Updated: Aug 3
Chances are that you’ve heard that meditation is good for you. Everyone from Oprah to Russell Brand have talked about the benefits of their meditation practice. Maybe you’re wondering how and why to start. Meditation is an ancient practice that sometimes gets a bad rap for being too “boho” or out there, or just for the flower children among us. However, you don’t need a Maharishi to get started. I’ve been meditating for almost 30 years and I’ve tried a few different methods along the way. There’s one thing I’ve noticed – whenever I have a regular, daily (even short) meditation practice, I notice my ability to bounce back from stressful situations is much better. I feel less overwhelmed and more able to focus on enjoying my life.
I actually got my first start meditating way back in 1991 with the book The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson. The book was nearly 20 years old even then. Written by a Harvard Medical doctor and Director of the Hypertension Section of Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital, Dr. Benson’s book sweeps aside any hippie spirituality aspect of meditation and emphasizes the physical benefits of meditation to bring about our body’s natural relaxation response. He found that by meditating regularly, his patients were able to reduce their body’s fight or flight mode, reduce stress, and lower their blood pressure. Meditation literally improves the condition of your heart. I highly recommend this book as it has detailed information about the anatomy and physiology of stress, the impacts on your body, and how meditation works with your brain and nervous system to help improve your health and wellness.
Where to start?
There’s no right or wrong way to meditate. In fact, there are many ways that have been scientifically proven to increase your health and decrease your stress response. I encourage anyone interested in trying meditation to experiment with one way for 10 minutes each day for a week. See what you think. If it’s not really working for you, try a different method. The first thing to know about meditation is this: Don’t try to make anything happen when you meditate. It’s not something you need to work at or get better at. Just observe. From there, it’s a matter of which method you are most likely to stick with.
Three different methods:
This method is the easiest to start with, in my opinion. You can use apps, recordings, or videos that give you something to focus on during your meditation. Sometimes it’s a visualization that you’ll be guided through, sometimes a mantra, but you have the benefit of someone’s voice to keep you going. They often have some kind of theme – and you can choose a theme that makes sense to you. I’ve used and liked the apps Calm and Insight Timer which have the option to choose guided meditations or simply set a timer and do your own thing.
This one’s one of my personal favorites for my own practice, as I have become a passionate about using breath to regulate the nervous system (as mentioned in my last post HERE). You can do this by simply focusing your attention on your breath. Notice your inhale and your exhale. As any thoughts start to come up, you simply return to placing your focus back on the breath. This is the method that is described in The Relaxation Response. In addition, I like to add a little breath counting to this one sometimes if my mind is particularly busy, making it easier to maintain and providing a focal point. I count exhales up to 5, then start again back at 1 and repeat. I like to set a timer with a really gentle bell that goes off, so it doesn’t startle me out of my relaxed state.
One of the oldest methods of meditation, this method involves choosing a mantra. You can choose either a word or a phrase to focus on. As in the other methods, the mantra becomes where you place your attention. You can say your mantra aloud or to yourself as you meditate. It can be a word such as “peace”, a phrase such as “I am focused”, or any phrase of your choosing. Whenever you drift away from your mantra, you bring yourself back and begin again.
The main recurring theme is finding a relatively calm, quiet place, being in a comfortable position, and bringing your attention to something. Dr. Benson emphasizes a quiet place when you are meditating, but the benefits can be found even if you don’t have immediate access to quiet. Again, there’s no need to try to make anything happen. In fact, the point of meditation is exactly the opposite! Instead of trying to make something happen, we simply observe. Whether we observe someone’s voice who guides us, our breath, or a mantra, we bring the attention back to that observation again and again. No fancy poses or settings are necessary. No self-criticism involved here, either. Being hard on yourself every time your thoughts wander also defeats the purpose of meditation. Just keep coming back.
Meditation only take a few minutes a day, but it actually GIVES us time. By moving your body and mind from stressed and anxious to calm and free, your mind can think more clearly, focus better, and your body can feel better. Being less tense and constricted in your body allows for freer movement and healthier body systems. All your systems are more efficient, leading to better health and quality of life. Give one of these a try today and let me know how it goes! You can start with just 1 minute or go for 10 minutes. Tell me – which one did you choose? What did you like or not like about your experience?