The meditation mantra
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When you talk to someone about meditation, the usual response is, “Oh, but I can’t meditate—my mind is too active.” Or, “I find it difficult to sit still.” Or, “Who has the time, my life is so busy!” In a nutshell, they list all the reasons they should be meditating.
Meditation helps still the mind and body, increase focus, disconnect from stress, find a moment of peace…and these are just the very cosmetic advantages. At a deeper level, meditation offers great health benefits.
A March 2016 study, Now And Zen: How Mindfulness Can Change Your Brain And Improve Your Health, by researchers at the US’ Harvard University, and published on the website, showed that 80% of doctor visits are due to stress-related problems. They then studied an eight-week relaxation programme, which included meditative practices, at Harvard and found that people who attended this programme reported 43% fewer hospital visits than the previous year.
Meditation, however, is not just for people with “conditions” or those who are spiritually inclined. The practice is more relevant than it has ever been, given the constant connectivity and stress that are a hallmark of the millennial life.
“People are scared of looking inwards, and seek gratification from the outside world,” says Seema Sondhi, founder of The Yoga Studio in Delhi. She explains why people hesitate to take up meditation, “We prefer movement instead of closing our eyes and sitting still.”
Paula Tursi, founder and director of Reflections Yoga and the well-known Reflections Yoga Teacher Training Programme in New York, has a different point of view. “People tell me all the time that they aren’t good at meditation—I offer that there is no way to be bad at meditation, unless you simply don’t do it.” She describes meditation as the act of giving yourself permission to be with whatever is happening without needing to change it. US-based meditation master David H. Wagner, who has been teaching meditation and self-empowerment to people around the world for over two decades, says anyone who really tries can do it, with the right guidance.
Whether you learn it from a guru, a book, or follow a guided practice via an app, one thing is certain, you need to do it now. “Meditation helps you disconnect from a stressful situation, it gives answers to burning questions, in fact you even have some eureka moments,” says Sondhi.
And it’s not just the meditation gurus claiming this. Puneet Dwivedi, head of department, mental health and behavioural sciences, at the Fortis Memorial Research Institute in Gurugram, also recommends it to his patients. “Meditation enhances the effect of our medicines and counselling.” He says people who are stressed or mentally disturbed need some sort of calming exercise to restore the balance of chemicals in the brain, and this can be provided by meditative practices.
That said, you needn’t sit for an hour to reap the benefits—even 15 minutes a day will show results. Here’s how you can get started.
How to sit
The image of the ideal meditator is one who sits in padmasana, with hands in a mudra. But not everyone is comfortable sitting that way. In fact, the last thing you want is a mind agitated by pain—this would eventually be counter-productive. “Though there are reasons to sit in the lotus pose, it’s best in the beginning to sit in a way that your spine can be tall and that will allow you to sit for a longer period of time,” says Tursi. “A chair is fine, though I don’t recommend lying down,” she says.
Traditionally, north-east is the ideal direction to face because, as Sondhi explains, it is the direction of sun and light. Facing this side, however, isn’t essential.
Morning is the best time for meditation, but Tursi says you can do it in the evening, around 4pm, too. “It’s the time when most people feel sleepy—their brain has been going all day and they need a break. I find it is far more effective than a cup of coffee.”
How to meditate
While it is best to learn from a teacher, there are basic techniques that you can use to enjoy the benefits of this powerful practice. Sondhi says you should pay attention to your breath—focus on just the inhale for 20 breaths and just the exhale for the next 20 breaths. Then, focus on both the inhale and exhale for 20 breaths. After this, breathe normally and observe where your mind is instead of looking for answers to a problem.
Tursi also suggests breathing meditation, which is a bit different: Inhale to the count of 10 and exhale to the count of 15. Do this for 5 minutes and then just observe your thoughts for the next 5 minutes. “I tell my students it is best to meditate for a shorter time but do it every day without fail.”
What if your mind wanders?
This is the most commonly asked question, and one that actually prevents many from practising meditation. It’s assumed that one must close one’s eyes and empty the mind of all thoughts. Keep the mind blank.
How is that even possible? “By giving your mind a thought to concentrate on,” says Sondhi. “It could be your breath, a mantra, a prayer, or an affirmation.” She explains that meditation is one-pointed focus, so it could be any activity that absorbs your mind completely.
How will it affect your work?
In his book Advice On Dying: And Living A Better Life, the Dalai Lama says that earlier scientists usually viewed the mind as a product of the body. But now “certain specialists are beginning to think of the mind as a more independent entity that can affect the body”. Taming the mind is essential for a peaceful and equanimous life unaffected by external factors, he says, listing these practices as faith, compassion, single-pointed focus and reflection on emptiness—all meditative techniques.
“Meditation, when done for a while, gives us the ability to pause,” says Tursi. “It helps us to put some space around situations so we can respond instead of react.” Meditation, she explains, offers us perspective so we can see these are tasks in our day, things that we do––not who we are. And this sort of mindset has the potential to change the way you work.”
If you do face a stressful situation, Sondhi suggests applying your meditative practice and taking a step back. Instead of focusing on what’s making you angry, focus on your breathing to bring yourself to a state of (relative) equanimity.
The last word
When you delve in the world of meditative practices, you will find many options. There’s simple breath meditation, japa with the mala, Vipassana, transcendental meditation, yoga nidra (to sleep and manifest), to name a few. You may find that you prefer some techniques over others—this doesn’t mean one is better than another, only that a particular type of meditation may suit you better. “The best way to find out is if it leaves you in a balanced state—not too lazy or too hyperactive, then it is good for you,” says Sondhi.
One word of caution, however: Tursi says meditative practices can be harmful for those with an unstable mind. “Like in the case of severe depression or perhaps schizophrenia—it is not really possible to clearly observe thoughts when the messages are distorted to this extent.” That said, she believes meditation can help even in these cases. “But I would suggest working closely with a highly skilled teacher.”
Dr Dwivedi adds: When people have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or are schizophrenic, meditation could increase the obsessiveness or hallucinations. “These are the only contraindications of this practice that is otherwise very beneficial.”
For mind, body and soul
Some meditation schools
Tushita Meditation Centre, Dharamsala: Learn meditation and Buddhist teachings at the seat of exile of the 14th Dalai Lama.
Vipassana, across India: A 10-day course done in silence. Vipassana is the form of meditation that Siddhartha Gautam used to become Gautam Buddha.
Osho International Meditation Resort, Pune: This new-age meditation centre has courses such as Meditation for Busy People, which is ideal for companies.
Transcendental meditation, across India: Learn this powerful technique which was popular with The Beatles.