Health and Fitness

Learn How to Meditate and Bring Calm, Clarity, and Contentment Into Your Life

Time to train your mind to be more present, open, and aware.
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Meditation is the practice of removing yourself from everyday struggles and training your mind to be more present, open, and at ease. By extension, learning how to meditate is a simple way to bring calm, clarity, and contentment into our stressful and busy lives. The principles of meditation are easy to follow and simple to learn, so let's get straight to it, beginning with an explanation of what meditation is.

What is meditation?

Before you learn how to meditate, you need to know exactly what it is. The practice itself has existed for thousands of years, and nearly every religion, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, incorporate meditation in some way, shape, or form.

"There are many different definitions of meditation, but at Headspace, we define it as a formal exercise where we take intentional time out of our busy day to practice and cultivate mindfulness," says Headspace's director of meditation, Eve Lewis Prieto.

"It's a little bit like training a muscle," she adds. "If you go to the gym and lift weights on a regular basis your muscles will grow. In this case, the muscle that you are training is your attention. By training the mind to be more present, aware, and open we tend to experience greater calm, clarity, and contentment in our lives, which means we can navigate the challenging moments in life when they arise in a kinder and gentler way."

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What's the difference between meditation and mindfulness?

Mindfulness and meditation are closely linked, which is why the terms are often used interchangeably, but the two practices aren't exactly the same. Mindfulness, explains Lewis Prieto, is about being present in everyday life, so it doesn't matter whether you're walking the dog or sat in an anxiety-inducing business meeting, you can always practice mindfulness. "An easy way to think about it is meditation-in-action," she says.

To practice meditation, however, you have to intentionally remove yourself from everyday life and devote time and space to the practice.

What are the benefits of meditation?

If the past two years spent living through a global pandemic have taught us anything, it's that life is difficult and challenges are aplenty. While we can't always control what happens in life, we can affect the way we respond to those external challenges. "Meditation provides a framework that allows us to tune into living our life as fully and present as possible no matter what's happening," says Lewis Prieto.

If you're suffering with anxiety—and significantly more people are thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic—meditation can potentially help ease your condition. This is how Lewis Prieto came to the practice. "I can only speak for myself, but I came to meditation because of crippling anxiety," she says. "I would spend a lot of time worrying about things that hadn't even happened, and it was having a huge impact on my life, including my sleep. Whether you experience anxiety or find that stress gets the better of you, as a beginner to meditation you will learn techniques like focussed attention that really help to stabilize the business in the mind."

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How to meditate

Meditation can provide some big benefits, and all it takes to begin is five simple steps. Follow these to begin your journey to a calmer mind.

  • Start by trying to find a reasonably quiet spot where you can sit comfortably—on a mat, a cushion, or an upright chair—for five to ten minutes, without being disturbed.
  • Once you've found the right place, you can then choose the right time to do it. Most people find it easier to develop a habit when they make it part of their regular schedule, the idea of 'same time, same place' making it more straightforward. But it's important to be flexible and make it work for you, so no problem if you want to do it at different times each day.
  • Once you're ready, sit down and follow the sensation of your breath and notice as it goes in and out.
  • After your first session, take it one day at a time and appreciate that it takes practice getting comfortable not doing anything. It can feel strange at first, and even unproductive, to just sit, relax, and let go. This is normal.
  • It's also helpful to be clear about your motivation for meditating, which will combat the inevitable excuses and resistance the mind can generate. Having said that, even if you are trying to address something very specific, try to approach meditation with an open mind. This will not only benefit you personally, but also those around you.

How to clear your mind during meditation

It's not a question of if your mind will wander while meditating, it's more a question of when. As Lewis Prieto explains, "Our minds are designed to think, so a wandering mind is very common in meditation, and it does not mean you are doing anything wrong.

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"One of the biggest misconceptions about meditation is that you have to clear the mind in order to meditate," she adds. "Not only is that pretty impossible to do, because you inevitably start thinking about not thinking, but it makes for a very frustrating experience. So when you notice that the mind has wandered and got distracted you gently guide the attention back to the breath or whatever anchor point you are using, without judging or criticizing that you have become distracted. It is actually in noticing that you have been distracted that you are training the mindfulness muscle. Bringing the attention back to the present moment over and over, that is where the mental strength training happens."

How often should you meditate?

As with any new skill, the more you practice, the more you'll improve, but establishing a routine you can stick to is just as important as volume.

"In the beginning," says Lewis Prieto, "it's more important to establish a routine and get used to sitting with the mind, so starting small is just fine. I would recommend starting with five minutes two-to-three times a week and building from there. You can of course do more if you wish. Little and often is really encouraged so that you continue to flex the mindfulness muscle on a regular basis."

Meditation tips for beginners

Okay, so you know what meditation is, how to meditate and how often to practice, so what else? Here are some final tips and techniques to really get you zen AF.

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"Try not to put too much pressure on yourself to be a 'perfect' meditator, there really is no right or wrong," says Lewis Prieto. "It helps to set up a supportive environment like the same place, same time, but the mind and body will be different each time you meditate. If the mind is really busy one day that is just how the mind is. Be patient and gentle with yourself and remember each practice is a new moment. We already put so much pressure on ourselves, you don't need to add to that in your practice. If you miss a few days, that's okay, just pick back up where you left off.

"My final tip would be to keep meditating even when you feel like you don't need it. Most people come to meditation because of stress and anxiety, but once they feel more calm and centered meditation tends to take a back seat. It is a practice and like any skill if you stop doing it you tend to lose the skills you've acquired."

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Should you meditate on your own or in a group?

Choosing whether to meditate on your own or in a group really comes down to personal preference, and there are definite advantages to both.

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"A teacher will have spent many, many hours in practice so there is a very good chance they have come up against the same questions and challenges you'll find so in that way can relate," says Lewis Prieto. "In terms of meditating on your own or in a group it often comes down to preference, many folks won't feel comfortable meditating in a group setting or won't be able to get to an in-person class, so being able to meditate from the comfort of your own home is a huge advantage.

"That said, community plays a huge role in meditation practice. You start to see that everyone struggles and that we are part of a shared human experience, so try and see what works for you. I do a combination of at home practice and in-class, but that's just my preference."

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Do meditation apps work?

"Like many of us, my mental health has taken a hit from the stress of COVID-19 and the strangeness of being stuck at home. With that in mind, I decided to spend a week trying out the most popular mindfulness apps. I started with a 20-minute guided meditation on Headspace but found it hard to clear my head. Luckily, the session times are variable, and I achieved near-total transcendence from my usually anxious working mindset by switching to a more introductory, five-minute lunchtime session the next day. From then on, I felt better with each session. Switching to Calm on day three, I found the default narrator irritating, but a class on "Mental Fitness" voiced by LeBron James was my most enjoyable session of all. By the end of the week, I liked my meditation time more and more."

Writes Bobby Palmer, a journalist looking for effective ways to stress less, sleep better and boost productivity.

From: Men's Health UK

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