How To Start a Meditation Practice
Meditation has long been proven to have enormous benefits for the mind, body and spirit and to have a powerful healing capacity for all issues physical, emotional and spiritual. Whether you are looking for a deep inner connection with yourself, wanting relief from a physical or mental condition or just want to find a way to calm your mind and gain more peace in your day-to-day life-- meditation is wonderful place to start. And if the word "meditation" is a bit off-putting for you for any reason, just think of it as sitting quietly with yourself. Whatever terminology you use, it is a crucial and important element to any healing journey.
Here you will find a guide for getting started with many of the common questions you may have on how to begin your own meditation practice. Enjoy!
I would like to start meditating, but I have no idea where to begin?
A common concern I hear from most people who would like to start a meditation practice is that they have no idea how to start or where to begin. With so many different types of meditation available today, it’s hard to know which one to choose and understandable that it can be a bit overwhelming at first. In addition, for many people, meditation seems like this mystical thing you do somewhere on a mountaintop or under a tree like the Buddha for hours and hours until you become “enlightened,” and seems completely unattainable and very abstract. And still for many others, you may even be thinking that you don’t have the time to do it between managing your day to day life of work, kids, family, paying the bills, health issues, etc. So what do you do?
As I said, there are many different types of meditation with many different philosophies and beliefs about how it should be done. My belief and recommendation is always just to start. Start simply and go for consistency rather than some grandiose goal of meditating for an hour each day and trying to empty your mind completely. If this is your first time ever meditating or maybe your returning to meditation after a long period of time, just go slowly and focus on getting into a habit of meditating on a regular basis. Daily is always the best of course, even if it’s only for 5 minutes. It’s the consistency and the “training” of the mind that will have the greatest impact.
So let’s say I decide to start meditating for 5-15 minutes a day. How do I do it?
It’s best to have a regular time of day that you do your meditation in order to build a routine and strengthen the habit. It’s not obligatory by any means, but as we know, habits are best built by doing something over and over in the same way. So, if you can you find a regular time each day, this would be ideal. If not, don’t worry about it, and just do it as regularly as you can. Most types of meditation recommend either first thing in the morning or before bed. This helps to put you in a good frame of mind for the day or to relax you before bed. Another benefit of meditating within 30 minutes of waking up or 30 minutes before going to bed is that these are the times of day when you are most suggestible to your environment since we are either just coming out of our sleep cycle or about to go into one. Consequently, our brains are in a slightly “sleepy” or “semi-altered” state of consciousness whereby our minds are more open to accepting new information. So if you are able to quiet your mind and maybe even focus on something positive or calming during these periods of time, you have the added benefit of strengthening a calmer and more positive state of being.
Also designating a regular place for your meditation is helpful. Whether it’s in your home, office or some other space, try to keep it consistent. It’s best if you can make it “your meditation space” without any distractions or excessive noise. If it’s in your home, you will likely want to tell your family members that when you’re meditating to leave you alone to avoid unnecessary interruptions. Remember that this time is for you. It’s good to treat it as a protected time that is to take of you. Your family and friends will undoubtedly benefit from you meditating, but the more importance and reverence you give to your meditation, the more benefits you will likely see from it since you will feel more invested in it. Think of it as a little gift you’re giving to yourself and those you love each day. A bank account, if you will, where you are putting away a little bit of peace and calm each day. Over time, this bank account will be quite big, and the investment will “pay off.”
For your meditation space, you may want to light some candles, use special meditation or soothing music that you like, burn incense, have a special meditation pillow or a blanket to put around yourself. You might at some point even decide to create an altar with a picture of a religious or spiritual figure that you respect, statues, crystals, flowers, written positive affirmations, etc. It’s really up to you how you want to create your “space.” Just follow your instinct with what feels right for you.
What if I do it wrong? Don’t I need a special teacher or guru?
These questions generally come up with Westerners since we are raised to achieve and to be competitive, even with ourselves. In my belief, the beauty of meditation is that you can’t do it wrong. If you follow some general guidelines (see below), you will always “succeed.” It’s this very concern about doing it right or wrong, that meditation can be so powerful. Retraining the brain to accept the idea that things don’t have to be “good or bad,” “right or wrong”, can be profound and effective for our healing and personal development. If you study Buddhist meditation, this is one of their primary beliefs—that the difficulties we have in life are often out of a need to label and define our reality rather than just accepting it as it is. A teacher or some sort of guidance can be helpful if you decide to go further with your meditation practice or to learn about different principles of meditation, but it’s not necessary. Again, meditation is just about you. Whether you have a teacher, a mentor or a guru, in the end, to benefit from the practice, you need to sit with yourself quietly.
So let’s get to the logistics of meditating:
1) Sit with legs crossed or feet flat on the floor and back straight. A chair with a firm back is usually best, but find what works for you. If you have a meditation pillow, use this of course.
2) Head should be straight but slightly tilted down. Keep your neck and body as relaxed as possible. If you are sitting with legs crossed and find that it hurts too much, simply sit in a chair with your feet on the floor instead.
3) Place your hands comfortably on your thighs with either the palms facing up or down, or you can gently touch the index finger and the thumb with the palms facing up. Again, find what feels right for you. Palms up tends to be more of a “receiving” energy, while palms down is more of a “grounding” energy, and fingers touching is a more spiritual intention. You might change this depending on the day and how you’re feeling.
4) Close your eyes and take three slow, deep breaths to relax and center the mind and body. For these first breaths, you may find it very relaxing and cleansing to breathe in through your nose and to let the breath out through your mouth. You can imagine that you are “letting go” of the stressors of the day while you do this. If you find you need a few more breaths before starting, go ahead.
5) After your initial cleansing and grounding breaths, breathe only through your nose. Allow your breath to gradually slow down to a nice peaceful rhythm.
6) As your breath begins to slow down, do a mental scan of your body from your head to your toes. Notice how your body is feeling. Is it tense, relaxed, is there pain anywhere? Notice how you are feeling. Are you feeling stressed, worried, angry, calm? Make a mental note and then let it go. This is just a quick exercise to reconnect with yourself and your body and to begin to notice what’s going on in your body more.
7) At the beginning you will most likely want something to focus on to help calm your mind. A few simple options to choose from are:
a) Focusing on your breath inhaling and exhaling.
b) Counting from 1 to 10 and then repeating.
c) Choosing a word or phrase that is calming and centering for you. It could be a religious verse, a spiritual quote, a positive affirmation or a word like “I am relaxed,” “I am connecting to myself,” “I release any stress,” “love,” “peace,” “calm.” The possibilities are endless so experiment and find what is right for you.
8) Try at least 5-15 minutes to start and gradually increase it over time. If you are able to, do your meditation twice per day with once in the morning and once in the evening.
9) Rinse and repeat each day!
After your meditation, you may want to write down or journal what you noticed before, during or after. Whether you had any physical sensations, positive or negative, emotions, or any particular thoughts that came up. A very common experience at the beginning is a feeling of anxiety or stress because we aren’t able to calm our minds and our bodies. You will likely have a running commentary in your head of all sorts of things. Just notice this and then try to let it go. If you tend to be an “overachiever” or goal-oriented person, it will be a bit more challenging at the beginning as your mind will automatically want to turn this into another challenge. Much like in yoga, there is absolutely no competition in meditation. It is just about you. There is no need to put pressure on yourself or to create some goal you need to accomplish in a certain time frame. Don’t try to force anything or judge it. Just let yourself be. Each meditation will likely be different and you will have more challenging days and easier days. This is the nature of life and of meditation. Over time, you will definitely notice that your thoughts begin to slow down and your body relaxes faster. You may even begin to notice moments when the mind is empty. Remember, whatever your experience is, is the right experience for you. If you decide at some point to study or join a specific type of meditation group, this can be helpful as well.
For me, meditation is one of the most effective, simple and inexpensive ways to calm the body and the mind, to gain insight about oneself and to feel more open, loving and grounded. There are probably thousands of articles, books and research studies about the positive effects of meditation at this point. Clearly, meditation has a profound impact on one’s body and state of being. You cannot do it wrong, you cannot harm yourself in the process and there aren’t negative side effects. You can do it anywhere in the world and you always have the ability to use it at any moment. No prescription or special approval needed.
If you have any further questions about starting your own meditation practice, please feel free to send me an e-mail. Lots of love on your own meditation journey.
Addicted To Our Thoughts?
We are all aware of drug addictions, alcohol addictions, gambling addictions, etc., but most people never think about another very powerful and lesser known addiction—which is to our thoughts. I am not referring to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder either, which is a clinically diagnosable disorder involving repetitive and intrusive thoughts and/or behaviors. What I’m referring to is something more subtle and common that I would guess affects a high percentage of the American population. So what do I mean by “addicted to our thoughts?” What this means is a basic inability to “shut off” or slow down the constant commentary in our heads, even when we want to, but can’t. We all have a running commentary going on in our heads throughout the day. Thinking about what we have to get done for the day, the next day, the next week, what we’re eating for lunch, problems at work or home, traffic, etc. Constantly thinking about things from our past and then jumping into the future, only to be brought back to something in the past again. Judging , analyzing and assessing every little thing in your environment. Finding it hard or impossible to stop these commentaries when you’re trying to relax or worse, when you’re trying to fall asleep.
Now this is not abnormal or something to start worrying about. I think Americans have too many things to worry about as it is. My point is that when you’re unable to slow down or stop these thought patterns, they begin to have an impact on your mind and your body as well. Case in point, sleep problems. How many Americans can’t fall asleep or wake up in the middle of the night unable to stop thinking or worrying about things? Why is this? As a society we seem to have become accustomed to this being a normal part of life it seems-- when it’s not. Of course not all sleep problems are just due to an overactive mind, but I believe it can definitely be a factor to consider.
So how do you know if you’re “addicted to your thoughts?” An easy way to check this out is to just find a quiet space, by yourself, for 5 minutes and to close your eyes and see what happens with your thoughts and your body. If you can, try not to think about anything. Notice what type of thoughts come up in your head, how fast they change, your emotions and what’s going on in your body. For most people, just a couple of minutes can be difficult and they may even begin to feel agitated, nervous or irritable. As you notice your thoughts, see if you can slow them down or stop them completely. This is the foundation and basis of meditation of course, which focuses on taming our minds.
I’ve heard the mind described as being like a “monkey on your back,” and when allowed to do what it wants, it just bounces around noisily and out of control. The trick is to gain control of this “monkey” and to tame it over time. The benefits of doing this are endless, I believe, from providing a deeper sense of calm and relaxation throughout your day, more stable emotional states, decreased irritability, decreased negativity, more energy, better sleep, better concentration and more.
I’m not suggesting everyone has to start to meditate, although I highly encourage people to, but just being aware of your own mental activity is important. Being aware of what types of thoughts are going through your head during the day can also help you to understand why you may be feeling tired, angry, frustrated, etc. And wouldn’t it be nice to be able to shut them off when you want to? To go on your vacation, go home after work or lay down in bed at night and be able to put the monkey back in it’s cage? It is possible and highly beneficial not only for you, but for those around you as well.
If you should decide to begin to “tame your monkey,” just follow the steps above once to twice a day for 5 minutes to start, or more if you find that you enjoy it. The most important thing is to just do it. There are many techniques and ways to calm the mind, but the easiest I find is to just do what works best for you and your life. Again, finding a quiet place will be critical, but this could even be done on your lunch break in your car or your office if you can close the door or even your bathroom if you don’t have any quiet spaces in your house. Anywhere you feel comfortable is fine. It’s better to sit than lay down to prevent falling asleep, and you can sit in a chair or on the floor, again whatever works for you. It’s important not to judge this process and to just get started. If you feel overwhelmed at the beginning, don’t worry, it will pass with time and practice. It’s just that your mind is not used to trying to calm down. If too much emotion or negativity comes up, take a break and try again later. Afterwards, you may even want to write down a few notes about what you noticed, felt or thought.
If this still feels too difficult for you at the beginning, you can also try using some meditation or soothing music of any kind that you like which will also further relax the mind. Other tricks are just focusing on your breath, focusing on a phrase like, “I am allowing myself to relax,” or focusing on a word like, “peace,” “joy,” “love,” etc. Once again, find what works for you. This can be done a thousand different ways. They are all fine as long as it gives you the time you need to focus on yourself in a comfortable way. Whatever steps you take in this direction are positive so be gentle with yourself and patient, and stay open to whatever happens. There’s no right or wrong, just you making space for more peace in your life. Happy monkey taming!
Psychosomatic Symptoms and Body Syndromes: What the Body is Trying to Tell You
Psychosomatic symptom is a term used to describe a physical symptom in the body that arises from a purely psychological or emotional cause. Some common psychosomatic symptoms include headaches, sleep problems, extreme fatigue, stomach problems as well as a variety of unexplained pains in the body. Weight gain, weight loss and an inability to lose weight can also be psychologically related for a variety of reasons as well. Of course, if you should experience any of these symptoms or issues, it’s always necessary to check with a medical doctor first in order to rule out any medically related causes. But what if you’ve seen a doctor, or a few doctors and possibly even gone through different medical exams but are left with results that indicate you are healthy physically and nothing is actually wrong? Then what?
This is when it’s time to consider the possibility of having a psychosomatic symptom which simply means you may have emotional stressors and/or suppressed emotions that are not being expressed and so to manage this, your body is directing the emotions into different areas of the body. Unexpressed emotions like anger, guilt, sadness, loss, judgment, confusion, anxiety, trauma, and any other negative emotion you can think of get held and trapped in the body when they are not given a way to be released whether it be through talking, crying, physical exercise, writing, etc. When we stuff our emotions down day after day for weeks, months or sometimes years, these emotions become toxic to the body and the body then sends a signal for help by creating a physical symptom to get your attention.
One theory of body syndromes that I came to learn about from my training at the Hypnosis Motivation Institute was that depending on the specific area of the body where the symptom is occurring, that this itself gives information about the nature and emotional cause of the symptom. The founder of the school and developer of this theory, John Kappas, PhD, defined five different body syndromes which included the crying syndrome, the responsibility syndrome, the sexual frustration or guilt syndrome, the fight or reaching syndrome and the flight syndrome.
The crying syndrome, for example, includes the area of the body from the solar plexus up, and covers the chest, head and neck areas. Physical problems in these areas are said to indicate an underlying inability to make a decision about something important to the individual. Other common problems with this syndrome are sinus problems, migraines, constriction of the throat muscles, grinding of the teeth and canker sores in the mouth.
The sexual frustration or guilt syndrome, on the other hand, affects the stomach, groin and lower back. Problems in these areas can indicate possible sexual frustration, sexual guilt, guilt about infidelity and feelings of sexual inadequacy. Physical symptoms may include stomach cramps, constipation, acid stomach, excessive menstrual cramps or bleeding, bladder infections, kidney problems or prostate problems.
Consequently, each area of the body was found to correspond to a different emotional dilemma or problem and when left unexpressed, the physical symptoms in those areas developed. Interestingly, when the related emotions were identified and finally expressed by the client and dealt with, the physical symptoms reduced and disappeared.
Other health professionals and authors such as Deepak Chopra, Caroline Myss and Judith Orloff have all written about this connection between the mind and the body as well, providing information about how different somatic symptoms correlate emotionally and how the different areas of the body express these issues. It’s like learning a foreign language, but once you understand it, your body has a whole new way to communicate and you have a way to understand it.
When we can look at our bodies not only as a tool to function, move and get things done in the world, but also as a communication device and a feedback loop, we are provided with a lot more information about what is going on internally within us and what unresolved issues and emotions we may need to look at. The symptoms don’t need to be seen as bad, but rather as an opportunity to wonder what the body is trying to express and a signal that we need to stop and pay attention. This is a good moment to pause and to take stock of what is going on in your life and the potential stressors or unexpressed feelings you may be holding in. Even if the immediate stressors can’t be removed, by taking some time to notice what’s really going on with your body, acknowledging the problem, and “listening” to it, you may already reduce some of the symptoms. Then by finding ways to “let out” the emotions, again, through things like physical exercise, journaling, talking to a friend, playing music, etc., you are honoring the emotion and providing a space for it to be expressed.
The most important thing when you are experiencing a physical problem is not to ignore it. After seeing a doctor to rule out any physical causes begin to ask yourself what underlying message the body is trying to communicate to you. What feelings, emotional stressors or difficulties are you not acknowledging or expressing in your life? What emotional needs are possibly being ignored or unfulfilled? Once you have identified some of the possibilities, you can then work towards finding ways to express these emotions or needs in a healthy way. This process can be liberating and also difficult at times depending on how deep the emotion has been buried or the intensity of it. However, with the knowledge of where the real problem is coming from, you have the potential to alleviate and eliminate these psychosomatic symptoms for good.