The art of meditation

A quick guide to the simple habit we all can make use of in these times.

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Cover: Maria Nguyen

Maria Nguyen, the artist of the work shown above, says of meditating, ‘When I meditate, I usually picture myself laying in a stream where the water ends up being carried out into the ocean. Whenever a thought/image/memory pops up, it somehow materializes and flows into the ocean.’ In these words she captures the essence of meditation, an ancient practice shrouded, to some, in mysticism, which unfortunately makes it seem unachievable or unusable.

I am no expert in meditation; I am simply a person who has been doing it for a few years now with a certain imperfect consistency. And this short guide is designed to help you get started with meditation eschewing the many forms, choices, beliefs and methods that go with it—for the time being—choosing instead to help you get started and then letting you find your own way once you get comfortable.

Why meditate?

To many meditation is a form of dealing with stress and anxiety. As someone who is, thankfully, rarely stressed or anxious, I find that meditation has a third benefit: it is the quickest method to keep your mind fresh, active and perky. It is perhaps second only to a good workout when it comes to clearing our mind and making it easier for us to grasp things.

That said, meditation is an incredibly personal journey. How you do it will be shaped why what you gain from it, which is a choice you will make only once you have been at it for some time. A choice you will make much earlier is how you go about your meditation sessions which will in turn determine what you gain from them. You may be surprised by what you find, or at least you may find it works as advertised.

Aspects in meditation

When you wish to meditate you can choose to sit up straight, stand still or even lie down. Choose whatever position you like, but pay attention to your posture because good posture is never a bad thing. You will only have to ensure you remain silent all through and pay attention to the three key aspects of meditation: anchoring to your breath, breathing using a technique of choice, and learning to handle your thoughts.

Noticing your breath

The key technique in most meditation and mindfulness practices is breathing. Think of your breath as the one constant in your life. Without it you do not exist; and as long as you exist, so does your breathing. The trouble is that hardly any of us pays attention to our breathing.

Use breathing as an anchor. When you need to focus, it is your breath that you need to focus on. Specifically, focus on the fact that you are inhaling and exhaling, that there is a rhythm there. When your mind darts, refocus it on your breath. Notice that you are inhaling. Notice that you are exhaling.

When you sit to meditate the status of your breath, and, down the line, your breathing patterns, must be your sole concern. We will return to this idea presently.

A technique for breathing

Speaking of techniques for breathing might seem funny when we all have a technique which is to simply ignore our breathing and let it go on like the involuntary process that it is. While it is true that our breathing is and will remain involuntary, during a meditation session we often try to make it a voluntary, intentional practice.

The technique for breathing, or one breathing cycle, is a four-step process:

  1. Inhale through your nose deeply for four seconds.
  2. Hold your breath for four seconds.
  3. Exhale through your mouth for four seconds.
  4. Hold for four seconds.

This method is known as box breathing, and it is important to run through at least four cycles in one sittings. At least a handful of repetitions of such four-cycle sessions are also recommended. You can also alter the lengths of each step opting for the more popular seven-second cycle or the seven-four-seven-four-second alternating cycle if you like.

This is the simplest technique of intentional or meditative breathing; but its simplicity is not an indicator of its effectiveness. There are other techniques that you can explore and master if you are interested once you get started.

Handling your thoughts

The third and final component of a meditation session is dealing with your thoughts. This is not a grand task to be honest, since words like ‘thoughts’ and ‘feelings’ conjure images of Herculean tasks in most people. Meditation simply recognises that when you are asked to sit idle and breathe for a while it is hard to expect nothing to pop up in your mind, whether it is a work issue, a chore due at home, responsibilities at college or whatever else.

What is important is to understand what needs to be done when such thoughts pop up in your mind. First, do not fight them as nothing will come of it. Second, notice them fully: tell yourself what you are thinking, tell yourself what this thought is about, but do not act upon it. Third, imagine each thought like a leaf floating in a river or a car driving across a carriageway (whatever works for you) and watch as the thought goes away.

In other words, much like you would watch a car drive across the road without attempting to stop it by jumping in its path, but you would still fully notice said car, simply notice your thoughts and do nothing—watch as they approach you and fly past you. And every time you notice such a thought, use your anchor to centre yourself: your anchor of course is your breath. Once you notice a thought and watch it move past you, return your focus on your breath again.

In the end it is this aspect of meditation that works wonders for the stressed and the anxious: by noticing their thoughts and not acting on them, such people can quickly come to terms with whatever is bothering them. For everyone else, the ten—or sixty—minutes you spend meditating gives you an opportunity to calmly collect your thoughts and freshen up your mind.

This technique is known as mindfulness meditation or zen meditation, although advanced practitioners of either type will be up in arms against me because there are key differences: the former you can practice anywhere, without even closing your eyes if you so choose; the latter involves similar steps but places a great deal of emphasis on posture and other elements of discipline.

Take it forward

Once you get used to remaining idle for five to ten minutes, breathing properly and focusing on your breath, using it as an anchor to return to while you notice and acknowledge—but never act upon—your thoughts, you can take your meditations to the next level.

The time you spend is not as important as the quality of time you spend. Aim for five minutes to begin with, or ten preferably, and go up as high as you practically can. This means you can meditate whether you have a lot of time on hand or you are rushing around and have just five minutes to spare.

If possible, create your environment to your liking: some like soothing music, others like the sounds of nature (a stream, mountain winds, rain in a forest etc.), still others like absolute silence. Do whatever works for you. You can go beyond treating your olfactory senses, though: burn a scented candle if you like, or hand a pouch of lavender if that is your thing. Just remember that these are all additional luxuries that tickle your fancy; they will make little difference to your meditation itself as good technique is inimitable.

Further reading

What we went over just now is a basic technique for meditating. You can stick with it if it works for you, or you can start to explore other techniques and find what works better for you once you have mastered the basics.

As an alternative to box breathing look up diaphragm breathing, alternate-nostril breathing and Zhuanqi.

As an alternative to mindfulness meditation, look up loving kindness meditation (where you express love and kindness towards whatever things you happen to think of, be it an object in your home or your worst enemy), progressive relaxation (where you start from your head and pay attention to every sequential part of your body attempting to relax it while you make your way down to your toes), or the most outlandish but exciting transcendental meditation (where you attempt to gain a bird’s eye view of your life or of a specific situation).

Whatever technique you settle for in the end you will gain something from it. Good luck with your meditation and have a great journey.