Meditation seems to be this mystical and divine place that many believe is only reserved for the most spiritual of us. People make it sound so easy…just sit down in a lotus positions (ouch!), close your eyes (I can do that), and stop all thoughts (yea, right!?!?). I know how you feel but I’ve learned a lot this past year, and with this blog want to encourage you to start a meditation practice of your own.
There are many mind-blowing reasons why you want to consider incorporating meditation into your daily life. Meditation is shown to increase the grey matter in your brain, which is involved in your body’s muscle control, and sensory perception such as seeing and hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control. It also helps decrease the activity of our “monkey brain”, the continuous wondering of our minds into the past or worrying about the future, allowing us to be more present and enjoying the current moment. Meditation is shown to reduce depression, as well as decrease the brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress.
So how on earth does mediation really work?
I love this quote from Madhav Goyal, researcher at Johns Hopkins: “A lot of people have this idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing. But that’s not true. Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways.”
Set up: You’ll want to be in a quiet place without distractions. Close the door to your bedroom or your office or find a quiet spot in a meeting room or in the park. Hey, even sitting by yourself in the car is a great solution! Get into a comfortable seating position. There is no need to knot up your legs and be uncomfortable (I remember my legs falling asleep and being distracted by the pins and needles in my feet…ha!!). Find a chair with a backrest and, as the goal is to keep your upper body fairly straight, maybe put a cushion behind your back. I like to start with 4 or 5 box-breaths where you inhale for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4 and hold again for 4 before you inhale again. It mellows down my brain before I even start the meditation.
And then what? As Mr. Goyal said, it’s an active training of the mind to increase awareness. The goal is to become mindful of your body and to observe what’s happening within you…different meditations aim to do this in different ways. A good way is to focus on your breath, really paying attention on how the cool air enters through your nostrils and up your nose (you can really feel it). As you hold the breath for just a brief moment, you can envision this fresh air circling through your body before you feel the hot air exiting through your nose again. Another meditation practice asks you to bring awareness to different parts of your body. Some people start with their toes, really sensing how they feel on the ground. Slowly inch your way up your body…your feet, your ankles, all the way up to your sculpt. You can drag this out forever stopping at every muscle in your body. For example, as you think about your face you can pause relaxing your chin and jaw, then the mouth and cheekbones, the muscles around your eyes and ears, moving up to the forehead and finally the sculpt. As you can see most meditation ask you to focus on something. Transcendental Meditation (TM) is one exception, which I’ll talk more about in a moment.
But my mind keeps wondering…Yes, your mind will wonder…again and again and again and you might think ”I can’t do this!” One thing is important…don’t get frustrated and rather aim to observe the thoughts without analyzing them or making judgments. As you realize that you drifted off to some thought, recognize it and bring your attention back to whatever you were focusing on before. And here is the beauty. Every time you bring your attention back, your brain connections improve! So in some ways having thoughts is a good thing. In fact, the practice of TM (link), which works with the use of a mantra doesn’t want you to control thoughts at all. Thoughts are our friends. In TM, instead of focusing on your breath or parts of your body you are given a mantra, which you repeat in your head, initially very distinctly and after some time you allow it to fade into the background. Studies show that even using the word ‘one’ as a mantra works perfectly fine. So don’t get mad…as soon as you realize you have drifted off, you’ll simply go back to paying attention to whatever it is you prefer to focus on.
What does “good” look like? I know it’s human nature to ‘become great’ at something but honestly, every time you sit down in silence and meditate, you do something amazing for your mind and body. I’ve been doing this now for a year. On some days I remain focused for 10 seconds before I drift off and on others I’m deeply focused for 3-4 minutes. I’m sure there are some people that can keep the attention for 20+ minutes but that’s not your worry. Even I, with thoughts bombarding my brain, have seen significant improvement in my impulse control, something I always struggled with. Also be aware that muscles anywhere in your body may twitch, or sometimes you'll sneeze. Such physical sensations is a sign of stress being released from your body.
How long should I meditate for? 5-10 minutes every day is much more effective than 30-40 minute once a week. In TM, which is the meditation practice I follow now, I sit down two times a day for 20 minutes. You might think you don’t have the time but, as with everything else in life, it’s about prioritization. I recommend meditating first thing in the morning (wake, bathroom, meditate) and then once again when you leave the office (if need be, in your car parked two streets over from your house).
Let me know if you found this helpful and maybe reconnect in a month or so to share how things are going. Thanks!!