Meditation for the rest of us

You don’t have to be a guru or a saint to learn the art of meditation, reports Fiona Marsden.

For many Australians, the word ‘meditation’ conjures up an image of a long-haired guru sitting cross-legged in a cave for hours on end, at absolute peace with himself and the world.

Cynics may say it’s easy to be at peace if you have the luxury of sitting in a cave all day – but if you have to deal with the
outside world, finding inner calm can be a tough task.

Fear not. Guru or otherwise, everyone can experience the benefits of meditation. All it takes is practice, and a bit of discipline.
Before we go any further, perhaps it’s worth defining what meditation is. “Meditation attempts to produce a state of mind in which you’re not caught up in the usual scattered thoughts and concerns,” says Sydney-based clinical psychologist Dr Sarah Edelman.

“It’s a myth that the aim of meditation is to clear your mind of thoughts. That’s just not realistic,” she says. Rather, meditation aims to disengage with the content of the mind. “It’s absolutely normal that thoughts will arise during meditation, but the idea is to let them pass, rather than getting caught up in them as you usually would.”

Jennifer Merrett, who teaches meditation courses at Melbourne’s Council of Adult Education, puts it another way. “For many of us, everyday life is incredibly busy,” she says. “We’re always running from one place to another. We need to give the mind a holiday, and that’s where meditation comes in.” So how can you give your mind a holiday through meditation? To get started, it’s a good idea to attend an introductory meditation course run by an adult education provider or a community centre. This way, you can ask questions and discuss your experiences with an instructor.

Meditation courses run by these organisations tend to be secular in nature. Some places of worship also offer courses couched in the context of their faith tradition. If you’d prefer to practise alone, or if there are no suitable courses in your area, you can start at home. Put aside a space and time where you won’t be distracted by the television, phone, computer and so on. Sit in a comfortable chair or on a stool or cushion that will allow you to keep your spine straight and move the breath through the body effectively. Edelman and Merrett say that to meditate genuinely, rather than just ‘zone out’, you need to focus on something, such as the breath.

“Few of us stop to appreciate the breath,” says Merrett, “yet without it, there is no life. You don’t need to alter your breathing consciously; just become aware of it and be thankful for it.” If this doesn’t appeal, try focusing on a beautiful real-life object or a mental image, like a painting, vase of flowers, tranquil lake or forest. A guided meditation CD may also help. You might need to try a few techniques before finding one that works best.

Be still, o wandering mind
Let’s be realistic: finding and staying with this kind of focus is no mean feat, and you’ll probably encounter stumbling blocks along the way.

That was the experience of 53-year-old public servant John Barrett. “I’m the sort of person who needs something to occupy his mind,” says John. “Otherwise I get carried away, thinking about things that haven’t happened.” To try to slow his mind down, John enrolled in a meditation course. He liked what he experienced. “It was great to walk into class after a day at work and let the instructor guide me into a state where I could leave my usual thoughts behind. I definitely felt more mentally relaxed after each class.” Once he began practising at home, John found the going harder. “I kept thinking about the day ahead and the things I had to do. It was frustrating, and I must admit I slacked off a bit.”

Stephan Bodian, author of the wonderfully titled Meditation for Dummies, has a helpful take on this issue. “Like a wayward puppy, your mind means well – it just has a will of its own and some pretty obnoxious habits to unlearn,” he says. Training a puppy takes firmness and patience, and so does training your mind. “You need to keep leading your wandering mind patiently back to its focus of concentration, without anger or violence or judgement of any kind,” Bodian counsels.

Five-minute meditations
How long should you meditate? Edelman recommends 20 minutes a day, but shorter periods can still be beneficial. “When you’re eating, focus on the textures, flavours and smells. If you’re in the shower, observe the sensation of the running water, your physical presence in the space and the thoughts going though your mind.”

If you’re feeling stressed, Dr Edelman advises physically removing yourself from the situation. Then, notice whether there’s tension in a particular part of your body – neck, shoulders, face, belly – and breathe through the nose, relaxing the tension on the out-breath. “Pay attention to the physical sensation of the breath moving in and out. If your mind wanders, acknowledge the thought but don’t hold onto it. Even doing this for five minutes can produce a feeling of calm.”