Your Meditation Questions Answered
Meditation is widely known for helping to calm a chaotic mind, increase brain & immune function and reduce the production of stress hormones, and while the practice is becoming increasingly popular in western cultures, there is a still an air of mystery surrounding it.
Apps like Headspace and Insight Timer are doing wonders for helping regular people with busy lives access meditation, but I meet plenty of people on a daily basis who meditate or try to meditate often but still have questions.
I’m not claiming to be an expert in meditation, by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve put together the biggest/most common questions I get from my students when it comes to meditation & tried to answer them here.
If you want to know more about meditation, download my Intro to Meditation Guide here!
How can meditation really help me reduce stress?
Stress gets a bad rep in our modern world, because it’s usually used to describe the ‘bad stress’ and fatigue which forms within the body as a result of constantly being in a state of fight or flight. Good stress is the way we respond to a challenge; making us focussed & ready for action. During this time, our brain and immune functions are repressed, the digestive & cellular repair systems in the body shut down & the heart & breathing rates increase. Basically – everything goes out the window other than the bare essentials, so we’re ready to run from the lion or whatever the modern equivalent may be.
However, if this response is triggered over and over again without giving the body a chance to repair from the effects of the stress, and come back to normal bodily functions, this response can have negative effects on the body and turn in to fatigue & ‘bad stress’.
When you meditate you create the perfect conditions for your mind & body to rest & recuperate from the effects of stress. Your mind triggers a relaxation response (the opposite of fight/flight) & the body starts to repair itself from the impact of stress & fatigue.
Through daily meditation your body moves out of the constant state of fight or flight & learns to maintain balance & healthy bodily functions.
How is meditation different from sleep? Can’t I just sleep more, instead of meditating?
When we meditate, we are not sleeping, however the body is still in a deep state of rest. In order to sleep well we need the hormone melatonin, which is inhibited by stress. So, chances are, if you’re stressed, you’re not sleeping well – and extra hours of poor sleep aren’t going to help. Meditation, on the other hand, has been proven to boost melatonin levels, meaning that regular meditators sleep better.
The practice of meditation also helps you to be come more aware of your thoughts, and allows you to distance yourself from them, which weakens the strength each thought has over you, so they can no longer prevent you from sleeping.
What is the difference between meditation & mindfulness?
Meditation is a form of mindfulness, but you can practice mindfulness without meditating. Mindfulness is the practice of being ‘in the moment’ i.e. experiencing whatever situation you are in right now in the real, physical world, without getting distracted by thoughts. For example, you can practice mindful eating; focussing on the sight, smell, taste & texture of the food you are eating, & the environment you are eating in, rather than scrolling on your phone, or daydreaming about your weekend plans.
Meditation is a form of mindfulness in that we are focussing on something happening in the current moment; such as the breath, or a mantra. When we find ourselves becoming distracted, we bring ourselves back to the present moment.
Both meditation & mindfulness help to improve our self-awareness, and allow us to notice when our mind drifts off, or we find ourselves getting lost in thoughts, worries or regrets.
When should I meditate?
Starting the day with meditation will help you to feel alert & energised throughout the day, however it really depends on you! Some people like to meditate at the end of the day to clear through the thoughts & release stresses of the day before a good night’s sleep. Other people find a mid-afternoon meditation helps clear the mind for a more focussed or productive final few hours of work, or to help relieve that mid-afternoon slump. Try out a few different times and see what works for you! It might change day-to-day depending on your schedule or stress levels.
In the beginning, it might be easier to meditate at the same time every day, until you have established a routine, otherwise you might forget to do it. Pick a trigger in your day which you can attach meditation to: for me, it’s as I switch on my computer or make my coffee (depending on my schedule that day); I use that trigger to remind myself to meditate, & then meditate while the computer is booting up, or the coffee is brewing.
How long do I need to meditate for?
15-20 minutes per time is recommended to those starting out, but any time is better than none! If you only have time for 5 minutes, then do 5 minutes! If you want to meditate for longer, then that’s your prerogative!
There is no *magic* number which will clear all your troubles away! Just like any other form of training, consistency is more important than length of time.
Do I have to sit cross-legged?
No! Any comfortable seated position where your spine is supported, and the rest of your body can relax is ideal for meditation. I sit on my sofa with my back up against the cushions, but some people choose to sit on a high-backed chair, or on the floor against a wall. Don’t meditate lying down, as you’ll likely fall asleep, and won’t get the same benefits.
Should I have my eyes open or closed?
The fewer distractions you have, the better, so meditating with your eyes closed is better because you can block out sensory distractions & turn your attention inwards easier. However, if you struggle to close your eyes, or feel uncomfortable doing this, you can simply look softly down at the floor in front of you and try not to focus on anything in particular. This will have the same effect.
Does it matter if I miss a day?
Regular meditation is the ideal, as each meditation allows the body & mind to release the symptoms of stress stored there since the last rest period. Some people recommend meditating morning & evening, some people recommend once a day. If you miss a day or two though, don’t worry about it! One of the hardest things about starting anything new is building consistency & routine. If you miss a day or two it will be counterproductive to get stressed out about it! Just simply schedule in some time as soon as you can to sit down & meditate, and then try and stay on track from there.
Just like going to the gym, or learning a new skill; meditation takes time to get into a good routine, but the more you do it, the easier it will be to fit it into your life, and the greater the benefits will be.
Should I meditate with a mantra?
Common ways to start teaching meditation include focussing on something in the present moment. Usually this is the breath: focussing on following the natural rhythm of the breath, without trying to control it.
However, some people find this too abstract, or difficult to do without controlling the breath, so a mantra can replace the breath as a point of focus.
A mantra is a word, or phrase which you repeat in the back of your mind throughout your meditation. The idea is to have it pulsing in the back of your mind, almost like it’s going by itself, like a background sound, or part if your natural bodily functions. The mantra can be simple such as ‘A ham’ (Sanskrit for ‘I am’) and the simpler the mantra is, the less effort required to keep it pulsing in the back of your mind.
Whenever you become distracted by thoughts, just bring the mantra back to the forefront of your mind, focussing on the sound of it pulsing, rather than the thoughts which appear.
Whenever I meditate, I always get distracted, how can I block out the thoughts that come?
The aim of meditation is not to block out thoughts. So, to start with, save the energy you’re wasting trying to stop thoughts from coming. Thoughts appearing in your meditation is your mind’s way of releasing stress which has built up & so thoughts appearing are a good thing!
Whenever you notice you has got distracted from your breath, or from your mantra, then simply, effortlessly bring your mind back to your focus. Keep doing this every time you get distracted, and don’t count or get frustrated over how many times this happens. Every time you come back to the mantra or to your breath you are training your brain to be present in the moment and distancing yourself from the power of your thoughts.
My mind is all over the place; how will I ever calm it down?
Practice! Release your expectations about how meditation will feel to you & what it will feel like to ‘calm your mind’ and just keep showing up & trying. Some days you will feel calm & clear, and others you won’t; the more you practice, the easier it will be to recognise when your mind drifts off and bring it back to the focus and stay there longer.
I start to feel very creative, or make to-do lists in my head during meditation and I don’t want to lose them! Should I stop meditating?
I always meditate with a journal, or notebook nearby. Notice any recurring thoughts which appear in your meditation & write them down after your session. Try not to stop meditating to write down each time a thought pops up, because some thoughts may be unimportant or irrelevant. Instead, after your meditation, allow yourself a few moments at the end to notice any big things which are still hanging around in the mind afterwards; these are what you need to focus on, so write them down and make the most of the fact that you managed to clear through all the small stuff to get to the important bits!
Is it normal to feel sleepy after meditation?
Yes. If you are starting out on your journey it is very normal to feel sleepy during or after meditating, as this is your body’s way of releasing fatigue. Try not to fight it during your meditation, and if you are able to, try to rest or nap afterwards if you still need sleepy. After regular meditation sessions you will feel less and less fatigued as your body works through the layers of sleepiness, and this will stop happening.
How do I know if I’ve had a good or a bad meditation?
There is no such thing as a good or bad meditation! Any time spent meditating will be beneficial for your mental & bodily recovery, however some meditations may be more gratifying than others. Some days you will feel clam & you won’t be distracted, and will be able to stay focussed for long periods of time during your meditation. Other days you will be distracted, irritable & will struggle to feel at peace. This is OK, and totally normal & does not change no matter how far into your meditation journey you are! Life gets in the way, and becomes messy & distracting, and usually your meditation will reflect this.
The point is to carry on anyway, and not to add ‘bad meditation’ onto your long list of things that aren’t going your way. Observe, move on with your life & come back again tomorrow. Consistency is key & will help you to feel the benefits even if they are not immediately clear to you after your practice.
How do I know if I’m doing it right?
Everyone’s experiences are different. Did you notice when you got distracted? Did you gently try and pull your mind back to your focus each time you noticed that you were distracted? If yes, you’re doing it right.
The key is effortlessness. Try not to control, or force anything, and instead be gentle & effortless when focussing on your breath, or the mantra, or bringing your attention back to those things. You will always get distracted, but just keep effortlessly coming back to your focus each time & that is meditation.
If you want to know more about meditation, download my Intro to Meditation Guide here!