Oh No, Not Another Ten Ways to Kickstart Your Meditation Practice!

Oh No, Not Another Ten Ways to Kickstart Your Meditation Practice!

1) Meditate first thing in the morning

It’s a simple truth for most people that meditating first thing in the morning is easier. You might be tempted to leave it for later in the day but meditating in the morning means you’re working with a more rested and empty mind.

It also means you set yourself up well for the day – the commute to work will not be so bad and you won’t be such a grumps in the morning. Hell, you might even feel really happy!

2) Start doing yoga

The whole original purpose of yoga ‘back in the day’, was to prepare the body for meditation. Despite involving just sitting on your ass, you might have noticed that meditation can actually be physically quite demanding, with aches and pains a real distraction.

Yoga is the perfect compliment to meditation because it opens up the hips and strengthens the core, meaning you can sit for longer without pains creeping into your neck, back, knees, shoulders, and wherever else.

If you currently sit in a chair, you may find that yoga can help you transition to sitting in a half or full lotus position, perhaps facilitating a deeper experience.

3) Don’t get attached to notions of good or bad meditations

This is a biggy! It’s easy to think that meditation should be this or that. Especially if we read books about spirituality or blog articles by meditators, it’s easy to think that we’ve failed if we don’t experience oneness, bliss, love, light, enlightenment, energy flows and other such clichés.

This is not what meditation is about. Meditation is about the practice of observing and allowing the contents of your awareness. If you simply do this you’ve succeeded. It doesn’t matter if you feel grumpy, tired, hungry, sexually aroused, harassed by your thoughts, or united with the supreme godhead, meditation is about observation and letting go. Simples.

4) Go on a retreat

Going on a meditation retreat might seem a little intensive but it’s a great way to discover the power of meditation. When I attended my first ten day silent Vipassana retreat I was amazed how positive the affects were.

I felt more creative and inspired than ever. I was happier and more relaxed. I felt more positive about the future. Sure, the long hours spent meditating might involve a bit of discomfort but the potential ROI is big.

5) Listen to a guided meditation

If you just can’t get into it and you’re frustrated by your wondering mind, don’t worry. This is all part of the process at certain stages. Having said that, you might find it helps to gain some extra direction through a guided meditation or a binaural beats sound recording, rather than just meditating in silence.

This is how I started, and though I discarded these tools after a while they helped to first get me into my practice.

6) Go to a local meditation class

Forget books and talks, there’s no better way to learn how to meditate than to meditate. Going to local classes exposes you to different styles of meditation, forces you to actually do it, and connects you to other meditators.

You never know, you might even find some of them are nice people who become friends and motivators for your practice. At times for example, I’ve really enjoyed going to Buddhist classes as the teachings about the mind are just so bang on. See what’s happening in your town or city and sign up to an introductory course.

7) Wear earplugs

This might not sound like the most profound piece of advice you’ll hear about meditation but I promise it’s a good one. I only started doing this recently and I wish I’d done it sooner.

The world can be a noisy place sometimes, with cars, noisy kids, domestic disputes and refuse collectors all doing their best to ruin the morning peace. There is an argument for being as mindful as possible while you meditate to this soundtrack but there is also a lot to gain from meditating in peace and quiet.

Find some decent foam earplugs and discover how much deeper you can go. This is also a godsend for meditating travellers on the move, who never have to worry about another crowing cockerel again.

8) Swim, shower or drink coffee beforehand

Meditating when you are sleepy can sometimes be frustrating and counterproductive. If this is a problem, do something to wake yourself up first, particular if you’ve just been sleeping. I always jump in the shower before meditating but coffee (don’t listen to your ‘coffee is bad for you’ yogi friends) and exercise will also do the trick. Swimming is particularly refreshing if you have access to a nearby pool.

9) Set your alarm clock early

If you’re not sure how to fit meditation into your busy routine, I have a simple solution: set your alarm clock early by the amount of time you intend to meditate for plus ten minutes. It might sound like a sucky thing to do but you’ll soon get used to it, and the energising affects of meditation first thing in the morning will give you back the rest you missed.

I used to recoil at the thought of such a thing but now cannot even consider leaving for work without getting my fix.

10) Try different styles of meditation

There are many styles of meditation out there, and while no particular one can be said to be the best, there’s sure to be a style that just works better for you. If your current practice is not really doing it, try some others. It could be just the refresh you need. I found moving to an open meditation instead of concentrating on my breath did wonders. Don’t endlessly try different styles though, find what works for you.

11) Meditate everyday

Whether it’s for three or 30 minutes, the benefits of meditation stack up the more you do it. Short on time? Woke up late? Doesn’t matter. Just do what you can – a little is better than none.

The Science of Meditation for Friends who Think You’re a Hippie

The Science of Meditation for Friends who Think You’re a Hippie

EDIT: Ok yep, this post actually doesn’t dive into the science at all, although it does summarise some scientific studies. I’m gonna revisit this again and get a bit more scientific-y another time.

Meditation rocks. If you can actually be bothered to do it more days than not, or even if you do it sporadically, there’s so much to be gained from hanging out on that cushion. Let’s face it though, it’s still seen as a pretty alternative practice by those who don’t close their eyes for extended periods of time except for when they’re sleeping, and for those of us who do, it’s tempting to keep our practice a secret to colleagues and certain friends, for fear of being called that most lazy of insults, a hippie. Or maybe that’s just me.

Thankfully meditators everywhere have a new ally. Science is on our side! Recent developments in research and in neuroscience in particular have shed fascinating insights into what happens physiologically and psychologically when we meditate, validating that ancient practice and demonstrating it’s universal worth.

Of course those of us who meditate know what good it does for us without have to turn to the ‘S’ word for validation of our practice, but it’s worth recognising what this research is telling us, partly because it’s great motivation to keep meditating, or maybe approach it with renewed vigour, but also because it’s great to have some handy ammo in case that ‘H’ word ever gets aimed at us.

Humans have known about the efficacy of meditation for thousands of years, yet in the west it’s only been relatively recently that it has started to catch on. Despite an increase in awareness of meditation, it’s still likely some of your friends will think you’re a nut for doing it, so here is what you’ve always wanted – a list of some of the profound benefits of meditation, as confirmed by those rational scientists. Who can argue with that? And if you don’t meditate, this is what you’re missing…

1) The mindfulness cultivated by meditation lowers levels of the hormone cortisol, of which high levels are associated with stress

2) The practice of meditation produces a relaxation response, even in new meditators, leaving you nice and mellow but without blunting the sharpness of your mind

3) Meditation actually causes physical changes in the brain, including an increase in the volume of grey matter in the right orbito-frontal cortex, and the size of the right hippocampus. Why should we care? This is good because it’s thought larger volumes in these regions leads to the cultivation of positive responses and emotions, and increased engagement in mindful behaviour.

4) Meditation increases cortical thickness, which recent studies have associated with lowering pain sensitivity

5) Meditating strengthens the connections between brain cells, and increases ‘gyrification’ of the cortex. This enables the brain to process information faster. Furthermore, it was found the more years you meditate the greater these benefits.

6) Just ten days of intensive mindfulness training can lead to improvements in working memory, sustained attention, attention switching and depressive symptoms

7) Meditation activates the anterior cingulate cortex, enhancing your ability to control worried thinking

8) Meditation decreases elaborative stimulus processing, resulting in the improved ability to attend to the continuous stream of stimuli we are exposed to without getting ‘fixed’ on one particular thing

9) ‘Open’ meditation increases creativity and the ability to come up with new ideas

10) In one study, meditation reduced the risk of suffering a heart attack, stroke or death by 48%

Who knew?! If you want to be creative, less stressed, more chilled, kinder, healthier and a better thinker, you know what to do…

Sometimes Life is Supposed to be Painful (and why Knowing this is Good)

Sometimes Life is Supposed to be Painful (and why Knowing this is Good)

Suffering sucks. Whether it’s a temporary case of the grumps or the desperate, agonising self-destructive death pangs of the suicidal mind, suffering sucks ass. Trust me, I know, and I don’t say this lightly.

But how to deal with it, when the dark seems to have extinguished the light? It sometimes helps me to remember that life is supposed to painful. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying ‘life is shit and it’s always gonna suck’, but there is no rule that says existence is obliged to feel good to us all of the time. Once I realised and internalised this, my own relationship to pain changed just a little.

I’ve started to think that there are two components to our suffering (of course there are more but let’s keep it simple). There is the thing that is causing our pain, and if you look carefully for it, you might just find the belief that we should not be suffering in the first place. This second component magnifies the impact of suffering. Therefore, the mere act of recognising this can take the edge off the hurt.

It’s tempting to think that life, existence and everything is or should be inherently ‘good’. If it’s not then this causes an existential problem—we might rightly ask, ‘what’s the point in any of this at all then?’ It seems as if life is not fulfilling its part of the bargain.

The problem with thinking that everything should be good and when it’s not something has gone wrong, as though life has somehow strayed from its default ‘goodness’, is that although it aligns with our human tendency to experience stuff as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it does not accord with the way things actually are. Hence, with this perspective we are doomed to suffer.

Recognising the universe’s inherent composition of both creative and destructive processes puts our experience into perspective. It teaches us that we have no ‘right’ to feel good all the time at all, but that moving between subjectively positive or negative states is all part of life’s ebb and flow.

Take the very origins of the universe itself. This was an act of profound creation and yet huge violence. Carbon based life on earth itself is the direct result of stuff being spewed by dying stars (it’s often romantically said we are made from stardust but in truth ‘stardust’ is the product of a massively violent cosmic death). Our earth as we know it has been shaped by tumultuous and violent events, as flooding, volcanoes and earthquakes regularly demonstrate.

The nature of existence is a dance between creation and destruction, and it follows that the human experience mirrors this fundamental state. That’s not too say we should give up on attempting to feel good. That, of course, would be dumb, as feeling good rocks and positively affects everyone around us.

What I’m talking about is recognising that part of life is to feel crappy sometimes, and that it just can’t be any other way. The physical and human realms demand this of us. Therefore it is not just you who is getting the bum deal, but all of us from time to time, and this is what we signed up for by being born. Yes, I know that it’s scant consolation for the most extreme suffering, but internalising this lesson really can help us get on with things when the proverbial shit hits the fan.

I repeat, this is not a depressing recognition. To the contrary it is liberating, because it reminds us that it’s okay to feel crappy sometimes. It can take the edge of our hurt and connect us with others who we know are also participating in the grand universal oscillation between joy and pain.

As a result we are less likely to attempt counterproductive avoidance tactics when we suffer. We can try instead to embrace our pain, to really feel it, to realise it is ultimately separate from that more real part of us that never changes, and through doing so release some of its psychic grip. We can recognise the lessons it can teach us, and perhaps even grow in the process.

Yes, life is supposed to be painful.

Question Everything

Question Everything

When I was 16 I had an embarrassing experience that at once humiliated me and taught me an invaluable lesson. I was in my first ever sociology class at college and the lecturer had asked a simple question: ‘How long can a man survive without food and water?’ Without thinking, I instinctively and proudly blurted out the answer: ’40 days and nights!’ I declared.

Before the words had even finished leaving my mouth, I had an awful feeling that something strange and terrible had just happened. Years of religious indoctrination that I thought I had battled my whole life to successfully repel had indeed penetrated my thoughts and being at a fundamental level after all.

Stories about Jesus on an epic desert mind-bender had somehow got muddled up with what I thought I knew about survival. Humiliated by my completely factless answer, I realised with a crunching and disheartening feeling of dread that I couldn’t trust my own mind.

To his credit my lecturer’s ploy had worked, his point had been made, and in a subtle way my life and how I consider myself would never be the same. I felt a lot of shame that day in class as I so nakedly revealed to my cohort the extent of my religious conditioning. These days I’m grateful for the lesson I received though, for it highlighted how easily we humans have a capacity for absorbing and communicating bullshit.

‘Question everything’, my lecturer later said—and these words have never left me, as pertinent now as they were then.

For those of us interested in discovering what life is really about, there is much to question. Government propaganda, mainstream and alternative news providers, inescapable, omnipresent and manipulative advertising, PR campaigns, supermarket shelves, laws and rules, religious and new age thinking, science, popular cultural values, social norms, education, childhood upbringings and more, all convey messages that influence our thoughts and behaviour, and all implicitly or explicitly provide instructions for how to live.

The cultural and institutional structures that shape our world tell a narrative we could take as the truth if we chose not to question everything.

As a result of this conditioning, our minds are a quagmire of deeply held assumptions about the way things are, that may or may not correspond with ‘reality’, whatever that is. There’s a lot out there to question, and even more to distract us from doing so. But if we want to live lives that are a product, at least to a degree, of freethinking and autonomous decisions, we have to take this journey.

If we’re trying to work out how life might look if we could discard the myriad ways we’ve been conditioned, if we want to live lives that are real and meaningful we must be prepared to consider the possibility that everything we know is wrong. In fact, I would suggest, this is a pretty good place to start.

The Cracking of the Mask

You know when the mask begins to crack. The mask you’ve worn for so long no longer feels comfortable. Not that it ever truly did, but now for some reason you cannot pretend it’s okay. Once the mask has cracked things cannot and will not remain the same. Though for a while you may resist, inevitably, change is coming.

The cracking of the mask occurs when it is no longer possible or desirable to conceal the true nature of who and what you are. It happens when you realise your old ways of being, thinking and doing belong in the past. It comes when you acknowledge that who you’ve been so far is a relic of your old, limited and conditioned self, and that it is time for change. To paraphrase those oft quoted words of Anaïs Nin, the day comes when the risk to remain tight in the bud is more painful than the risk it takes to blossom.

And when that time for change comes, you will not be able to rest easy until you’ve taken action. Though there may be those around you who do not understand the path you’ve chosen, or who are threatened by your new disregard for convention, do not be perturbed. Remember that fortune favours the brave, that on your deathbed you want to look back and know you had the conviction to follow what was right and true.

It is all too easy to fall into the trap of passively accepting a lack of fulfilment in our lives. It’s the path that rarely brought anyone a deep sense of meaning, but it is what is expected of us, and it’s reinforced by the cultural narratives we are surrounded by. No one warns of it’s pitfalls. For those of us not clear enough in our minds about how we want to live, or not strong or confident enough to do anything about it, the path of mediocrity sucks us in like a black hole consumes whatever has the misfortune of straying too close.

Do not fear the cracking of the mask. Though change is afoot, what you lose you won’t miss, and what you gain will be immeasurable. Have courage, believe in your values, and remember you will not only be doing yourself a favour by embracing a new mode of being. By choosing this path of authenticity you will inspire others to do the same. You will be a more positive presence in the lives of those you know. Though challenges await, know that nothing of worth was ever gained easily.

Do not fear the cracking of the mask.

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