When we think about meditation, we might imagine a monk sitting crosslegged in a monastery somewhere. Probably on a mountain. Or you might be confused because you’ve heard big tech giants like Google and Apple are encouraging their employees to try meditation to become more efficient workers. And, it’s possible that the person sitting next to you on the train, isn’t listening to Tay-Tay, but actually quietly meditating. Meditation can be used in a lot of different ways, so it can sound pretty confusing if you’re trying to work out what it is!
Today we’re going to do a 101 explainer of just what the fudge meditation is.
And if it’s good enough for Bill Gates, it’s good enough for us:
“I thought of meditation as a woo-woo thing tied somehow to reincarnation, and I didn’t buy into it. Lately, though, I’ve gained a much better understanding of meditation. I’m certainly not an expert, but I now meditate two or three times a week, for about 10 minutes each time.” – Bill Gates
What is meditation?
Similar to playing sports, mindfulness is just an exercise for the mind. It’s about training the mind to be present and to gain perspective.
And while this sounds a little fluffy, what we are really talking about is a series of exercises you can do around what you pay attention to, or what you think about. And there are actually multiple branches of meditation, all good for helping you develop different skills.
One exercise might be about following your breath when you’re sitting; or listening to sounds on a walk, or remembering moments in time that made you feel specific emotions, just joy. They are all exercises for our brain.
It doesn’t involve sitting in a lotus position. Or doing it for an hour. Or clearing your mind of all thoughts. Those are just stereotypes which get in the way of helping people see the very real benefits of meditation.
You can do it just for a few minutes a day, on a bus or a train or in your office, and your brain actually working super hard.
But, of course, if sitting in a lotus position is your bag, by all means, sit away.
Why should I do it?
Meditation has very real impacts. It’s been scientifically proven to be effective in helping people with clinical depression. And it decreases anxiety. And social anxiety. And decreases stress.
It makes you more compassionate and increases your emotional intelligence.
It boosts your self-control, and your ability to reflect on yourself.
It makes you more productive, your memory and ability to be creative (yep – you can see why Silicon Valley is interested now!).
And, quite simply, this stuff is really important because these tiny skills you are building up can be put to practise in your life to make big changes.
In the same way that when you’re driving a car, if you’re distracted, you’re a more dangerous driver. In life, it’s the same thing. Being able to focus your attention on what’s important is essential. It means you can prioritise your work deadlines better, or know when you’ve over-committed yourself, or know when you’re procrastinating.
It means you become a better friend, colleague, and sibling because you are more emotionally intelligent and able to read the people around you better. And of course, Christmas dinner is going to be easier because you’ve got better self-control.
It means you can reflect on your life and on what you really want: what big dreams do you have and how are you going to go for them? And that means you can start taking the steps towards that life.
Isn’t this just hippie shirt?
For a long time, meditation was considered something ‘woo-woo’ because there was no way to actually measure what was going on in the brain. But over the last few years, the technology around brain scanning and MRI machines has improved: which means we can actually look inside the brain with greater accuracy and see how the brain changes with meditation.
And yes, the brain can change. Once we thought that once you were an adult, your brain stayed the same. Not at all. We now know what the more you practise certain kinds of activities, or kind of thinking, it changes those regions in the brain. Like going to the gym, you grow muscles the more you work out.
An analogy love is that it’s like a forest path in the woods, the one path you use everyday is the ‘default’ path, but if you start to walk a different route every day, the new path becomes the norm over time. Or, there’s a point where you can choose the path you take.
So to put this in context: if during meditation you focus on becoming more empathetic, you are practising every day, and this pathway in your brain is becoming stronger. So the next time something comes up which makes you angry, that pathway to being empathetic is easier to access. It means you don’t have anger as your only response. So instead of flipping off the driver who cut you off, you’re able to respond in a way which is much more empathetic: perhaps that guy is having a really bad day.
For those who love nerding out on brain science this is a great article which breaks it down.
So what does all this mean? Just by sitting and meditating for a few minutes each day, you’re training your brain to be calmer, kinder and more creative.
How do I start meditating?
Meditation is a skill you need to learn, so often people need some help to get started. But after you’ve got the basics, you can do it anytime, anywhere, for free.
You can take a class at a local yoga studio, or download an app to walk you through the process.
Smiling Mind and Calm are two popular free apps, and Headspace another popular one which is paid because it has different kinds of mediation to focus on different areas of your life (but has a free trial).
A simple example of what you can do to mediate right now is:
- Sit down
- Feel your breath in your lungs breathing in …and out.
- Try not to let your attention wander off your breathing (way harder than it sounds!)
- Do this for 60 seconds.
- And that’s it.
For a lot of people, a guided meditation can help. Here’s a video to get you started. I recommend just listening to the audio rather than watching the video as the animations are a bit distracting. Close your eyes!
Yep, the first time might not feel like, well, anything happened. That’s okay. You’re trying something for the first time and it’s about practise. And, the impacts happen over time. In a few weeks of meditating, you’ll start noticing changes.
Of course, as you get more experienced, you can move up from a few seconds, to a few minutes, and some people can do hours! However, ten minutes a day is a realistic aim for more people. And as you get better, you can meditate on specific topics to help you with different things in life: like self-esteem, grief, or creativity.
One of the biggest challenges that people have, when they start meditating, is that you need to do it daily, or a few times a week. And that means you need to build a new habit. And like any new habit to form, it has its challenges because you need to remember to do it!
Consider how you can build this into your existing routine: if you catch a train, instead of listening to music, why not meditate? No one will know.
When you’re waiting for a bus, instead of hanging out on Insta, spend a few seconds following your breath.
Have a think about pockets of time in your life where you can incorporate meditation.
Or if you’re going to set aside time each day, put a reminder on your phone, or have an accountability buddy where you check in each day that you meditate.
Make a plan for success now: and remember to be self-compassionate. Learning new things can be hard, but that’s okay. Every day you learn from mistakes.
How has this impacted me?
The little skills you build up through meditation add up, and it means you can change the way you behave in stressful situations, from how you might have in the past.
Through meditation, I’ve become a lot more self-compassionate. I don’t judge myself as harshly as I used to. This has helped me when I’ve been trying to eat healthier – because instead of berating myself when I slip up, I just try to learn from my experiences. It meant that I didn’t give up eating well in week one when I slipped up. It’s been almost a year of eating well, and I’m progressing each week.
I have less anxiety. I used to feel that being anxious was just ‘who I was’: tied to my identity. I saw myself as a person who couldn’t stop the buzzing of anxiety in the back of my mind. But now, I can see that my thoughts aren’t a part of my identity, they are just thoughts. That ability to separate my thoughts from myself just a little bit means that anxiety has much less power over me. It’s still something I struggle with, but it doesn’t rule my life anymore.
There’s less drama in my life. I’m much less likely to snap and respond with anger to a stressful situation. It’s not that I don’t feel anger – boy, do I ever! – but there’s a little bit of a gap, where I can choose if that’s the response what I want to make.
I had a stressful break up with a partner last year, and instead of us never speaking again, we’ve become friends and we hang out all the time. I believe a huge part of that was the ability to control my emotions and to think bigger picture about the life I wanted. This person has been a big part of my life for a long time: and I’m happier with them in my life, even if it’s not the same way it used to be. So remaining calm to talk about our differences and what was really important to us meant we might have lost a romantic relationship, but gained a really strong friendship. Which I think is pretty special.
Are you going to start meditation now?
Meditation. Yep, it’s got a woo-woo reputation, but it’s backed by neuroscience to help you be calmer and happier.
It takes just a few minutes a day, and it adds up over time so you gain some brilliant life skills. Once you’ve got those skills, you’re in a really solid place to help you build more of the life you want to be living.
I wish I’d learned it a decade ago. But as the saying goes: a year in the future, you’ll wish you started today.
So are you going to start today?
Download a free meditation app and give it a go. Then, come up with a plan of when you’re going to meditate each week.