Zen master: meditation for beginners

When you think of meditation, the first image that may come to mind is that of a hippie. This association with spiritual sub-cultures can lead many to think that meditation is something of a false science – an activity that simply isn’t for them.

But you don’t need to have long hair and tie-dye clothes to benefit from meditation – many studies have found that meditation can have a positive impact on our emotional and mental health.

The benefits

One of the main boons of meditation is stress relief. Mental and physical stress lead to increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This hormone is responsible for many of the harmful effects of stress, such as the release of inflammatory chemicals called cytokines. This can lead to depression and anxiety, increased blood pressure, fatigue and disrupted sleep.

In 2013, an 8-week study found that meditation reduced this inflammation response caused by stress.

Meditation has also been linked with improved attention spans, and better self-awareness. For example, a 2019 study found that meditating for just 13 minutes a day enhanced attention and memory after 8 weeks.

Clearly, meditation can be a useful tool in the modern day – whether you miss Woodstock Festival or not!

How it works

Meditation can be found in hundreds of forms, but they all share two fundamental ideas. The first is that meditation should bring the mind to a quiet, still state. This is called “shamatha,” or cessation. Then, your meditation should explore the workings of the mind in that state. This is known as “prajna,” or contemplation.

If you’ve never meditated before, try this simple home meditation technique – just slip into some comfortable clothes:

1) Sit

Find a place to sit that feels calm and quiet to you – you don’t have to sit cross legged. You can kneel, or sit on a chair- wherever you feel stable and able to sit for a while.

2) Set a time limit

If you’re just beginning, it can help to choose a short time that you can commit to, such as five or 10 minutes.

4) Focus on your breathing

Take several slow inhalations, exhaling completely after each one. Follow the sensation of your breath as it goes in and as it goes out.

5) Notice when your mind has wandered

Inevitably, your attention will leave the breath and wander to other places. When you notice that your mind has wandered, simply return your attention to your breathing.

6) Take stock

How are you feeling at this moment in time? Where in your body do you feel tight? Where do you feel light? Don’t try to change anything you observe. Just recognize it.

7) Close

When the timer is up, take a moment and notice any sounds in the environment. Notice how your body feels right now. Notice your thoughts and emotions.

Creating a habit

The first time you meditate can feel alien, but the more you practise, the easier it becomes to quiet your mind and focus on how you are feeling. If you think meditation might be helpful for you, try to add regular meditation time to your calendar – even if it’s just a few minutes a day.

You may also find it useful to explore some apps that can help to promote regular meditation exercises. Apps such as The Mindfulness App, Headspace and Calm feature deep breathing techniques and guided meditations which can expand your understanding and relationship to meditation. They also feature relaxing music, nature soundscapes, and storytelling sleepcasts that can improve your wellbeing in other ways.

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