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Making meditation an everyday practice
Establishing a habit of regular meditation practice can be tough, especially when you’re a beginner. But we have tips to help keep you motivated.
What is meditation?
Definitions of meditation vary, depending on the form you are practising; however, many forms involve training your mind to pay attention.
The Australian Teachers of Meditation Association says ‘in its broadest and most universal definition, meditation is a discipline that involves turning the mind and attention inward and focusing on a single thought, image, object or feeling’.
It helps develop skills in:
- knowing what your mind is paying attention to,
- working out where your mind’s attention needs to be focused,
- maintaining attention on what you want your mind to be focusing on.
This ‘training’ is particularly helpful in preventing your mind from slipping into a “default mode” of focusing on replaying the past, worrying about the future and other negative thoughts. This pattern of thinking can leave us vulnerable to mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, or just feeling stressed (which in turn can increase our risk of poor physical health).
Feeling relaxed and focused can be an immediate side effect of practising meditation, but evidence now suggests meditation has many long-term health benefits. It can also help improve mental performance.
Taking time out from a frantic day to practise finding mental stillness can go totally against our ingrained notions of efficiency and productivity – especially when the rewards aren’t always immediate.
But experts say building the skill of meditation requires persistence and offer these suggestions to help keep you on track.
Is meditation a religious practice?
You don’t need to be religious to practise or benefit from meditation. But meditation is part of most major religions and the forms of meditation practised in this context often involve developing a heightened spiritual awareness. If you want, you can also expand your practise of meditation to explore more spiritual aspects once you have learned some basic meditation skills.
Are there different forms of meditation?
There are many different forms of meditation that encourage you to focus your attention. You may focus on:
- your breath
- an object (such as a candle or a flame)
- a mantra (a repeated word or sound)
- a visualisation (mental images)
- an affirmation (positive statements).
Having an open attitude to distractions – that is, not trying to suppress them but rather gently bringing the attention back to the focus – is part of most forms of meditation.
Common forms of meditation include Zen Buddhist, transcendental, Vipassana, Sahaja and mindfulness. The aim of most of these practices is to rest in the stillness underneath the thinking mind.
Much of the research on the health effects of meditation has centred on mindfulness, which involves focusing on sensations, such as the breath or feelings in different parts of the body, to help direct your attention onto the present moment. You can also practise mindfulness in a less formal way by focusing on sensations during daily activities like having a shower, washing the dishes or eating a meal. Mindfulness is therefore both a form of meditation and a way of living. Learning to focus attention on what is being experienced here and now, without reacting to or judging it, is central to mindfulness practices.
Make it a ritual
Even if you favour a no-frills form of meditation, a little bit of ritual can be a good thing, says meditation teacher and author Gillian Ross. Practising at the same time of day, in the same place, can be very helpful in establish a regular habit, she believes. “If nothing else, if you have family, it gives them the message ‘this is a special time so please don’t bother me’.”
She also recommends you make your place “special and aesthetically pleasing”, and minimise intrusions from devices like mobile phones. Wrapping yourself in a light shawl can help too as it “engenders a feeling of turning inwards”.
Craig Hassed, GP, meditation researcher and Monash University senior lecturer, says before breakfast and dinner are good times because you’re more likely to fall asleep after you’ve eaten as your metabolism is at a low point.
This is fine if you’re trying to help yourself relax so you can sleep, but to learn the skill of meditation so that in can help you in other areas of your life, you need to be awake.
It’s not “all or nothing”
If you forget to meditate before breakfast and dinner, or if you’ve let the habit slip for a few days, don’t feel like all is lost and you should just give up. “Practise when you remember and have the opportunity,” Hassed says. “If your day is full of unavoidable emergencies, then practise when you’ve finished dealing with them.” Avoid time anxiety by having a clock within easy view. “Just open your eyes when you think the meditation time might be up and if the time is not yet up, move back into practice.” While some find it helps to set an alarm, say on a mobile phone, Hassed advises making sure it’s not one that will jolt you out of your meditation. You want to try to carry over some of what you practise into the rest of your day, rather than a stressful, jarring finish.
Try guided meditations
Worried your meditation time might get derailed if your mind goes totally off the task? Taking an accepting attitude to distractions is part and parcel of meditation. But Ross says listening to recorded instructions as a guide can be a boost when you’re starting out. “There will come a time when you let them go, when you want to let them go, but I think to begin with, they can be enormously helpful.” For a selection of audio guided meditations you can use, see our Meditation Toolkit.
Be patient with yourself
Feel disheartened that you can’t control thoughts that enter your mind? Says Ross: “We might not be able to choose ‘not to think’ but with modest practice, preferably daily, you learn to get a taste of what it means to rest in pure awareness, free of thought, even if it’s just for a very short space of time.
“And then that overflows into your everyday life where you find yourself giving less energy to thinking and more energy to awareness and that means you become less reactive. You might think you haven’t got anywhere with your incessant thinking, but you’ll be surprised how much that awareness has come in.”
If you feel very unsettled or feel you just can’t pay attention during a sitting meditation, Hassed recommends trying a form you can do while moving about, such as a walking meditation (for an audio guide to a walking meditation, see the Meditation Toolkit.) Aim to feel the whole experience of your body as it moves from the tip of the toes up and practise returning to the activity as your mind wanders off.
Hassed says we are creatures of habit, so when we try to change old habits, it’s no surprise the mind resists and can present us with no end of excuses.
Too tense to meditate today? It’s the perfect time to learn to respond to tension differently.
Don’t need inner stillness at the moment as everything’s going well? Learning to meditate is a form of mental fitness and like physical fitness, you don’t build that overnight. Practise will help build the ability so it’s there when you do need it.
Too busy? This is a great reason to learn to be more efficient with your attention. “Sharpening attention is like a woodcutter sharpening their axe – those few moments will save a lot of time in the long run,” Hassed says.
Feel too strange? Ross says “all sorts of sensations can arise when we meditate. Let them come, let them go. Don’t give them any energy or worry about them. You’re practising the art of letting go.”
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