First of all let me start by saying that the spiritual element of meditation drawn by many from its effects should not detract from its very well evidenced and observable real world practicalities: Meditation in one form or another is essential for a healthy human brain & body and should not be confined to the practice of religions alone.
When it is left down to religion we see praying (aka a form of meditating) humans argue with meditating (aka a form of praying) humans over linguistics. For that reason I have made sure that this guide is absolutely universal and if you feel triggered by the inclusion of ‘Pagan’ in the title and fear losing your soul, let me assure you that this blog is for everybody, including you (though you might have to open your mind a lot more for some of my points to hit home)!
If you want to jump straight in to practice, jump down to the section ‘How do I do it? Some easy starts based on my experiences’
What is Meditation?
Meditation comes in a variety of forms but ultimately what you are doing usually is aiming to achieve greater internal & external awareness, clarity & perspective through a process of paying attention both actively and inactively. This is achieved through a form of exercise varying from breath work to sequences of movements, but the process of the mind largely remains the same in each.
The goal of mediation can vary with culture and individual intentions and as well as aiming to achieve this greater inner balance, one might have the intention or goal of achieving a state of unity with the surroundings and present moment, sometimes known as a state of ‘no mind’ or ‘flow’. For some, especially in some spiritual schools or transcendental experiences the aim is to completely subdue and remove the ego to either find out who you truly are or to connect with and feel the divine force; usually in order to remove fear of death. We will focus on this more later but remember, there are a variety of intentions you might apply to each meditation style.
Often mistaken for trying to achieve a state of no thoughts or feelings, most meditation, in reality is usually more about training yourself to observe your feelings and become consciously aware of how they affect you. Meditation gives space to think how you might deal with your emotions or feelings and choose to respond as a human above your base level reactions.
An extreme example of this can be seen in the activities of the Shaolin monks who seem to be able to feel no pain despite feats such as snapping a spear shaft with their neck or lying on a nail. Researchers from Stanford found that the monks did feel the pain, very sharply and intensely, more so than a control group, but the signals for pain also very quickly disappear and the monks showed no external signals of being in pain. They achieve this by recognising pain as part of the self, not something external to run from. They pay it absolute, undivided attention, then subdue it, telling their own brain and body that there has been no harm and no need therefore for pain to continue, it has been experienced and passed. Pain is simply a teacher, a signalling system for them to master and understand.
In a similar vein meditation in various forms currently forms part of modern chronic pain management, utilising mostly the method of ‘mindfulness’ to observe pain and allow it to pass as it comes and goes.
Management of mental health issues such as general anxiety disorder, panic attacks and even invasive thoughts are possible to mitigate and over come using this technique. The success of meditation in this area is down to a process of reframing. When anxiety comes it is not dreaded as some external assailant but greeted as an internal part of the self, a part that is small and manageable, a part that can be observed, that will pass and ultimately like all things is also a teacher.
Types of Meditation
All types of meditation can be either guided or unguided.
Guided meditation is the use of a teacher to take you through your meditation sessions and keep the mind on track, set the exercises it should be focusing on and help to overcome obstacles you encounter along the way. Today there is an abundance of schools available in person (which is always best) or there are really high end meditation services like ‘Headspace’ available as an app, online or even on Netflix! I don’t recommend using Netflix, but if you’re already stuck on there, it can be a good way to guide your brain out of the binge watching trap and off to bed.
Unguided meditation is self-lead practice with you taking yourself through sessions alone. Self guided practice is the end goal for meditation, especially if you wish to master it at the highest level and know that you have control of the self and have fostered a life-long practice. It is accessible at all hours and places that way too!
A guide can be incredibly useful when you start and I’d certainly recommend the experience of group meditations or partner meditations but it might be that for you, this simple guide is enough to inspire you to get started!
Meditation intentions can be calming, insightful or a mix: set one as your main focus but go with the flow.
It is possible to practice with the intention of achieving a calm mind, with which to sleep or to be able to achieve a subsequent state of invigoration without being crippled by anxiety, such as a gymnast calming the mind before executing a well rehearsed routine. It is also possible to practice to achieve greater insight and wisdom. With the latter it is more common to focus on a question, allow thoughts to flow freely and to note these down as they come. Neither exists in isolation from the other and both can be calming or to produce insight as the mind goes through the process.
The important theme in both is setting an initial intention as to what you want to achieve, observing what comes and returning to your intention and exercise if your mind strays from the task.
Below are some of the ways in which we can classify meditations, though it is by no means a definitive and firm list, many types can fit into multiple categories.
This is more of a focus or intention than it is a type of meditation style, this can be Theological, philosophical or spiritual. I would argue that someone trying to achieve the goal of union with a universal energy from a scientific standpoint would also fall into this field. The spiritual side is the hard part of the question philosophically as always and one you can draw your own conclusions from without restriction and with as much or little guidance from others as you want to need.
In the Judaeo-Christian tradition types of spiritual meditation include prayer; silence; contemplation; pilgrimage; hymns; sufferance and communion. Any exercise where the task is to contemplate or draw closer to God through these mechanisms is technically meditation.
In Hinduism the goal of meditation is to connect ones self spirit (the atman) with the all encompassing divine (or Brahman). They utilise many techniques including some that I will cover shortly but include breath work, chanting & of course Yoga.
Those looking at spiritual meditation from a scientific standpoint might find a lot of similarity in Hinduism, Taoism and in other old practices from a time where the highest pursuit of mankind was to examine the natural world and themselves (a pursuit too often lost today to technological realities and social paradigms, something which we can examine later!).
For those practicing contemporary ‘norse paganism’ you might at first want to focus on the nature of the different gods or stories as they are known to you; or to practice on the meanings accorded to the runes, a practice made popular by the story of Odin’s divination of them. These can be great focal points for spiritual meditation but expand your practice through the examination of other Indo-European cultural practices or those found in Arctic Circle cultures like the Sami. The routes of Christian practices like prayer repetition or praise hymns might also be of interest to examine as some seem to appear in Europe with differences to their Abrahamic origins.
There is a higher tier within spiritual meditation I will cover shortly under transcendental meditation!
This is arguably the most accessible and practically applied types of meditation for the busy person because not only does it take up no extra time, it can optimise your working time whilst forcing you to take time for yourself and senses.
This style of meditation is the disciplined, single focus on the task at hand. It is the opposite to multi tasking and being overwhelmed, it is the single, focused mind. There are a few types of focused meditation. Firstly there is the usual method of focused and intentional breathing, usually in an upright posture with the focus being on paying attention to only the flow of the breath, allowing the mind to just be, but returning attention to the breath. This can incorporate a variety of breathing exercises but for the most part is kneeling with slow drawing breaths.
Then we have ritual based and work based or as I call it ‘tea & chores’.
The ritual based tasks are simple. You can make a pot of tea properly, taking the time to smell the leaves, to check the water temperature, to prepare the cup, to pour it appropriately and carefully, all whilst keeping your mind focused entirely on only this task. Having a set and advanced ritual for this can help set you up for the day and indeed there are advanced etiquettes around tea ceremonies in Japan based on this principle. It helps that green tea also has meditative effects! Your ritual need not stop at tea, it is also possible to have a self care ritual or a pre-sports ritual, even a pre-work of preparation to which you keep your mind on to prepare it for its best self. Others turn to fields of craft such as pottery or calligraphy which compliment meditation in return.
At the other end of focus meditation there is work itself. This is a matter of paying the utmost attention to your task and completing it proficiently and efficiently. This can be as simple as sweeping the floor, paying attention to your stroke, the feeling and weight of the brush and to the completeness of your task.
For a skilled worker or craftsman this is perhaps almost natural but keeping the brain on task in an office environment where you are doing a job that you hate and your mind tells you every day that you shouldn’t be there is a little harder and perhaps a subject for another article, but being present where you are and focusing on performing every task as well as possible will still help you to feel more content and worthy.
This style of meditation is particularly useful for those with ‘ADHD’ anxiety and other such issues around staying present and focused, particularly if you remove known obstacles such as phones.
Ultimately you are aiming to remain focused on your task, unmovingly unless absolutely required and foster a mind that is still and ready. In doing so without distraction, you will find your way to being more present and a lot more functional but also capable of performing at your best physically. (For a good picture of this imagine the old master in a kung fu film who doesn’t get up from drinking their tea when a bully approaches but when the bully throws a punch at him, he moves and counters with powerful, focused accuracy.)
This style is the one most commonly associated with buddhism but has become very popular in the west with the majority of meditation focused research orientating around mindfulness practice. It has been proven to improve sense of wellbeing and reduce stress, depression and anxiety. It is arguably the simplest, most accessible, efficient and rewarding form of meditation with good short & long term benefits. Sessions range usually from 2-20 minutes, increasing in duration as you become more practiced.
Practice is usually stationary in a seated or lying position and involves beginning with an exercise such as focusing on the breath. This method is more usually guided and the one favoured by services such as ‘Headspace’. It starts with acknowledging the reality of where you are, including the sensations you are feeling and the thoughts or feelings you are having. You then become aware of your mind and how it is working, simply observing it and recognising its processes without judgement or attempting to force change. This style allows and sometimes encourages the mind to wander before returning the attention to observing the mind or the original exercise which is usually just breathing or noticing external feelings such as the weight of your own body on the earth.
During mindfulness sessions there are other tools used, mostly in guided sessions such as bringing awareness to particular areas of the body; noting what distracts the mind; visualising certain images such as places or loved ones; focusing on feelings of kindness and love for others; directing compassion; reflecting on gratitude; and finding true rest within the mind.
This method helps you to appreciate the present reality you are in and above all else is an effective tool for daily life giving yourself mental clarity quickly, arming yourself with the ability to handle any passing situation calmly.
Yoga & Tai Qi and many martial arts are the most obvious examples of intentional moving meditation although outdoor walking in nature and barefoot walking have become recent additions. In this field, depending on the school the focus can be to bring awareness to the body and mind, to master both or to achieve a state of reactionary movement free from conscious thought through repetition.
Hot yoga or cold water swimming also fall into this category as do some of the more vigour types of breath works which due to their laborious nature really qualify as movement. It can really apply to anything and bodybuilding with its intense internal focus in a calm environment is viewed by some as an arran in which to apply some of the principles usually associated with Yoga.
Although the focus here is usually on awareness movement meditation finds itself running through faster paced martial arts and other sports in what is known as ‘no mind’ or ‘flow state’, a state in which there is no thought process happening, only the correct trained decisions and responses happening at instant speed with the mind seemingly in perfect unison with the body and its external reality and present moment. This is achieved largely by automation through disciplined and repeated practice without hesitation of movement, only response to stimuli: seeing what stimuli is truly there due to the presence of utter concentration.
Miyamoto Musashi, a famous samurai of the 16-17th century incorporated pre & post fight meditation along with repeated practice of movements to allow automation in combat. The risk of instant death and the decisive action required to avoid this is certainly a high pressure situation to evolve this in. Musashi knew that hesitation and having to actively think of what an opponent was going to do would ultimately make him too slow to react. He developed lightening speed and reactions by allowing his thought process to be utterly subdued to accommodate actions developed in disciplined training to take over. Musashi went 61-0 in single combat to the death.
Today we understand this with principles such as that of the claimed 10,000 hours of practice required for automation. Truly a lot fo time put into meditation!
Any resonant meditation falls into this category including the production of music but also the use of chanting mantras with or without melody. Both instances are usually for prolonged periods of time though it can be as brief as a song or hymn. This varies from the famous (and for some, annoying,) Hare Krishna movement to the very simple and accessible ‘om’ heard from monks to legging wearing smoothie drinking moms.
The important thing with this is to pay attention to the resonance of the sound or to the repetition of the mantra and your focus. Some schools encourage the mind to wander to insightful realisations whilst others encourage focus to be brought back to the sound depending on the goal. There really is a lot you can do with this and I highly recommend making some intentional noise. For more meaning, check out my previous blog on music & the divine!
This is arguably the most difficult form of meditation as it requires actively holding an image in your minds eye and is best done with some guidance. It can be as simple as holding an image of a bright blue, beautiful sky; a warm white light of peace; or a gentle stream to foster a feeling of safety and distance from the business of life. It can also be a lot more complex such as formulating sophisticated moving mandalas in the minds eye (Marvel fans might think of Doctor Strange here..) or meditating on a deity, ancestor or even visualising a future event.
This method allows us to harness and direct our creative mind and gain mastery of the cinema that can sometimes occur inside our head, sometimes intrusively. This style can also lead into lucid dreaming although that is again another topic.
I know this is the bit that some of you are most excited to read! Mushrooms & magic time eh? This type has a lot of cross over with the spiritual and can really utilise any of the above techniques (including ecstatic dance, tantra, breath work, drum trance) with or without the use of substances to alter the state of consciousness. The focus is on elevating the self to a higher level of consciousness and being, at least for the duration of the session, but ideally into your everyday waking life. It represents a chance for spiritual re-birth and usually involves entering a trance-like state of meditation.
A fascinating take on the union of psychedelic substances with Tibetan style meditation can be found in Timothy Leary’s ‘The Psychedelic Experience’ which is the Tibetan book of the Dead oriented around a mushroom or LSD trip. Many individuals have claimed Leary’s take on this to have provided accessible and life changing experiences, although many practicing monks today claim that these substances are not part of their culture and the goal is to achieve this level of consciousness through meditation alone. Either way the texts are highly worth a read and an inquiring mind might wish to try this. It is certainly likely that substances were used to achieve a state of transcendental meditation in many ancient Indo-European cultures including ancient Greece and Germanic tribes. Other cultures around the world carry out ritual experiences to this end using substances such as mushrooms, peyote and ayahuasca to this day.
This method is for advanced practitioners only, with or without substances and no short cuts should be taken. Be a responsible and respectful adult or reap the consequences.
(I have to mention that this is not the trademarked and patented program of transcendental meditation (yup thats a thing) but the academic sense of the word).
How do I do it? Some easy starts based on my experiences
My science based approach is still very spiritual. I am grounding, my electrons connecting with the earth, I am recognising that I am part of a universal energy, I am recognising that in others, I am asking who and what I am. All of my practice is both based around evidence and yet all very clearly spiritual at the same time. There is no line between scientific and spiritual truth: only truth. Here is an easy way to start with this method.
Ground & breathe
This is the easiest method to start with and one I find very effective. You can use either the mindful method or the focused method described earlier.
- Facing the sun, place your bare feet on the ground, seated or standing and preferably in nature. It doesn’t matter the weather.
- Take 9 slow and intentional breaths and then 9 more with point 3 as the focus
- Observe how you can breathe in oxygen from the air and let the energy flow down to your feet and into the ground. Observe how you can exhale drawing energy from the ground and releasing it into the air
Congratulations, you are now a well rooted tree. Raise your arms up towards the sun and enjoy how it feels. Raining? Great, notice how the rain invigorates and refreshes your skin. What fool taught you to hate the rain?
Temperature & calm
Nothing quietens your other thoughts like the presence of a strong external sensation. Cold water therapy is the perfect tool for that! If you’re just starting out, try water at 12-14 degrees centigrade for 6-8 minutes and work your way down to 4 degrees centigrade for 2-4 minutes over time. Make sure you have a way to get warm after and if you’re doing it outdoors make sure you have a spotter when you first try and follow local water safety advice.
- Enter cold water, it will clear your mind for you and your senses will rush
- Take 9 slow and intentional breaths and then 9 more with point 3 as the focus
- Resist urge to get out or to panic, observe your discomfort & return to breathing and peace until time is up
You will find the cold pushes everything else out of your brain and the breathing helps you to capitalise on the calm space that leaves behind. Keep that feeling with you throughout the day!
Exercise & focus
This one is really easy. Pick an exercise in any discipline; set what you will accomplish, make sure it is challenging enough for you but achievable; leave behind any phone or other distraction; and do it.
Anytime you find yourself wanting to quit or to give in to distraction as a way out, bring your mind back to the breath and to the feelings in the body, own them. Own the feeling of struggle, own the burning, own the quality of your movement and effort it is all you. Be present in your body as it becomes better and better at being alive, acknowledge and own the struggle!
The aim is not to be violent towards yourself, but to gently silence the voices of doubt and increase your confidence and capacity. Do something that is a genuine, achievable challenge for you. That includes a mental challenge like completing a yoga class without losing focus or running a whole 5k without stopping your set pace.
Love & presence
Find a dance partner for this one. They can be really there, or they can be a loved one that you visualise. For my example I will use a romantic partner meditation (for this one, I highly recommend some music, for example soft Indian flute). 2 minutes is good to start with and progress to 10-15 minutes, you can add in various forms of touch or gentle movement or position changes to this. There are some good guides in Tantra practices (its not just kink) that you may wish to progress to. This is a very basic introductory exercise.
- Ground yourselves in seating positions opposite each other, close enough for light touch, but not yet doing so and create eye contact
- Maintaining eye contact try to time your breathing together on the in and exhale
- Observe the small changes in thoughts as you transfer your attention away from yourself and into your partner. Can you feel them? Is that their heartbeat?
- When the time comes to a close, allow your hands and heads to meet and breathe closely for 9 breaths.
Barriers to mediation
The phucking phone & co.
The single most present, completely intentional disruptor of human focus, clarity and consciousness today is the mobile phone. Whilst mindful and intentional use can create a fantastic tool for modern life: using it within the first 90 minutes of waking can disrupt the process of consciousness assembling and substantially impair your cognition and ability to focus for the day; social media and other endless task based apps deplete your dopamine system; using the phone after dark and within the 2-3 hours before bed can disrupt your circadian rhythm causing impairment of sleep quality and insomnia resulting in lower levels go cognition and recovery.
Get this thing in the bin as much as you can! I promise you will feel 10x better if you spend just 72 hours with no phone. A sensible idea is to limit phone and ideally all screen usage to 9am-8pm. Strong blue light blocking glasses reduce some impacts of evening screen use for intentional viewing purposes.
Mastering the Monkey
The ‘monkey mind’ is a term used in Chinese buddhism to describe the state of mind of early practitioners and indeed the state of most of society. They copy and mimic; they are fuelled by their wants; they are prone to follow the crowd; they react only impulsively. For this you might think of observing a small child, it might watch a video featuring an annoying catchphrase and then repeat this over and over, only becoming more annoying and excitable when you request it to stop. You might also think of the well documented phenomenon of herd mentality in humans, where over 80% of humans will copy the behaviour of other humans in the room, even if the behaviour is absurd and abnormal (for example one group had unwitting participants enter a doctors surgery full of actors who stand up every time a buzzer went and performed a movement. The majority of participants joined in..).
Perhaps the most pressing example for anyone with children is to observe how easily their behaviour might be influenced by peer pressure into doing silly things that none of the individual children would exhibit alone, even to the point of criminality. A side note on criminality, meditation has been found effective in reducing instances of violence and repeat offences in prison inmates.
This monkey mind is the default, evolved setting for a human being at birth, it is both your biggest burden and greatest asset. Allowing it to run amok will only see you participate unconsciously in your own designs and often you will be turbulent and easily lead astray. However, the monkey is also your primal strength and instinct. Learning to both listen to it and be able to quieten and think above it is the goal of self mastery through meditation.
When the monkey is chattering away, trying to do what it wants “Meditate??? Sit still and think?? How about watching a movie or eating some chips?” we must not be angry at it, it is a monkey! Of course it wants to do silly and short sighted things! You though, are a human and you can laugh at your monkey, calm it down and think “I will meditate because then my monkey mind will sleep and I can exercise, talk to my loved ones and think about how the great world turns instead.” However when the monkey screams “We’re in danger!!” it’s wise to listen and examine immediately because the monkey has been around a lot longer than the human and has sharper instincts.
Why should I do it?
To be healthy
To be happy
To be focused & achieve
Meditation gives you room to be an individual and get perspective: not to be just a copying monkey, but an agent of universal consciousness. It gives you the ability to feel the energy that flows through you and all things. I could list a lot of the studies supporting meditation in a very practical way, but nothing gives wisdom like experience: so just bloody try it alright!
A wasp in meditation
Whilst a relatively insignificant example I’ll share with you the results from one of my meditation sessions today due to its proximity to my writing.
Today I used focused meditation to prepare for my day. I brought my attention to my dog, noticing how her fur feels, how she smells, how she makes me feel and how she feels herself, was she happy and calm and content, yes, in this way I entered a state of content clarity and began to write. If I felt myself wonder away from the task at hand or to get overwhelmed with my work load I brought my attention back to the dog, relaxed and then transferred my attention back to the task in front (this technique is a little unconventional but particularly effective for people with Aspergers and other ASDs and can help prevent inertia or overwhelm).
During this a wasp began to bother us, flying repeatedly close and aggressively towards us and beginning to disrupt my focus and aggravate the dog. This resulted in an initial reaction to the wasp, successfully striking it down to the ground in my first hit. However I acted too early when the wasp was only investigating and as I did not move to strike a killing blow (annoying as they are, they are still an important insect!) it simply become more annoying.
Once a wasp is on a flightpath it will be on that flightpath until it changes course due to new stimuli. They repeat it over and over. If you strike it once it is better to end it or it will only be more aggressive and bothersome. So unless you intend to strike a killing blow, when you truly need to you should make the decision to be indifferent to its noise.
Even if the wasp were to sting, it can not hurt you anyway, its sting would only teach you and iron in the wisdom of this lesson by making it more memorable! This is useful to remember too when dealing with the minds of other monkeys and bothersome bullies with a nature akin to Mr Wasp. Being mindful today was both calming, allowing me to work and intuitive as a result of the process that occurred in work and my insistent insect companion for the day.
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