Many people are curious about what mindfulness meditation is and whether they’d will be able to obtain the mental and physical benefits that science, celebrities, and CEOs are talking about lately.
If you’re like many Americans who are constantly distracted from the task at hand by the pinging of your smart phone, or losing sleep worrying about what you have to get done at work tomorrow, a meditation practice can help improve your focus, make you more productive, and help you fall asleep faster at night, according to research.
“We live in a hyper-connected disconnected world due to the constant pull of technology on our energy and attention,” says San Diego-based Heidi Hanna, Ph.D., Executive Director at American Institute of Stress. “Because we have access to more information than we could ever consume in a lifetime, our brains are overstimulated and reactive instead of purposeful and responsive.”
In order to tame the “monkey mind” from its state of feeling hyper, reactive, and stressed a state that’s focused and productive, you need to decrease stimulation, increase nourishment, and align your attention with what matters most to us. “By turning down the internal and external noise through meditation, we can use the energy of what was once stressful to drive us towards our goals instead of pulling us off course,” says Hanna.
Luckily, meditation simply starts with the breath. So take a deep one (maybe two) and keep reading.
You don’t have to be wearing a robe or yoga clothes in order to meditate. You can do it anywhere, anytime (well, probably not while driving) and it’s not a religious practice.
“The secular movement is kind of what’s put mindfulness on the map now because it’s often used by people in the mainstream realm without a religious context, and it fits perfectly whether you’re religious or not,” says Michael Craft, the Omega Institute’s Business and Program Development Strategist, Rhinebeck, N.Y., who has been practicing mindfulness meditation for over 30 years. Some big names who’ve discussed their meditation practice over the years includes Oprah Winfrey, Kobe Bryant, and Arianna Huffington.
“It’s important to make meditation something you enjoy (eventually) so you’ll want to continue to practice,” says Hanna. While you might feel some of the calming benefits of meditation after one session or a week or two, the psychological benefits tend to require a few weeks or months of regular practice.
“If we were able to bottle up the benefits of meditation in a pill, everyone would be taking it!” says Hanna. “When you train the brain to slow down and pay attention, you may also notice that you make better choices throughout the day when it comes to things like how you eat, move, and take breaks,” says Hanna. After practicing meditation for some time, you might find that you’re slower to react or judge, and quicker to collaborate and connect, she says. Meditation is one of the best ways to shift your nervous system from a state of breaking down when you’re stressed to building it back up again so you’re recharging, says Hanna.
“The scientific benefits [of meditation] speak for themselves. There’s real data behind these things that Buddhists have been talking about for 2,600 years. Now you have Harvard proving it,” says Lodro Rinzler, a Buddhist author of several books, including the upcoming Mindful Guide to Everything (2018), a meditation teacher, and the founder of MNDFL meditation spaces in New York City.
Studies have shown that meditation can increase brain matter in the hippocampus, the area of the brain that controls long-term memory, as well as depression. Neuroscience research continues to show that a regular meditation practice can help with executive function, the cognitive control you need to concentrate, think, and to better control your emotional response. (Think being less reactive when your boss tells you she needs you to stay late or not tailgating that driver who just cut you off.)
Other research has found that mindfulness meditation can help lower the body’s inflammatory response, reduce chronic pain, lower blood pressure, and help take away some of the discomfort felt during painful experiences, like going to the dentist. Mindful meditation may even help you be more productive at work and more relaxed, so you sleep better at night.
“To quote Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the modern mindfulness movement, ‘It’s practicing awareness, moment to moment without judgment,’” says Craft. “That’s the key because you can sit, or stand—you don’t need to be sitting cross-legged on a cushion to be more spiritual—but you should be able to be still and be present with yourself,” says Craft. Go ahead, try it for a minute, and you’ll realize that’s easier said than done because your minds struggle to be still when we haven’t practiced that technique befor. “Mindfulness is taking a step back from that place where your thoughts are running through your head, not stopping them, not resisting them, but just letting it go but breathing through that, sitting through that, and being present,” says Craft.
“Meditation is the practice of holding your attention on something intentional for a period of time,” says Hanna. The basic relaxation response approach to meditation is to simply repeat a word or phrase silently to yourself for a few minutes. But anything that you can focus on that’s calming can have the same effect. Music that’s relaxing or inspiring can be meditative if you focus on the sounds or lyrics and the positive sensations that they invoke.
“What’s most important is that you feel comfortable and supported to relax fully, and if that means you need to shift how you’re sitting or even fidget a bit, then make those adjustments and keep meditating,” says Hanna. If you are the type who’s thinking, This is never going to work, I can’t sit still!, consider starting with a walking meditation, she suggests.
“While the scientific research shows dramatic benefits from meditation, many people fail to practice consistently because they don’t truly believe it’s worth the time investment, they don’t feel comfortable being still, or become frustrated trying to find the perfect strategy or structure,” say Hanna.
While starting with a solo guided meditation at home might be a starting point, a guided group or in-person meditation experience might help you stay present.
Although there isn’t science-based evidence yet showing the benefits of group meditation as opposed to an individual practice, when you are sitting next to other like-minded meditators on a cushion in Rinzler’s MNDFL studio, it feels like a supportive and normal experience.
“Think of practicing group meditation versus solo meditation to singing in the choir versus singing in the shower,” Rinzler suggests. “The experiences just feel different, right? Sitting next to people and realizing that they’re doing the same thing you’re doing and you’re all in this together just feels good. I tend to feel energized and uplifted in group meditation,” says Rinzler.
You don’t need to set aside a lot of time to get a taste of meditation. Even just a few minutes of getting centered can make a big difference in helping you gain a sense of calm and control. Hanna offers these tips for your mini meditation session.
* Turn off your phone notifications and ringer and set a timer for 5 minutes.
* Sit in a comfortable position. Gently close your eyes.
*Get into a calm state by focusing on your breath and quieting the internal noise. Try repeating a word or phrase, listening to a sound (like birds or the whirring of a fan) or concentrating on an image; this will help you focus on so the mental chatter can die down.
* You may want to repeat a mantra that’s meaningful or neutral like: “peace,” “love,” “joy,” or “I am enough, I have enough.” Or, just count the breaths in and out as “one,” and continue up to ten, then count the breaths back down to one. Not only do these mantras or “focus phrases” help train your brain during meditation, they can also be used as cues throughout the day to shift back to that ideal state if you notice stress creeping back into your body, says Hanna.
* Once your timer goes off, take a deep breath, wiggle your fingers and toes to come back into your body, and take your time going about your day.
Just like you wouldn’t go to the gym for one day and then expect to build lean muscles and lose weight right away, it’s important to give meditation a few weeks to work. You’re retraining your mind after years of doing things one way and it’s going to take practice to learn how to be present.
“This is going to take time,” says Rinzler. You experience some results cumulatively over a week, but for others, it takes a few weeks of making meditation a habit.
“A lot of people come to meditation through desperation,” says Craft. “They’ve tried making changes in their lives in other ways that didn’t work, like medication or self-medicating. Meditation gives you control over your own life again,” he says. If the term “meditation” feels a little too New Agey or hippielike to you, just call it a mindfulness practice and work on being more mindful throughout the day. “This is not airy-fairy stuff. This is just like, sit yourself down for a few minutes and see what comes up, and do that every day. You can call it something else if you prefer,” he says.
With so many meditation apps on the market to choose from for iOS and Android devices, it’s ridiculously easy to get started. “Everyone has a different meditation style that works for them, so if the first one you try doesn’t seem to be the right fit, explore more options,” suggests Hanna.
This movement-based mindfulness iPhone app says it’s an ‘interactive meditation’ experience that uses your phone to track movement, providing feedback to help you gain focus and improve your attention. $2.99
This Calm meditation app features a serene nature scene that’s relaxing to listen to, as well as free meditations, techniques to help you reduce stress, sleep better, and work on breathing. After the free sessions, pay $12.99/month for hundreds of meditations and sleep programs.
This free meditation app boasts 1,800,000 meditators and features guided meditations from teachers around the world, as well as a timer you can set for your own meditation.
This course is created by news journalist Dan Harris and meditation teachers, promising “meditation for fidgety skeptics” and promises “no robes, no crystals.” A 3-month subscription is $29.97. You can access some free meditations through Abrams’ 10% Happier podcast.
The concept is that “meditation is simple” and you can learn wherever you are with just 10 minutes a day. Free 10-day trial, after that $12.95/month.
The studio has meditation videos you can access with a free 7-day trial to help you get started and then $19.99/month going forward.
(This article originally appeared in The Power of Mindfulness 2017 magazine.)
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