How to Start Meditating
With the ever-shrinking attention span of humans, this may be just what the doctor ordered (or didn't)
TAKE THIS EVERYDAY WORKPLACE SCENARIO: Your boss has written you an email that's got your blood pressure rising. Your instant reaction: To hit the 'Reply' button and say something equally stinging. Rather than reacting immediately though, create a space, by focusing on your breathing. It'll help you pause and get over the sting. You will find you can be in the moment without being overwhelmed by what someone else has just said. There's a gap between what a person is triggering and your reaction.
Here and Now
Now that's what the practice of mindfulness meditation does. It puts you in the moment, helping you calm the mind (shamatha) and look deeply (vipashyana). The purpose is to heal and transform. Once you grow into the practice, you may be able to name the emotion you're feeling ("Hello old friend Anger!"). In time, you'll see a pattern emerging, helping you to respond to your boss, in a calm way, instead of having a conversation coloured with anger and reactivity.
How then do you begin a meditation practice that will take you down this path of mindfulness? Try sitting quietly even if it's for a few minutes of the day, in a posture comfortable to you (Sukhasana-cross-legged; Padmasana or Ardh-Padmasana-lotus or half-lotus pose; Vajrasana-legs tucked under you. It's important for your spine to be erect. Be relaxed; wear yoga clothes; and pick a time of quietude, day or night. Begin by simply focusing on your breath, just keep breathing naturally. You don't need to control it, but notice its quality and the rising and falling of your abdomen. If you like, you can put your hand on your stomach to feel it. Note if it changes in any way, becoming deeper and slower. If your mind drifts away, gently bring it back to focus on the breath.
Every Step Counts
If you prefer you can do a walking meditation. Start by coordinating your steps with your breath. You may find that you are taking three steps with the in-breath and four with the out-breath. Let it come naturally and coordinate the number of steps with the breath. Now feel the imprint of your foot on the earth. How you lift, move and place the foot. Enjoy each step, and touch the miracle of having two feet, being alive and walking.
Mindfulness meditation produces surprising results that go beyond a fleeting sense of well-being. A study by the Massachusetts General Hospital says that the practice increases grey matter density in the hippocampus, the region that along with its connections manages higher cognitive functions like planning, decision-making and judgement. It also found that there was a drop in grey matter density in the amygdala, the part of the brain, that, in association with other parts is responsible for reactivity, anxiety and stress. The changes were seen over just an eight-week period and the study concluded that an average of 27 minutes a day, could, in a nutshell, change the brain.
Peace and Joy
This alteration in the brain structure results in a positive outlook in the long term. So people who meditate may be happier in the moment and hence throughout their lives (as the future is made of moments of the present), because of a better understanding of themselves, and by being peaceful and less reactive. Previous studies have also shown that meditation helps in the thickening of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for "attention and emotional integration". That's you giving your partner your full attention as they speak rather than checking your Whatsapp messages!
Shantum Seth is a teacher in the Zen Buddhist lineage. He is a senior advisor to the World Bank to help promote Buddhist circuit tourism in India.