My intention is not to frighten you or turn you off to meditation before you even begin, but I must be honest here. Meditation is not easy. Although meditation contains a multitude of benefits, it can be extremely difficult to calm the mind to a point where thoughts cease to exist. Now that I have sufficiently scared you, please continue reading anyway.
It’s not all bad news, I promise. I want to explain to you the main obstacles encountered while embarking upon a meditation journey but also a few specific strategies that will enhance your sessions. You just simply have to understand how the mind operates and then play the game according to its own rigid rules.
Feed your ego, free your soul.
You must understand that the mind is designed to work all the time—nonstop for 24 hours per day. It is equivalent to the Energizer Bunny. It is controlled by the ego, whose sole purpose is to single-handedly control every little aspect of your life from what you wear, to your chosen profession, to how you behave.
The soul, on the other hand, which is what you are essentially tapping into through meditation, is only concerned with being. Pure, untainted, and unconditioned being. The soul just wants to be free. The problem is, the ego—with its incessant need for control—does everything in its power to prevent this from happening. Since an effective meditation session requires the withdrawal of thoughts, the ego feels robbed of its job. It becomes restless. It doesn’t want to lie dormant; it wants to problem-solve. Enter the battle of ego vs. soul.
But in this battle, both players can work together and emerge as winners. Here's the trick: Since we understand that the ego requires a problem—any problem—to dwell on, you must simply provide it with new material. Provide the ego with the challenge of meditation. Challenge the mind to do nothing but focus on the breath. The ego gets to dwell on problems while, at the same time, the soul has been granted space to rise up. Yes, the voice of the ego is guaranteed to creep up from time to time in your practice. The goal is to catch these ruminations as soon as you notice them and directly return the mind's attention to the breath.
There are many ways of focusing the mind during meditation, but I'm going to focus on the methods that have worked best for me. (Like many people, I was a tough nut to crack.) With consistent practice and the following pointers, you will be well on your way to quieting that ego once and for all. Well, at least for the most part.
1. Meditate post-yoga.
Yoga is the perfect gateway drug to prepare the mind for meditation. The combination of deep breathing and opening postures calms the nerves and is responsible for producing the infamous “post-yoga high." This is a great frame of mind to be in for meditation. When the mind and body are both calm, relaxed, and at peace, the practice of sitting in silence is so much easier.
Meditate immediately after Savasana comes to an end. Don’t even get off your mat. Just continue to lie in silence or choose a comfortable seated position, whichever option feels right for you. With the outer eyes closed, focus the inner eyes on the point between your eyebrows. This is the seat of consciousness. Once you have that, do absolutely nothing except for focusing on the breath. Observe the breath entering and leaving the body. Hear the breath. Feel the breath. Become the breath.
If you are a beginner, just lie or sit in silence for three to five minutes per day. It doesn't sound like very long, but it is when you are brand-new to meditation. If you already have some practice under your belt, gradually increase the time by a few minutes each week.
2. Find a comfortable position.
Many people believe that meditation must be done in a cross-legged, seated position. I avoided a meditation practice for many years because I was unable to sit erect without a wall behind me for more than three minutes without my back aching. It was extremely uncomfortable and I despised all 180 seconds of it before I gave up.
Once I learned that meditation can be done lying down, I was eager to try it again. I felt most comfortable relaxing in my bed, which made it easier to stay focused. Choose whatever position is most comfortable for you. Keep in mind that you will want to spend anywhere from three minutes to an hour, or more, in this position. Situate yourself in a location that provides physical and mental comfort, no matter what posture you choose to meditate in.
3. Use mala beads.
Mala beads are a very effective tool when it comes to taming the mind. They were primarily designed to serve as meditation and prayer beads in the Buddhist and Hindu traditions. In theory, they are very similar to rosary beads or healing beads. Anyone can reap the rewards of using these beads, regardless of their religion.
An authentic strand of mala beads contains 108 beads, plus one larger bead known as the guru bead. The number 108 is considered auspicious for many reasons and is open to interpretation. Beads are often used to count mantras, but they are also an effective tool used to focus the mind on the breath. Mala beads allow your mind to concentrate on something tangible.
If you are new to meditation, find a comfortable position and hold a string of mala beads in one hand. Begin by holding the big bead (guru bead) in between the thumb and index or middle finger. Complete one deep cycle of breath (one full inhale and one full exhale) on that same bead. Then, repeat another whole cycle of breath on the next bead, and then every bead after, by sliding the beads clockwise through your fingers. When you reach the guru bead again, your meditation practice is over. Or, if you wish, you can repeat another round of 108 by going backward through the strand.
By incorporating these practical techniques into your meditation practice, you will eventually be rewarded with a calm mind and healthy body. You may not feel the effects immediately, but with each meditation session, believe that drastic change is taking place. Even if you don’t feel it right away, transformation is on its way.
There are times when your meditation practice may anger you or make you cry out of frustration because the ego refuses to cooperate. This is completely normal. When you meet resistance, these are the exact times when the biggest changes are taking place. You are breaking down barriers of the mind. Even if meditation upsets you sometimes, be consistent with your practice. It will change your life.