The first time I tried meditating, I was 9. I was with my father at the Zen Center he regularly practiced at. I was very nervous as I sat with him for a meditation session and I did what I thought I was supposed to do when meditating: I crossed my legs, squeezed my eyes shut, and tried to push all my thoughts away. That was the point of meditation, right? To have a completely empty mind, and then eventually become enlightened or whatever? Needless to say, I had very little success with my “techniques” and felt extremely discouraged.
Flash forward 14 years later, and I now love meditating. I have found a style that works for me and I have realized the true purpose of meditation.
This is what I didn’t realize as a young girl: the point is not to push away thoughts and keep your mind empty; it is, in fact, the opposite. Meditation is about embracing your thoughts – letting them enter your mind naturally, observing them as they are without judgment, accepting them for what they are, and finally letting them go. Once I figured this out, it was all smooth sailing…almost. It took time to learn techniques that helped me reach such a good place in my meditation practice, which is what I am going to share with you today. Whether you are a novice, a master, or even if you have never tried meditating in your life, these tips and tricks will help you settle down, find your flow, and let go! Your brain and body will thank you. Happy meditating!
1) Start small.
Thinking about sitting down for a 30-minute meditation session can seem very daunting. Who has the time and patience for that, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing?! Well, the first tip is about making the task ahead seem easier. When I started meditating daily, I was taking classes, competing for a collegiate track and cross country team, and working. I never had much time to myself, and with the time I did have, the last thing I wanted to do was work on my meditation practice.
So I set a goal to meditate between 5 and 10 minutes per day. This made it seem like a much simpler, easier, less time-consuming task. And if I really felt good, I could always extend the time. Simple as that.
2) Find your lotus.
A big myth surrounding meditation is that in order to do it right, you have to sit in full lotus position (legs crossed completely with feet resting on top of your legs, and hands resting on knees). Obviously, not everyone is that flexible (I certainly am not!), so tip #2 is find a position that is comfortable for YOU. Everyone’s body is different, and just because you may sit differently from others during meditation, this does not take away from your practice at all. Because it is exactly that, YOUR practice.
I have been to a Buddhist Temple where you are given the option to sit on the floor, on a zafu cushion, or on a chair. I chose the chair for this 45-minute meditation because I knew my body would not be able to handle that length of time on the floor. And that is completely fine. As long as you are sitting tall and your posture is healthy, feel free to modify your position in any way you need to.
3) Tune in to tune out.
Sometimes complete silence can be overwhelming. Sometimes we are distracted and need motivation. Sometimes our neighbor’s dog just won’t stop barking. This is when music can come in handy in your practice.
Some people may believe that meditation requires complete silence, and for many, this is what they prefer. For me, however, I find that some soft meditation music in the background can elevate my practice and help me reach a deeper state.
I have two go-to stations on Pandora that I use for my practice: Meditation By The Sea Radio and Ocean Tranquility Radio. These both generally play soft sounds like chimes or light piano, along with sounds of nature such as ocean waves, bird songs, rain, etc.
4) Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat.
One technique that is central in meditation is focusing on the breath. Tip #4 is about breathing. Some ways to use breathing in your practice are:
Count the seconds for each in breath and out breath, and try to make your out breath longer and slower than your in. (For example, 1… 2… 3… in. 1… 2… 3… 4… 5… out.)
Just tune in to your breathing. Don’t change it, don’t fix it, just notice it. Notice the way your chest expands when you breathe in, the way your breath feels through your nose or mouth on the way out.
Visualize your breath filled with your favorite color. Imagine the color traveling into your body and filling your lungs, then breathe out and imagine it flowing through your body and back out.
5) Mantras, mantras, mantras.
Mantras can help you focus and give your practice a meaningful purpose. A mantra is usually a few words or a phrase that is repeated during meditation. You can say your mantra out loud or silently in your head. Repeat it during your practice for as long as you need at a pace that feels right to you. When I meditate, I let a mantra come to me based on how I am feeling that day and what I think I need most from my practice. (For example, if I am feeling sad, I will use a positive mantra. If my body is in pain, I will use a strength mantra.)
Here are some of my favorites:
Breathing in I calm my body, breathing out I smile.
Calm and strong.
I am light. I am love.
I am strong.
6) Visualize it!
Using visualization in my practice has been by far the most helpful tool for letting go of my thoughts. If you have trouble letting go and freeing your mind of chatter, pay attention to Tip #6. Here are some of my most used visualization techniques:
Imagine a river flowing in front of you. Now picture leaves gently flowing down the river. When a thought enters your mind, imagine yourself physically picking up the thought and placing it on one of the passing leaves. Now watch as it flows down the river, farther away, until it is completely out of sight.
Picture yourself leaning up against an enormous redwood tree in a forest. Look up and you can see the branches high up, swaying in the wind. Look down and feel the earth beneath you. Imagine the tree pressed against your back and think of the incredible size of this living being. Draw strength from the tree and bring it into yourself.
Choose one or two words to focus on. Visualize the word in your mind, floating in space. Now imagine the word being written or traced over slowly. Read the word, say it in your mind (or out loud), and then move toward it. Drop yourself down into the empty space between the letters. Repeat, or move to the next word.
7) Your body has a voice. Listen to it.
Body awareness is always an important practice and a great time to do this is during meditation. If you aren’t sure what to focus on during meditation, use tip #7. Do a body scan. Close your eyes, breathe, and begin to scan your body. Start at the top of your head and move down very slowly, all the way until you reach the tips of your toes. At each part of your body, stop and notice what it is saying to you.
How does that spot feel?
Is there tension anywhere?
Does it feel different than normal?
Does it feel warmer or colder than usual?
Take note of these things and continue.
If you want to add on to this, you can respond to your body. Does your neck feel tense? Focus your mind on letting go of all the muscles in your neck, release the tension. Picture your neck melting, letting go of everything. You can always adjust your posture, but try not to move too much so your flow is not interrupted.
8) Just do it.
One of the biggest challenges I have faced with meditation is being motivated to actually do it. It’s so easy to find excuses and convince yourself that you don’t have enough time, you’ll do it later, or you’re just not in the mood to meditate right now. I have battled with all of these thoughts, but the reality is, you can always make time.
Those 5 minutes you spend on your phone before you go to bed, that time you use to watch some TV after work, those minutes spent hitting the snooze button one more time before getting up. This is all time that can be used for meditation. And like I said earlier, it doesn’t have to be 30 or 45 minutes. Make it 5 minutes and you’ll be done (and feeling better) before you know it! Every time that I didn’t want to meditate or tried making excuses for why I couldn’t, I felt SO MUCH BETTER after I did, because those are the times I actually needed to clear my mind the most! Tip #8 is about setting aside that time, not making excuses, and just meditating. Write it in your calendar, jot it in your planner if you want to, but just do it.
9) To chant or not to chant?
I have attended meditation sessions at various Temples and Zen Centers and many of them have involved chanting. I have always felt a little strange chanting. I usually practice silently, so chanting feels a bit odd and too loud to me. However, I have since learned the benefits of chanting and how they can add to your practice. So let’s get into tip #9: Try chanting!
I used to volunteer at a place that offered classes such as Yoga, Art, Spiritual Discussion, and Poetry for homeless and people suffering from mental illness. During one of the Spiritual Discussion classes I attended, the group leader had us all chanting the word ‘om.’ She had us sound out the four parts slowly: AHHH… OHHH… MMMM… and then silence. We then delved into the benefits of chanting and she explained that humming actually has healing abilities. The quick vibrations of the hum can stimulate our body and promote healing and well-being. We began chanting again, and this time I focused on the MMM… at the end of the chant. The vibration of this sound we were making was in fact very soothing, and it gave me a greater appreciation for chanting.
10) Go with the flow.
Finally, tip #10. Find your own flow.
Meditation is a very special and intimate practice with your mind and body. This means that everyone’s practice is going to be unique to them. Listen to your mind and body.
How are you feeling today?
What do you need?
What is going on around you?
Every practice will be different in length, focus, body position, etc., so make sure you modify your practice to your own needs. If you meditate for 5 minutes one day, then 30 minutes another day, and then the following day you don’t feel like meditating at all, that is okay! In the end, it’s YOUR practice. You are a special, unique individual, so make your practice about you and embrace all of your wonderful qualities. And of course, don’t get discouraged. There will be days when meditating is a walk in the park and some days it will feel like an exhaustive struggle. Just know that this is all part of the process and remember that you are awesome for meditating in the first place!
In the end, if you listen to your mind and body, there is no wrong way to meditate!
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