Is there a ‘proper’ way to meditate?
The word conjures up visceral images: of scented candles, monks speaking about following your breath, mats with mandala prints and sitting cross-legged in lululemon tights.
I was always curious about meditation. I craved the stillness, the serenity, the clarity I hear so many talk about.
A long time ago, as complete beginner, I bought a mandala-printed mat off Carousell, laid it out and sat on it.
But what IS meditation?
And how do I know I’m ‘meditating’?
I had the will to begin but no idea how to start.
The mandala mat was packed up.
My first serious attempt at meditation began, of course, with a freebie.
I’d gotten a free subscription to the meditation app Headspace in 2015 and was excited to try out the 10 days beginners program.
Those first sessions were absolutely exhausting.
I felt sleepy. I was bored.
The mental chatter was so LOUD.
I kept waiting for the silence and serenity to arrive. And then berated myself, because whenever I started wishing for it, well, that broke the silence.
My back hurt. How on earth had I managed sitting in a chair all those hours in school? This was just 10 minutes!
But that wasn’t the hardest part. The hardest was keeping up the practice.
I had started the program when I was on a business trip, wholly in control of my routine. I gave myself a huge pat on the back. A week-long streak! I was amazing.
Away from family and friends, it was easy to set aside time in the quiet, controlled space of hotel rooms.
Once back to ‘normal’, I found it impossible to make the time. There was always a WhatsApp text, an urgent task, a meal to be planned, a request from someone that needed my immediate attention.
I started to dislike the uncomfortable sitting and narrator with an Ozzie drawl, growing increasingly impatient with myself and the practice.
Meditating felt more like a painful chore than a relaxant. After several years of repeated half-hearted attempts, I wasn’t getting the hype about ‘meditation benefits’ and was ready to move on to something else. Maybe pottery?
And then I stumbled across Headspace on Nike Run in 2019.
I was out for a morning jog and instead of switching straight to music, I spotted ‘guided runs’ on Nike Run — huh, I thought. This could be interesting.
One of these was titled ‘Headspace, morning run’. I was surprised. Jogging was so far from the usual context of uncomfortable chairs and being still.
Later that day, I was due for a major presentation and had woken up with my stomach in complete knots. The butterflies felt more like flying squirrels jumping around and I knew I wasn’t in the best state of mind.
Some sweaty moments later, I sat on a bench and decided to practice a technique I’d just learned: visualisation.
I focused on my breath. I felt the anxiety sitting in my stomach. I looked at it instead of pushing it away. I visualised the sensations as a black cat and called to her.
She came to me, and I said, thank you for being here. I know you are trying to protect me from hurting myself.
She seemed to consider me for a while, then turned, and left.
A complete sense of serenity followed.
That was the first time I was ever able to observe my feelings, and separate them from my sense of self.
My anxiety was not me.
My anxiety was a little black cat who only wanted to be acknowledged.
As Herman Hesse said,
“Love your suffering, Do not resist it, do not flee from it.
It is your aversion that hurts, nothing else”.
Sweating on that park bench, it just clicked.
This meditation stuff WORKS.
Meditation has never been easy for me and probably never will be.
Since the black cat incident, I’ve done some form of meditation almost daily.
I had to let go of my initial expectations and accept that a ‘silent mind’ isn’t the goal of meditation. There isn’t even really a goal to meditation. It’s simply observing the thoughts and emotions that bubble up.
There are days when the mental chatter is deafening, and others where it’s quieter. Some days I’m hard on myself, other days I find it easier to be kind.
And that’s okay.
Meditation isn’t supposed to be easy or effortless. It is deliberate, focused, and the complete opposite of what my busy, wandering mind is used to doing.
Of course it’s difficult.
But practicing consistently can be easier.
I experiment with every element of the practice to make it easier to practice daily.
1. Finding a guide
Finding a guide was critical for me starting out, and constantly seeking out new guides to learn from has been crucial in keeping up my practice.
The best I’ve found so far is the 30-day ‘how to meditate’ series on the app Calm.
The narrator is funny and for a change, not a monk. He even swears! I love that, and can better relate to the perspectives and examples he shares.
I have tried unguided meditations, but prefer guided ones for the encouragement and inspiration I find in them.
2. Being comfortable
Sitting in a chair, or cross-legged on the floor is often recommended but I’m as flexible as a log and find my back straining in these positions.
Listening to guided meditations whilst jogging or walking got me back into the practice, but I later found being outside too distracting.
The best for me now is to lie down on a mat placed on the floor, or sometimes on top of my bed sheets to avoid falling asleep.
Sadly, I no longer have my mandala mat…
Figuring out the best time of day took a while. I’d fall asleep at night, get too jumpy at mid-day and be in a food coma after breakfast.
Right after waking up is the best for me when I have a little pocket of solitude before the demands of the day begin.
Even 1 minute of meditation has been shown to be beneficial, but of course overachiever me decided to start at 5 minutes. Even then, the restlessness was almost too much to bear.
Meditation has been likened to the gym for the mind, and I have to concur. Them guns are defo growing. This ‘stamina’ slowly started to extend with practice and recently I’ve noticed my mind suddenly going quiet at 15 minutes. I now find myself craving longer sessions to enjoy more of the peace that comes after the 15 minute mark.
These days, I do anything between 20 to 30 minutes in the morning, with shorter sessions in the mid-day.
I’ve given up on the candles and mandala towels. Instead of a “quiet space where I will be undisturbed” I think more specifically in terms of “where I will not be pulled into unexpected conversation”.
This broadens the possibilities for ‘where’: I’ve meditated on morning bus commutes, in taxi rides and in restrooms.
It was a little awkward closing my eyes in public spaces but really, no one cares.
6. Noting what comes up
I journal quick notes on my meditation sessions and looking back on them brings insights and indicators of progress.
Things like: what thoughts came up? how did I feel afterwards? what physical sensations did I notice? what distracted me?
The only ‘proper’ way to meditate is the way that works for me.
I do whatever makes it easiest to be consistent. Whether it’s 1 or 50 minutes, in bed or on the toilet, jogging or while cooking — it really doesn’t matter.
My breath is with me where ever I go, offering again and again the chance to be present, to recognize I am not my feelings, thoughts or circumstances, and to return to peace.