Alexandra Branzan Albu, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and a mother of two, had a million things on her mind. She jogged regularly to help clear her head but often felt overwhelmed by the stress of juggling motherhood with a demanding job. Meditation promised the serenity she was looking for, but establishing a practice felt like one more thing on her endless to-do list, and the obstacles to getting started seemed insurmountable. “I was convinced I didn’t have time, that I had to focus on my family and my work,” says Branzan Albu, who nevertheless made a deal with herself to meditate daily, and who now, three years later, wakes early most mornings to centre herself before the day begins.
Her efforts paid off quickly. Within a month of beginning her practice, she says, she not only felt calmer, but found herself free of the insomnia she had struggled with for many years. “I started small, felt a shift and just kept going,” she says.
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.
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 realising 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. 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.
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? Visualisation, prayer or mantra? Music or no music? Decisions in the vitamin aisle at a health food store seems 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.
Start 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”.
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.
“Meditating can reduce stress, alleviate anxiety and depression, increase your attention span and deepen your compassion for others.”
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.
“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 (see Get a good seat, page 64).
The Call of the Current
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, while others might experience visions or sounds. And what happened in today’s session, Kempton says, may have no bearing on what will happen tomorrow or the next day. “Every meditation is different,” she says.
Not every technique resonates with every person, and down days are part of establishing a practice, says Kempton of some of the early struggles. Even if some sessions don’t feel successful, she says, it is still time well spent. Pushing through uninspired sessions helps you build what is essentially the 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 savour the great sessions.
Virtually every experienced meditator I talk to says establishing a practice often comes down to simply showing up every day. I talk to a speech therapist with an eating disorder who initially found meditation so painful that she couldn’t sit for even one minute; a workaholic 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 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.
Kempton reminds us a final key to establishing a meditation practice is finding joy in it. If you are feeling happier and more at ease, you are off to a good start, and can expect these small joys to snowball—over days, months and years—into bigger ones.
For more information and guidance on meditation, visit Australian Yoga Journal’s online resource at www.yogajournal.com.au.
Get a Good Seat
By Sally Kempton
Proper posture is crucial for meditation, but you don’t have to sit in a classic yogic pose. The only absolute rule is that your back must be upright—straight but not rigid—to allow the breath and energy to flow freely. Beyond that, steadiness and comfort are key; you should be in a stable position that you can maintain comfortably for at least 20 minutes. Here are three options to get you started.
Once you’re seated comfortably, place your hands on your knees, palms up or down, with the thumb and forefinger touching. This completes an energetic circuit that allows the energy to expand and rise in the body.
In a Chair
Sit upright in a straight-backed chair with a flat seat, rather than one that tilts backward. (If you don’t have a chair with a flat seat, place a folded blanket underneath your sitting bones, as shown, to tilt your pelvis forward.) Place both feet flat on the floor, and use pillows or bolsters behind your lower back, if necessary, to keep your back upright.
Simple Crossed Legs
Sit on the floor in Sukhasana (Easy Pose). If you’re on a hard floor, sitting on a rug or a folded blanket will cushion your ankles. Your hips should be 5 to 10cm higher than your knees. If they aren’t, elevate your hips and buttocks with a firm cushion, a wedge or two or three folded blankets under your sitting bones. This support will keep your posture erect and protect your psoas and the muscles of your lower back.
Begin with the Breath
When you want to establish a foundation for turning the mind inward, it’s important to work with a single core practice daily until it becomes a habit.
Against a Wall
If you find it difficult to sit upright on the floor, you can sit against a wall in Easy Pose and place soft pillows behind your lower back (keep the pillows behind the lumbar spine, rather than behind the middle back). Use as many as you need to support your spine and put you in an upright posture.
Sit in a comfortable posture with your spine easily erect. Inhale, letting the hips, thighs and sitting bones become heavy as they sink into the floor. Exhale, feeling that the breath gently lifts the spinal column up through the crown of the head. Inhale, letting the chest lift and open. Exhale, allowing the shoulderblades to release down the back.
Inhale, and imagine that the sides of your ears move back just enough so that your head and neck feel aligned with your shoulders. Your chin should tilt slightly downward. Place your hands in Chin Mudra, thumb and forefinger touching, palms down on your thighs. Let your tongue rest on the floor of your mouth. Close your eyes.
Notice as your awareness comes gently to the flow of the breath. As the breath flows in and out, notice the sensations in your body. Let the inhalation bring your attention to any places in the body that feel tense or tight and then, with the exhalation, release any holding there. Let the breath bring your attention to your shoulders and with the exhalation, feel them releasing. Let the breath bring your attention to your chest and belly and with the exhalation, release any holding in those areas. Inhale with the sense of allowing the breath to touch any places in your body that still feel tight and exhale with the sense that your whole body softens and releases.
“As the breath flows in and out, you might sense that the breath is flowing in with particles of very subtle and peaceful light and energy.”
Allow the breath to flow at a natural rhythm. Notice how the breath flows into the nostrils with a feeling of coolness. It flows in and down the throat, perhaps coming to rest in the chest, and then flows out slightly warm as it passes up through the throat and out the nostrils.
Notice the gentle touch of your breath as your attention gradually becomes more and more settled in the flow of the breath. If thoughts arise, note them with the awareness “Thinking”, and bring your attention back to the breath.
As the breath flows in and out, you might sense that the breath is flowing in with particles of very subtle and peaceful light and energy. They flow in with the breath, down into your body and out with the exhalation. You may visualise these light particles as white or blue or pink. Or you may simply sense them as waves and particles of energy.
Sense the enlivening caress of the breath, perhaps being aware of the breath filling your body with light particles, perhaps feeling the touch of the breath as it flows in through your nostrils, moves down through your throat and into your heart centre and then gently flows out.
To come out of meditation, take a deep breath in and let it out. Notice how your body feels, how your mind feels, the quality of your energy. When you are ready, write in a journal what you remember about this meditation.