“Deep calm, a physiological slowing of the metabolism, and a sense of peace and well-being.” These are the words that Buddhist monk Bhante Gunaratana uses to describe the effects of meditation.
A rich and growing body of evidence points to both the short and long-term benefits of regular practice. We have at our disposal not only a tool for in-the-moment relaxation but also one for fostering peace and well-being throughout our day. Indeed, throughout our life. Surely that’s something worth having?
This article is a concise introduction to getting started. By the end of it you’ll be well-equipped with all the guidance that you need.
The 1970s book The Relaxation Response is often credited with being the first to widely introduce eastern techniques to a western audience. The author, Harvard physician Herbert Benson, details a host of healing physiological changes that occur during meditation (collectively called the “relaxation response”).
Amongst others, these include a slowing of heart rate and metabolism and a reduction in blood pressure and inflammation. Every time you sit down to meditate, you will be engaging these responses.
Longer-term improvements have also been well-documented. In particular, test-subjects have shown development of their grey matter (a phenomenon known as “neuro-plasticity”) alongside improvements in their resiliency and the ability to emotionally self-regulate.
For a full breakdown of the science behind meditation have a look at our article: Does Meditation Work? An Introduction to the Science-Backed Benefits.
Experiencing the Power of Meditation: A Simple, Pragmatic Approach
So where to begin?
Meditation is usually seen as something that’s done once a day for about ten or fifteen minutes then promptly forgotten about. Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace equates this to, “…eating a wholesome breakfast, then snacking on junk food for the rest of the day.”
What we really want is to imbue our whole day with the positive qualities that our meditation sessions develop in us.
Many teachers and experts recommend a two-part approach. Simply put, this involves a daily practice (of five, ten or fifteen minutes) and two or three short (one or two-minute) moments of meditation scattered throughout your day.
It’s utterly simple!
What is Meditation?
Meditation is a word, and words are used in different ways by different speakers. ~Bhante Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English
The use of the word “meditation” is widespread and varying. Depending on the context, it can refer to anything from simple relaxation to the contemplation of complex visualizations to the attainment of radically altered states of consciousness. For our purposes, let’s look at a definition by Matthieu Ricard, one of the world’s most respected masters:
“Meditation is a practice that makes it possible to cultivate and develop certain basic positive human qualities in the same way as other forms of training make it possible to play a musical instrument or acquire any other skill.
‘The words that are translated into English as meditation are bhavana from Sanskrit, which means ‘to cultivate’, and gom from the Tibetan, which means ‘to become familiar with’. Primarily meditation is a matter of familiarizing ourselves with a clear and accurate way of seeing things and of cultivating the good qualities that remain dormant inside us until we make the effort to bring them out.” (From The Art of Meditation)
Couple this understanding with that offered by Herbert Benson and current science, and our understanding becomes clearer. For our modern lives, far removed from the extremes of cave-dwelling hermits and wandering sadhus, the benefits of meditation will manifest in these two ways. First as a means of letting go of stresses and strains in-the-moment. Secondly, as a method for developing latent inner qualities, like awareness and compassion, that will enrich our lives.
1. Your Daily Practice
Your daily practice is your anchor and you will see benefits even if it is all that you do. Commit to setting aside as much time as you can maintain on a consistent basis. Generally, early in the morning or before you go to bed works well. You might find starting small with a few minutes and building from there is the way to go. The sanskrit word ghatika refers to a period of twenty-four minutes that is supposedly ideal for beginners. This may present a goal to work towards.
Mindfulness of Breathing
This technique is time tested and a perfect meditation for beginners and experienced practitioners alike. It forms the basis of many more advanced Buddhist practices.
- Seat yourself comfortably with a straight spine. Close your eyes and rest your hands in your lap.
- Take a handful of calm, centering breaths.
- With each inhalation feel your whole body fill with relaxing warmth.
- With each exhalation, feel yourself letting go of any tensions.
- After you have settled, let your awareness rest on the sensations of your breathing wherever they manifest. You may wish to “loosely” follow the inhalation from the tip of the nostrils down into your belly and reverse for the exhalation. In and out. Do not make any demands on yourself.
- After a while you may wish to focus more specifically on the sensations of your abdomen or on the light touch of each in and out breath against your nostrils. Follow whichever method you are most comfortable with.
Meditation With a Mantra
Another option for you to consider is repetition of a mantra. This is the technique that Herbert Benson personally studied and recommends.
- As in the first meditation, seat yourself comfortably with a straight spine. Close your eyes and rest your hands in your lap. Take some deep breaths.
- Choose a word, preferably of two-syllables, that symbolizes your intent to let go for the duration of this session. It could be “Jesus,” “Happy” “Peaceful,” or any other with which you are comfortable.
- On the in-breath, gently whisper the first syllable, on the out-breath, gently whisper the second. Alternatively, and if you are breathing through your nose, say it silently to yourself.
- Rest your attention fully on the utterance of the syllable. If you become distracted, gently return.
2. Short Moments, or “Micro-Meditations”
If, alongside your daily practice, you can set aside two or three moments for a short period of meditation you will really begin to see a change. Making a little space is something that all of us can manage, despite our filled to-do lists.
This is a principle that Mark Thornton explores in his book Meditation In A New York Minute: “…even the busiest people shower in the morning, commute to work, have lunch, sit in the back of taxis, have moments before and after meetings….”
Choose a handful of techniques (our site guide and Youtube channel are a good place to start) that suit your temperament and circumstances. Body-scan and “sama vritti breathing” are two examples. Equally, you could simply extend either your mindfulness of breathing or mantra practice into the day.
The “Empty Time” in Your Day
It’s possible to find a few minutes in any busy schedule. For example:
- Your daily commute.
- The beginning or end of your lunch break.
- At the end of the working day.
Bringing it All Together: Setting Yourself Reminders
Once you’ve acquainted yourself with a handful of techniques, you’ll need to incorporate them into your daily life. Identify the best times for practice and then set yourself some reminders, until the habit’s formed.
- Computer background/screensaver.
- Your phone’s background.
- Plum Village mindfulness software.
- A little note on your desk. (This is my favourite)
The Quick Guide
In a rush? Just use this quick guide.
Relaxing: Making space for relaxation, on a regular basis, is one of the most beneficial things we can do. This article outlines three techniques that have been proven to powerfully engage the body’s healing mechanisms.
The Scientific Basis: If you’re interested in learning a little more about some of the recent scientific research into traditional contemplative practices, and how its conducted, then you might like this article.
Best Meditation Books (for Busy People): A collection of books about meditation specifically chosen for their applicability to busy, modern living.
Our YouTube Channel: If you’re short on time, we’ve recorded several short guided meditations. Tune out and re-connect for a few minutes.
Our CD of Guided Meditations: Easeful
We also have a short CD of guided meditations. The CD is useful for quickly learning a handful of techniques that you can then use whenever the need arises.
Meditation in a New York Minute by Mark Thornton
The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson
The Art of Meditation by Matthieu Ricard