Pretty consistently, when I mention meditation to people, their first reaction is often a self-deprecating look followed by a comment along the lines of, “I tried it but I’m not very good at it,” or “I can’t clear my mind so I can’t do it.” So in this month’s post, I decided to talk about what meditation is and isn’t, what it can do for you, and why you might want to give it a try.
As you may know, there is a growing body of scientific research that supports the idea that meditation actually changes the way our brains function and even the way our genes are expressed. That is pretty remarkable considering that as little as 20 years ago, the accepted belief was that our were brains structurally fixed. Today it is fairly common to find articles from prominent scientists and physicians in publications such as the Harvard Gazette and Psychology Today talking about the hard science behind how a consistent meditation practice can actually alter your neural connections, even if you only sit for a few minutes a day.
For me, meditation has taught me to be less reactive. My practice has shown me that everything is temporary, that emotions are not to be seen as good or bad but to be noticed and learned from. I’ve gotten better at experiencing feelings as they are in the moment and not trying to force them to be different or predict what might come next. And when there’s a period of time when I haven’t meditated, I actually notice a difference in the way I am feeling. When I am consistent in my practice things may still anger or frustrate me, and I may still feel stress, but at the same time, I feel like I have a foundation that helps me to more clearly see what is going on and to make better decisions about how to handle the situation.
Like a lot of people, I wanted to try meditation but I didn’t think I would be good at it, and I frankly didn’t understand what it meant to clear my mind or not engage my thoughts. A couple of years ago when I realized that waking up every day with an anxious feeling in your chest was not the norm for most people, I had no idea what to do about it and I started to consider giving meditation a try. The first thing I did was read a ton about the benefits of meditation and the different types to choose from. I tried guided meditations and found that they weren’t for me. I would often get distracted and before long, I would be annoyed by the voice of the person leading the meditation. I didn’t enjoy progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery didn’t seem to be a good fit for me either. I tried to sit quietly and “turn my mind into a blank canvas” as they say, and that certainly didn’t work. All of these attempts left me feeling worse than when I started because I felt like I wasn’t getting it “right.” Then at the suggestion of a friend I bought a few books written by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn is the creator of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, and creator of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. How he described mindful meditation and its benefits really resonated with me and his method became the foundation of my meditation practice.
Mindful meditation is about being present, observing your thoughts and acknowledging them without engaging them.
Mindful meditation is about being present, observing your thoughts, and acknowledging them without engaging them. So the idea isn’t to empty your mind of all thoughts, it’s to simply let them go by as if on a news ticker. That is to say, when you have a thought, don’t judge it or continue to think more about it or build off of it. Does that make sense? So say you are sitting and a thought comes up like, “oh my gosh, how will I ever make enough money to pay the rent this month.” You have two choices, you can say to yourself, something along the lines of, “interesting that is coming up for me right now,” and turn your focus back to your breath, or, you can build on that thought and say to yourself, “I’m never going to have enough, how will I do this, I’m going to be homeless, I can’t handle this…” Can you see the difference between the two? There’s a difference between having a thought or an emotion and ruminating on the stories we tell ourselves about that thought or emotion. Sitting quietly and mindfully can be really difficult. Our brains are wired to fight us in this effort. Some call it monkey mind – the thoughts that rise up when you sit quietly that range from, “did I shut off the iron,” to “I am going to fail miserably.” Monkey mind is determined to disturb our stillness but the more you practice, the less bothersome your monkey mind will become.
Meditation shows us that everything is temporary and it teaches us to be less reactive. Have you ever gotten an itch and not scratched it? It gets worse for a time, like someone trying to get your attention, and then it gives up, it fades away, without you having done anything. Sometimes life situations are like that and if we can learn to breathe through things, to let them go by without jumping to react, to not ruminate on a thought or idea, we can drastically change the way our bodies biologically react to strain, and in turn, how we feel. How many times have you had an emotion and then judged it to be good or bad or tried to force it to be something else by making a comment such as, “I shouldn’t feel this way, I should consider myself lucky I have what I do.” Or, there are so many people who have things worse than I do so I should suck it up.” Or maybe you have felt that if you gave in to an emotion for a second or let yourself feel it, you may not come back from it. I think that’s especially common when dealing with loss. We may think that if we let ourselves feel the loss and cry, that we may spiral downward and never stop so we shut it out. When we recognize that emotions and thoughts aren’t fixed things, that they ebb and flow, that they change, and we allow them to arise and pass without judging them, we are able to move through them heal so that the next thing that comes along doesn’t shake our foundation quite as much. Meditation helps us to explore that idea and the idea that emotions are valuable messengers that are there to tell us something. And if you notice, they don’t give up until they have our attention. Have you ever had the experience where you were unhappy in a situation but weren’t sure what to do about it so you decided to ignore the feeling and then a week or so later a random pain showed up? Maybe a headache or a back ache? That is your body trying to tell you something. If instead of being afraid of our emotions, labelling them as good or bad, or shutting them out, we ask ourselves, “what is this emotion trying to teach me?” we might just learn something that takes us one step closer to feeling happier and healthier.
When we recognize that emotions and thoughts aren’t fixed things, that they ebb and flow, that they change, and we allow them to arise and pass without judging them, we are able to move through them heal so that the next thing that comes along doesn’t shake our foundation quite as much.
Try this for just a few minutes. Sit in a comfortable position on a cushion, a folded blanket, or in a chair. Close your eyes, and begin to breathe at a normal rate in and out through your nose. Focus your attention on your breath. Maybe notice how you are feeling, notice where that feeling lives in your body. Are you feeling sad, restless, or anxious? Do you feel that physically in your stomach or your chest? Maybe your jaw is tense or your tongue is pushed up against the roof of your mouth. Take note of all of that. Don’t judge it or evaluate it, just notice it and breathe. If you come to a point where you realize a thought has come up and you have engaged it, acknowledge that to yourself and bring your attention back to your breath.
I invite you to start your own meditation practice. Start with sitting for just 3 minutes for the next 21 days. Make it a habit and see how you feel. Maybe you will find yourself wanting to sit longer. Report back and let me know how you’re doing.
As always, thank you for reading, take care of you, and don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any comments or questions on this or any other wellness related topic.