Teaching at a busy meditation school in the heart of London’s Soho, the stresses of modern city living couldn’t be more apparent – the sash windows of the Georgian building offer little protection against the constant buzz of traffic and the clinking of glasses and jollities from local bars and restaurants echoing down the street. Once inside though, the studio is peaceful and cosy – and as we sit in silence, these sounds eventually fade to a distant hum, becoming a comforting reminder that we can always find stillness even in the cacophony of a fast-paced life.
Each day, people of all ages and all walks of life come searching for peace of mind – my last course included a 17 year old student and a 60 something American in charge of 300 men working at a major car factory. Most arrive wanting to ‘stop the thoughts’ – something I know I certainly yearned for when I was first drawn to meditating. The truth is the thoughts don’t ever stop coming, we learn how to manage them, to be more discerning with them. It is a process through which the mind begins to settle so we’re able to re-connect with our own inner silence, eventually allowing us to remain calm despite all the busyness around us.
There is also the idea that meditation is a way of escaping and tuning out, but ultimately, it is about tuning in and heightening our awareness. In fact, beyond the initial relaxation and de-stressing we all crave lie a whole host of subtle, life affirming benefits which unfold over time.
Perhaps one of the most surprising is the way in which senses become heightened. A walk in the park suddenly becomes lit up in glorious technicolour, the smell of the earth, blossom and grass and the sound of birdsong hitting in a multi-textured, symphonic sensory experience. There’s a new appreciation of simple things, including the taste of ‘real’ food, meaning we’re less likely to crave overly sweet or salty snacks or processed meals. We begin to develop a better connection with our body so health-sabotaging habits fall away.
The more we practice, a deeper self-awareness begins to bring about a new empathy and understanding which naturally extends to others so relationships at home and work improve, and an inner feeling of connection and fulfilment develops so we become less reliant on the external ‘stuff’ (money, cars, houses etc). That’s not to say we shouldn’t have that new pair of shoes, but once we have a wider perspective on life, we can decide where our priorities lie more consciously rather than being pulled along.
And it’s good to realise that all this can start from simply sitting with our eyes closed because that is meditation; and this is something we can all do even if we have to begin with 5-10 minutes at first. By settling the body and mind like this, we get many physical benefits. These include a balancing of the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ and para-sympathetic ‘rest and digest’ nervous system, which in turn helps to bring about a deep sense of relaxation, lower blood pressure, better digestion, sleep and improved immune system and energy levels. Eyes begin to shine, skin begins to glow and a sense of calm radiates.
The next stage is to direct the attention – and there are a myriad of techniques which help us to do this, for example using a mantra; concentrating on the breath; visualisation – and then we’re able to transcend our day-to-day sleep/wake/dream states. This is when the deeper transformation takes place and we start to gain the more subtle benefits as mentioned earlier.
Deceptively simple, at the same time deep and profound – meditation is not a quick fix, and there are no short cuts, but the rewards are high especially if we when we begin to go beyond the initial relaxation phase.
In order to delve deeper, we need to understand the basics of meditation – start here with some insider knowledge for the journey:
- Even though sitting up is the most effective meditation position, it’s not necessary to be stiff and statue-like in a crossed leg position. In fact, sitting in a chair or on your bed with your back supported so you can relax your body during your session is best. Sit easily, be comfortable before you begin.
- As mentioned earlier, closing the eyes is the first step to turning our attention inwards. Think more about allowing your eyes to close naturally in order to avoid unnecessary tension. We hold a lot of tightness in our faces, especially through squinting at screens and phones – be conscious of letting this melt away before you attempt to meditate otherwise the chances are you will be trying too hard.
- Allow your breath to settle so it’s quiet and soft, even if you plan to use breathing techniques to settle your mind and as a focus for your actual session. Once the breath has quieted, the body is relaxed and our eyes will close naturally – this way we are creating the best conditions to fall into meditation in the way we fall asleep – it is not something we can force.
- Experiment with Apps. Headspace is a favourite with us at VH. Insight Timer is also fantastic – with guided meditations from international teachers; music including sound healing, mantra and chanting; talks or you can simply use the timer for your self-practice. (Remember though – if you start scrolling, you’re not meditating!).
- Joining a meditation group can help power up your meditation, as does going to classes or workshops with different teachers especially if you’re unable to settle on a regular practice at home. Also, it’s reassuring to share experiences with others.
- Further reading: Meditation and Its Practice by Swami Rama written in the early 90s by the renowned Himalayan master, this remains a clear, precise, quick read for beginners and experienced meditators alike. The Science of Enlightenment by Shinzen Young came out last year. Young, an American Buddhist monk with an extensive spiritual journey explains the deeper states of meditation in a fascinating, easy to grasp way.