Learning To: Navigate the minefield of meditation

Breathe in, and out.

For such a simple instruction, I’m struggling a whole damn lot. Let me paint the picture for you: I’m sitting crossed-legged on a multicoloured cushion in a small Buddhist prayer room in the backstreets of Newtown. Yoga is no stranger to me, but this is a whole other beast. I’m about to commence my first 60 minute meditation class.

And my mind sounds a little something like this:

Is my back straight? Am I leaning forward? I’m definitely leaning forward. What’s that itch on my foot? A bug? Should I check? No, no you’ll break the spell. Keep your eyes closed. It’s probably nothing.

Let’s get back to my breath. In and out. In, and out…

Am I hyperventilating? My chest feels tight, is any oxygen actually getting in? Oh god, oh god. Stay calm, don’t ruin the silence. There’s only 50 minutes to go…

Mindfulness, sage burning, chakra alignment - I know what you’re thinking, it’s just a lotta BS. The wellness industry has corrupted a whole bunch of holistic practises, turning self improvement into a moment for social broadcast.

I know you’ve already crafted the mental image of ‘the wellness warrior’, the type seen kitted out in luxury activewear while attending their morning Vinyasa Flow class, charcoal and kale cleanse juice in hand. The type who meditate daily to find clarity, making sure to let their followers know with a beachside selfie paired with an inspiring quote from Rupi Kaur. It’s a fascinating contradiction, the need to share the experience of finding stillness and serenity for a sense of digital validation.

Meditation has been on my radar for the past few years. From apps to self help books, I’ve dabbled in it all. It usually begins on a Monday morning, sitting bleary eyed on my couch at 6 am, trying to let the artificial waterfall sounds wash away my anxieties about the day ahead. Somehow, these few guided minutes seem to drag on for hours, while my chest pounds and thoughts race.

Nothing about this feels zen. And mostly, it lasts a week before slipping off my radar.

Never one to take a challenge lying down, I’ve decided to revive my mindfulness routine to see what all the fuss is about. From claims of improving attention, concentration and memory to developing our sense of empathy and compassion, I want to reap the full rewards of this puzzling daily practice.

Full disclaimer, I’m no expert in the meditation department. My advice stems from personal experience alone and the hope that if I can make this work, hopefully, you can too.

Step one: establish a routine

It might sound counterintuitive, but my secret to fitting in mindfulness is to treat meditation like an appointment. You couldn’t flake on your hairdresser, so why flake on yourself?

Think about what time of day you can reasonably spend 5 to 10 minutes meditating, and create a reoccurring reminder in your Calendar. By blocking out this time in advance you’ve already done half the work, making it easier to concentrate on the task at hand (without the worry you should be somewhere else).

Create a sense of ritual around the practice by following the same steps. Pick a comfortable, quiet location that you can easily access at the same time each day to reduce mental fatigue associated with decision-making. When the time comes to meditate, all you have to do is grab a seat and start breathing.

Step Two: Find Your Teacher

If you have a smartphone or laptop (and Internet connection), you have your own spiritual guide. There are no shortage of apps or websites out there to find your mindfulness fix, the trick is to uncover what works for you.

Do you like to be guided by a soothing voice, or would rather relax in silence? Is focusing on the breath a great focal point for your attention, or do you prefer noticing the sounds and sensation around you?

Everyone is unique, which is why it’s essential to test out a few meditation styles to find your perfect fit. Not sure where to start? Here’s a shortlist of my personal favourites:

Step Three: Be Kind

During meditation, my default setting is hypercritical. My inner critic is in overdrive, spitting phrases like, ‘I’m breathing too hard (or not hard enough)’, ‘I’m still running through my to-do list’, and ‘I’m not working hard enough at this’.

It’s exhausting, and destructive.

Consider this: how did your first time behind the wheel play out? Did you lurch from the curb, engine spluttering with gears cranking rapidly. Was your dad clutching the armrest, barking instructions that just didn’t seem helpful at the time. Was every move and lane change foreign and frightening?

Spoiler alert: every new skill takes time and practice. Meditation is going to feel uncomfortable, and your mind is probably going to struggle to slow down (particularly when you’re first starting out). The learning curve is awkward and steep, and may feel never ending (trust me, it does eventually get easier).

The words you speak to yourself have meaning and power, able to influence how you feel and how you act. During meditation, we’re encouraged to observe our mind with curiosity. Notice what you’re thinking, but let the trains of thought go, without judgement. Redirect the attention back to your breath, rather than biting back with toxic self talk.

Step Four: Keep It Going

Habits don’t miraculously emerge out of no where. Persistence and consistency are key to going to making things stick, especially when it comes to altering your routine.

Using meditation apps can be a handy way to encourage daily practice, with many platforms offering affirmations and ‘gold stars’ for sticking with the program day after day. You can always set yourself personal milestones and rewards instead, like a celebratory dinner at that new wine bar you’ve been dying to try or Gold Class tickets to the latest blockbuster hit for a 14 days meditation streak.

Practiced frequently, the benefits of meditation only increase in value. The more you put in, the more you’ll get out. And once you get started, you might even find yourself craving these moments of space and silence.