Now is a good time to start your own meditation practice – here's expert advice on how to begin

Helen Williams, founder of Dubai's Mindful Me, talks us through the principles of mindfulness and meditation in a time of crisis

Meditation in isolation

Meditation in isolation
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Helen Williams says she has her mother to thank for her ability to stay present in the moment. The mindfulness and meditation teacher, who is based in Dubai, says she learnt from an early age to be aware of what was happening around her, as it was happening.

"I think this was because when I was in my early teens, my mother talked to me about how she was sick – she had cancer and how she would be dying," she tells us via Zoom, as she's currently self-isolating amid the coronavirus outbreak. "She wanted to help me see how I could manage my life knowing it would be without her."

The practice of mindfulness is going to be, for many people, the only thing they can use to make sense of all of this right now

Williams’s mother did that in a variety of ways, but mostly by teaching her daughter to sit and pay attention to what she was feeling – and then to talk about it.

“I remember her saying to me: ‘You know, Helen, you have the rest of your life to do dishes, so it’s important that you come and sit and talk, because we won’t be able to do this anymore.’”

About 18 months later, she died and Williams went to live with a foster family. “I had to work out how best to grieve … and they taught me how to stay present to the pain. I’m deeply grateful to them for that.”

Williams went on to train as a counsellor and then lived in a meditation retreat centre for about 10 years. “I was soundly taught how to stay in the present moment and deepen into the realisation that meditation would help bring us home to ourselves.

“I eventually became a teacher of that meditation and I teach it still today.”

Helen Williams, founder of Mindful Me in Dubai. Courtesy of Mindful Me
Helen Williams has lived in Dubai for 15 years. Courtesy Mindful Me

When she's not social distancing, Williams's Barsha Heights apartment is full almost every night of the week, as she and the rest of her Mindful Me team teach a variety of courses in mindfulness and meditation, both for groups and one on one. Through the day, she sees individuals and couples for therapy sessions.

Every morning, however, she takes some time to herself and always performs her own in-depth seated meditation practice for about an hour, which she sometimes does again in the evening, too.

“My greatest love is teaching the meditation, and teaching the principles and practice of mindfulness,” she says. “Both of these practices hold hands with each other.”

What is meditation and why should we do it?

There’s a quote on Mindful Me’s website from American meditation teacher James Baraz: “Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now, without wishing it were different.” Meditation, on the other hand, is the practice in which we train that awareness and achieve mental clarity.

“For me, it’s a spiritual connection,” Williams explains. “And I have discovered the beauty of teaching to people of every faith base imaginable.

“Whichever way we use it, whether it’s to connect spiritually or deepen the faith we already have, or connect deeply with ourselves, as far as I’m aware that’s all exactly the same thing.”

It can be easy for us to get carried away with our busy daily lives. For many, sitting still for even five minutes may seem like an impossible task. But, as we all deal with this pandemic and as more of us are staying at home, there's never been a better time to stay mindful and to begin a meditation practice.

“It’s important that we recognise the practice of mindfulness is going to be, for many people, the only thing they can use to make sense of all of this right now.

“I think that crises throughout the world and in people’s personal lives is what always brings them to meditation. We all, at some level, know it’s the only way back home inside ourselves. People have a longing for that and they don’t realise it.”

How to start your own meditation practice

While, at the moment, Williams and her team of six are happy to talk new and old clients through mindfulness and meditation techniques over the phone or via webcam, she has some tips on how we can begin our practice at home alone.

“The best way to begin is by choice, to take action and to take a piece of time and find what we call a space and a place to sit.”

First you need to find the space: sit with your back straight, whether that's on a cushion on the floor or on a sofa or even a purpose-built meditation stool like Williams uses (Mindful Me also sells these). It doesn't matter where you are in the house, from the living room to the laundry room, Williams says you can meditate anywhere – except your bed. "When you sit your body there, the association is with going to sleep. Meditation is about letting go and waking up."

Get up, do some stretching, drink some water, sit into the posture and bring yourself into a quiet space for five, 10, 20 minutes

Then you need to find the time: this can vary depending on your living situation. For people with newborn babies, Williams, who is also a mother of four, suggests doing it while feeding your baby. "I remember many a time at 2am being so grateful of the space and peace to sit quietly in the semi darkness paying all of my attention to the baby and breathing goodness into both of us."

If you have young toddlers, realistically the only time you’ll have for peace is when they’re sleeping. For those with older children, Williams recommends requesting a “piece of space” for them, something she used to do with her own offspring.

When your children don’t need as much attention, or if you don’t have any, then the best time is first thing in the morning. “When you meditate before you start you bring the essence of the meditation, the presence, the quiet and calmness into the whole of your day,” Williams adds.

As for how long you do it for, that totally depends on you. “I suggest you don’t worry about the time,” says Williams. “Get up, do some stretching, drink some water, sit into the posture and bring yourself into a quiet space for five, 10, 20 minutes – you may be surprised at how long you can sit there for.”

If you need a helping hand, you can either reach out to Mindful Me or turn to Williams's favourite meditation app, Insight Timer, which is completely free and features more than 30,000 guided practices.

How to manage in isolation

Some of us are busier than ever right now, trying to juggle work with home-schooling, while others may be out of a job or beginning to feel isolated. No matter what your situation is, Williams says it’s important to call on others and use your community for support – whether that’s through relatives, friends or even a community of like-minded strangers online.

The very best person you can find to have a deep and enriching relationship with is yourself

“I’ve loved how people from all over the world who I haven’t talked to in a long time have gotten in touch,” she says. “I think it’s simply because this virus has hit the world and made us all reach out and connect to each other in ways we never would have.

“Isolation? Yes, we can see it as that. Or we can see it as the beginnings of connection – and make choices for that.”

And if you still feel isolated? “Then the very best person you can find to have a deep and enriching relationship with is yourself,” Williams adds. “It may be the first time you’ve ever thought of that. You’ve no idea what riches lie in store for you. It’s a treasure.”

Watch the video at the top of this article to see Helen Williams taking us through a five-minute “grounding breath” practice