We live in a world that has infinite possibilities for distraction. In moments that once presented the opportunity for reflection and quiet presence, many of you are more likely to pick up your phone and browse the internet, check our email, scroll through Facebook or Twitter, or see the latest Instagram post. Of course, there is nothing wrong with any of these activities, but when they collectively replace all of the potential moments in which you might find yourself alone, without distraction, it can become a problem. Studies (1; 2) have shown that increased use of smartphones is associated with anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbances.
The greater the opportunities for distraction become, the greater the necessity for a practice that centers your attention in the present moment and counteracts the negative consequences of your increasingly fragmented attention. Mindfulness and meditation are such practices.
Both mindfulness and meditation simply mean becoming aware of your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment on a moment-to-moment basis. This involves creating a focus around what is, rather than getting lost in your thoughts about the future or the past. These practices train you to keep your awareness and attention in the present moment and experience your feelings and sensations without judgment. Meditation can seem like such a lofty thing, but it really does not need to be. Anyone can do it, and everyone can benefit from it.
Research has demonstrated that a regular meditation practice imparts significant changes to your physiological functioning and brain structure. Several studies have shown that meditation can lower blood pressure and reduce the activation of certain brain regions that are associated with worrying and anxiety. Over time, meditation thickens the brain and increases the connectivity within the brain. These structural changes are directly associated benefits including faster processing, better memory formation, and more integrated decision making.
Regular meditation upregulates several genes related to energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion and telomere maintenance. Similarly, the practice downregulate, genes related to inflammation and the body’s stress response.
Meditation has been shown to provide remarkable benefits to those who manage to incorporate mindful meditation regularly into their schedule. Further benefits include.
- Pain reduction.
- Mitigating anxiety & depression.
- Improving glycemic control.
- Sharpening focus.
- Slow cellular aging.
- Healthier pregnancy.
- Improving sleep.
How do you become more mindful? An easy start to begin practicing mindfulness and meditation techniques would require you
- Stop multitasking (it doesn’t work anyway!)
- Batch your email and social media
- Turn off notifications on your phone and computer
- Go off the grid
- Do less (and accomplish more)
Although you may be convinced, you may also be asking where you will find the time and how are you going to make this happen without becoming deranged by the random itches and distractions that inevitably creep up whenever you take a moment to sit (or lie) down and ‘quiet your mind’.
It pays to start slowly with little to no expectation of lengthy ‘sit and do nothing’ times. Longer times do yield deeper peace, but the process is as individual as all your physiological needs. Carve out as much time as you can – when you can, even a few minutes is a great place to begin. Once you begin to feel the benefits, you will most likely prioritize meditation in a new way and create more time for it.
You may also want to consider trying a weekly group practice to develop the discipline. You are able to learn a great deal from the instruction and just absorb the good energy of a group sit. It is also a trait of human nature to be more likely to stick with behaviour when it is within a group.
As for technique, start simple. Sit up straight on a folded blanket or comfortable pillow. Use a chair if you prefer, or even lay on the floor if you think you can stay awake.
You have possibly heard to focus on the in and out breath. Do it. Do not manipulate the breath or do it any special way other than breathe into the abdomen. Otherwise, just follow it. Do this alone for a few minutes to try and empty the mind. Notice thoughts come and go. If one starts to take hold, release it without self-judgment. Notice the sensations that come up. Feel the pockets of tension. Release them progressively, using the breath as a center point and rhythm for the release. The concept here is to both mentally and physically let go of all you can.
Other techniques assume the ability to get beyond the restlessness of the moment and focus more on emotional distance and equanimity. Once you feel you are up to it, you may want to start your session with a particular focus or ‘intention’. With time you will learn how to observe your emotional energy and how it feels in your body.
If you find you do not enjoy the ‘sitting’ meditation, there are further options and methods to create mindfulness and begin to observe the present moment. Other activities you can use to create a meditative practice could include:
- Non-judgmental awareness
From the moment you wake up, you are busy making imminent judgments about everything and everyone you encounter. These judgments are often subconscious, so the first step is to realize that you are actually making them. This is the ultimate goal of any formal mindfulness meditation practice: to do it in daily life.
- Tai chi
Practitioners often call it a moving meditation and research has confirmed many similarities between meditation and Tai chi.
Many yoga practitioners will say that yoga has little to do the poses or the stretching. What truly matters is the meditation. A typical yoga pose is the perfect opportunity to practice acceptance of discomfort. Those who practice mindfulness are also practicing non-judgmental awareness of both positive and negative emotions, thoughts, and situations. If you can observe the physical discomfort of a particular pose from a detached position, neither running from it nor succumbing to, you are practicing true mindfulness.
Rather than sit in stillness, take a walk along a short predetermined path of 20-30 paces somewhere quiet and familiar. This creates boundaries and reduces distractions. More seasoned or confident people can go on unstructured, longer walks. The important thing is to pay attention to the shifting weight of your body as you walk, the feel of your footfalls, and the sensation of gliding through the air. As with sitting meditation, allow thoughts and other distractions to come and go; acknowledge but do not judge them.
Compared to a regular walking routine, a walking meditation practice has been shown to reduce depression, improve fitness and vascular function and lower stress hormones. In some respects this may be even better than sitting meditation, which can also lower stress hormones and combat depression but generally does not improve physical fitness.
First popularized by Jung, who had his patients draw and color intricate mandala patterns, adult coloring books are enjoying an renewed explosion in popularity. Coloring within the lines requires presence. Your mind wanders, you spill over the line. Most importantly, coloring is an immersive, intrinsically rewarding practice. To see the patterns pop alive in full color is its own reward.
Meditative dancing is supposed to mirror the saying ‘Dance like no body’s watching.’ The body and the music merge. When truly immersed in the music, the notion of self as its own component disappears, if only for a few minutes. And that is enough. You also do not need any skill or to be a talented dancer to reap the benefits.
- Guided meditations
Some purists might ridicule person’s reliance on guided meditations to achieve mindfulness, but this is, after all, about non-judgement. Shortcuts that get you to the place to which you are heading are wonderful tools to have. Guided journeys are still journeys. They also teach you how to navigate paths until eventually you feel confident enough to follow them alone. There are many apps an programs which offer fantastic guided meditative and mindful journeys. Try and few and find the one that allows you to express your individual meditative ideas and processes.
When you give yourself the time and space to explore, meditation and mindfulness can be a progressive means to getting out of your modern hyper-rational mind and letting something deeper, more instinctually and solid fill the space. In meditation, you allow yourself to dwell in the present state for a short time, but the experience can dramatically change what you bring back with you to your daily living.