Throughout Australia and the world, meditation is more popular than ever. If you don’t already practise it, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve considered it or just been a bit curious about what it involves. You’re not alone there. Visiting a meditation studio ranks third on the list of wellness experiences that Aussies are keen to try this year, according to the 2020 Wellness Index produced by fitness app Mindbody.
As the practice has boomed, however, meditation has also become more confusing. Is it the same as mindfulness? Do you need an app to do it? Is chanting essential? To find out, we spoke to Caitlin Cady, who’s so devoted to her daily practice that she’s written a book for beginners, Heavily Meditated: Your Down-To-Earth Guide To Learning Meditation And Getting High On Life ($30, Hardie Grant Books).
So, what is meditation all about?
Put any preconceptions you might have about meditation to one side for a moment. According to Caitlin, the simplest way to think about meditation is that it’s the practice of concentrating your attention on a point of focus. “It’s just returning your attention to the focal point over and over and over again,” she says.
“Beginning with this is really empowering for people because it immediately shuts down the biggest myth about meditation, which is that you need to have a quiet mind to be able to do it. What this is saying is, ‘Come with your busy mind, come with your mind that wanders’. That’s natural and part of the practice. It’s really an invitation to come as you are.”
My mind won’t focus. What’s the trick?
To get started, sit upright in a comfortable position with your eyes closed. Next, Caitlin pinpoints five different methods that can help with focusing the mind to underpin your meditation practice. They are breath, sensation, sound, mantra and visualisation. “You can pick one, or you might use a technique that involves more than one,” she explains.
Once you get started, you might find that some techniques feel quite natural, whereas others are less comfortable. “Some people are really visual, so to them, visualisation is going to be an easy entry point,” says Caitlin. “The idea is to find something that works well for you and doesn’t rub you the wrong way. Then, as you start to get a taste of what meditation can feel like and what the benefits are, you might revisit some of the other techniques that felt difficult in the beginning.”
Is meditation the same as mindfulness?
If there’s one wellness trend that rivals the popularity of meditation, it’s mindfulness. So much so that they are often mistaken for being the same thing. Caitlin explains, however, that the two are quite distinct. “There’s meditation, there is mindfulness meditation, and then there’s mindfulness itself,” she says. Mindfulness is the concept of paying attention to your present moment in a neutral, non-judgemental way. “We can be mindful in our life outside of meditation – for example, in the way that we eat, in the way that we move or in the way that we parent.”
The principles of mindfulness can also be applied to meditation – by focusing on the breath, for example – but that’s not the only approach. “Mindfulness-based meditation involves bringing non-judgemental awareness and focus to the present moment,” says Caitlin. “Not all meditation techniques are mindfulness based.”
Although they’re separate entities, Caitlin argues that any kind of meditation will help increase mindfulness in our daily lives.
How long should I meditate for?
According to Caitlin, committing to a consistent daily meditation is more important than the length of each session. “There is no meditation that is too short, and I think that committing to something realistic is more important than setting a big goal and not being able to actually do it,” she says. “If two, five or 10 minutes is something you can commit to realistically, I would rather see you do that five or seven days a week, than do a 20-minute meditation twice a week.”
Caitlin also points out that the benefits of meditation grow the more you practise it. “I like to think of it as like a bank account,” she says. “Every day you’re depositing something in the bank account and it has a cumulative effect over time.” She also notes that consistency is key when it comes to forming a new habit, so that meditating becomes an automatic part of your day.
What are the benefits of regular meditation?
While research into the benefits of meditation is still ongoing, the work that’s been done so far does suggest a range of positive effects, from lower blood pressure*, to stress reduction, and improvements in managing depression and anxiety.
Caitlin suggests that another good way to determine how meditation might help you is to look at what’s not working in your life. “A lot of times I hear people saying that they’re anxious, for example, or that stress is a problem, or they feel that they can’t disconnect from work and their relationships are suffering. So these are clear pain points to me,” she says.
Caitlin suggests committing to a regular meditation program and then taking note of any improvements in these areas. “Understanding why you’re meditating is actually the most critical piece. Many people are aware of the generic benefits of why it might be good for them, but they’re not necessarily clear on their personal reasons. So before you even start to think about your practice, get clear on your ‘why’.”
There will inevitably be times when meditation might feel uncomfortable or even frustrating, and remembering why you’re doing it can also help get you through this. “I think it’s really great to just remember that we practise meditation. It is a practice; we do it regularly but it’s always a dress rehearsal and it’s never the opening night,” says Caitlin. “My teacher says the true measure of your meditation is the quality of your life. So whether your practice is effective or not has nothing to do with what’s happening when you’re meditating and everything to do with what’s happening when you’re not meditating. If you have a frustrating experience in meditation, it’s not a lost cause. Instead of asking, ‘Am I good at meditation’, or ‘Was that a good meditation?’ replace that with, ‘How do I feel in my life?’”
How to start
According to author Caitlin Cady, meditation is a process of focusing the mind. To do this, she recommends using one of the following techniques:
Caitlin suggests focusing on the breath as it moves through different points in your body.
“For example, you can feel the sensation of the breath moving in through the nostrils and then into the sinus passages, to the back of the throat. But you can also have the sense of your lungs, ribcage or belly expanding and falling as the breath moves in and out of the body,” she says. “This gives you various points in the body to tune into as you pay attention to the inhale and the exhale.”
This technique refers to paying attention to the different sensations in your body as you sit quietly.
“Feel the weight of your limbs, the breeze or the air moving around your skin, or the contact of the fabric of your clothes,” says Caitlin. “Imagine that you have a scanner that you’re moving from the top of the head slowly all the way down to the feet. Notice the shift in your body as you start to just be still.”
If you’re a very visual person, Caitlin suggests giving this technique a try. “Focus on light, colours or specific shapes. Or you might even encounter imagery of mountains or a lake. It’s leveraging the power of imagination and can be quite creative.”
You might like to select a sound to play during your practice – such as chimes or even a guided meditation – or simply work with what’s around you.
“Focus on the dishwasher or the birds singing outside your window, or even your children playing downstairs,” says Caitlin. “Just allow the sounds to be, without resisting them or engaging with them. So instead of thinking, ‘I’m really distracted because my kids are making noise’, you’re inviting that sound into your meditation.”
“According to ancient traditions, mantra is not just a random sound; it’s embedded with a certain quality,” Caitlin explains.
“By working with ancient mantra you can actually infuse your subconscious mind with the particular essence of that sound form.” The simplest mantra – ‘om’ – is also the best known. Another one to try is repeating the sound ‘so’ on the inhale and ‘hum’ on the exhale. It doesn’t need to be said out loud: repeating a mantra in your head is also effective.