Updated: May 1
Not just for yogis and gurus anymore, meditation offers better physical, psychological, and emotional health to anyone willing to give it ago. With life now more chaotic than ever, meditation and other mindfulness techniques provide an accessible way to reduce your stress and anxiety.
Why does meditation work?
There are plenty of theories on this, including evidence-based research that supports the effects of mindful focus on the alpha, beta, and theta waves of the brain; structure and function of the amygdala, pre-frontal cortex, and other parts of the brain; and immune function.
Yet, the explanation of why meditation helps stress levels might even be simpler. Consider the genesis of stress: it comes from one of two places: anxiety over what has already happened (in the past) or concern of what will happen (in the future). When practicing mindfulness, you're guiding your mind to stay in the present. By definition, staying in the current moment doesn't allow you to venture into the past or the future, thus reducing your ability to feel stressed by those challenges.
For more on the "why" of mindfulness and how it impacts stress, check out my blog:
But First, The Basics
Not all meditation is the same. Meditation ranges from long, quiet moments of stillness to movement-based and guided. What works for you? Here's a [very basic] decision map to help you find your starting place:
So you've looked at this and thought, "great. I'm even more confused. Where do I start?"
For many beginners to meditation, the practice feels overwhelming and challenging. What IS meditation? HOW does one actually meditate? How do you know if you're doing it right? What if I can't sit still? What if my mind wanders? What if I feel stupid sitting in stillness with my eyes closed for 10 minutes? Well, here are some answers that might help you move closer to starting your own meditation practice.
What IS meditation?
When you boil it down, meditation is really a tool you can use to help train your mind, increasing attention and awareness, to achieve mental calmness. While it takes many forms (religious and secular, simple and complex, guided and quiet), practitioners generally seek to quiet their mind to bring awareness to their thoughts. In turn, this helps the person make mindful decisions about their actions, reactions, and behaviors.
How does one actually meditate?
When asked this question, practitioners love saying, "you just start!" (as if this clarifies things.) Yes, technically, you do just start, but here's how you start:
Decide when you'd like to meditate (morning, mid-day, night) and know the benefits might change depending on when you decide to start. (* A good thing to note is that you're not wedded to keeping your practice at this time. Consistency can be achieved by meditating every day, regardless of when you allocate the time.)
Find a comfortable place where you won't be bothered by distractions. It can honestly be anywhere! Believe me -- I've got young kids that don't have boundaries! I've meditated on the floor of my bathroom before!
Have "props" on hand that help you get comfortable. Believe me, it's hard enough to sit still, but when your foot is falling asleep, too, you really want to move. So, preempt this challenge by having blankets and pillows around you to make your body comfortable. Any blanket or pillows will do -- they don't have to be technically "props".
Set a timer for your desired length of time. Trust me, the first few times you try this, you'll be astonished by how long it takes for a minute to pass. It's like time slows down. Don't worry, this feeling goes away with practice...and a trusty timer. I use my Google Dot ("Alexa, set a timer for 5 minutes") or my watch. Most meditation apps (my two favorites are Calm and Headspace) also offer a basic timer to set for yourself. *NOTE: make sure the noise you select to bring you out of your meditation is a nice one!
Consider finding a guided-meditation app for your first attempt, or just until you get the hang of it. Without someone reminding you to gently come back to your meditation, it's easy to start going through your to-do list. (At the end of this blog, I have a 5-minute meditation for you so you can begin practicing right away!)
Close your eyes and begin by noticing your breath. Find basic words to describe your breath and lungs (deep, full, tight, shallow), and then let those labels go and just notice the rise and fall of your chest.
Keep coming back to the breath. When your mind wanders (notice I didn't say "if" -- your mind will definitely wander!), just say to yourself "Oh! Looks like my mind wandered!" with humor and compassion (no judgment, because really, it happens to all of us!) and bring it back to your breath.
Notice what comes up and gently watch it pass without starting to mull it over. When your alarm goes off, give yourself another breath to come back to the space. Notice the sounds and smells around you.
Gently flutter your eyes open. Notice any changes you feel, and if you don't feel any different, that's ok, too!
Schedule your next meditation session! Consistency is key! You'll get the most benefit out of your practice when you follow it consistently! Often, the harder it is to get yourself to sit and meditate, the more you will benefit from the practice.
How do you know if you're doing it right?
Here's a checklist to see if you're meditating "right":
Are you in a comfortable position and place? Yes or No
Are you giving yourself the time and space to gently quiet your mind? Yes or No
Are you trying to be patient with yourself and your thoughts? Yes or No.
If you've answered "yes" to all of these questions, then you're meditating "correctly".
In reality, there is no "wrong" way to attempt to meditate, unless you're actively distracting yourself (like trying to watch TV or talk on the phone, for example.) If your intention is to think about something that's bothering you, that might not be meditation. However, if your intention is to meditate and your thoughts drift to something that's bothering you, you're still meditating.
You may have a preconceived notion of how meditation should appear, but since it takes so many forms, meditation is what you make it. Have patience with yourself and keep trying. You might have days where you find no mental stillness, and others where sitting in silence comes very easy to you. Sometimes your practice will feel challenging, and others, it'll feel seamless. As you practice more, you'll figure out the specifics (when, where, how, how long) about what you need to feel good at any particular moment. (HINT: your personal needs influence your meditation practice, too!)
What if I can't sit still?
What most Westerners think of as "yoga" is really the movement (called "asanas") part of a greater yoga practice. The purpose of those asanas is to tire your body so your mind can find stillness. If you're finding it difficult to sit still in meditation, try the same tactic!
Exercise first! If yoga isn't your thing, try HIIT, running, biking, weight-lifting, or even 80's-style jazzercise (if that gets you going!) Physically tiring your body makes meditation easier.
What if my mind wanders?
With certainty, I can tell you that your mind will wander from time to time, so embrace it and try noticing it instead of "clinging" to it. Even the most seasoned practitioners find themselves gently guiding their thoughts back to their breath. I studied under one guru who suggested that you treat your brain "like a puppy, and when that puppy starts to stray, you gently lead her back to where she needs to be." Most importantly, when your mind wanders, meet it and bring yourself back with compassion and patience.
What if I feel stupid sitting with my eyes closed for 10 minutes doing nothing?
Maybe you're one of the people who hear about meditation and think, "yeah. that's not for me. I don't do that kind of stuff." If this fits the bill, first let me congratulate you for being honest with yourself and being open to exploring this thought. Now, ask yourself, "What part of this practice makes me feel silly?" For example, you might feel like it's a waste of time. Let's explore that thought.
Let's start thinking about meditation from outcomes first. One of the greatest results of a meditation practice is reduced stress. On a scale of 1 to 10 (where 1 is low and 10 is high), how would you rate your stress? Make sure you give it a number. Now ask yourself, "How motivated am I to reduce that level of stress?"
Now let's consider the time commitment of meditating. When most people start meditation, they allocate about 3-5 minutes to meditation. When might you have an extra 3-5 minutes in the day? That's about the same amount of time as a run to the bathroom.
Now, back to the original thought about wasting time. Consider how you'd spend those three minutes if you weren't meditating. Would you spend it on three minutes of extra sleep? Or checking a few posts on Facebook? Now ask yourself again: "How motivated am I to do something that might reduce my level of stress?"
You can go through this process for almost any concern:
"It feels too touchy-feel-ey." Ask yourself, "What would it feel like to try it just once?"
"I'm afraid my family/friends would think I look weird doing it." Ask yourself, "What would make this fear or concern go away?"
"It's not gonna work." Ask yourself, "What facts do I have that support this thought?" or even "What would success look like to you if you tried?"
Sometimes, we get in our own way of trying something new. Trying new things brings a level of uncertainty and with it, apprehension and even fear. Fortunately, meditation offers something for everyone who practices. So, if you knew you had nothing to lose by trying meditation, when would you start?
If you knew you had nothing to lose, when would you start?
How about starting right now?
Meditation offers a simple, easy way to relax and de-stress. It can be done almost anywhere (probably not while operating heavy machinery, but most other places!) and at any time. In fact, now's a great time to try. Click on the link below to join me for a 6-minute guided meditation.