"Meditation is one of the best things that has ever happened to me." - Me, just now
I started meditating about 8 months ago and been doing it pretty much every day since. It has definitely changed my life for the better by preventing and releasing accumulated stress, decreasing tension-related pain in the shoulder area, affecting my digestion, decreasing anxiety and increasing emotional stability and joy for life. Sounds too good to be true? Well, this is probably one of those extremely rare cases when it actually isn't. Meditation has been studied extensively since the 50's, and it has been found to moderately improve anxiety and depression, significantly lower detection threshold for light stimuli of short duration when compared to non-meditators (meaning that those who meditate may be less prone to disturbing stimuli), activate the "relaxation response", reducing activity in the sympathetic nervous system and increasing activity in the parasympathetic system, thus relaxing the meditator, and affect in many other, mostly positive ways.
Because one of the most common questions about meditation is "How do I start?", I decided to write a short guide. First of all, here are some answers to other common questions:
Which position is the best/right for meditation? - There really isn't one. You can sit, stand, lie down or even walk and meditate at the same time. The most important thing is that your level of arousal (as in psychological term, don't meditate with an erection) is sufficient i.e. you are not falling asleep and that you're not feeling any actual pain (you may feel slight discomfort or/and numbness but that will pass). For different positions, see the figure below.
Do I have to be silent when meditating? Can I listen to music/soundscapes while meditating? - Yes, if it helps you relax. Just don't get too caught on the music/sounds and try to ease your mind.
What is the best app for meditating? - In my opinion, you don't need any apps, but I've heard good things about Headspace.
How long should I meditate? - That is completely up to you. Don't believe in those guides or blogs which say that you should aim for "one hour of meditation every day" as even 5 minutes can help you get more relaxed.
So, I think we are ready to start the journey to meditation. First of all, you should determine your goal - what do you want to achieve by meditating? Is it to help you with certain tasks (e.g. helping to concentrate at the gym or relaxing before a big concert) or to release stress after work? How much time can you devote to meditation every day? I really recommend meditating every day so that it becomes a habit, even if this means that your meditation sessions will become shorter. I started meditating for 10 minutes and added 2 minutes every week until I was doing 30 minutes a day. You could maybe choose 5 minutes and add 1 minute every week or if you're feeling crazy motivated you can shoot straight for 30 minutes or even an hour. I recommend choosing the progression method for few reasons: first, progression gives us a sense of accomplishment. second, you should start easy when you're beginning a new hobby so you don't feel too overwhelmed after a while.
I usually meditate in a Burmese position because my hip muscles aren't flexible enough for half lotus. After about 20 minutes my front leg starts becoming numb, and if this bothers me too much I will switch on to Seiza position. Seiza is generally easier on your lower back, so if you have lower back pain I suggest starting with Seiza. Another good option is sitting on a chair but try to keep your back straight and don't lean on anything. You probably do this 8 hours at the office and it's generally very bad for your back. Sitting straight will strengthen your core muscles which will help sitting for longer periods of time.
When I started meditation, I tried to concentrate on my breathing by counting from 1 to 10 and visualizing these numbers with my eyes closed. Once I got the to 10, I started counting again. This method is used in Zazen meditation. After a while, once I got better at concentrating I stopped the visualization and opened my eyes, focusing both eyes on the tip of my nose. This is a method from Astanga yoga which helps you concentrate by focusing your gaze on one point.I also turn off lights and light a candle in front of me. This gives a nice soft light and relaxed atmosphere for meditation. Every once in a while, I try focusing on the flame. As you can see, I have a lot of unique things that I like to do while meditating, and I encourage you to find yours. Some 'gurus' will probably be very strict about the methods but in my opinion meditation is a very personal thing and not everything works for everyone.
If you are meditating in a Burmese, half lotus or full lotus positions, be aware of your posture. I suggest that you sit on a pillow or pillows if your hips are tight. Sitting on the floor will tilt your pelvis back which causes the back to round and the chest to cave in. Sitting on a pillow will align your body straight (see Figure below).
Finally, I would like to say something about the effects of meditation. This is a very subjective matter, but you may have similar experiences with your practising. First of all in the beginning I felt really good, almost euphoric, after each session. After few months this feeling subsided and I felt like the whole meditation thing wasn't rewarding at all. This state, which I here call plateau, was very tough in terms of discipline and self-control. I really felt like quitting because meditation had no visible effect on my mood. This lasted for about 2-3 months, after which I started getting another, new feeling - a feeling of peace and balance. The euphoria was gone, and so was the frustration, but this feeling of peace has helped me immensely in my daily life. Don't give up if you feel shitty after meditation, but just stick with it, practice deliberately and embrace the possible discomfort or negative feelings meditation brings.