How to Start a Basic Meditation Practice
The benefits of sitting meditation and other mindfulness practices have been scientifically proven to help dramatically with a wide array of mental health issues, including drug and alcohol addiction. Mindfulness refers to the practice of noticing the present moment without judgement, and sitting meditation is an excellent way of cultivating mindfulness to bring into the rest of your life. By calming the mind and bringing awareness to thoughts and emotions, meditation helps us to build distress tolerance, slow our mind down, and engage our parasympathetic nervous system, helping us feel relaxed and calm.
Some of the ways in which mindfulness and meditation have been proven to help us physically include promoting better sleep and digestion, lowering blood pressure, relieving stress, anxiety, and depression, aiding in healing trauma, reducing drug and alcohol cravings, improving immune response, and helping to manage chronic pain, thereby decreasing the need for potentially addictive pain medication. Meditation has also been shown to help in increasing gratitude, resilience, and self-esteem. With so many proven benefits, it’s a wonder meditation isn’t integrated more widely into treatment of all kinds of physical and mental health treatments.
As an addiction treatment center with a highly evidence-based and holistic approach to healing, we at Flatirons Recovery built our addiction recovery curriculum around mindfulness and meditation because we know how effective it is, not just in alleviating symptoms associated with addiction and maintaining sobriety, but in aiding in a deeper healing from the root cause of the addictive behavior in the first place. Every day, our programming begins with sitting meditation and a discussion on various principles of how mindfulness and Buddhist psychology can be applied to healing from addiction and trauma.
While treatment of addiction or other mental health disorders requires the guidance and supervision of a qualified healthcare professional, a basic meditation practice may offer an excellent supplement to treatment, and may provide support for those in search of some tools for grounding and relieving stress. If you are curious about meditation but don’t know where to begin, here are a few tips for how to get a basic meditation practice started.
- Establish a Meditation Routine
- Find a comfortable, sturdy seat
- Follow your breath
- Notice your thoughts, and then come back to the breath
- Practice non-judgement
Carve out a time every day to sit and meditate, even if for only five minutes. Set a timer and commit to meditating until your time is up, even if it goes imperfectly (which it will). Create that space for your meditation practice when you wake up, before going to bed, or some other time that is predictable. It is also helpful to pick a place to routinely meditate where you can close the door to family members, roommates, and/or pets to minimize distractions. Some people may find it helpful to meditate before or after another self-care practice, such as yoga, journaling, or a walk in nature. It may also be helpful in establishing routine to light a candle or incense, creating a sensory association with meditating that helps your body and mind more subconsciously drop into the practice. A singing bowl or other bell can be a great way to mark the beginning and ending of your meditation session.
People often wonder why so much emphasis is placed on posture in sitting meditation. When we are sitting up straight, aligned in the best way for our bodies, we feel both our strength and our calm. We also take care of our spine and joints, avoiding injury or strain from improper sitting. It is not important whether you chose to meditate on a traditional floor cushion, such as a zafu or gomden, or in a chair. What is most important is that you are sitting up straight, as though your body were a coat hanging limply off of your spine as a coatrack. If you are on the floor, it is important that your knees are below your hips. If they feel pain, try sitting up on a higher cushion or in a chair, or place additional supportive pillows underneath your knees. Your shoulders should be back, core slightly tucked in, and your hands resting on your thighs with no tension in your arms. If you are seated in a chair, keep your feet flat on the ground with your knees at a right angle.
Now that you are seated and your timer is going, it’s time to meditate! You can choose to keep your eyes closed or open, gazing about four feet in front of you. Having your eyes open allows you to take in your surroundings just as they are, while closing them may aid in concentration if you are too easily distracted. Now find your breath, just as it is. Be curious and notice if it is shallow or deep, rapid or slow. Follow it in and out of your body without judgement or analysis. Just notice. In practicing being present to the world both around you and inside of you, your breath is your anchor. The majority of your attention is always on your breath, while whatever else you may be feeling—tension, emotions, sensations, the temperature and sounds of the room—are held lightly in your awareness. It may be helpful to feel the air entering and exiting through your nostrils as a way to ground your focus.
Within seconds, you may find that your mind drifts away. That is ok! When you notice this, label the thought “thinking,” drop it, and return to your breath. Imagine these thoughts are passing clouds and you are the sky. They are not a part of you, and you don’t have to give them your attention. The more you practice, they quieter they become, and the more you will be able to mentally distance yourself from them, gaining a sense of control where perhaps you once felt powerlessly consumed by them. If your mind wanders over and over again, do not get discouraged. The true heart of the practice—the part that will have the greatest impact on your life—is not noticing your breath but noticing each time your mind has wondered away, and making the choice to come back to your breath again. We are not preparing to be perfectly at peace in our lives, that is not realistic, but to learn how to come back to a place of peace when things get hard and we want to run away from the present moment.
You may be distracted. You may notice you are beating yourself up for having a hard time staying with it, or for the thoughts and emotions that course through you during your time in meditation. You may even see that you judge your physical body for being uncomfortable, or falling a certain way along your spine. If you are meditating with others, perhaps you notice you begin to compare your experience with theirs. Maybe you are able to hold your attention or pose longer or shorter, seem to be getting the hang of it more or less than those around you. When you find you are beginning to judge yourself or others, let it go, labeling it just like any other thought—any other passing cloud—and return to your breath. Pause a moment in compassion for yourself and for those around you, remaining friendly and curious towards your experience, whatever it may be.
*Disclaimer: this article is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should not be used in place of advice by a qualified medical professional.*