For a long time, I thought I knew how to meditate. You either listen to an app or some spa-like music, and you try to clear your mind of all thought and be relaxed (that's very important). I also thought that, for optimum meditation kudos, you should sit in the lotus position (legs crossed), hands on your knees, thumbs and forefingers touching. Turns out it's a lot simpler than that. How do I know? I enrolled onto a four-day meditation course at The London Meditation Centre back in March, and I can now call myself a meditator. My practice is still very much a work in progress, but the effect it's had on my approach to life and stress levels has been quite astounding. I'd recommend it to anyone.
I learnt the art of Vedic meditation, which originates from India and is around 5000 years old. The word "Vedic" has evolved from the Sanskrit word veda, meaning knowledge. The practice doesn't have religious connections; you don't have to chant and you don't have to sit in uncomfortable positions for hours on end. In fact, Vedic meditation is really quite simple while the effect it has can be, with regular practice, really quite life-altering. Jillian Lavender and Michael Miller co-founded the London Meditation Centre and between them they have over 32 years of meditation under their belts, so I knew I was in good hands. Keep scrolling to find out more about how to meditate, the effects of meditation and how to try it at home.
The Benefits of Meditation
The benefits of meditation, believe it or not, have been studied by scientists for decades. It has been proven to reduce stress, it can help you to deal more effectively with work stress, and it can even boost the immune system. Anecdotally, while colleagues and my boyfriend have been struck down with various bugs over the last few weeks I have, touch wood, avoided any sickness.
Meditation has even been found to have a positive effect on our DNA (and, in turn, the way we age). At the end of our DNA strands are telomeres, a little like the plastic end on a shoe lace. As we age, these shorten, putting our DNA at risk of damage and mutation. One study found meditation had a positive effect on the telomerase activity.
Lavender told me that ss well as being immune-boosting and stress-relieving, meditation can have a positive effect on hormone balance, mood swings, sleep quality, concentration and memory. All you have to do is devote time each day to your practice. As Miller told the group at the induction I attended, the practice of meditation works, but it's like a gym membership—you need to use it to get the results.
The Meditation Course
The course itself involves an open evening where you go along and have the chance to find out more about The London Meditation Centre, as well as put all your questions to both Miller and Lavender. Once you're booked on, the course consists of four two-hour sessions, the first on a Friday night, another on Saturday and then Sunday morning and the final session on the Monday evening.
On the first night, everyone is asked to bring fruit and flowers as an offering. After an initial welcome, Miller and Lavender perform a traditional ceremonial initiation with incense. It's a little odd, but I went with it. After that, regular scheduling resumes. We are each given a personal mantra that we are sworn to keep secret. At the very first session, we are told how to use the mantra to meditate, we have the chance to ask any questions and then we take part in our first group meditation. Funnily enough, this is still to my day one of my favourite meditations, I was really relaxed and it felt really easy. After the first session, our homework is to meditate the next morning before class and to not try to remember the mantra. The idea is that the mantra should be this thing that morphs over time; sometimes it can be vivid, other times it's more slippery and harder to keep hold of.
Of course I went home that night and all I could do was think about my mantra, saying it over and over in my mind because that was exactly what I wasn't meant to do. I finally forgot about it after getting engrossed in a particularly good episode of Designated Survivor. Unfortunately, it was completely gone from my mind. I fell asleep that night worried I wouldn't be able to recall it come morning. Magically, the next day it came to me when I closed my eyes preparing myself for my first solo meditation.
On Saturday, we were each called back to repeat our mantra to Miller to ensure it hadn't totally left us. We were then told not to speak it again. Over the next two days, I meditated morning and night, as well as with the group. Meditating alongside the sessions allowed us the chance to experience the process and ask any questions we needed to. Sometimes questions arose in the sessions you wouldn't think to ask about and others that were already on the tip of you tongue—like do I need silence to meditate (no), can I meditate on the tube (yes), should I meditate after a meal (no), is it ok to think thoughts during meditation (yes), and so on.
Meditation helps you to see life through a wide-angle lens, rather than zoomed in.
By the third session, Miller revealed how Vedic meditation helps us to work through our stress, be it recent (as in that day at work, or the anticipation of a busy day to come) or old stresses that have become lodged deep down in our psyche.
Essentially, as we repeat the mantra, our mind begins to wind down from being active (thinking) to what's known in meditation as "pure being," a place of no thought and no mantra. We can't stay in this state for long because we either start thinking again or our body stirs. This is because, unbeknownst to us, we have worked through something—be it some deep-rooted issue or a snarky email we had from a colleague. Meditation helps you to subconsciously work through problems, so day to day you can function more efficiently and with less stress.
"When you meditate, you release stress. When stress comes out of your body, it drags the mind to the surface and thoughts come. That's a good thing—better out than in. If you have a thought-filled meditation, that means good repair work is happening. And so after the session, you have a clearer, calmer mind," says Lavender.
Miller, in my induction, described meditation in terms of photography: It helps you to see life through a wide-angle lens, rather than zoomed in. A more relatable example would be that when a colleague is hanging over you at work wanting to ask a question and you just have to finish an email, the effect of meditation, over time, can help you deal better with those little interruptions. You'll be able to stop, chat to your colleague and then go straight back to that email without any stress being triggered or time being wasted getting back to it.
By the Monday night, we were all well versed at meditating and were joined by dozens of previous students for a mass group meditation. Once you have completed the course, you are welcome to attend the Monday night meditations for free.
How Meditation helped Me
Honestly, I've found it tough to meditate twice per day. Mornings I have down; afternoons not so much. But even still, I've found that meditating in the morning has left me feeling calmer and more relaxed. I get less anxious. My mind doesn't whir as much as it did. I don't mentally obsess over to-do lists, which I used to do a lot. My workload doesn't seem so daunting (even though I'm as busy as ever), and I'm more efficient and don't let things stress me out.
We're contending with a loft extension at home, which has left everything topsy-turvy (literally, I can't find half my clothes, and I have to clamor over my dining table to reach my kitchen because the downstairs is filled with displaced stuff). And yet I'm calm. My boyfriend has gone pretty grey since it started a few weeks ago and yet my natural hair colour is intact. My meditation is a work in progress, but I'm hooked. If I could just nail the afternoon meditation, there would be no stopping me.
So how do you meditate? Keep reading to find out how, plus discover a meditation exercise you can try at home.
How to Meditate
To start: First things first, you sit upright in a chair. You don't want to lean back in a bed as you'll most likely fall asleep. You close your eyes and sit still for a couple of minutes before bringing your attention to the mantra.
The mantra: This is personal to you. The idea with meditation is that you sit down with the intention to bring your attention to your mantra. "As long as you begin with the intention to think the mantra, you're meditating correctly. It doesn't matter how often you lose it. And if you're not sure you remember your mantra correctly, this is also good. Don't try to pronounce it clearly—a faint idea is enough," says Lavender.
Thoughts will come and go, and that's fine to follow them along, but as soon as you realise you're thinking, gently bring your mind back to the mantra. If you are enjoying the thoughts and go with them, you're no longer meditating, you're daydreaming!
Timing: With Vedic meditation, the aim is to meditate twice each day for 20 minutes. This is the optimum amount of time. You want to meditate first thing before breakfast, although you can meditate after exercise, and again in the afternoon, ideally a couple of hours after lunch. Any time after about 8 p.m. is too late and it could interfere with your sleep.
Miller recommended downloading the app called Clocks (free). The app is simply a clock, but when you're on your app your iPhone won't lock, so you can close your eyes, meditate and every so often open one eye to check on the time (which is totally okay to do, it doesn't ruin your meditation). Some sessions will fly by, others will feel long and that's okay too.
Location: As for where you meditate, that's really up to you. "You don't need silence to meditate," Lavender tells me. "Experiment. Try doing it somewhere new—public transport, a cafe, the church around the corner from work, that quiet(ish) room at the gym. As a last resort—the loo!"
Fitting it in: I've found the morning meditations easy, I'm in the routine of meditating on the tube to work. But fitting in the afternoon sessions is tougher. "When you plan your meditation, it's much more likely to happen. The best time to make the plan is when you come out of your morning meditation. Ask yourself What do I have on today? When do I have a gap? Pick a time and commit to it. Then when the moment comes, keep the appointment with yourself, sit down and do it," says Lavender.
Weekends also need to be planned; without the weekday routine, it's easy to forget to meditate.
Getting it right: The key to getting it right is not to try too hard. But if you want to know the ins and outs of meditation, then I can't recommend The London Meditation Centre's course highly enough. It's a chance to learn a skill that could help you live longer, healthier and a less stressed life.
Your At-Home Meditation Exercise
If you want to harness the power of meditation during a stressful moment or you find you can't concentrate on a task at hand, Lavender and Miller recommend the following:
The best way to re-engage in the present moment is to literally come to our senses. For a quick and easy exercise to do just that, follow the steps below.
Before you get started, simply sit or stand somewhere and take a moment to get comfortable.
• Begin with the sense of sound. Take 20 seconds and note the noises around you—loud and subtle, near and far.
• Then move to the sense of sight. Take 20 seconds and note what you can see around you in that moment—colours, texture, light and shadow.
• Next take 20 seconds to note what aromas are in the air—food, perfume, humidity in the air.
• Then take 20 seconds to note the various tastes in your mouth—toothpaste, coffee, chewing gum, chocolate.
• Finally, move on to the sense of touch. Take another 20 seconds and note what you feel—the textures of your clothes, the temperature of the air, the weight of your limbs.
By taking a few moments (probably less than two minutes), we wake up each of the senses, take ourselves away from the mental chatter and return to what's actually happening in the present moment. It is from this place of alertness that we can regain our spark and readiness for action.