How to Meditate (and why do it)

Have you heard that you should meditate? There are many potential benefits from meditating like reducing your stress, clearing your mind, feeling less tired, getting happier, etc. Interested, but not sure what this meditation stuff is?

The practice of meditation is simple. Find a place to sit or lie down, close your eyes, and focus your attention on one thing (like your breath or sensations or visual aid). Actually practicing meditation is not so easy.

Some folks get caught in the “I don’t have time for this” barrier. It feels like you’re doing nothing and there are SO MANY things to do! Some folks sit still and just fall asleep – so you get a nice nap, but no enlightenment. Some people try meditating and get frustrated with the constant chatter of their mind. They feel that they are not good at meditating, so why waste the time. Some people can set aside time to meditate for a few days, but then something comes up – like getting a cold or having a big work commitment – and the new habit is lost in the flow of life-stuff. Some people get the meditation pillow and candle and set up a special space, but once there find that they are always distracted by the noises or temperature or their body is in pain. There are lots of reasons why you might not meditate.

So why do it?

For many of us the daily truth is that the momentum of life can take over, where we are so focused on reacting there’s no head space to be conscious about what we’re doing moment to moment. The constant flow of information through technology and urgency in everyday activities wires our brains to be jump around, looking for the next emergency (even when there is none). Gazzaley and Rosen describe the effects of trying to multitask and work with the constant distractions of technology in their book The Distracted Mind. Neuroscience has shown that repetitive thoughts create neuropathways in our minds (Hebb, 1949; LeDoux, 2003). It’s as if we’ve trained our minds to be distracted!

Meditation is how we train our brains to focus. There are many changes in the brain when we meditate regularly (if you like to geek out on the science, check out Rebecca Gladding’s article This is Your Brain on Meditation or the book Buddha’s Brain.) But here’s the catch, it takes repetition…a lot of practice to build the new neuropathways for focus. Think of how you would leash train a dog. The first time you go out, especially to a new place, the dog is very excited…sniffing every blade of grass and pulling this way and then the other. Each time the dog jerks, you pull back on the leash giving the command to heel. It may take many trips on the leash before the dog understands the rules of the walk. They may even become so trained that they no longer need the leash…but watch out for the random squirrel! It’s the same with our attention. It takes time, often with a tool (like the breath or a mantra or an audio guide) to focus our attention.    

So how do you begin?

  1. Set aside some time (even just 5 minutes to start). Setting a timer can help you let go of the need to constantly check the time.
  2. Sit purposefully. Try and find a space where the distractions are minimized. Let the other beings in your space (people, pets, etc.) know you are not to be interrupted for this block of time.
  3. Close your eyes. If this makes you sleepy, you can “soften your gaze” – this means finding a spot where you can rest your vision without looking around or being visually distracted.
  4. Start by focusing your attention on your breathing. Benefits of breath focus are that you always have it with you, there’s no special equipment necessary, and focusing on your breath can help you relax.
  5. EVERYTIME YOU GET DISTRACTED gently, kindly redirect your attention (remember the dog with the leash). Even if you have to do it a million times, keep consciously directing your focus to your breath. 
  6. REPEAT! Be consistent, over a period of time, setting up the disciplined order for your mind.

There are many ways/methods for meditation. If sitting still is not working for you, try a moving meditation like yoga asana or tai chi or walking meditation. If you need more guidance to begin, there are many new apps with guided audio meditations or online resources. There are also many groups that meet to practice together with a trained leader. Check out what’s available for you.

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