It seems that every sporting team and workplace is enthusiastically promoting the benefits of meditation. Among my clients, I've noticed that they are either curious or suspicious about meditation, especially as a way to improve performance. I always recommend it.
So, here I'll share with you some of the purposes and benefits of meditation, and a few ways for you to get started.
Why to meditate
Meditation is generally thought of as sitting and breathing, maybe chanting weirdly or attempting to commune with the cosmos. In reality, meditation is simple mental training.
Take a look around you right now. How many things are competing for your attention? The television? Your music? The advertisements that are everywhere? The person who's trying to tell you about their long weekend? Even a vague acknowledgement of these distractions requires some mental processing, but this multitasking has two problems:
- You never focus your full attention on anything.
- Because you never focus your full attention on anything, you stop being able to do it.
Everything is a skill. Meditation is training the skill of choosing the focus of your attention in a world where everything and everyone is constantly trying to take that choice away from you.
On its own, that is like a superpower nowadays. But practising meditation has all kinds of benefits, including being better able to cope with pain, and improving the brain's neural connectivity. So, you can make your brain a better brain simply by sitting and breathing. Sounds ridiculous, but the science backs it up, so it's worth looking into further.
How to meditate
Meditation is a mindfulness activity, which Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as, "awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally."
When you meditate, you focus your attention on an object, experience or thought. Your general attitude towards distractions is to notice them, but not to label what you notice as good or bad, and to simply keep directing your attention to what you chose to focus on.
The simplest way to get started is to set a ten-minute timer, find a comfortable sitting position, close your eyes, and choose something to focus on.
Do this once a day, every day, for at least a week. The time of day is not so important, but I personally prefer to meditate in the morning before leaving the house, or at the gym before I work out. It helps me get ready to put some effort into the important things in my life.
What to meditate on
What you choose to pay attention to will play a large role in the benefits you receive, so here are some examples of what you can meditate on and why you might want to do so:
- Your breathing. Noticing the breath coming in and going out can improve your attention span and cultivate inner calm. Whenever I row or run, making the breath the focus of my workout is the only way I get through it!
- Your emotions. Observing your emotions and connecting the emotion to the feelings you experience in your body (think about the flushed face you get when you're embarrassed) helps you develop a closeness with your body, where you can listen to it and better trust its signals.
- Your thoughts (sometimes called Open Meditation). Allowing thoughts to come and go, recognising their impermanence and the impermanence of all things, helps you recognise that your moments of mental weakness are just moments, and they will pass. (This also helps me push through pain barriers when I work out!)
- Your sensations. Concentrating on the tastes, smells, sounds and sensations of everyday objects helps you cultivate feelings of gratitude and appreciation. Happiness with your current circumstances is an attitude that stops you from feeling like you have to keep up with the Joneses, and helps you reclaim power over your choices.
- Others. Contemplating the emotions of others, and sending them loving kindness, helps you cultivate empathy and improve your social intelligence.
There are lots of books about meditation, and the best one I've found is Search Inside Yourself by Chade-Meng Tan. It's a great lay introduction to mindfulness, and has a lot of excellent meditation practices peppered throughout.
Books are fine, but apps are better. You can get great apps like Calm or Headspace that teach you to meditate by guiding you while you do it. This is the kind of learning that people, especially athletes, get the most out of.
I also like Rainy Mood. It streams the sound of rainy weather through your speakers, which helps keep you focused by crowding out other audible distractions.
Your brain needs a workout as much as your body does, and meditation is a great way to do it, so I hope you'll give it a try and let me know what you think!