What is meditation? And how and why would I do it? Get the answers.
The miracle of meditation is no secret. A vast and growing body of research shows that meditating can reduce stress, alleviate anxiety and depression, increase your attention span, and deepen your compassion for others, among its many other benefits. We now know that regular meditation can change the physical structure of the brain, and recent studies by scientists at the University of Wisconsin and UCLA suggest not only that meditation might make your brain better at cognitive functions such as processing information and forming memories, but also that the more years you regularly meditate, the greater the potential benefits. From the Dalai Lama to Oprah and from cell phone apps that prompt you to look inward to worldwide flash-mob meditations that aim to publicize the benefits of the practice, meditation is heralded by secular, spiritual, and scientific communities alike as unimpeachably good for you.
But knowing that meditation is good for you is one thing—sitting down every day to do it is another. And consistency is the key to realizing the practice’s many benefits, says Sally Kempton, acclaimed meditation teacher and the author of Meditation for the Love of It.
Kempton, formerly known as Swami Durgananda, has taught meditation and yoga philosophy for more than 40 years, including two decades spent as a teaching monk in the Saraswati order. To help you establish your own practice, Yoga Journal collaborated with Kempton to come up with a program that gives both beginning and on-again, off-again meditators a taste of the rewards of regular practice—and puts you on the path to a habit that sticks.
The heart of the program is a series of four audio meditations of increasing length and complexity. While meditating for 30 to 75 minutes a day is ideal, Kempton says, beginners should start with shorter sessions and gradually increase the amount of time spent sitting. To that end, the first of the four meditations is just 10 minutes, to be done every day for a week. Each week brings a new practice, with each practice building on the last.
1. Choose a Technique
If you’ve ever thought about learning to meditate, you know that there are a potentially overwhelming number of styles and techniques to choose from. Vipassana or Transcendental? Visualization, prayer, or mantra? Music or no music? Decisions in the vitamin aisle at Whole Foods seem easy by comparison. Kempton’s advice is not to fret over the sprawling meditation buffet. Instead, think of the various techniques as tools or portals to give you access to the meditative state.
Which technique you use is less important than reaping the rewards of a quiet mind. Beginners, says Kempton, should start by finding a practice or technique that reliably puts them into a meditative state. Once this “core practice” is established, you can then begin to experiment with other meditation techniques and styles—always with the knowledge that you can return to one that works for you if you start to lose your way.
Over the course of four weeks, you will have a chance to try out several different techniques, beginning with the basic mindfulness practice of consciously following the breath. This technique gives a beginner’s busy mind something to do, explains Kempton: The exchange of air, as well the metronomic rhythm of the effort, steers the meditator toward the natural energy inside the body that wants to take the focus inward, an energy Kempton describes as the “meditation current.”
2. Establish a Habit
According to Kempton, it’s helpful for beginners to establish conditions for a meditation practice that will remain basically constant—the same time, the same cushion, the same quiet corner. Our minds and bodies have natural rhythms, and they respond positively to meditating at the same time every day and to visual and sensory cues like cushions, clothing, candles, and spaces dedicated to meditation, she says. Indeed, neuroscientists believe that we form habits by way of a three-step “habit loop”: The brain prompts you to perform an act in response to a cue, you do the activity, and you find it rewarding, thus strengthening the loop and making you eager to do it again.
When you create the conditions for your meditation practice, you’re not only setting up signals that tell your mind and body it’s time to turn inward, but you are making it that much more likely that you’ll sit down in the first place.
Of course, real life—in the form of work, significant others, and kids, to say nothing of laundry and dirty dishes—can make such constancy impossible. But don’t let the fact that you don’t have a quiet corner (or even a dedicated cushion) deter you. “Don’t get stuck on the idea that you must meditate at a certain time, or in certain clothes,” says Kempton, who has meditated on park benches, in buses, on airplanes, and even in a parked car.
3. Be Patient
I pencil in the 20 minutes before dawn as my optimal practice time and choose the guest bedroom as a quiet spot where I’m unlikely to be disturbed. On my first morning, I sit on the floor on a folded blanket with my eyes gently closed, my legs loosely crossed, and my palms resting softly on my thighs. The wall is close by to support my back if I need it. “You should make yourself comfortable so that physical discomfort doesn’t stop you from meditating,” says Kempton. Supporting the back against a wall with pillows, or even sitting in a chair is fine, so long as the spine is erect—a slumped posture constricts breathing, reduces alertness, and puts a kink in the energy running through the body.
As I listen to the first of the guided meditation audio recordings that make up this program, I focus on Kempton’s voice and on my breath. The air enters my lungs; the air leaves. My concentration is occasionally interrupted by thoughts of my son’s Little League team and the jingle of the dog’s tags, but following Kempton’s advice, I try to let these interruptions come and go, as if they’re pieces of driftwood floating toward and away from me on the ocean. Sometime during the first meditation session, my mind empties, my forearms and jaw feel wonderfully heavy, and I lose myself in the exchange of breath. Afterward, I feel relaxed, like the sediment inside of me has settled.
Was that the meditation current? I ask Kempton later. She affirms that it sounds as though I was drawn in. Some people, she tells me, are lucky to catch the current on the first try, but those less fortunate should be patient. The amount of time it takes to reach a quiet state varies by person and by level of experience. How to know when you’re there is another question with no hard-and-fast answer. You might experience a deep and relaxed state of awareness, as I did, while others might experience visions or sounds. And what happened in today’s session, Kempton tells me, may have no bearing on what will happen tomorrow or the next day. “Every meditation is different,” she says.
As the days go by, I discover that every practice does not bring bliss. In general, I don’t suffer much from the squirminess that often plagues the rookie meditator. But the mantra meditation of the second week doesn’t feel as successful as the first week’s breath practice. The mantra that I am focusing on—Ham sa, or “I am that”—hasn’t kept me engaged. In one session, I worry about a friend who has just lost his job. On another day, I can’t get comfortable. On a third day, my MP3 player mysteriously switches from Kempton’s voice to a singing Ray LaMontagne.
Kempton tells me that not every technique resonates with every person, and she reassures me that down days are part of establishing a practice. Even if some of my sessions don’t feel successful, she says, it is still time well spent. Pushing through uninspired sessions helps you build what is essentially meditation muscle. You’re training your body and mind to turn inward repeatedly—to persevere through one bad day or a series of tough days in order to better savor the great sessions.
I’m further reassured that virtually every experienced meditator I talk to says establishing a practice often comes down to simply showing up every day. I talk to an Idaho speech therapist with an eating disorder who initially found meditation so painful that she couldn’t sit for even one minute; a workaholic East Coast executive who had a hard time believing that meditating would pay enough dividends to make it worth his while; and Cherilynn Morrow, a retired professor of physics and astronomy at Atlanta’s Georgia State University and a student of Kempton’s who, despite repeated attempts at meditating, couldn’t quell her racing thoughts.
“The meditation I was doing wasn’t making me calm. I wasn’t settling down,” she says. On Kempton’s advice, she tried a different technique and was able to catch the meditation current by observing her fast-paced thinking instead of fighting it.
4. Find The Joy
As my experience of the 28-day program nears its end, I feel palpable but subtle benefits: heightened compassion, more objectivity, a greater sense of happiness and calm. When I am patient with my children as they get into their fourth argument of the morning, when I sit down at my desk and my mind focuses instead of racing, I can’t help thinking that I have meditation to thank. Still, I haven’t experienced any cymbal clashes or grand epiphanies. Meditation hasn’t stopped me from repeatedly checking my email, or from arguing with the cop who pulls me over for speeding. I wonder if I’ve somehow come up short.