rational thinking with negative feelings of fear, jealousy, desire, loneliness, and anger.
With meditation we suddenly have the power to choose whether these emotions have any effect on us.
3) Inner peace
As you get deeper and deeper into a meditative state, you become overwhelmed with a radiating sensation of peace that flows through your body–the peace of being.
By bringing your consciousness to the present moment, you will feel a deep sense of tranquility that carries over into your everyday life.
Marcus Aurelius said it best:
For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is immediately in perfect tranquility; and I affirm that tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind.
4) Freedom from anxiety and depression
Two elements must therefore be rooted out once for all–the fear of future suffering, and the recollection of past suffering; the latter no longer concerns me, and the former concerns me not yet.
-Letters from a Stoic, Seneca
Depression comes from what you have already endured.
Anxiety stems from the uncertainty of what you are about to endure.
When you are truly in the present moment, it is impossible to feel any regret about the past or anxiety about the future.
As you develop a steady practice of sitting meditation, you will find yourself naturally transitioning into this peaceful state whenever you start to feel the onset of negative emotions.
5) Discipline and self-control
Meditation makes us more aware of the thoughts that take hold of us.
When we are tempted to indulge in instant-gratification activities, the mental awareness gained from meditation cuts through your mind’s bullshit rationalizations for cheap pleasure.
In addition to helping you avoid sabotaging your capacity for willpower with toxic activities, meditation trains your discipline.
It takes an iron will to meditate every single day.
Let’s face it: sitting for 10-20 minutes doing nothing but being present and aware of your thoughts and emotions is hard.
To make matters worse, there is no quantifiable measure of progress per session like there is for something like losing weight or getting stronger.
In other words, there is next to no gratification when you complete your session.
This leaves many people thinking they did something wrong or worse yet, turns them off of meditation altogether.
Sticking to an unshakable habit of meditation for weeks before seeing any obvious results will train your discipline like nothing else.
How to Meditate
Positioning in meditation is all about maintaining an optimal balance between comfort and alertness.
No, you don’t need to sit in full-lotus position to meditate.
Some people like to sit with their legs crossed on the floor.
Others like to sit in a Japanese seiza position.
It’s up to you.
Anything that’s comfortable enough for you to be relaxed and not too comfortable that you start dozing off works.
Personally, I like to sit in a chair.
Somewhere between laying down and standing would probably work best.
Up to you.
I like to place the back of my right hand on top of the palm of my left, thumbs touching.
This helps me maintain a bit more alertness than I would if I just let them hang freely.
Really anything works as long as you’re not clenching your fists or sitting on them.
Upright is better but if it’s too uncomfortable, lean against a wall or backrest.
Relax and stick that Buddha belly out with every breath.
Tongue suctioned to the roof of your mouth.
Teeth gently touching or slightly apart.
Lips relaxed, mouth closed.
It’s up to you.
I like to keep mine closed and relaxed most of the time.
For some, keeping their eyes closed causes too much sleepiness.
Meditating with open eyes is perfectly fine.
Optional: Deep Breathing
Sometimes if you’re feeling a little restless or anxious, a few minutes of deep breathing will help ground you and bring your heart rate down.
I like to do the 4-7-8 technique.
Inhale for 4 seconds.
Hold it in for 7 seconds.
Exhale for 8 seconds.
Rinse and repeat.
1) Begin by breathing
The goal here is to become aware of the breath.
Feel each breath coming in and out.
Use the technique that Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh lays out in his book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching:
"Repeat with each breath:
Present moment, wonderful moment"
Don’t try to control your breath, just observe it.
Become aware of the unconsciousness that breathing is.
You will lose your focus and get lost in thought.
Simply become aware of the fact that you are thinking and return to the breath again.
This is the essence of meditation.
2) Feel the body
Shift your awareness to your body.
Try to feel each body part all the way from your toes to the top of your head.
Is it hot, cold, tense, painful?
Feel the force of gravity working to push you into the ground.
Feel the weight of the air above your head.
After you do this for a while you will start to feel your body as a separate entity rather than just being inside it.
If at anytime your focus drifts away to your thoughts, simply become aware and return to sensing the body.
3) Embrace any emotions that arise
If at any point you feel any sort of emotion arising, shift all of your attention on it rather than ignoring it or hoping it’ll go away.
Feel the way your body responds. Does your heart start beating faster? Do your muscles tense up?
Shower the feeling with mindfulness. Try to understand how it manifests itself, learn to recognize it, and become aware of what thought caused it.
4) Shift your consciousness to the present
By now you should be feeling pretty grounded and aware.
Try to shift your consciousness to the present moment.
Some people like to open their eyes for this.
What sounds can you hear around you? The ticking of a clock? Distant cars?
What does your mouth taste like? What can you feel touching your body? The ground? Your clothes?
If you open your eyes, what colors do you see?
Keep these sorts of questions in mind.
Become hyper-aware of your surroundings and do your best to be.
If you are new to meditation, start with 5-10 minutes a day.
Increase to 15-20 minutes once you start to get the hang of it.
Use a simple timer with an alarm and try to meditate around the same time every day if possible.
Sometimes you’ll have amazing sessions and you’ll feel like a zen god, sometimes your mind will feel like a hyperactive monkey.
Most times will be nothing special so don’t go in with any lofty expectations.
Go into it like you would a workout: try your best, do your time, just don’t give up if it’s not going well or spend any time dwelling on it.
Go out and start meditating today.
Until next time,