You’re a competent person, aren’t you? You do lots of important things. Every single day. You make plans. You solve problems. You think deeply. Using your impeccable mental faculties, you cooperate with others. Make witty remarks. And you can navigate the many perils of working life in the 21st century. And, largely, you have your brain to thank for all this. ‘You’ are in charge, and you are the master of your mind. That much is true. Well done, well done indeed.
Or are you? Just before you pat yourself on the back and have too much time to bask in the dopamine rush that accompanies compliments, let’s play a little game. This’ll let you see how much control you truly have over your mind – the engine of your thoughts and indeed your entire conscious experience of being a human.
I want you to close your eyes. Then, begin to follow your breaths. Following the air coming into the nostrils, and then the air going out of the nostrils (this is so damn basic and easy, isn’t it?). I want you to do this for a minute, without getting distracted. Okay, let’s go.
How did you fare? Unless you’re the second coming of the Buddha, I bet you didn’t get anywhere close to a minute without forgetting the task and becoming lost in thought. So I’ll make it easier for you. You can count the breaths as you go this time. All you need to do is follow the breath coming into the nostrils and out of the nostrils, starting at “one” and not stopping until you reach “30”. Try again.
Wait A Second, Who’s In Control Here?
Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear. You might have just realised that you have little or no control over the most basic of functions – what you are thinking. I began meditating after I got told to try this little game. Having thought I was in control of my destiny and the supreme master of my mind, I was instead humbled. I found it hard to get to a count of three before my mind wandered, shame growing as I failed in a task so simple any idiot should be able to do it. On that day, I vowed I would have to train my mind to address this problem. And this, my friends, is all meditation is. Training your mind.
I’ve written a number of articles about meditation already. On the huge body of scientific evidence which shows just how good meditation is for your mental and physical wellbeing, why meditating could boost your promotion chances, and what life at a silent meditation retreat is like. But today, I’m going to take it back to basics. And explain how to do what on the surface should really be the most simple of tasks: following your breathing.
Of course, given how out of control our minds are without training, this simple task is usually anything but. But hopefully, in the next few steps, I can explain a few little tips that will make meditating less difficult than it often appears at the start. Here we go.
1. Sit down. This can be on a chair, a cushion on the floor, or your bed. The main thing is to make sure that your back is straight. If it isn’t, you’ll probably find yourself falling asleep in no time.
2. Take a few exaggerated breaths, breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. Then close your mouth, allow your breathing to return to normal, and breathe through your nose again.
3. Close your eyes. Some people like to keep their eyes open, which is fine. It’s just that you’ll look slightly insane staring bug-eyed at the wall for 10-20 minutes.
4. Set your intention, in your head. “I’m going to follow my breathing for this session, and return to my breathing whenever my mind wanders.”
5. Become aware of your breathing. Wherever it feels clearest and easiest. Usually, this is at the nose, chest, or belly.
6. Count the breaths or repeat the word “calm” in your head, whichever you prefer. Count “one” on the inhale and “one” on the exhale, and so on until you reach “ten”. Or simply repeat the word “calm” on the inhale and “calm” on the exhale. Don’t say these out loud, only in your head. If you sit on the Tube to work, obsessively repeating the word “calm” out loud, don’t be surprised if people start sitting further away from you.
7. Don’t get cross when your mind wanders! This is the most crucial bit of advice. Your mind is insanely busy, particularly if you’ve never tried to train it. Even after years of practice, your mind will wander occasionally. All you need to do when it does is smile, mentally pat yourself on the back, and congratulate yourself for noticing the mind wandering. Then return to your breathing. Via positive reinforcement your subconscious mind will get better at noticing mind wandering. Whereas, if you tell yourself “you’re a worthless piece of crap” every time the mind wanders, meditation will be nothing more than an exercise in self-flagellation. Even if you sit for ten minutes, with the mind wandering constantly and you celebrating each time it happens, this is a successful meditation session!
8. Keep doing this for as long as feels right. For beginners, this could be anywhere between five to 20 minutes. The crucial thing is it has to be done every day. Without the consistency of practice, you simply won’t notice the benefits.
9. Do your best not to say “namaste” and dress like a hippie just because you’ve started training your mind. I beg of you.
So that’s it! Seems so damn simple, doesn’t it? And to make your life even easier, I’ve recorded a couple of guided meditations for you to try for yourself on the ‘meditation’ page of the website.
It Should Be Simple
But it’s not so simple, is it? Following your breathing, the mind wandering, then following your breathing, can feel easy and blissful at times. But often, it can be very hard indeed. And a bit tortuous. But that’s the mind for you. You’re in control of the most advanced piece of equipment in the known universe: your brain. It’s evolved over millions of years and contains more than 100 billion neurons. Don’t be hard on yourself if you find that your mind, ahem, has a mind of its own.
If you do decide to practise, your life will start to improve. First, you’ll enjoy slightly less stress and better sleep. A bit more calm. And then perhaps, as the months of practice roll by, you’ll notice your productivity at work increasing, your relationships getting better. And, if you continue further, you might get to the stage where you realise that nothing has benefitted your life and your happiness more than meditation has. That’s what I’ve realised. And that’s why I love teaching it too.
If you fancy it, why not drop me a message to discuss having meditation lessons with me?