In the past few years, it seems like the popularity of meditation has exploded with apps like Head Space and in the personal development world. And that’s great! Meditation has and always will be a great tool for stress personal reflection and development. In addition to that, meditation has a variety of health benefits.
Benefits of Meditating:
- Reduces Stress
- Controls Anxiety
- Promotes Emotional Health
- Enhances Self-Awareness
And much much more!
Even before I knew that much about it, I had always been fascinated with the practice of meditation and in my early twenties, I started researching on staying at a Buddhist monastery. To be clear, you don’t have to be Buddhist or of any religion to practice meditation or even enter into a monastery. Most monasteries are very open as long as you are respectful of the practice. Meditation is about spirituality and creating a calm environment. Staying at the monastery was my entrance into the practice but I like to think I would have tried meditation either way.
So in the spring of 2015, I went to Thailand and spent a week living in a Buddhist monastery where I woke up at 3am, cut off all contact with the outside world (including my family), and did chores, chanted, and meditated all day eating only one meal a day. My sister said it sounded like jail but really, it was a great escape from the crazy bustle of the world. The experience was life-changing in many ways, and I learned a lot. One of the lessons I still use today though are the things I learned about meditation. I don’t have it fully incorporate every day, but it’s a tool a I’m very glad I can rely on when I need to de-stress.
However, even with apps and the bounty of information that can be found on the internet, it can still be kind of tough to know where to get start. Although I don’t personally use apps like Headspace and Calm, they are great place to start! The downfall of these types of apps though is that they can cost a fee for additional features. So today, I wanted to offer a different approach by sharing what I learned at my time at the monastery and tips on meditation that were given by real Thai monks and nuns who spend the entire lives dedicated to faith and meditation. There’s nothing wrong with apps, but as a beginner meditator there can be a lot of advice that can make it overwhelming. In this article, I’m going to breakdown three myths about meditation that may be preventing to taking the first steps into this habit.
Let’s get started!
How To Keep a Clear Mind
One of the hardest parts of meditation for me was learning to clear my mind. I think it’s a common struggle for a lot of people because it truly is easier than it sounds. It honestly took me many days of full meditation to get the finally get it and it was a struggle the whole way there.
As I was struggling with this, I spoke with one of the head monks in the monastery when he asked how I was doing. He explained to me that you don’t actually have to think about nothing, because than you’re actually actively concentrating your mind on to something – which is thinking about nothing.
He taught me that the trick to meditation is to actually allow thoughts into your head, and then let it go. And as you further develop your meditation skills, it will get easier and easier. But sitting there telling yourself to think of nothing isn’t helpful, because you’re still actively thinking. He taught me that if a thought enters my head, I can acknowledge it, but then to just let it go. This also particularly helpful when you are sitting and your mind starts thinking about your surroundings. Because I was in Thailand, it was hot and there were mosquitos everywhere and to top it all off, you’re not allowed to kill living things in the monastery, including mosquitos. So I had to learn to let go of the being uncomfortably hot, or the mosquito getting dangerously close to my face, and just learn to have the thought and then release it.
One of the most helpful pieces of general advice that does work in regards to this is to focus on your breathing. If you really have to think about something, and your mind wanders, focus on your breathing and then just like all the other thoughts, let it go.
You Don’t Have To Be Sitting
When you imagine meditation, you’re probably thinking of someone in a very common pose, sitting on the floor, legs crossed with their hands on their knees chanting “ommmmmm, oommmmm, ommmmmm.”
And contrary to popular imaging, that’s not the only way to meditate.
Something I learned while staying in the monastery is that there are different forms of meditation – sitting, standing, walking, and even lying meditation. The monastery practiced 3 out of the 4 forms – we didn’t do lying meditation and thank goodness cause I’m pretty sure I would have fallen asleep.
Sitting meditation is what most people imagine when they picture meditation. However there is no rule on how you sit. When I first entered the monastery, I met with the nun in charge of coordinating and organizing the arrival of outsiders. She showed me around and taught how meditation works at the monastery and when it came to the sitting portion she demonstrated the most common way to sit for meditation. She made sure to emphasis that this was not the only way to sit. She advised me that I should just sit in the manner most comfortable for me to meditate. While there are common poses, the meditation part is most important, not how you sit.
She then continued to explain how many older people actually sit in chairs at the back of the temple to meditate, and that’s perfectly fine too. So if you choose to practice siting meditation, just sit in whichever way you’re comfortable. The actual position is not what matters, it’s your mindset.
Personally, I think standing meditation is my least favourite way to meditate. For me, to sit still while standing is not something I enjoy because my legs tend to get restless. However, this was a part of my daily routine at the monastery as well. I think it was also my least favourite because a monk would also talk to us in Thai at the front of the room. When I asked what he was saying in Thai, he said that he was simply giving relaxing topics to help fall into the state of meditation. I don’t know if it’s because I don’t like the distraction of someone speaking to me or I don’t like standing for long periods of time doing nothing, but this was not for me.
Walking meditation was by far my favourite form of meditation. Not only because we got to do it outside in this beautiful garden space, but because I just really like being able to walk and meditate at the same time.
You may be thinking about how this works. Because if you’re walking, you are thinking about something – you’re thinking about walking (duh!). But this really did work for me because it’s not so much walking, but rather about taking very small steps.
How this works is that they have a tape playing of 4 distinct bell sounds and you’re supposed to move your foot to the corresponding postion of each sound.
Start with your left foot in front and your weight shifted on your left.
- Bell 1 – Arc your right foot to take one small step.
- Bell 2 – Take one small step and place your right foot down. Shift your body weight onto the right foot.
- Bell 3 – Arc your left foot to prepare to step forward
- Bell 4 – Step your left forward and place your full weight on left side. Begin at Bell 1 again.
As you can see, you go very, very slowly. And actually, at the temple, we had to line up one after another so it’s incredibly small steps.
Meditation is not just a morning activity.
It’s common part of meditation to be a part of a morning routine and there’s a good reason for that! Starting off a busy day with meditation is a great way to clear your mind and kick off the day with a relaxing start. However, it’s not the only time when you can do meditation or even the most beneficial. I find meditation most helpful when I’m in a stressful situation or at the end of the day because waking up super early to meditate isn’t helpful to me if I’m half asleep.
This was something I had to learn to adjust to though while staying in the monastery. There, meditation was truly an all-day activity. I had meditation at 3am in the morning, in the afternoon (different forms of it like discussed before) and meditation at night before bed as well (which often went until about 10pm. I was also staying at the monastery during a full moon, also known and Buddha Day and there was a day of 24hr meditation. I couldn’t last a full 24 hours though. I think I went until a bit past midnight and then went to bed (and woke up at 2:45am again for 3am meditation).
You can literally can meditate anywhere at any time and still fully reap the benefits. Meditating in the morning is easy for some people, because in a busy household of roommates, parents, kids, pets, and partners, it can be really hard to make time for yourself, so waking up early makes it an easy option. But, not every person is a morning person. And quite frankly it helps no one for you to just sit there, falling asleep because you stayed up too late last night and now forcing yourself to meditate. I know the general advice is to go bed early and wake up early and while I am fully a morning person and actually prefer that lifestyle, it doesn’t make sense for anyone. If you’re a night owl, meditating at night is just as helpful as in the morning. It calms your body down after a stressful day and helps reduce anxiety. I also meditate in the middle of the day if I find myself having a stressful or bad day. As mentioned before, you can meditate in many positions – including standing. You don’t have to be sitting cross legged in the middle of your office, you can go to a quiet space or even the bathroom, set a time for a few minutes (although there’s no rule on how long to meditate for, you still do have to go back to work) and then just start focusing on your breathing and go from there.
Make meditation work for you, not the other way around.
Thanks again for following along!
I hope it was helpful and although my entrance into meditation was extreme, I hope you are able to take away some of these tips to incorporate into your everyday life.