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How to Start Meditating, and Why

I have been meditating in one form or another for about 18 years. Of all the things I do to be a better human, and a better martial artist, writer and teacher, I think meditation is perhaps the most important, and the most effective in terms of time spent to results obtained. This is because 95% of training happens in the brain, and you need your brain to do the other 5% too. Meditation can work like defragging your hard drive, installing a better CPU, quadrupling your RAM, and upgrading your operating system. Only better. There are a dozens of studies that suggest that meditation is good for you. And there are a bagillion pages of hippy crap out there too claiming it will make you fly, or infinitely wise, or good in bed, or whatever other nonsense. Here are two articles, both from major government health organisations: the UK National Health Service, and the US NCCIH, which seem to conclude that it's healthy.

Tim Ferriss has an interesting podcast where he interviews overachievers of every kind, and one thing that they all seem to have in common is they meditate. I've written before on how it can help to manage fear, but I thought I'd introduce it in a more practical way to those for whom it's unfamiliar.

There are lots of different ways to meditate, with lots of different effects, and of course every system claims wonders for its own special style. But really, meditation is about two things: focus and awareness. The easiest place to start, I think, is with “mindfulness of breathing”. It goes like this:

  • Set a timer. I recommend perhaps 3 minutes if this is your first ever go.
  • Sit comfortably, or lie down. I like sitting cross-legged on a kicking pad, at the salle, or on my pillows in bed if I've just woken up, or on the floor in my study if I don't want to wake my wife.
  • Close your eyes, and notice your breathing. Don't interfere with it, just pay attention. if that's a bit vague, try noticing the feeling of the breath coming in through your nostrils, and out of your mouth.
  • Start counting your breaths, one in, out, two in out, three in out, etc.
  • When (not if) your mind wanders, just notice that it has wandered, and bring it gently back, starting the count at one.
  • If you get to ten without distraction, go back to one anyway.
  • Keep doing this until the timer goes off.
  • Repeat this every day. First thing in the morning is probably best, but any time will do. I do it on waking.

I usually set my timer for about 10 minutes, or 20. No more, because I'm not a Buddhist monk. On a good day, I get up to about six breaths, sometimes even 10 without distraction, but quite often it goes one, one, one, one, one, one, one two Yay I got past one! oops, now I'm distracted again one, one, one. That's ok. The practice is the process of gently returning your attention to the breath. Nobody cares that you did 10 rounds of 10 breaths without your mind wandering even once. Any computer will do that for you, and better. This meditation teaches you a relaxed, gentle focus. If the timer going off feels like a surprise, that's great. Try adding a minute or two to the time on your next session. Or not. If you can't wait for the damn thing to beep already, that's ok too. Be gentle. And set your morning alarm three minutes earlier. You can manage that, right?

The next stage is to apply that focus to something beyond your breath, such as the feelings in your body. I have used this extensively to help me deal with the feelings that have been boiling up during my boarding school recovery. The idea is that by making space for the feelings, and being aware of them, they cease to control you and fade away. When, for instance, a wave of grief would hit, I would just sit with it, and it would pass. It's also generally useful in that it teaches mindfulness as a specific skill unconnected to your daily tasks. I have recently come across Tara Brach's guided meditations, which seem pretty good. I've linked to her page of basic, beginner-friendly guided meditations, but I personally use a couple of the longer ones. I'm also trying out the “Calm” app, which has a free course of seven guided meditations, which is a really good introduction for complete beginners to the practice.

Give it five minutes a day, every day. After 10 days, if it's doing nothing for you, stop. But I'm confident you'll already be giving it 7 minutes. Or 10. Because it's wonderful.

I'm giving a lot of thought these days to the parts of my practice that are not directly sword-related. Over the last 15 years of being a professional swordsman I have spent perhaps 10% of my training time sword-in-hand. This may seem odd, but as I see it, the sword is just the tool; a drill-bit in a drill, the head of the spear, the arrow not the bow. So I have spent most of my time upgrading my hardware (with breathing exercises, strength training, mobility training, joint maintenance, this sort of thing), and my operating system (with meditation, study, research, interacting with other practitioners and so forth). This makes running “Art of Arms 1.0” easy (though creating “Art of Arms 1.0” has been really hard!). Sword practice, such as striking targets, solo forms, pair drills, fencing, and demonstrations in class, combined add up to only a fraction of the total time. My results speak for themselves; you can google my fencing matches on youtube if you want to see how I fence, or just ask my students.

This is why my book The Theory and Practice of Historical Martial Arts includes a lot of practical advice on things like nutrition, sleep, and yes, meditation too. You need your body and mind working properly to practice! The book also covers breathing practices, some of which are also a form of meditation. For an in-depth look at my breathing training, you should have a look at my breathing course. You may also find this article from Groom and Style interesting as it goes into some variations of breathing exercises that I don't cover, and gives some background information with fancy graphics.

I recommend sharing this post with everyone you know who is even a little bit stressed out!

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

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