Guide to meditation, mindfulness and mantras

Meditation, mindfulness and mantras have been the 'latest' thing for decades now. Every recent generation claims them as their own, oblivious to the fact that their parents, and even grandparents, 'found' them first. Do you have 'issues' of any kind? Mental or emotional traumas, lack of clarity and direction? Stressed out of your head? Do you keep putting off visiting the psychiatrist or counsellor? No time, no money and really not much inclination? Meditation could well be your answer. And contrary to most people's understanding, you really don't need to spend an hour a day 'practising'. Just 10 minutes daily works wonders, and there's an increasing body of evidence to prove it.

Early experiences of meditation

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I was first taught to meditate when I was eighteen and went to a lecture, dragged along much against my will. I tried it by myself at home the next night, and something very odd happened indeed. My arms levitated into the air all by themselves, and I couldn't stop them from doing it, however hard I forced them back onto my lap. At that time I was a pretty much a blank spiritual page. I had precisely zero knowledge of anything at all to do with energies, frequencies or even the basic concept of spirit. It was a bit frightening, but nothing much else happened, so I relaxed into it, and it was interesting enough for me to keep practising to see if it happened again. (Which actually, it didn't but by that time I loved it for itself).

For me, meditation was nothing short of transformational. I had, till that point, not had a clue that there was a vast world of stillness inside me, or that out of that stillness great clarity came. Back then I practiced daily for an hour every morning and everything in my world came into focus.  Today, I rarely spend more than 15 minutes. There are answers to everything in the silence inside you. Gradually, my mind, that was always so full of chatter and scattered thinking, was tamed. I read somewhere that you should be the master of your mind, not the slave. I really believe that meditation, mindfulness and mantras give me that mastery.

 Meditation: what are the benefits?

Meditation: what are the benefits?

Clinical benefits of meditation

Meditation noticeably calms you and allows you great clarity of mind. It has recently been proven to reverse the symptoms of chronic stress. Interestingly, however, new research has also found that whilst it works brilliantly for women, improving their mood it may do the opposite for men. I like it best because over time it sets you free from the stories of your past and their impact on your present.

You may well put your hand up here and say 'but I don't have any stories running my head...'

But in truth, each of us is run by our past. You may be conscious of those patterns or it may not be something you are aware of at all, but to a certain degree it will be there in you. The experiences that have formed us, good or bad, often come bundled up with perceived 'lessons' that we have clung onto, long past their sell by date. These may be faulty and deeply unhelpful. The voices from the past stay with us, and often overwhelm our present, rarely helpfully.

Challenging insidious beliefs

Meditation is one of only a handful of options out there that will free you. Behaviours that may have kept you safe as a 9-year-old are no longer likely to be helpful to you as a grown adult, and may well be holding your life back. The cautionary words of your father 'money doesn't grow on trees you know' may have instilled a fear of never having enough that drives you to work harder and harder, never stopping for fear your finances will flag. Perhaps that pattern prevents you from focusing on other aspects of your life: family, friends, fun? The classmate that told you you weren't pretty enough to get a boyfriend may have set up a pattern of failure in your relationships, because you always 'knew' you just weren't good enough and it would never work.

Shifting habitual emotions

Emotions can become habitual, to the point you don't even recognise they are running you. Things that happened long ago are not justifications for current ways of behaving, even if we want them to be. And holding on to anger or resentment for things that were expected to happen but didn't is only a waste of your time, negatively colouring your views of life.

Our minds are full of endless chatter, often unhelpful. Set yourself a task to clear the negative things that are running you. It will move your life in a different, more positive direction. Make changes and your life changes, too. Do nothing at all and things usually stay more or less the same.

So how to begin? Meditation, mindfulness and mantras are an excellent place to start. Either individually, or in combination. I have practiced each of the three for long enough to value their remarkable attributes and I know clearly that when you focus your mind and practice regularly, miracles can happen.

Meditation, mindfulness and mantras defined

Let's explore meditation first, and ask, what is it, and what isn't it. It is not prayer. It's not even contemplation. It's certainly not to be found in a walk along a beach. It's not about you thinking or asking, it's about you listening. Sitting still and quietening your mind. Meditation is about becoming aware of yourself, and knowing yourself. And unless you take time each day and sit still in silence, you are unlikely to reach that place where you can simply be with yourself and know yourself deeply. When you meditate, you connect to spirit - truly and clearly. Meditation is always a spiritual experience, connecting you to the wisdom within.

How to meditate

Meditation is simple. Don't make it complicated. Just set aside a place that you go to at the same time each day and make sure you won't be interrupted. Turn your mobile off and put the dog in the garden! Sit upright, preferably on a chair, with your feet apart and flat on the floor. Relax your shoulders and have your hands, palms upwards, loosely on your lap. Then close your eyes and begin by watching your breath as it flows in and out. Just bring your attention to your breath and watch it as it goes in and out of your nose. Let it come and then go. Notice how it feels. How is the texture of the breath? Smooth? Rough? Observe. Is it warm? Is it cold? Just notice. Your so-called 'monkey mind' will begin to flood your head with comments and thoughts, but just let them pass. Let them go and focus only on your breathing. Let go, and relax. Sit and watch your breath for 20 minutes. Become empty. It's that simple.

You will notice after the first few days how much more relaxed you feel. Back in the day, renowned experts set out to show that the fad for meditation was simply that - a fad. But science couldn't fault it. Dr Vincent from Harvard set up a mechanised test to disprove it but his tests found that meditation both slowed brainwaves and also lowered adrenaline and cortisol levels. Meditation also causes the cerebral fluid in your brain to move and flow.

What is mindfulness?

 MIndfulness: how to be present

MIndfulness: how to be present

Most of us are rushing around so fast in our daily lives that we end up missing the experience of much of them. Mindfulness is a practise that teaches you to be present and aware - right now, in this exact moment. Whether you are walking, sitting or eating. Whatever your emotional state or mood. It's about accepting and being aware of yourself and your feelings, your thoughts and the sensations in your body. And not judging or internally commenting on what you find, just observing it all, calmly and from a place of non-judgement.

In the West, mindfulness is synonymous with the name of one man, Jon Kabat-Zinn. He adapted Buddhist traditions, and began teaching a non-secular version of mindfulness in the 60s in Massachusetts. The practise spread exponentially, becoming a global force and is now studied and taught by practitioners all over the world.

 Jon Kabat-Zinn: Father of mindfulness

Jon Kabat-Zinn: Father of mindfulness

How to be mindful

I have done three different mindfulness courses, and whilst I love it, and notice the difference, I also struggle with it. I find it hard to stay in the present moment for long periods of time. I can do it while I meditate, because I know that is my 'time'. But in everyday life, I find whole days will pass without my consciously being 'in the moment'. It definitely takes practise to integrate it into the everyday.

One of my favourite mindfulness exercises

Take a single raisin between your fingers and really focus on it. Look at it as you have never looked at a raisin before. Slow right down. Examine its shape, its texture, its colour. Bring your whole attention to that raisin, your mind entirely taken up by it. Smell the scent of the raisin, squeeze it, roll it between your fingers. Finally, bite into it, and let its flavour flood your mouth.

How different and remarkable was that single experience with a single raisin? I normally eat raisins, in handfuls. Chucked into my mouth, chewed a couple of times and simply swallowed whilst I reach for more. A very different experience.

Just imagine how much more you would appreciate what you do in life and the people you spend it with, if you could bring the same amount of attention to everyday events. Start with a few minutes of focus each day and try to expand the amount of time you manage to stay in the present moment. It's that simple.

What are mantras?

Did you know that repeating a mantra regularly can create new neural pathways in your brain and strengthen old ones? And calm your mind and make you feel happier? Who needs Prozac when you can pop a mantra instead?

I love mantras. I first understood the power of the spoken word when I was travelling through Ladakh, back in my student days. We had travelled for 2 days and nights in the back of an uncovered truck through the high Himalayas in freezing cold temperatures to reach a distant monastery. I have two memories from that experience. Firstly, the disgustingness of the yak butter tea we were kindly offered when we finally got there. Secondly, the extraordinary sight of the monks chanting 'OM'. A group of them were seated in front of a pile of fine sifted sand. As they chanted above the sand, the pitch of their voices, the frequency of the sound, shifted the sand into a specific pattern. And it was the same pattern each time they sang the word. They wiped the sand clean and chanted again. The same sound, the same pattern in the sand. A different sound, a different pattern.

Sound affects the physical. That is where I learnt and understood that particular universal law. The work of the remarkable Dr Emoto with water molecules confirms that conclusion. Dr Emoto experimented with water molecules under a microscope and the effect of words, feelings and emotions upon their structure. He found that words like 'love' and 'compassion' created stunningly beautiful snowflake like crystalline structures in the molecules. 'Hate' and 'rage' turned into distorted ugly looking structures. Human beings are made up of approximately 70% water, so the affect of our thoughts and emotions upon our physical bodies is similar.

Mantras can re-structure us, so make sure you choose your mantra very carefully.

The dictionary definition includes the fabulous phrase 'a numinous sound, believed to have spiritual and psychological power'. Mantra is a Sanskrit word for a certain type of prayer that first appeared over 3,500 years ago. Today, a mantra is a specific phrase or a single word, very simple and clear, that you repeat over and over again. Research has shown that they can and do create powerful changes in the body and also in the brain. Mantras lower cortisol levels, reduce self judgement and quiet the mind. (2015 brain and behavior magazine showed that silently repeating a single word mantra quieted the brain).

Choose your mantra

Mantras can be spoken out loud, or repeated internally. They are different from affirmations, in that they are always part of a spiritual practice.

Keep them short and positive and in the present tense. 'I can...'. 'I am...' The phrase you choose must mean something to you personally. Something that will help you, not some magic formula or a dream for the future. 'I can do it', 'I am strong and positive' is better than 'I will be rich'.

Often followers of a spiritual master will be given their own mantra, imbued with their energy. Be wary here, because although there are genuine spiritual masters there are also a lot of quacks about. I was at a group last year where a neurotic and clearly not at all spiritual 'teacher' (oh dear, judgement here!) authorised apparently by the Deepak Chopra Institute was handing out 'individualised' mantras. Apparently hugely spiritually powerful. They were meant to be top secret, and not disclosed to anyone else, but she was so odd that we compared notes afterwards and found that we had all been given a variation of the same three phrases. So not so individualised after all!

Mantras for healing

If something is stressing you, create a mantra around it, and whenever your stress is triggered the mantra will counteract the stress. For instance, If you have been diagnosed with an illness try attaching 'Every day in every way I am getting better and better' to a mental picture of you in perfect health and repeating the phrase every time you get worried or depressed. Or simply 'I am well'. You don't have to have just one mantra, you can have several on the go at once.

Make sure the thoughts you are thinking are positive uplifting ones. The more you think the same thought, the stronger your neural connections grow. And the more your body will follow your mind's command. Most of us tend to think the same negative self critical thoughts on a daily basis. Catch them, stop them in their tracks and consciously change the thought to something that's good for you instead.

Make your mantra a habit. Do it alongside meditation, or mindfulness. Singly or combined, they really can shift your stuff, once and for all. Make time for them as a part of your daily health regime, even for a few minutes each morning and stand back and watch your life change.

Still not feeing convinced? Watch my short video interview with meditation teacher Vincent Parmentola, who talks about his 40 years' experience meditating and explains how to meditate.