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Meditative matters

Meditation can mean different things to different people – here's how to get started in a way that makes sense for you
While there's no singular description of what meditation is, it has been described as a cessation of the thought waves in the mind.

Several years ago, my mother spent a month in Myanmar (Burma), where she participated in a silent meditation retreat. She spent 30 days eating, sleeping, walking, bathing, engaging in all of life’s activities, without making a sound.

At the time, when I was young and carefree with very little responsibility, I couldn’t begin to understand why she would choose such an activity. Now that I am older – working, existing, raising young children, and constantly searching for morsels of space and peace to fit into my already congested brain – the idea of spending an entire month learning how to streamline my thoughts and actions sounds pretty fantastic.

Meditation has been practised since sometime near the dawn of civilization. The most recognizable figure associated with meditation is Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, who founded Buddhism around the sixth century BCE.

It is said that after a journey of self-reflection, he attained enlightenment sitting under the Bodhi tree, a sacred fig tree in what is now Bodh Gaya in northeastern India.

In every religion throughout history, meditation has been practised through things like prayer, self-reflection and chanting. There is no singular description of what meditation is, but it has been described as a cessation of the thought waves in the mind.

In other words, it is the practice of focusing on the mind and allowing thoughts to pass through without engagement, bringing about mental clarity and peace.

This can be achieved using a variety of techniques and tools: silently and without movement; with the repetition of a phrase or mantra; through breathing techniques; using prayer beads that are individually passed through the fingers; or with a guide.

So, is it as easy as grabbing some prayer beads, finding an old tree and closing your eyes? Not exactly. Despite the seemingly unanimous agreement that meditation is good for you, the overwhelming promotion of meditation in media, and the mountain of research confirming that meditation improves mood, sleep, mental function, emotional stability, perspective and more, only six per cent of the global population considers themselves dedicated meditators.

It sounds nice enough to sit with your eyes closed in a quiet room or walk silently in a meditative forest, but most of us can’t get past the idea of dedicating concentrated time to what feels like inaction.

One of the biggest barriers to meditation is that it takes time and commitment while offering only a vague landmark for success. Internal reflection can also bring up unwanted emotional responses or thoughts that we would rather leave untouched.

For these reasons, despite their best intentions, people tend to perpetually put off meditation. We can get stuck in a loop of needing meditation to help with our overwhelm, yet being too overwhelmed to meditate. But people also seem to get stuck on the definition of meditation. There is no one way to meditate, and maybe because it has been practised for such a long time, through so many cultures and by such a wide variety of people, its meaning depends on the individual.

After all, maybe the lack of definition is because the practice takes place within the mind and is ultimately an internal and unique experience, so the best way to practise meditation is whatever way the practitioner finds most useful.

We are therefore able to look beyond the traditional practices of meditation and engage in whatever method suits our needs and availability. Some meditative practices could include sitting in the sun and listening to birds chirp; running without headphones and tuning into your breathing; laying in bed and listening to raindrops; getting up early and sitting in your quiet home; or going for a walk and listening to a meditative sound bath.

All of these activities share a focus on peace and mental relaxation.

If you need something more intentional, why not try a meditation app? There are many highly rated apps that encourage breathwork, mindfulness and self-reflection. Headspace is generally regarded as the best meditation app. It costs around $70 annually, or $12.99 per month, which can be a barrier, but it boasts the largest variety of meditation styles and practices, along with tools and courses that can be used to work through anything from grief to writer’s block. You can opt for daily meditation, sleep meditation, stress relief, productivity training, and even “mindful fitness and cardio.”

Calm is another paid meditation app, geared more toward the seasoned meditator. There is less structure to its programs, but it offers a deeper and more immersive experience. It is $70 annually and has won several awards for its effectiveness. An interesting feature of this app is its Sleep Stories, read by celebrities like Matthew McConaughey, Stephen Fry and Bob Ross.

Mindshift is a free app developed by Anxiety Canada that combines mindfulness with cognitive behavioural therapy specifically designed to combat anxiety. It works similarly to the other apps, but because it focuses specifically on anxiety management, it can provide a bit more of a targeted approach.

Cognitive behavioural therapy is an aligned meditative practice with very similar internal messaging as it promotes the release of belief systems that can trigger anxious feelings.

For many people, especially in our current political and environmental landscape, a large barrier to meditation can be simply calming the mind enough to approach a relaxed meditative state. The concept of meditation can feel so outside of our generally anxious existence that it seems almost out of reach. Starting with an app like Mindshift can be a necessary stepping stone to bring the mind toward a more manageable level of anxiety before attempting something more involved like Calm or Headspace.

The most important thing to remember when approaching a meditation practice is that it is designed to improve happiness and wellbeing. If you find yourself crammed into a cross-legged position on the floor every morning, chanting “Om” through gritted teeth, about ready to throw your mala beads across the room, you may want to unfurl, step back and consider trying something different. Maybe going for a walk, downloading a mindfulness app, or simply laying on the floor and listening to a sound bath will be a better fit for you.