Meditation: An overlooked Remedy
When you think of meditation, what comes to mind?
If you're like most, it's probably some mumbo jumbo like...
Cross-legged hippies or monks
Weird ethereal music pulsing in the background
Sitting uncomfortably for at least an hour
Turning off your brain to any and all thoughts
Well, I'm going to tell you that's all garbage. I mean, it's not all garbage, but ideas like these typically turn people away from meditation when, in reality, meditation is an insanely healthy exercise for your mind – especially in today's hyper-connected, technology-loaded, anxiety-inducing world.
No one would argue that the pace of our lives has gotten considerably faster and we're constantly being goaded to "keep up". We're practically tethered to our phones, with studies from 2017 showing the average American checks their phone 80 times a day and spends 721 minutes connected to some form of media (tv, cell phone, laptop, radio, etc) (NY Post and Statista).
With our brains on overdrive most of the time, is it any wonder we're the most connected generation, but we're also self-labeled as the "loneliest" and most "burnt out" generation? The statistics are still hazy on the correlation of technology and mental health, but you can't ignore common sense.
As someone with clinically diagnosed General Anxiety Disorder and depression, I can tell you that the fast-paced lifestyle hasn't helped me at all. If you've read my recent blog posts (all two of them!), you'll see that I spent some time up in the wilds of Oregon, basically disconnected from the world for the better part of a month. It was beautiful. But when I got back to California, it felt like my brain was drinking from a fire-hydrant – constantly on my phone or sitting in front of my laptop or checking the news (or all three at the same time). The transition was so fast that my brain became exhausted...which opened me up to anxiety...which led to a period of depression...which then triggered more anxiety...and the cycle goes on and on.
It wasn't until I stopped that I started to pull out of the nose-dive; and that stop was meditation.
When your brain is burned out, it's insanely difficult to stop the deluge of thoughts that lead to all sorts of emotions. If you can't think straight, your emotions are going to be all over the place. That's where meditation comes in; it gives you space to ground yourself in reality and helps your brain to focus.
I'm not a meditation guru (although, I've been thinking about exploring that more a bit), but let me quickly debunk some of those common misconceptions about meditation.
Myth #1: I have to be able to sit cross-legged in a silent room for a long time.
No, you can meditate in whatever position is comfiest to you, be it sitting in a chair, on the beach (my favorite), or laying down on the floor. There's no "right" position to meditate, and you can do it anywhere. Don't have a sound-proof room? That's not a problem. Some forms of meditation actually use sound as a focus point to help ground you in a location.
Myth #2: I have to turn off my brain in order to meditate.
Nope. Meditation isn't about turning off your brain, it's about tuning in to your brain in a non-judgmental way and learning how to gently focus your thoughts. Fun fact: it's actually impossible to "empty" your mind. You can focus on something to the point that the rest fades away, but you can't just stop thinking. Well...you can, but that means you're brain-dead. Avoid that.
Myth #3: Meditation is reserved for eastern religions.
False. Although meditation has many of its roots in eastern religion (buddhism, hinduism, etc.), it's not strictly a religious practice. It's a mental exercise that can be practiced by anyone. It's also being recognized by scientists and psychologists to have amazing benefits, and huge companies (like Google and Facebook) actually have designated meditation times and places for their employees to help them maintain mental health.
Myth #4: Anyone can just sit there, so it can't be all that hard.
It might look easy, but you'll quickly find that your brain is a tricky thing to just sit with and try to focus. Additionally, you'll probably get upset (like I do) that my brain is all over the place sometimes. Fortunately, meditation is all about learning to accept those thoughts in a non-judgmental way and then gently re-focusing on something like the breath or a sound. It's not always easy, and it takes a lot of practice. And even then, you'll find some days are harder than others.
There are more myths, but these are the ones that I wanted to focus on because they're the ones that I had when starting. What really tipped me over the edge, though, was researching the benefits of meditation. Here's a list of benefits as found on Healthline. Go there to read more about each one.
Benefits of Meditation
Promotes emotional health
Lengthens attention span
May reduce age-related memory loss
Can generate kindness
May help fight addictions
Helps control pain
Can decrease blood pressure
Can be done anywhere
Sounds too good to be true? Well, it's not. More and more research is finding that meditation can play a huge role in each of these areas (and more). I don't know about you, but that list is pretty dang awesome.
So why do we think so little about meditation?
I'd argue that it's because most people don't realize that their brains are haywire until it's too late – they start feeling overwhelmed, depressed, anxious, exhausted, emotionally-unstable, etc. Though meditation can be a reactive response to these symptoms (this is how it was for me), it's more effective as a preemptive act. It's harder to meditate when your anxious, but anxiety is easier managed when you've been meditating.
With this in mind, I've made meditating a solid, necessary part of my day. To the best of my ability, I spend 10-20 minutes meditating in the morning after waking up, and another 10-20 minutes in the evening right before going to bed. I'm not good at it, but I'm getting better with practice. Most of the time, my brain can't focus on one thing for more than 10 seconds before dashing off to the next thought. Not gonna lie, it's really frustrating. But as soon as I realize my brain has drifted, I gently bring it back to focus on my breath or the sensation of sitting or the sound of the ocean. After a few minutes, I find my focus going for longer and longer, and, by the time I'm done, I'm usually not wanting to leave the feeling of quiet and calm that my brain is experiencing.
The comforting thing is knowing that I can get back to that point of calm at any time, and with more practice, I'll be able to get there quicker. It's an amazing feeling.
Sounds like it Works for You. How do I start?
So if you've read this far and you're thinking, "Huh, this meditation thing sounds pretty cool. How do I get in on it?" Well, you can start today. Right now, even.
There are a ton of ways to meditate, and not all require sitting still. You can do meditation while you're walking, eating, or even reading. It's all about being present in the moment and focusing.
Here's a quick sitting meditation that I do a couple times a day.
Find a comfortable position to be in
Take a couple deep breaths through the nose and out the mouth
Focus on your environment for a little bit – the physical sensations, sounds, etc.
Close your eyes and focus on your body – notice how it's feeling, but don't judge those feelings
Bring your focus to your breath and how it feels naturally coming and going
When you realize your brain is wandering (which it naturally will), gently bring your focus back to the feeling of your breath. See your thoughts and feelings (good and bad ones) as clouds in the sky and let them drift by
Keep doing this for as long as you'd like
Near the end, bring your attention back to the body and how it's feeling as a whole (see step 4)
Re-orient yourself to your environment (see step 3)
Open your eyes and take a moment to appreciate the time you spent sitting – even if you don't feel calm and composed, you still managed to take a pause in your busy day, and that will be a reward for your brain in and of itself.
Just this simple exercise can take you anywhere from 2 minutes to multiple hours. I do it for 10 minutes in the evening, usually laying in bed, and it's helped me fall asleep quicker and sleep deeper (which I track through a sleeping app). No joke, it works.
If you're looking for more help with establishing a meditation practice and you're tech-savvy, then I highly recommend HeadSpace. It gives you 10 free intro sessions into meditation that will run you through the routine above and explain meditation in a way that only a guru can (plus, it's not new-agey or religious, which a lot of other apps I've looked at tend to be).
So, if you're looking for a mental 6-pack, wanting to decrease stress and manage anxiety, wanting to be kinder to yourself, and be more aware of who you are and where you are in your environment, give meditation a try. I can't recommend it enough.
And if you have any questions or don't believe me, then I'm happy to field your questions and provide further PAW (proof of awesomeness).