Want to try meditation? Here’s an intro guide to get started

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Benefits of the practice may help during this time of increased anxiety and stress

There’s no doubt we lead stressful lives in the modern world — and adding a global pandemic into the equation sure doesn’t help. When we feel like we’ve lost control, what can we do?

Enter: meditation.

But what exactly is meditation? The practice — which is used in both religious and secular settings — has been around for centuries, so naturally, its definition varies depending on who you ask.

At its core, meditation is a practice of focusing the mind and staying present to cultivate a heightened awareness about yourself and your surroundings, aiming to calm your mind and body. There are too many types of meditation to list here, but many practices use elements like breathing exercises, visualization, body scans, sound baths, and mantras or chants.

“It’s not just closing your eyes and sitting in a dark room, and I think people have a strong misconception about what meditation is from what they’ve heard or what they’ve seen,” said Lauren Guss, a meditation guide at San Diego Meditation in North Park.

San Diego Meditation attempts to break the stigma associated with the practice, exposing skeptics to its benefits like mood boosting, increased energy levels and better focusing abilities. Guss, who has been practicing for 10 years, was convinced meditation didn’t work until she found her current practice, which focuses on self-reflection, removing emotional reaction to past experiences, and getting rid of the root of stress inside the mind, rather than just calming the mind down.

Gen Lhadron, a Buddhist nun and the resident teacher at Kadampa Meditation Center San Diego in North Park, finds her practice to be a helpful method to self-regulate stress, anxiety and any other unpleasant feelings. Through her meditation, a “tight mind and a fearful heart” is replaced full of confidence, love, peace and gratitude.

“Meditation is the practice of learning how to control our mind. When you control your mind, you don’t need to control the externals nearly as much,” Lhadron said. “Even if things don’t go right out there (in the world), (you’re) gonna be OK, because (you) have this inner source of balance and stability and happiness.”

Getting started

So... where to begin?

1. Decide on a time of day

Be realistic about when meditation can fit into your schedule. Can you wake up a few minutes before your alarm goes off? Or turn off the TV a little earlier every night? Though Guss notes many people meditate in the morning or evening, there are no rules — just find a time that works best for you. If you’re having trouble remembering to practice, try setting a reminder on your phone.

2. Choose your meditation length

Don’t attempt to tackle an hour of meditation right off the bat. Instead, think about what length of time seems sustainable to you. Lhadron recommends starting with 10 to 15 minutes; it’s better to begin with a short, recurring practice rather than attempting longer sessions sporadically. Over time you can incrementally increase the amount of time you practice.

3. Pick a setting

Meditation can be practiced anywhere: on the floor, laying in bed or even on a walk. One common set-up is sitting on a chair or cushion. Wear comfortable clothing and try to limit any distractions, like physical clutter or outside noise, to keep you engaged in the practice. While having a dedicated space can help, it’s not required.

4. Test out a practice

Like Guss previously noted, meditation is more than closing your eyes in a dark room. Depending on what type of meditation you choose, the instructions will differ. In general, many practices encourage a focus on breathing and body sensations as you allow thoughts to come in and out of your mind, without judgment. Close your eyes, or hold a soft gaze, and relax.

5. Learn from a pro

If you’re just starting out, consider a guided meditation, in which a trained teacher will walk you through the process. Guided meditations can be done alone — video and audio sessions are available on YouTube, or through mindfulness applications like Calm and Headspace — or in a group setting.

Though coronavirus restrictions have caused local meditation centers to temporarily close their doors, many guides are now holding virtual sessions. (Both San Diego Meditation and Kadampa Meditation Center San Diego host online video classes through Zoom.)

6. And, most importantly, be consistent

Above all else, just keep at it. While Guss and Lhadron’s meditation practices differ, both agree that one of the most critical steps when starting meditation is consistency. Establishing meditation as a daily habit is crucial to experiencing the benefits.

“It’s really important that we just carve out time and just put (meditation) into our routine, because we are creatures of routine. If we just put it into our routine, we just do it,” Lhadron said, adding that the extra hours many people now spend at home might make self-quarantine an ideal time to try out the practice.

COVID-19 or not, meditation can be a powerful tool to quiet the mind, reduce anxiety, boost your mood, and even strengthen your immune system. And these days, we all could use a safeguard against stress and illness.

“Meditating every day is really important, if not just as important as taking a shower every day,” Guss said. “Especially when we’re living with a stress-filled mind, already we’re compromising our immune system … People have to cleanse their mind to be free from that stress.”